Thursday, May 2, 2013

There is only one Yeats.

Is has been quite some time since I posted anything "instructional."  But I used to do it quite often. I posted a guide to the literature subject GRE.  I described how to dovetail a philosophy major or minor with your English degree.  I posted on how to talk about the Middle Ages, and how to use the word "modern" in all its definitions.  Why I don't do that anymore is something of a mystery.  I've been at this "Student of English" business for years now, so I usually know what I'm talking about.  Maybe that's just the trouble. (And I explored this a couple months ago -- it seems the more you know what you're talking about, the harder it is to write essay-style pieces.)

Well, dash it all, tonight I'm going to instruct.

It may seem silly to instruct on something like this, but I think there may be a need. It's come up in conversations with smart undergrads, and it's come up twice in grad classrooms filled with smart people. And so I've seen that there are many who don't know that:

There is only one Yeats. 

By that I do not mean "O what a literary genius Yeats is!  There can never be another!"  While I do think that Yeats is pretty irreplaceable, the point here is how to talk about Yeats. And other people named Yeats.  Or Yates. Or any authors who share a last name.

There is only one Eliot.  There is only one Shelley. There is only one Woolf. (And I will argue that there is only one Austen.)

When readerly types talk about authors, they often throw around last names.  Whether this is for the sake of brevity or because it makes you sound professional in a graduate classroom, is variable.  It is, in fact, professional and eloquent sounding, and it would certainly be a mouthful to say "William Makepeace Thackeray" mid-conversational stream.  But when introducing an author into a conversation, it's only acceptable to do so by last name if everyone there will know who you're talking about.  So anyone who is not counted among the "greats" has to be introduced by full name, just like when you write a paper MLA style. (You can't refer to some unknown critic with "Cooper argues..." on the first page of your paper and more than you can say "Smith has quite a way with metaphors!" in a conversation at a party. Because...Who the hell are these people?) 

Contemporary writers should probably all be introduced by full name, because individual taste still determines what we read when it comes to stuff that hasn't yet been sorted out by the critics.  If there are two new spewers of novels with sad titles and soft-focus covers, and both writers are named Smith, who can yet say which Smith is the only Smith?  (For the sake of all that is right and good in the world, hopefully neither.)

But Coleridge, Thackeray, Keats, Byron, Milton, Spencer, etc, etc, should never be called by full name.  That would just be silly.  What other Milton is there?

That question leads us to where it gets tricky.  I list a few of the Romantics above, but I left out Shelley.  Because there is another Shelley.  How do we decide which one gets the privilege of being the only Shelley? 

Before you start weighing the options, the decision has probably already been made for you, by the same forces that shape the canon.  Which one is a white male Anglophone?  Which one is the parent or husband? (In the case of a child or wife using the same name even though the head of the household is famous.) Who's work is more influential? (Already partly determined by the existing canon, which is of course already influenced by gender, race, language, and so on.)  I won't get into a discussion of canon here (because it's here), but it does bother me a little bit that the same canon criteria that long kept women and minorities from being heard are similar to the criteria for deciding who takes the honor of being "the one." 

All that aside, Yates is no Yeats.  Sometimes an author just completely outshines another, both in works and in historical significance.  So even if you study Yates, even if your dissertation is on Yates, and you talk about his work with your colleagues and committee all the time only having to use a last name because they all know -- STILL, when you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you're knee-deep in Yates, unless you are at the Super-Secret Society of Richard Yates Conference, you'll have to call him Richard Yates.  Or they'll think you mean Yeats.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is the only Shelley, so we can stop using his silly names now.  His wife is Mary Shelley.  Always Mary.

T. S. Eliot is the only Eliot.  This one is tricky -- George Eliot is just as important as T.S., in my book.  But that's not her real name.  Besides the obvious canonical ding for being a woman writer, the fact that Eliot is her pen name makes it weird to call her that and only that, as if it's a last name.  So T.S. wins.

Woolf is the only Woolf.  Although, people frequently use her full name.*  We have a tendency to do this with women, while men who are of the same authorial caliber are rarely called by their full names. Tom Wolfe is not Wolfe.  He's Tom Wolfe.  Only Woolf is Woolf.  This is a case where a woman writer triumphs, because her work is so historically important, partly because it's the work of a woman about being a woman.

*I admit to sometimes even calling her by her first name.  But as a believer in some kind of Écriture féminine, using a woman's first name brings me closer to her. Somehow it seems appropriate. But even though I talk about "Virginia" often, we should not be required to call women by their full names just because they're women.  In fact, in the above list of "last name only" men there are two I'd never heard of before I read Woolf.  Her last name was part of my vocabulary before Thackeray's or Lamb's. She actually introduced me to them.

Jane Austen, I would argue, is the only Austen.  Since Austen sounds exactly like Austin, there are any number of writers liable to be confused with her as the centuries wear on.  But why do we always call her "Jane Austen"?  Again, I understand the affectionate use of a first name by a person who feels a close affinity with a writer.  But as well known as Janey is these days, I think "Austen" should suffice. 

As for who is the only Brontë... I think we are stuck with both Emily and Charlotte. (And if you plan to talk about the third sister who no one reads, her name is Anne and you'll have to be specific about it.)

So when you want to talk about authors, make sure you're clear, and that you sound like the reader you are.  Don't introduce obscure folk by last name only.  Don't trip over the full names of the greats who we already know by last name or even nickname. And if the dude you want to talk about shares a name with another writer, remember the "only one Yeats" rule. 

I took that line from a professor at NIU.  We were in a library smart-classroom and a student said she wanted help finding some bit of information on Yates.  The prof started looking up Yeats, and she had to clarify, "No, I'm sorry, uh, Richard Yates."  He was flabbergasted!  And then he lectured us severely that there is indeed only one Yeats.

Just yesterday a Romanticist classmate mentioned Shelley as we sat down to our final Old English class.  A guy behind her started to say "She is..." but the young Romanticist immediately cut him off.  "SHE?"  Then he sputtered out something incoherent and was like "OH! That Shelley."  Yes, we all know there is a She-Shelley.  And there's nothing wrong with She-Shelley.  But Shelley is a he.  So the whole thing was awkward with the girl thinking the guy hopeless and the guy thinking her a know-it-all, and various minds around the classroom thinking things like "OF COURSE IT'S SHELLEY!" or "Shit, should I have known that's what she meant by Shelley? I'm an idiot!" or "Ugh why are we having this conversation..."  Luckily we made fun of Shelley for falling off his boat, had a lively discussion about drownings, and set things right again in time to translate together the saddest poem in the Old English corpus.

1 comment:

  1. Oddly enough, I had an professor in undergrad who always referred to Mary as "Shelley" and her husband as Percy Bysshe.


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