ASECS 2015: a personal round-up

Posted by Carly Watson on Tuesday, March 31, 2015 with No comments
The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) annual conference this year landed in Los Angeles - a perfect opportunity for me to escape to the Californian sun learn more about new research on poetry, authorship, and reading, and connect with a wider network of scholars. The conference was - to borrow a metaphor from seventeenth-century miscellany titles - a 'gorgeous gallery' of new perspectives on the eighteenth century, packed into a mazy hotel in downtown LA. As well as contributing to a panel on 'The Art of Collecting Poetry', organised and chaired by Jennifer Batt (University of Bristol), I attended panels on miscellanies, anthologies, authorship and gender, and many other topics, and found much to be excited about in the work being done in these areas. It was a brilliant experience, and I want to pull together some of the threads and highlight some of the papers that have stuck (and will continue to stick) in my mind.

The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library welcomed ASECS delegates for a tour and reception in its idyllic grounds.

Anthologies and miscellanies

My reward for showing up at 8 a.m. on the first morning of the conference was an engaging panel on anthologies. Thora Brylowe (University of Pittsburgh) and Andrea Immel (Princeton University) examined the cultural values embodied in types of anthology less often noted or taken seriously by scholars. (The third speaker on this panel was not able to attend.) Thora explored the interrelationship between reading texts and reading pictures in the design of John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and its associated publications; these publications included an anthology of extracts from Shakespeare's plays which corresponded to the scenes illustrated in paintings and engravings commissioned by Boydell. Andrea adroitly interpreted the editorial rationale behind an anthology of verse for children, The Poetical Flower-Basket (volume six of Richard Johnson's Lilliputian Library series, c.1780). She stressed that The Poetical Flower-Basket is not an anthology of 'children's verse' - in fact many of the poems can be found in collections aimed at general audiences - but what makes it suitable for children is the way in which its contents are arranged to provide amusement and instruction.

Detail of John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his Family, by Johann Zoffany (c.1766).
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

On the third morning a roundtable on miscellanies organised by the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music cast its net over a wide range of miscellaneous forms, including manuscript collections of texts and music; printed recipe books and collections of verse; and benefit performances considered as 'theatrical miscellanies'. Papers by some of the participants can be read here. The discussion highlighted how compilers of miscellanies also acted as creators: Christa Pehl Evans (Princeton University) showed that Pennsylvania music collector Casper Schaffner edited and reorganised the pieces he copied, and Lucia Quinault (Winchester College) discussed a manuscript miscellany containing poems by the young woman who compiled it. The panel also productively highlighted the difficulty of tracing texts in miscellanies back to their original authors - either because compilers do not (accurately) record authorial attributions, or because genres such as the pasticcio opera make us reconsider our expectation that works have a single authorial source.

Coterie writing and miscellanies 

How can we tell - and how could contemporaries tell - that a miscellany of pieces by several hands was the product of exchange and collaboration within a coterie of writers? This was something of a hot topic. On our 'Art of Collecting Poetry' panel, Betty Schellenberg (Simon Fraser University) provided a very useful checklist of potential indicators that a manuscript or printed collection had its origins in the creative activities of a coterie. Interestingly, one of these indicators was 'a mix of original writing and materials copied from print' - collecting or commonplacing from printed sources could be a social activity as well as a private one. On his roundtable on Richard Savage, Nicholas Seager (Keele University) identified an example of coterie production - Savage's Miscellaneous Poems and Translations (1726; the contents are recorded in the Digital Miscellanies Index here). Nick pointed out that the activities of composing poems and submitting them to friendly critique are among the main preoccupations of this miscellany, and he argued that as a poet Savage needs to be seen in this coterie context. And Judith Hawley (Royal Holloway, University of London) made a meticulous and spirited case for the Scriblerians as a coterie of writers whose collaborative activities and pseudonymous play were recognised and commented on by their contemporaries.

Anonymity and pseudonymity

The implications of anonymity and pseudonymity for the recovery of eighteenth-century women's writing were explored in fascinating ways by two speakers on separate panels. Antoinette Sol (University of Texas, Arlington) discussed the aggressive criticism of female novelists that accompanied the rapid expansion of the market for novels in revolutionary France. In the rush for profits, women churned out novels with the help of assistants, and men used female pseudonyms, sometimes believing that novels appearing to be by women sold better. This 'Wild West of publishing', in Antoinette's words, should make us think twice about inferring an author's gender from the gender of their pseudonym without solid supporting evidence. The next day, speaking on the Aphra Behn Society's panel, Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent) explored the 'culture of pseudonymity' fostered by The Lady's Magazine (1770-1818). The magazine professed to publish only content written by women, and although it did not adhere to this ambition, it nonetheless provided a forum in which anonymous and pseudonymous contributors could explore the possibility of writing without the expectations and prejudices of gender. Find out more about the Lady's Magazine Project here.

The Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil, by √Člisabeth Louise Vig√©e Le Brun (1785). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The Art of Collecting Poetry

In the very last slot of the conference, we managed to keep several dedicated people away from the pool for a little longer to hear about collections of manuscript texts, printed texts, quotations, and books. While Betty, whose paper I've already mentioned, focused on personal manuscript collections, Lieke van Deinsen (Radboud University Nijmegen) discussed a publishing programme designed to enshrine a canon of Dutch literature at the outset of the eighteenth century - a very interesting counterpoint to the publishing activities of Jacob Tonson in the same period. Adam Rounce (University of Nottingham) exposed the many thieves and plunderers of Edward Bysshe's seminal collection of poetic quotations in The Art of English Poetry (1702, expanded and much reprinted thereafter; explore the first edition in the Digital Miscellanies Index here and here). He cautioned that the lifting of quotations wholesale from Bysshe makes it hard to argue that subsequent collections of poetic extracts are on-the-pulse witnesses to developing aesthetic tastes in the eighteenth century.

My paper was largely an excuse to make people laugh, and happily it worked: I revealed how Alexander Thistlethwayte (1718?-1771), Hampshire land-owner and book-collector, read poetry with a pen in his hand, annotating critically and eccentrically. He also bound many of his copies of poems into composite books, and I argued that these and other collections like them represent archives of reading which perhaps deserve more attention from scholars than they have yet had. I'll be expanding the paper for an encore here in Oxford in May - hopefully there will be laughter the second time around too!

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