Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.
On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford. Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face. The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.
First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel. She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means. Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did. She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.
Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams. Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time. An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view. He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart. One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors. The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.
Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford. She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony. This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it. She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist. In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.
Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects. Her work focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world. Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things. This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us. To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.