Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

anxiety's end

Posting has been light around here for a number of reasons, chief among them being (a) my recovery from surgery and (b) the last stages of my most recent major project: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety), to be published by Princeton University Press later this year. (I think.) I just mailed off the typescript yesterday, and am still reeling a bit. Textual editing, let me say, is really, really hard work — at least if you want to do it well.

A few years ago Edward Said — thinking of the great humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century — wrote, “This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.” Thanks be to God, I did not need the skills of Auerback and Spitzer to edit The Age of Anxiety, but I did need skills I hadn’t been taught in graduate school, and it cost me a good deal of time and energy to acquire them. If I hadn’t had the ongoing assistance and direction of Edward Mendelson I’m not sure what I would have done, but I know that the final product would have been inadequate.

And it may be inadequate still — who knows? But I have worked as hard on this project as I have ever worked on anything, and at the moment I am pleased and proud. There’s something especially rewarding about doing all this work — visiting libraries and archives, working through vast tracts of mostly useless materials, trying to decipher Auden’s terrible handwriting, comparing multiple editions of the poem, reading much of what Auden read as he wrote the poem, carefully marking up the typescript in order to preserve the poem’s intricate formatting — not for the sake of my own critical reputation, but in order to make the work of a poet I love more useful and accessible and comprehensible. I can truly call this a labor of love. But boy, am I tired.


  • Congratulations! I take the hat off to you. As someone who is trying to finish three books (on and off, alternating, some stories, others theology/philosophy) I envy you (in a perfectly good, non-sin kind of way) and your amazing productivity. In all of the years of my own writing, I have never seem to got over that first hump or a mountain, and I feel a bit like Sisyphus, except it is my own doing. I have to keep going though, one sentence at a time. Again, congratulations on your true labor of love. Now, you can take some rest.

  • Congratulations. I've been working on an Auden article myself and am nearing the finish. But it's only 4000 words, so not nearly the task you undertook.

  • Bravo.

  • Thank you all the the kind words! — though I must say, Emina, that this just means that I may now turn to the other projects that have been set aside while I worked on this, including, Jim, an essay on Auden about the length of yours! No rest for the wicked, indeed.

  • Will you be posting about it once it's published? I'd love to look more deeply into that poem, since it was such an adventure the first time through a few years ago

  • I must say, Mr. Jacobs, what a great "problem" that is to have! To be able to thank God for giving you the gifts that you have; to seek wisdom through your creations; to revel (I hope this is the right word in what I'm trying to convey) in the purity of human spirit that is your own and that of the other (in this case, yours and Auden's having a dialogue of some sort). Please forgive me for being perhaps overly excited about it but I think that being human is pretty damn exceptional and beautiful. Thanks for your posting!

  • Alan,

    I was just now looking at The American Scene, thinking how it hasn't been the same since you went quiet there. So I tracked you down, and found you here.

    I'm glad to hear you're coming out of surgery rather than going in.

  • This afternoon, I will finish the first full draft of my dissertation, and have been revising chapters a bit along the way, so I feel very near the end. This project has been as hard as anything I've ever done, too, not least because it required skills I somehow never acquired in coursework and other long writing projects.

    So...I feel ya, though my project was nowhere near as ambitious. Congratulations, and when I raise a glass to celebrate my own small accomplishment tonight, I'll drink to you, too. (Also, I'm looking forward to the Auden volume!)

  • Michael Straight said...

    This is good news. Whenever you blog about Auden, it's some of your best stuff. This would be a good excuse for me to try more of his writing.

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