09.11.14, Barrington, American Chaucers

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David Watt

The Medieval Review 09.11.14

Barrington, Candace. American Chaucers. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 224. ISBN: 978-1-4039-6515-8.

Reviewed by:
David Watt
University of Manitoba

Candace Barrington's American Chaucers provides ample evidence that The New Middle Ages is indeed "a series dedicated to transdisciplinary studies of medieval cultures." Barrington's study focuses attention on texts and cultural practices that have been ignored by Chaucerians and Americanists because they lie outside temporal or geographic disciplinary boundaries. Barrington contends that it has been easy for American Chaucers to be dismissed by Chaucerians focused on "recovering a historically accurate Chaucer" (156) as well as by Americanists who "define their field 'specifically against the oppressive weight of British cultural hegemony'" (157). By studying "Chaucer's appearances in American popular culture over the past two hundred years" (1), Barrington ignores traditional disciplinary boundaries, bringing to light texts and cultural practices that merit study while revealing some of the challenges associated with a transdisciplinary approach.

According to the introduction, Barrington's study takes up Steve Ellis' challenge in Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination to "examine Chaucer's function in the popular marketplace" (1). One way that she justifies her particular focus on Chaucer's reception in American popular culture is by citing Emerson. According to Barrington, "Emerson's reading [of] Chaucer's verse as that of a kindred spirit derives partially from the American scholar's literary transcendentalism, and partially from a larger cultural sense that Americans were the needful, indeed rightful, heirs to early British culture, especially its medieval heritage" (10). The translatio studii that Barrington introduces here--the idea that "European learning and arts had progressively moved westward" (10)--is threaded throughout the book effectively. The argument would be enhanced even further if it were considered more critically and explicitly in the later chapters as well as the early ones.

Chapter One explicitly considers the contribution that American anthologies of British literature made to the tradition of translatio studii. Given the dearth of secondary critical sources treating these nineteenth-century anthologies, Barrington necessarily focuses on the primary sources themselves as both literary and bibliographic objects. The strength of this chapter is that it gathers evidence for the cultural work of the anthology from text and paratext, defined by Barrington to include "prefaces, introductions, indices, and illustrations" (20). The chapter occasionally employs other bibliographic evidence to support its claims. At one point, it includes a brief discussion of the use of "contemporary typeface" in one anthology based on the Tyrwhitt edition of Chaucer (30). This point, were it given adequate space on its own, would enhance Barrington's argument. It is significant that readers might have felt that certain types of typeface were more contemporary than others. Barrington seems to recognize this in the introduction, where she argues that R. J. Dodsley's Chaucer editions used a "roman rather than black-letter typeface" (7) in order to appeal to a broader audience. It is surprising that this chapter's argument does not acknowledge that there may be a close relationship between the decision to print Chaucer in a roman typeface and the attempt to make him seem contemporary--to remove him from the medieval. Roman typefaces are based on humanist scripts; these scripts were based on classical models precisely because they pre-date the gothic scripts that were dominant throughout the latter Middle Ages and that provided the model for black-letter type. The use of a "contemporary typeface," like the use of a humanist script, aims to reinscribe Chaucer within a translatio studii from classical learning to the Renaissance. In other words, this material evidence could have helped Barrington more forcefully to argue that "Chaucer is not a distant mirror, allowing Americans to see themselves more clearly; instead, he becomes a carefully polished and crafted lens through which Americans refract and justify their behavior" (41). Her exploration of this idea near the end of the chapter, in her close reading of Chaucer's "Mercy" as it appears in A Thousand and One Gems is one of the book's highlights. She implies that its inclusion in the text in its particular form links the idea of translatio studii to America's imperial expansion, especially on the Western frontier. She uses this reading to consider how later anthologies differ from earlier ones by echoing "the American's own colonization project by repackaging British poems as gems to be mined for increasing the wealth of the American empire" (40). While I found myself wishing that Barrington had developed her argument here to consider some of the negative consequences of the imperial project--something that the poem's discussion of the word trespass certainly invites--the close reading here is nonetheless powerful and effective.

Barrington undertakes similarly effective close readings at times in the second chapter, which focuses on The Canterbury Pilgrims by Percy MacKaye. She demonstrates the contemporary relevance with which MacKaye imbues his characters by drawing attention to the fact that the host's "description of the shirt-shaped sign flapping in the wind also recalls two early-twentieth century phrases" (59). Barrington's recognition of how this "language imitates the sexual bawdry that has persistently characterized Chaucer's American reputation" (59) demonstrates one of the great benefits of reading this text with the eyes of both a Chaucerian and an Americanist. As a whole, this is the chapter that reveals most clearly the benefits of transdisciplinarity; one of the reasons it is so long is that Barrington gives herself adequate time to engage as fully as possible with the different forms in which MacKaye presented material under the same title: play, pageant, and opera. The portion of the chapter considering the pageant tradition, especially the "technological spectacle" that the Gloucester Day celebration became, provides a way of reconsidering the connection between "sentence" and "solaas" so valued in Chaucer's Tales as well as the problems MacKaye faced when attempting to marshal his limited recourses in order to edify the working classes. Barrington's extensive consideration of MacKaye's view of his purpose as well as his financial circumstances provide this chapter with a fascinating connection between the economic needs of the writer or producer, his or her patron, and the audience. While social and economic struggle may be productive in this chapter, and even in Chaucer's Tales, MacKaye's own struggles did not necessarily lead to aesthetic brilliance. Barrington writes of the opera: "by reducing The Canterbury Tales to a comic love triangle, the libretto felt vulgar without being racy and Chaucer's verse seemed third rate, thereby turning the plot into an operetta storyline while losing the benefits of associating with Chaucer" (89). Notwithstanding its aesthetic limitations, MacKay's work in all its forms was, according to Barrington, "a complex creation" (92). It certainly merits further consideration.

Barrington discusses another complex text in the third chapter. James Norman Hall's Flying With Chaucer engages with Chaucer in a much different way than the texts presented in the first two chapters, yet it also is profoundly engaged with the concept of translatio studii. Barrington argues that, "when we accept Hall's cue and read Flying with Chaucer through the lens of The Canterbury Tales, we see that the infiltration of Chaucer into an apparent war memoir transforms the narrative into a skeptical reexamination of war rhetoric and a lament for the displacement of older values by modern business interests" (101). Barrington makes this argument by demonstrating how Hall develops the conceit that he is writing the book inside an edition of Chaucer. The particular edition is notable, for Hall first read it while he was a prisoner of war in the officers' detention facility located in Trausnitz Castle, "a twelfth-century stone fortification in Landshut" (97). He later took the copy with him when he escaped from the facility on 13 November, 1918, two days after the armistice. While I found this chapter as a whole compelling, I was especially impressed by the close reading Barrington provides in support of her argument that Hall's incorporation of Chaucer induces "a slower pace and mindfulness of a broader context" (108) that prove seminal to the work. Hall's incorporation of the Monk's refusal to speak of hunting, according to Barrington, "suggest that Flying with Chaucer will not adjust its message to further the Great War's enchantment of the masses" (108). While reading a section so convincing about the importance of slow and careful reading, I was disappointed not to have all the stages of argument incorporated into the discussion of the Friar's confusion of the term "preambulation" with "perambulation" in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. Nonetheless, this chapter makes a powerful argument: "Hall's volume of The Canterbury Tales bridges the abyss between the past and future created by the war" (115). It would be even more powerful if Hall's critique of rising global corporatism could have been placed more explicitly in the context of translatio studii, for Flying with Chaucer is more ambivalent than the earlier texts in its presentation of the imperial project and the cultural, historical, and linguistic ties between Americans and the English.

Chapter Four begins with an implicit acknowledgement that the translatio studii, as it has commonly been conceived, excludes women from the tradition. In order to demonstrate that this is as much (or more) a product of disciplinary boundaries than cultural practice, Barrington considers two fascinating cultural productions, Anne Maury's May Day in Canterbury and Kathrine Gordon Brinley's Chaucer Lives. The opening section, which focuses on the pageant, demonstrates one reason why such productions by women have been excluded: "The careers of most of these women are now reduced to small pieces of ephemera" (126). Put another way, the "texts" these women were producing were not designed to endure in a material sense, and this has made their study challenging. Barrington takes on this challenge in the second major section of the chapter by reconstructing Kathrine Gordon Sanger Brinley's career from "two sets of momentos of performance...preserved in eighteen clam boxes" (127). This section convincingly demonstrates Brinley's widespread appeal from 1919 until 1929, when the stock market crash reduced the number of her bookings immediately and irreversibly (although she did continue to perform--often without pay). One of the most engaging aspects of this chapter is the way that Barrington explores Brinley's multiple accounts of her career, particularly focusing on her personal and spiritual connection to Chaucer. Given the account Barrington provides of Kathrine as dutiful daughter and patient wife, I was surprised that Margery Kempe did not make a cameo appearance. The comparison that Barrington ultimately draws is more interesting. As the chapter comes to a close, Barrington suggests that Brinley's rhetoric of spiritualism through the tropes of personal contact connect her more closely with those eminent textual scholars Walter W. Skeat and Frederick J. Furnivall. I wished there was a little more time devoted to this argument, especially in the wider context of cultural transmission and the gender bias in accounts of translatio studii.

The final chapter of this book, which explores Brian Helgeland's film, A Knight's Tale, is much less convincing than the first four. I found this particularly unsettling because the chapter itself seems to contain material for a stronger argument. The overall premise for this chapter is reasonable: "the movie projects back onto Chaucer and late-medieval Europe a contemporary American sensibility" (143). Barrington then argues that the plot sanctions one risk-taker who achieves success by ignoring class boundaries, yet maintains the structures that make such mobility risky. The problem lies in the evidence that Barrington uses to demonstrate that "the film is loaded with signs that label it an American tale" (144). In terms of music, she asserts that the film's inclusion of David Bowie's "Golden Years," Thin Lizzie's "The Boys Are Back in Town" and Queen's "We will Rock You" produce "a remarkably American soundtrack that in most other contexts would be quite unremarkable" (146). I think it would be remarkable in any context since none of these acts are American according to the definition Barrington provides early in the book: "I use the terms 'America' and 'American' to refer to the places, people, and cultures eventually known as the United States of America" (4). David Bowie and Queen are English and Thin Lizzie is Irish. I believe that an acknowledgment of the cultural appropriation here would enhance Barrington's argument. Much of the book focuses on how American Chaucers are the product of cultural bricolage, where the British poet's verse forms an intricate part of American culture. This practice certainly does not begin and end with Chaucer. If Chaucer can be used in an American setting to define Americanness, then surely Bowie, Queen, and Thin Lizzie can as well. But the argument needs to be made explicitly. And it might be slightly more difficult to make it when one considers that the film's "American" soundtrack also includes "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (who--as everybody from Winnipeg knows--hail from the Province of Manitoba in Canada). Intriguingly, this information might have enabled Barrington to connect A Knight's Tale more closely to Flying with Chaucer; after all, James Hall "posed as a Canadian" (96) in order to fight alongside British regiments in the Great War before the Americans were actively involved.

Overall, this study achieves its aims, particularly in the first four chapters; it offers a substantial contribution to the series in which it appears and the study of Chaucerian reception. It demonstrates the great benefits of its transdisciplinarity by engaging texts that have hitherto been ignored. It also demonstrates some of the challenges of such an approach through its limitations, particularly in the last chapter. Nonetheless, Barrington's work invites comparisons between American Chaucers and others. Some work has certainly been done in this regard. One may turn to Seth Leher's Chaucer and His Readers or Steve Ellis' book (mentioned above) for other considerations of Chaucer's reception and Sarah A. Kelen's Langland's Early Modern Identities, which also appears in Palgrave's "The New Middle Ages," for a recent exploration of the afterlife of another significant medieval author. Ultimately, Barrington's book participates in translatio studii in a positive sense by inviting new scholars to the transdisciplinary study of Chaucer's reception.

There are several editorial infelicities, although I don't think an exhaustive list would be helpful. I do want to note two errors that may create confusion. The first occurs on page 27 where one sentence claims that the text under consideration has omitted the first eighteen lines of the Tales and a second asserts that the cited text begins at line eighteen. The second line is simply an error: the lines begin at nineteen. Readers should also be aware that there is no concrete evidence for the claim on page 117 that Thomas Hoccleve worked as a scribe preserving Chaucer's texts. Hoccleve may have been involved in the preservation of Chaucer's work and he did complete a short stint in a manuscript preserving Gower's Confessio amantis made by other scribes who copied several Chaucer manuscripts; however, Hoccleve did not copy any extant manuscript of Chaucer's texts.

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Author Biography

David Watt

University of Manitoba