Sunday, December 21, 2008

Every Book Its Reader


Recently, I've just finished reading this interesting book, subtitled 'The  Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World' by Nicholas Basbanes.  The book offers a good many consideration of writings that have "make things happen" in the World, works that have both nudged the course of history and fired the imagination of countless influential people eg. Shakespeare (of course), Milton, Adolf Hitler, Herman Melville, Henry James, Isaac Newton, and many others.

Now I know how the verb 'bowdlerize" {pg 60-61} - to identify the process of literary expurgation - came from.  Long before the British physician Thomas W. Bowdler (1754-1825) and his sis, Henrietta Bowdler (1754-1830), took it upon themselves to make the plays of Shakespeare "safe" for innocent eyes, the wholesale editing of another author's writing so that it might be more palatable to prudish tastes was known as "castration" (sounds brutal, i guess) to some, "winnowing" by others.  After Bowdler retired from medicine at the age of 31, he undertook a campaign to bring about the "erasure of indecent" passages from Shakespeare's works while taking steps, in his words' "to retain the spirit and fire" of the original. (What a noble man !!!)  These sanitized versions were the principal text by which England's national poet reached thousands of readers for close to a century, the dialogue discreetly pruned of any references to God or Jesus, with every hint of sexual pleasure or misconduct snipped out.

An outraged writer even railed that the Bowdlers had "purged and castrated" Shakespeare, "tattooed and beplaistered him, and cauterized and phlebotomized him".

However, bowdlerism was far from being abandoned, and was adopted by numerous successors. Modern bowdlerism exists to get references to race and ethnicity out of books, and there was nothing like the present major force in children's literature.

My other interesting discovery is that there was a Victorian Irish poet named James Henry {pg 252-253}, not Henry James.  He had published, at his own expense in Dresden, in the 1860s, a volume of poetry, which was then presented to Cambridge University Library.  The book lying there unopened till a chance discovery by the British critic Christopher Risks more than a hundred years later, who had included the lovely poetry of this Victorian doctor in his edition of the New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

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