On Nineteenth-Century Flower Language

This post is inspired by Nancy Strow Sheley’s “The Language of Flowers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Other Nineteenth-Century American Works,” Resources for American Literary Study 30 (2005): 77-103. She argues, essentially, that to read mentions of flowers in literary texts like Stowe’s novel and other writers like Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (and even male writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Waddell Chesnutt), you need to know what flowers mean. Go read the article, obviously, but RALS is not (to my knowledge) available electronically at present. Therefore, in lieu of that, below I link to several online flower dictionaries, arranged chronologically.

 There are many, many more. Flower lexicons were a standard part of 19C women’s culture, especially, Sheley notes, “among literate, social, white middle and upper classes” (77). Also, Sheley draws from following scholarly study of language of flowers:
Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Print. Victorian Literature and Culture Series.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Rewriting Internet History: “Because it’s there.”

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith remakes the past. I think that I helped re-make the internet past in the case of a famous quotation from George Leigh Mallory, but the imaginary past is now starting to undermine my authority as the originator of the corrected version.

When opening my 2006 dissertation, I sought to trace the origin of this phrase, “Because it’s there,” which was said to have been attributed to Mallory after he was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” I had thought to explain my choice to edit the National Era version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “because it’s there” seemed like as good an explanation as any: the University of Virginia library was one of only a handful in the world with a copy.  I traced the quote back to an 18 March 1923 article in the New York Times, but I discovered that the question asked of Mallory was, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” In other words, his reply was in past tense, to explain why he had tried the mountain several times.

When I performed a quoted Google search while preparing my dissertation, on 10 January 2006, the quoted phrase with “did” returned zero results. That later became a little hook to open chapter 1 of my dissertation, and I made a little joke about Internet folklore in my first footnote: “While it is possible that folklore records the question more accurately than the documentary evidence, some Internet folkore [sic] on the do version of the question refers to Mallory’s questioner as a Times reporter, so it seems more likely that Internet folklore is immune to documentary evidence.” (2; http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/wnr4c/Raabe.Era.UTC.Diss.pdf)

Today, 4 March 2016, when I performed the quoted search on Google, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” the omnipresent Wikipedia explainer, which appears on the first page, assures me that did is the correct form of the quote.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.18.57 PM

Do I deserve the credit for fixing Internet folklore? Actually, I think I do. When I search quoted search with a date range, 1 January 2006 thru 1 January 2008, there is only one lonely Google search result returned, my dissertation.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.25.04 PM

Which affirms what I claimed in my dissertation. The skeptical reader asks: Why date range 2006-2008? How would we know you’re the first? Maybe someone preceded you. OK, let’s do it again, with all instances before 2008.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.33.06 PM

OK, so there are earlier results. But on Pinterest, back in 1999? and on Tumblr, back in 2001? Looks like Winston from Nineteen Eighty-Four has struck again. And what about the omitted results? OK, now we have it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.42.18 PM

The correct version of Mallory’s famous quote was first reported on Pinterest, back on December 23, 1972.

The moral of the story, except when you’re scooped by Pinterest, is that open-access dissertations make the world a slightly better place. So I’m going to take credit for correcting the famous Mallory quote on the Internet.

As the kids say, Booyah!

PS: I’ve decided not to remake the past by subtly altering a quotation from my dissertation, so the [sic] acknowledges the spelling error folkore in my footnote.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Note on American Slavery: Cat-hauling

Take a deep breath and brace yourself, before you read further. Or stop reading now if you do not want to subject yourself to this: in this post I describes a particular torture from antebellum slavery that is unimaginably cruel, one which Americans have collectively chosen to forget and to sanitize.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cat-haul” is U.S. English, and it is derived from a punishment that slavemasters inflicted on enslaved people, though I do not believe the usage cases in the dictionary acknowledge adequately its horrific cruelty.  The OED does not even give a formal definition and instead relies on the reader to infer the definition from a usage example. The quotation is from Arthur Singleton’s Letters from the South and West (1824):

The cat-haul; that is, to fasten a slave down flatwise..and then to take a huge fierce tom-cat by the tail backward, and haul him down along the..bare back, with his claws clinging into the quick all the way.

You could easily miss the phrase “into the quick,” which we use mostly today to refer to bleeding when clipping a pet’s nails. In this case, it might mean lodging so deeply into the flesh that the live part of the claw is embedded, though I think it means that claws are embedded into the person’s “quick,” into the flesh deeply enough to cause bleeding. That is the only sample usage for the noun form that the OED gives, and the lexicographer (this definition has not been revised since 1936) instead only offers a formal definition for the verb form: “to subject to this punishment; fig. to examine stringently.” Think about that for a second, that the figurative use has transformed claws puncturing and tearing through skin into a “stringent examination.” That’s how culture tells itself lies with language: there was no “examination” going on in the first place, just unmitigated cruelty.

To return to the OED, three usage examples follow, from 1840, 1851, and 1950. The noun form cat-hauling also receives a usage case, from Chambers’ Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, 1844–7.

I saw a slave punished by cat-hauling. The cat was placed on the bare shoulders, and forcibly dragged by the tail down the back..of the prostrate slave.

Reread the title of source for quotation, note the phrase “useful and entertaining,” and go on. Read in dictionary context (with ellipsis dots to signal omissions), one might be excused for assuming cat-hauling meant a single pass, though “into the quick,” if it registered in the previous usage example, may have caused you to cringe. That notion of single pass, though, has become part of our contemporary definition. The  Merriam Webster Dictionary also defines cat-haul today in such a way that most readers would assume a single pass, a moderate punishment: “to punish by forcibly dragging a cat along the bare back <cat-haul a slave for a misdemeanor>.”  And look here, it’s a “misdemeanor,” which implies that the punishment was formal retribution for a criminal act instead of what it actually was, an act of ferocious cruelty by a monster, which happened to be legally sanctioned because the law offered protection to the enslaved persons only in cases that offended public sensibilities. In the early 19th century, public sensibilities about cruelty toward slaves were almost impossible to offend. Even when sensibilities were offended, punishment of the offender typically remained a higher offense to sensibility. For example, the testimony of black slaves, who were far more likely to witness cruelties, was banned in courts of law.

Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is (1844) explains that cat-hauling was considered by many enslaved persons to be more cruel than lashing[1], and he gives two examples:

 “Mr. Brubecker, who had a number of slaves, among whom was one who would frequently avoid labor by hiding himself; for which he would get severe floggings without the desired effect, and that at last Mr. B. would tie large cats on his naked body and whip them to make them tear his back, in order to break him of his habit of hiding.”

Rev. HORACE MOULTON, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts, says:

“Some, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them, cat-haul them; that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by its hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied; this kind of punishment, as I have understood, poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.”

To summarize, cat-hauling was considered by many to be a worse ordeal than “severe floggings.” The word cat-haul has affinities to the naval punishment of keel-hauling, only a bit shy of execution (though death was possible), tying a sailor with a rope and passing him under the keel of a ship, side to side for a large ship, bow to stern for small. As with keel-hauling, cat-hauling is unlikely to have meant one pass with the claws of an abused tom-cat. It meant several repetitions, “until satisfied.” Or, as Brubecker did, tying several cats to the naked back and whipping the cats. The probability that infection would follow is high: that is what is meant by “poisons the flesh.” If the risk of infection was higher, this form of torture may well have led to death.

There are are two points here: One: American slavery was unimaginably cruel.[2]  Two: One reason is that American slavery’s cruelty is unimaginable to us today is that our public history and culture have failed to reckon with or have too often sanitized its cruelty. Weld’s American Slavery As It Is is almost unbearable to  read, not only because the descriptions are so horrific but because its documentation is fierce. The word cat-haul, today forgotten, is just one witness, though its usage (and the practice) is testified in American Slavery As It Is once by an Ohio woman who formerly resided in Kentucky and a second time by a Methodist minister. The subtitle of Weld’s book is Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, and the documentation is at standards that match present-day scholarly monographs.

I imagine a scholarly project in which we cross-reference all the names that appear in Weld and in Weld’s sources with links to genealogy records in Ancestry.com and open-source newspaper and book databases like Chronicling America or HathiTrust. Creating history should not be a process of sanitizing the past: we should be relearning it.

[1] Lashing typically meant tying down by hands and feet to stakes or suspending in the air with feet restrained; applying 50 or 100 or 400 strokes with the lash, lacerating the flesh so severely that the cowhide whip would become clotted with blood; and often included rubbing the flesh with salt or dousing it with salt or hot pepper brine: such tortures could be fatal, if not from initial loss of blood and shock then from ensuing infection.

[2] Cat-hauling is described in a subsection called Tortures of Slaves. Even a sampling of the subheads (paddles, head frames, collars, teeth mutilated) is enough to incite revulsion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Application Statement, PhD in English

I have read several rounds of graduate school application letters, and it occurred to me that strong statements have some qualities in common. So I wrote a tweet.

Then, I recalled that I’ve saved my 2002 application statement for Virginia. And I think it meets the criteria that I set out above. Though I would do it differently now, I was accepted into the PhD program at Virginia in 2001 and 2002. This is the 2002 letter. So I’ll let it stand below as it was, as perhaps useful to someone who wants to pursue graduate study but has not been instructed in the conventions of this type of application. I was not awarded a full ride (graduate school shop talk for research fellowship with no teaching required, reserved for the most promising candidates; PS: I later got to know two of those rewarded candidates, and they definitely deserved them) and so taught classes to earn my keep.

Statement of Interest

       I applied to and was accepted into the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Virginia (UVA) for the Fall 2001 semester. Though I accepted the offer, I later decided not to attend when I realized that the federally subsidized loans that were available to me were not sufficient to pay my tuition and fees. I made the decision with considerable regret because I did then and still believe that the program would be an excellent place to pursue my interest in textual studies. In the past months, I have made significant progress on reducing the financial barriers. But the reasons for my interest in the program are little changed from my previous application.

My interest is textual scholarship. It is an outgrowth of my thesis on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, in which I studied what the manuscript and published editions reveal about the author’s composition and revision processes. My goal is to prepare an electronic resource that makes my view of Crane’s revisions accessible to other scholars. The resources at UVA make it the best place to continue my current research and to complete a Ph.D.

In “Stephen Crane Revising The Red Badge of Courage”—a shortened version of my thesis that I have provided as a writing sample—I explain a concept of Crane’s revisions that considers multiple versions of the novel. Crane revised with considerable attention to the place of the protagonist in the novel, to the voice of the narrator, and to the imagery. The importance of Private Henry Fleming, the central figure in the manuscript originally titled Private Fleming: His Various Battles, diminishes as Crane revises. One of the most important changes is that Henry Fleming is changed to the youth in the revised manuscript and the Appleton edition. As Crane diminishes the importance of the youth’s character, he emphasizes the novel’s narrative voice and its imagery. Editors Fredson Bowers and Henry Binder have viewed Crane’s revision process as moving toward a sharp distinction between Henry Fleming and the other soldiers. I believe that a more satisfactory view of Crane’s revisions places the protagonist’s name change in the context of other revisions.

During the past two years, my work has included assisting faculty members at the University of North Texas (UNT) to prepare printed editions and electronic texts. As an assistant editor to Alexander Pettit for Set I of Selected Works of Eliza Haywood, I proofread, prepared facsimile title pages, and reviewed the textual introduction. As an associate editor of Set II of Selected Works of Eliza Haywood, I prepared facsimile title pages, typeset all three volumes, and consulted frequently with the editor on matters of bibliography and presentation. As a research assistant to Peter L. Shillingsburg, I have worked on the process of converting the source files for his many critical editions of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novels into an internet-accessible format. While I have learned much from these two distinguished scholars, I could pursue my study of Red Badge most successfully with the unique resources at Virginia.

I want to create an internet resource of materials that includes transcriptions and images of—and links among—all of the authoritative Red Badge texts: early draft manuscript, final manuscript, chapter 4 excerpt published in Current Literature, and the 1895 Appleton edition. Three resources at UVA interest me particularly: 1) Crane’s autograph manuscript of Red Badge in the Clifton Waller Barret Collection, 2) the Bowers collection that includes the source files for the Virginia edition of Red Badge, and 3) the knowledge and expertise of scholars working in the Electronic Text Center and in the Institute for Advanced Technology in the humanities. Because of my interests in bibliography and electronic texts, I have contacted David Vander Meulen and Dr. John Unsworth and have asked them to write letters on my behalf. With access to the physical resources at UVA, and to these and other scholars such as Jerome McGann, I could prepare an internet resource that makes my view of Crane’s revisions accessible to other scholars.

In the eight months since withdrawing my acceptance, I have taken numerous steps to better prepare myself financially and academically for the Ph.D. program at UVA. My financial preparations have included reducing credit card, reducing school loan debt, and setting aside enough money to pay the difference between out-of-state tuition and the maximum allowable subsidized loan. I have indicated to my family that I may need financial support, but I am making significant progress towards being able to pay the tuition and fees with no assistance other than subsidized loans. Though I am employed full-time as a technical writer at a company in Dallas and part-time as an adjunct instructor at UNT, my academic and editorial work is moving forward as well. I typeset Set II of Selected Works of Eliza Haywood and wrote a study of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The latter is provided as a writing sample. For Shillingsburg’s edition of Thackeray’s The Newcomes, I have begun the process of converting TeX source files to XML. And finally, my review of Susan Hockey’s Electronic Texts in the Humanities for the journal Text is almost complete. Were the English department to again extend an offer of admission, I would be honored.

I think the strength of letter is that I know what I’m planning to do and am in communication with scholars at the university. I wonder now whether my several years away from graduate study and my full-time job were a weakness. By the way, I did not end up doing a Crane project, because Jerome McGann persuaded me that Uncle Tom’s Cabin project was a better idea. (He was, and is, a very persuasive person.) I would caution anyone reading this letter as a model that my application at the University of Michigan (2001) did not secure me admission into the program, and that other materials (also mentioned) may have helped.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Contractions, Possessives, and Type Space in 19C American Editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This is a draft, and I welcome comments.

Seventeen words appear in early printings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin both as a contraction and as a possessive form, including possessive nouns and the possessive case for gerunds, and they are listed in Table 1 below. The National Era serial (1851–1852) and the Jewett Illustrated edition (1853) have no typographical distinction between possessives and contractions, but two Jewett editions, the 2-volume First (1852) and the “Million” (1852/1853), and the Houghton Osgood “New Edition” (1879) have a typographical distinction: in contractions, a thin space precedes the apostrophe; but in singular possessives, the apostrophe abuts the preceding letter (with no thin space).

Table 1:  ’s Contractions and Possessive Forms in the Era Serial and Four Editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (PDF)

All “ ’s” contractions with a corresponding possessive form in the same text together constitute a significant sample size of over 280 instances in each of five typographical settings of the text. In the three editions in which a distinction is observed, there are only two clear “errors” of execution: both are cases in which an “ ’s” contraction lacks the expected thin space before the apostrophe, a rate of consistency above 99.5 percent.[1]  For the purpose of these counts, I have excluded instances of possession in chapter titles (i.e., “Clare’s” or “Tom’s”). Though these spacing conventions are representative of the typographical texture of the early printings of Stowe’s text,  they are not authorial because in the fragmentary extant manuscript pages the distinction is not present in Stowe’s hand. Also, I should add, spacing of contractions is not a distinction that concerns dialect (NB: To be the subject of another post). The setting of “I ’m” and “you ’re” and “does n’t” in the three editions with spaced contractions, for example, mirrors the practice of dialect forms like “I ’s” and “you ’s.”

When determining these counts, some conventions for regularization have been imposed. Typographically speaking, a “thin space” is a designated width of type: 5 thin spaces are the width of an em (i.e., 5 to the em), and the “em” is the standard unit of type measurement.[2] In 19th century printing, a quad the width of an em is typically used to separate sentences. Whether a space before an apostrophe is made by a thin-space type–with an approximate width of 1.0 mm in the Jewett First Edition, 0.8 mm in the “Million” edition, or 1.0 mm in the Houghton Osgood “New Edition”–is a matter of judgment, one which can benefit from tools like a magnifying loupe scored with a tenth-millimeter gauge.

No, that’s not everyday literary scholarship, but I have measured several hundred thin spaces with a loupe and suppose that I may as well admit it.  As a sanity check for assigning space width, I assigned spaces for contractions and dialect word forms during two keyboardings. If the two transcriptions differed, I measured the distance with the magnifying loupe and/or made a judgment call about the relative width of the space in this instance as compared to typical spacing in the immediate context of the same line. That is, spaces were double-keyed and checked whenever the two keyboardings disagreed.

So, the actual procedure requires a bit more judgment. When encoding spaces during transcriptions, I have marked some spaces as thin spaces outright and some spaces as thinner, relatively speaking, than the surrounding spaces on the same line. When words are widely spaced, with frequent thick spaces (3 to the em) between words, a medium space is thinner, relatively speaking, than the surrounding thick spaces. Also the opposite: when words are tightly spaced with frequent thin spaces between words, a hair space (7 to the em) is thinner, relatively speaking, than surrounding thin (5 to the em) spaces. I consider both of these as typographically equivalent to “thin” spaces. I disregard the distinction between “thin space” and “relatively thin space in context” in Table 1, but the transcriptions with the distinction recorded shall be made available. Because varying space width between words is typical of prose typography–sometimes so a paragraph may fit in a certain number of lines, sometimes so a chapter will fit on a certain number of pages with enough space to permit an illustration, etc.–the “relative” width of a space against the background of its surrounding content is a better way to assess the practice. Another complication is that the width of a space is indeterminate or an approximate space, because, for example, the space is preceded by a letter such as “f” with an overhanging terminal into the space. Again, judgment.

One consequence of identifying this conventional distinction between contractions and possessive forms is reasonably clear for modern reprint editions that aim to be scholarly. Mid-century compositors and proofreaders of the two Jewett editions must have recognized a spacing distinction between the two word forms as characteristic of quality typesetting.  And, furthermore, the compositors for the 1878 Houghton-Osgood edition, over twenty-five years later, recognized and observed the same distinction. Therefore, for  scholarly reprints, an editor who designates a reprint of the Jewett First or “Million” edition as “unmodernized” should reproduce type space in contractions, at minimum to distinguish contractions from possessive form. If you acknowledge that distinction, I believe the same principle should apply for all contractions that have the “ ’s” form without a corresponding possessive and for other contraction forms that close with “ ’ll,” or “ ’re,” etc., which are far more frequent. In reprints of the Era serial (1851-1852) or the Jewett Illustrated edition (1853), by contrast, no type space should be inserted into contractions: the convention is not present in the original texts.

As the practice of spacing in contractions has died out in modern printing (I am certain that it has, though I am not sure when.), and was not observed even in another edition by the same publisher (the Jewett Illustrated Edition [1853]), no historical “flavoring” is achieved by retroactively applying a texture of spacing to contractions in a reprint of that text or of the National Era serial. Though I must leave the following comment as a side note, which cannot be duplicated except by re-transcribing the three editions that observe the distinction–imagine yourself spending 4 years double-keying all three texts with thin spaces, confirming that each thin space agrees, measuring with a loupe when they do not, and making a judgment call–I did not discover this difference between possessive and contraction forms until after both the Jewett first edition and the “Million” edition had been transcribed. I set out to record type spacing within words, but I only noticed the distinction when devising regular expression routines to normalize spacing for the purpose of reducing the number of variants that are noted during computer collation. The transcription of the Houghton Osgood edition along the same principles, recording typographical spacing in contractions, confirmed that the pattern was present in that edition also.

A second consequence must also remain speculative, and it can only be tested by preparing another edition. For editors who wish to establish an authoritative text that conflates the authority of multiple editions, the matter of contraction spacing is complicated. If the Era form is designated the copy-text for the entire reprint edition, in the sense that Sir Walter W. Greg suggested in “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (and Fredson Bowers and the early CEAA advocated)  because it is held in most cases to be closest to authorial word forms and the authorial texture of punctuation, then no typographical distinction between possessive and contraction forms is present and should not be observed in a reprint edition. However, if the Jewett First edition is designated the Greg-Bowers copy-text for a reprint edition, its conventions should govern for the typographical reproduction. To do otherwise would be to modernize. One could modernize everything “for the convenience of readers,” but where’s the fun in that?

My preliminary analysis of variants suggests, however, that the manuscript served as the printer’s copy-text (setting copy) for the Era serial text, that the Era serial text served as the printer’s copy-text for most chapters in the Jewett edition, that two separate manuscripts served as printer’s copy-text for several chapters when the composition of the manuscript ran even both with serial publication and with First Edition typesetting, and that the typeset book or galley pages served as printer’s copy-text for the final installments in the Era serial. If my analysis is correct, an editor of a conflated text would need to explain the rationale for choosing a copy-text (in the Greg-Bowers sense) for each installment and either observe the typographical texture of the designated copy-text for each section or to regularize and normalize. Various arguments are defensible: one could appeal to authorial intention based on the practice of manuscript fragments, appeal to the convenience of readers who may be unsettled by alternate typographic textures in the same edition, or appeal to the prominence of the Jewett first edition as American literature’s textus receptus. Each of these options is speculative because no one has prepared a conflated text, and my editorial choice of the Era as a base text on which to hang variants and revision narratives (not the copy-text in the Greg-Bowers sense) will not resolve the matter either: it permits me in my editorial introduction to sidestep the fuller elaboration of principles that a conflating editor would be obligated to provide.

Be that as it may, these details are likely only to concern scholars of print history or editorial theory: they will not be reported in my printed scholarly edition except as a class of normalizations in the lists of variants. The practice perhaps should elicit some concern for deciding what a “word” is in quantitative analysis or so-called distant reading, as the common computing definition of a word, a series of letters separated by a space or punctuation, which is frequently invoked in word counts, requires a decision about whether a thin space, or a relatively thin space given the surrounding context, is actually a marker to separate words.  Finally, even the literary critic who wishes to quote accurately for a study that concerns the exact wording of a historical version of the text would be best served by reviewing a facsimile and learning to read type space or by checking my archived transcriptions of other editions (though those are not yet posted).

In a culture in which whether one or two spaces should follow a period is a subject of popular though ill-informed discussion, I think it’s reasonable to maintain that such details as how to record and how to print spacing of contractions in historical reprints does matter.  I hope at least one of the 25 eventual readers of this post find it useful.

  1. See notes to chart for errors. A caveat: The form “mass’rs,” which functions as a frequent possessive in the Era and is reprinted in chapter 10 of later editions, is arguably an error in form but is not treated as an error in execution for this analysis because it does not involve contraction spacing.
  2. I am simplifying here to describe the typographical conventions as practiced in these editions. Typographical conventions for conventional space widths differed over print history and within printing traditions. See Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Scholarly Annotation

This blog post will be discursive, as it is of the open notebook sort and will review the literature while in the process (hopefully) of clarifying my own thought. The literature on scholarly annotation is not particularly extensive, but a selective list of important essays (several of which are glossed below) is found in G. Thomas Tanselle’s seminar syllabus for scholarly editing (see pgs. 19-20). I have reviewed several models of scholarly annotation–theories and individual editions–and I give them in historical order of appearance, as the theory of scholarly annotation hews closely to the practice. Those who have annotated themselves comment most usefully about nuts-and-bolts of practice, but a few theoretical statements seem to me worth noting.

As preparation for a scholarly edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I have been thinking systematically about scholarly annotation: its audience, its aims, the process for preparing it, and the presentation of annotation in an edition. Most discussions of annotation treat only first two matters in any detail. The innovation that I will claim is that I believe it would be valuable to apply John Bryant’s theory of fluid text to the annotation of allusion, with Gregory Machacek’s innovative suggestion that when speaking of allusion one should distinguish between the “spur” (the wording in another text to which one alludes) and the reprise (the wording in the new context). Both are discussed after the initial review of annotation literature.

Significant Articles on Annotation and Annotated Editions

  • Arthur Friedman in “Principles of Historical Annotation in Critical Editions of Modern Texts” (1941) designates historical annotation as secondary to textual annotation (113), for he observes that reasonable thoroughness is possible when establishing a (modern) text but opines that the “search for stray allusions and sources can go on indefinitely” (116). Annotation is untheorized, he speculates, because it is a matter of judgment that depends “to a large extent on the erudition and tact of the editor” (117). His first substantive observation is that annotation depends in part on genre: a literary work with innumerable allusions (Pope’s Dunciad) demands copious recovery of historical contexts, which is not characteristic of a philosophical tract (Hume’s Dialogues). The latter demands a searching review only of author’s other writings. (I tend to disagree: Friedman assumes that allusion when present is easily recognizable, but I don’t believe that. Friedman, below, will acknowledge the same, at least implicitly). Friedman rejects annotations “drawn from writings later than the one being edited” (119) and castigates an editor who shall remain nameless for doing so. He advises instead that editors should “only annotate what his author says about a subject, not the whole subject and everything connected with it” (119). During Friedman’s era, the interest was presumed to be the author’s intent and that only (hence his scorn toward annotation that considers responses of subsequent poets), but we no longer cling to authorial intent as an only possible guiding principle. I have much sympathy for Friedman’s position, but the history of reception should not be restricted only to variorum mode annotation. Among items of salutary advice he observes that “as complete an analysis as possible should always precede annotation” and that an important purpose of annotation is to identify “unmistakable plagiarism from earlier writings” (121-122). Too little of this work has been done for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: she engages in plagiarisms of her earlier writings and has a hyper-aggressive allusion style, an under-appreciated signature of her art. Knowing which books Stowe had would help a lot: Friedman advises that seeming allusions are more convincing when a book that the author consulted is a close in time to author’s era, and going one step further, knowing Stowe’s library contents, would certainly help. I fear my work will be slightly deficient on that. Friedman also recommends cultural background on ideas, to show the distinctiveness of the author’s treatment (124). From these he transitions to a second type of notes, “information known to the author’s contemporary readers but lost to the passage of time”; and to aid with such, Friedman advises consulting contemporary works rather than “modern reference books” (125). Friedman of course recommends magazines and newspapers (126): while his advice would have been distressing to mid-20th century editors, today we have access to searchable digital databases, which do not lessen requirements but instead require scholars to be more ambitious.
  • In “Preparing Explanatory Annotation” (1972), the MLA’s Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA, later renamed the Committee on Scholarly Editions [CSE]) has brief but pertinent advice, though I skip its advice for works not intended for publication, such as letters or journals: “Works intended by the author for publication vary in the degree to which explanatory annotation is necessary. In general terms it may be said that such notes seem more appropriate for historical and biographical work than for fiction and poetry, though the nature and range of allusion are more significant factors” (11). They note that Northwestern-Newberry Melville omits explanatory notes but that Iowa-California Twain includes them. Then they offer almost comical practical advice: 1) editors and adequate time are needed to do annotation, 2) omit annotation if other editions are well annotated, or let someone else annotate the work when re-published (11). While you’re at that, look both ways before crossing the road. In sum, the CEAA (1972) had no considered position on annotation, except that it was a matter of judgment, up to and including that annotation might be omitted entirely. I do think, however, that phrase “nature and range of allusion” implies that the more noticeably allusive writers (whether said writers address selves to a coterie or to other learned persons in the period) deserve more copious annotation. I shall have more to say below, especially in discussion of Carlin’s annotation of Country of the Pointed Firs, about my belief that scholars from the 1940s to the 1970s underestimated the value of annotation for works that were not obviously allusive or learned. But the theory of annotation progressed little between Friedman and the CEAA’s 1972 statement, and his claim that annotation was probably necessary seems even lost favor.
  • Martin Battestin’s annotation for the Wesleyan Tom Jones (1975) are wildly rewarding, and his is the first edition that caused me to genuinely appreciate explanatory annotation. I read Tom Jones in a graduate class, and I selected the Wesleyan edition (rather than the assigned text) because my interest was (and is) scholarly editing. The textual work on that edition is by Fredson Bowers, one of the giants of Anglo-American scholarly editing, and at that graduate school enthusiast stage I often enjoyed textual essays more than historical background. (In my secret life, I still do.) But in the Wesleyan edition, Battestin’s annotation shine. Having Battestin’s annotations seemed often like an unfair advantage: my classmates were stuck with a Wordsworth’s or Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics edition. Battestin’s notes are very learned, but they are gracious and highly readable: they enrich rather than distract. Consider but one example, which Battestin highlights in his own essay (below), the gloss on “Good-Nature.” As Battestin recognizes, almost no 20th-century reader would recognize this as a significant designation, and I add that modernized capitalization would obscure its importance further. He notes that Good-Nature was the “distinguishing characteristic of all Fielding’s moral men” (Tom Jones 39 n. 1). Then, in about 150 words, he proves that what it meant to Fielding is “benevolent, social affections which lead us to empathic involvement in the concerns of others and which prompt us to charitable actions.” That is, it is NOT the common-place 21st century definition, “Pleasant, kindly, or obliging disposition or manner; spec[ifically], a willingness to comply with the wishes or accede to the demands of others or to tolerate slights and impositions.” (OED) There is a wide gulf between being prompted to charitable actions (Fielding’s meaning) and a kindly disposition and a readiness to tolerate slights (our own). That is a distance that annotation can (and should) help bridge.
  • The title of Battestin’s essay, “A Rationale of Literary Annotation: The Example of Fielding’s Novels” (Studies in Bibliography [1975]), alludes to Sir Walter Greg’s “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (SiB 3 [1951]). By Battestin’s writing, Greg’s suggestion about copy-text had calcified into rigid doctrine–backed by the authority of the CEAA–so the title “A Rationale” hints at an ambition to lay down the fundamental theory for scholarly annotation. Battestin, of course, denies this, on the basis of the choice “A” in his title: “I mean by the indefinite article in my title–which might otherwise seem to imply that I am here trying to do for the literary annotator what Greg has done for the textual editor–to emphasize that this will be a wholly tentative essay…” (3). And his essay is, in a sense, often no more than refining principles that Friedman had advocated. Battestin reviews Friedman’s “Principles of Historical Annotation” a bit more efficiently than I did above (2-3; 8)–and his entire essay could be read as an extended gloss upon it–but he claims that current state of theory “looks disconcertingly like anarchy,” as one recent editor–examples drawn from 1960s and 1970s–says annotation provides an essential service while another avers that doing is so “morally reprehensible” (3). Battestin identifies “the three chief variables affecting the annotation of any given literary work: (1) the character of the audience which the annotator supposes he is addressing; (2) the nature of the text he is annotating; and (3) the peculiar interests, competencies, and assumptions of the annotator himself” (3). Of the first, he argues that the gulf between an undergraduate and a professor is not as wide as is generally supposed, especially given the increasingly narrow specialization of scholars. Nonetheless, avoid pedantry and condescension, which will clutter page with information easily found elsewhere. As a consequence, notes for scholars are generally “fuller than those addressed to [students],” as scholars may want to check the sources that undergird an argument for the importance of the author’s engagement with or departure from her own cultural moment (6). I find it strange that citing sources remains exception rather than the rule for 21st century annotation. Of the second, Battestin like Friedman invokes Pope’s Dunciad as an example of an impossible-to-annotate-fully poem. He argues, though, that several novels (from 18th Century to 20th) are almost as demanding as poetry. The factors that shape annotation then, regardless of genre, are “obscurity of the contexts to which it relates—literary, intellectual, political, biographical, etc.—and the density of its allusive texture.” (7). The third factor is the idiosyncrasy of the editor: “No two editors will annotate a text in the same way because each, according to his interests, competencies, and assumptions—according, indeed, to his temperament and sensibilities—will respond to the text in different ways” (7). That fact, though, is not a license to do whatever one wants. The consequence of Battestin’s principles are perhaps best expressed in two sentences.
    • First: “Though it is true that we can never hope wholly to recover the meanings of a text in this sense [connotative values familiar to author and original audience], it is also true that an editor who has given some years of his life to studying his author and the historical context in which he wrote is most likely to be aware of them, and that, whenever in his judgment the text may be obscure, he has a responsibility to share his knowledge and understanding with the reader by providing whatever information may be necessary to make the author’s meaning intelligible” (10-11).
    • And, second—here Battestin’s concern is with allusion: “To render that meaning intelligible to the reader, the editor must recover for him the several elements which constitute it in all its complexity. Those elements will certainly include the identity of the author and work alluded to, but they will also include a knowledge of context, of historical and biographical circumstances, and of the occurrence of the same allusion or of similar ones elsewhere in the author’s writings; for only when the reader is apprized of these latter kinds of information will he understand what the allusion meant to the author, why he chose to introduce it at the particular place in the text where it occurs, and how it works there” (12).

    Battestin does offer caution about copiousness in what he identifies (following Friedman) as “notes of recovery,” that editors should “supply the reader with essential information only and in the briefest compass possible” (14). But here he disagrees with Friedman’s axiom that one should never draw from later writings, as Battestin explains that the author’s ideas “may continue to live in his thoughts and therefore may find expression in his later works in ways that can illuminate the passage we are annotating” (15). Battestin offers instead an alternate caution, that annotations should be drawn from nearly contemporary sources (before or after) that illuminate the “useful life of the idea in question” (15). He also has reservations about the usefulness of catching authors in plagiarisms: he attributes Friedman’s interest in the topic to the fact that he worked on Goldsmith, who engaged in extensive plagiaristic borrowing (17). These recommendations are both very Greg-like elements, with the emphasis on judgment rather than hard-and-fast rules. Battestin also asks for a more generous understanding of “contemporaneity.” Friedman advocates a very narrow range, something akin to weeks in which a discussion was ongoing in the popular press, but Battestin allows for “currency during the period of composition.” I think that the notion of currency should be generous. To use a Stowian example, she believed that most of her readers could recall school use of Murray’s Grammar and the New England Primer, so an annotation with the date of publication for either of those as closest to Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be to unnecessarily pedantic.

  • John Carroll’s “Annotating Clarissa” (1975) is a very funny and wise essay, which reminds me a bit of Noel Polk’s “The Stuff that Don’t Matter” for an evocation of the frustrations that annotators face (Polk, though, is concerned with textual editing), but it’s not particularly useful as a statement on the theory of annotation. He offers the helpful reminder that shared passages from a volume known to have been consulted by the writer, in which quotations share same errors, is pretty good evidence that the work was in use by the author: Carroll’s example is Richardson’s use of Edward Byssche’s Art of English Poetry, an anthology of poetic beauties. (Side note: Recently, I’ve been browsing flower dictionaries, which were to me surprisingly similar).
  • Ian Jack’s “Novels and Those ‘Necessary Evils’: Annotating the Brontës” (Essays in Criticism 32:4 [1982]: 321-337) draws attention to 19th-century commonplaces that would scarcely elicit attention in their own day but may be puzzling by late 20th century, and would thus profit from annotation. He discusses, for example, Yorkshire dialect in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The responsibility of the editor, he argues, is “to attempt to enable his contemporaries to read a book as its original audience read it. This calls for explanation of words which are unfamiliar or which have changed their meaning, the provision of information about social customs and historical events, and the identification of quotations and allusions” (323). That’s admirably succinct. He has a nice comment on the importance of biblical allusion and hurls a gratuitous insult at Q. D. Leavis. The essay was prompted by Stephen Wall’s “Annotated English Novels?” (Essays in Criticism 32:1 [1982]: 1-8), which notes the importance of historical annotation to aid reading in the novels of Dickens, Brontë, and Austen. Wall’s essay, for he writes as a journal editor holding forth, is not very useful in terms of practical advice.
  • A. C. Hamilton’s “The Philosophy of the Footnote” (Editing Poetry from Spenser to Dryden. New York: Garland, 1981. 127-163) begins by describing a class incident, when while reading Thomas Campion’s “When thou must home to shades of under ground,” a student inquired about Iope. Upon trying to answer the question, Hamilton found that current scholarship had either ignored or bungled up that identification and that the usual practice of annotators was “building on one’s predecessors, adding the thickness of one more coral to the coral-reef that fringes the poem” (130). After 3 pages summarizing the incompetence of other scholars, he shows that author Campion almost certainly paired Iope (Calliope) with Helen because former too had boasted of her beauty and contributed to widespread destruction and, in Iope’s case, sacrifice of her daughter (132). Hamilton cites George Watson, who, following Samuel Johnson, recommends three tasks for annotators: “first, to explain linguistic difficulties, whether verbal or syntactical; secondly, to explain social, historical, and especially classical allusions; and thirdly, to unravel and expose complexities and errors in the text itself” (132). And Hamilton adds a fourth, identifying literary sources, although he concludes ruefully that Campion’s poem had apparently been enjoyed by two generations of scholarly readers who were quite unaware of what Iope meant. The bulk of his essay proceeds to show that all four of these ways of understanding the task of annotating are “based on inadequate critical assumptions about the nature of poetry and the act of reading” (133). Hamilton works his way through a number of tricky passages in early English poetry and drama, including whether mandrakes grow or groane in Donne, Althaea in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, and Henry V, the idea that Shakespeare confuses Thetis and Tethys in Antony and Cleopatra, the first line of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Milton’s “stupidly good” in Paradise Lost, book IX, November in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, a passage from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, and various others in passing. Hamilton proves himself a formidable scholar–though this essay shades into show-offy while claiming to ask gentle questions about the foolish annotations of an editor. It has a nice rhetorical move at the end, to suggest that what he finally says has been implied all along, as follows:

    Any “philosophy of the footnote” that I would endorse in conclusion is implicit in my earlier remarks. Annotators need to become aware of the critical assumptions that determine what they choose to gloss, and then choose to say or not say. Only a very little critical sophistication would abort the all-to-usual compiling of miscellaneous information in which anything goes if only it seems somehow relevant or sufficiently learned. No facts shoudl be brought to a poem–historical, background, identifications of allusions, or ideas–without demonstrating their direct relevance to the reader’s understanding of the text” (159).

    All in all, Hamilton’s advice is that one should be sensitive and do the work thinkingly rather than by rote, such as, hey, this a biblical allusion, hey, this to Paradise Lost, etc. As a whole, it’s cautionary rather than advisory. An annotator’s task is nearly futile, as another scholarly reader will almost certainly be able to point out one’s oversights and incompetence. Maybe that’s why many textual critics avoid treading in the thickets of annotation.

  • James Woolley’s “Annotation: Some Guiding Considerations” (East-Central Intelligencer 8.1 [1994]: 11–16) is the most useful essay on what merits annotation. He has ten recommendations, which I will summarize in short phrases and quotations (and follow with examples from Uncle Tom’s Cabin): 1) what types of readers did it have in original publication? 2) can a recognition of nuance of meaning be provided by annotation? 3) for “persons, places, actions, events, allusions,” etc., were they recognized by initial readers, and why or why not? 4) sources and (if in another language) likely sources of exegesis or commentary? 5) dates both of “items annotated and evidence adduced”? 6) accuracy and authority of text for “factual claims”? 7) figurative language and politically sensitive or inflammatory language, including blanks and dashed words, and if blanked or obscured, why? 8) author’s consistency with self elsewhere? 9) place of text being annotated in larger discussion or controversy during era? 10) If content of note not previously known, why not? If repeating known, why needed? Woolley’s is perhaps the most complete set of advice ever written, but two more not included in list seem worthy of including, which would raise number of suggestions to 12: On tone, avoid “specious certitude” (13); and for text that reports variants (scholarly edition), annotate variant readings as necessary. Now, the answers or examples from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: 1) moderate anti-slavery readers, who might pause at being called abolitionists, probably supported defunct Free-Soil, mostly resident in northeast and midwest; 2) word “professor,” which Ophelia uses to describe St. Clare, would probably benefit from being annotated as one who professes a religious doctrine (i.e., not an academic); 3) Whitney’s cotton-gin or a Daguerreotype, both celebrated inventions in Stowe’s day, lacking resonance as celebrated achievements for today’s readers; 4) St. Clare’s Latin hymn, probably derived from Goethe’s use of same in Faust (which Stowe read); 5) likely Joel Parker quote source, an 1840s series of newspaper articles that implicitly justified slavery on patriarchal authority over household; 6) Pope Pius IX and Kossuth as recognizable symbols of European revolutions, which liberal northerners saw as progress toward democracy; 7) phrases like “constitutional relations”; 8) elaborations in Stowe’s Key, such as sources in Josiah Henson and Lewis G. Clarke, and praise for Topsy-ish childhood in Oldtown Folks 9) work with longer reviews, mostly, I think, though something have not thought through; 10) plan to do repeating, as scholarly and authoritative edition. Woolley gives useful weasel words also. Finally, annotations for variants would include matters like “North” and “South” versus “north” and “south”; Tom’s New Testament or Bible and Protestant martyr John Rogers (in Era only) and “bilious” instead of “brilliant” to describe scriptural prints. John Rogers and Testament, for example, is connected to reading materials allowed to Shelby slaves, a major matter in revision.
  • Deborah Carlin’s explanatory notes in the Broadview edition of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (2010). The annotations are very informative for a text that during first reading I could scarcely detect a need for annotation. I had read Jewett’s novel previously in a Modernist-inspired clear reading text of the Library of America. Carlin’s annotation opens up social and political contexts that were unavailable to me previously. Because late 19th century is my area of research specialty (took a comprehensive exam in American literature from 1850-1950), I have quibbles, but my initial impression, that Carlin’s annotation revealed that the smooth surface of Jewett’s prose relies on a heady framework of late 19th century feminist thought, which most readers will miss. Some notes fill a quarter of the page, but scholarly readers will enjoy them. If you don’t know the medicinal uses of pennyroyal and blue cohosh, you’re missing the point of the novel (43 n 1; 47; n 1). I have assigned this edition, and it is the only assigned text that has prompted a student who had selected an alternate edition to lament aloud that choice. My one reservation is that Carlin neglects to cite her sources for broader cultural information. I have no doubt that publishers prefer not to have such citations, but editors of authoritative scholarly editions need to push back.
  • My own annotation to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman’s “walter dear”: the Letters of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (2013). Well, yes, this one is not like the other ones, but preparing a set of annotation did more than anything to refine my thinking about the purpose of annotation. I was influenced by Walt Whitman Archive practice, of course, especially the notes that derive from Kenneth Price and Dennis Berthold’s Dear Brother Walt, but I tried to kick it up a notch in “walter dear” to aid understanding of Mother Whitman’s letters, i.e., explaining some things that may not seem like they need annotation. She wrote for Walt’s eyes only, and he of course understood all the glancing references, which today’s reader can only retrieve with research or editorial annotation. Over time, I became more comfortable that I knew things that other readers would note (i.e., discarding old graduate school habits of tentativeness), because I realized that the immense amount of time and effort that I spent trying to figure stuff was not going to be repeated until another editor took up the same task. So, yes, 50 or 100 years from now a serious scholar may return to this and identify many faults, but the next 5 or 6 Whitman biographers will just have to put up with my annotation. I was very pleased that another reader, Sherry Ceniza, appreciated my obsessiveness: “Raabe’s annotations, in a way, form a second essay; they provide valuable historical, political, cultural, medicinal, and scientific information. As a Brooklyn resident, I delighted in all of the Brooklyn references and links, as well as information about and links to many periodicals.” (see Ceniza’s review). I assume that anyone who goes to the trouble of selecting a scholarly edition values the insights that can be gained from annotation. Textual work does not obviate the need.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Annotation:
I was going to put this here, but it will take a bit longer. So I am writing another post.

Allusion and Fluid Text

  • Gregory Machacek’s “Allusion” (PMLA 122.2 [2007], 522-536) struck me upon its release as one of the first truly innovative treatments of allusion, which I think should influence our thinking about annotation. He carefully sorts out the confusions that arise because postmodernist criticism came to prefer the term intertextuality as a kind of alternate (and more capacious) term than allusion. The former is commended for allowing a richer texture of reference. For Jules Kristeva, who coined it, it refers to the “semiotic principles and presuppositions that lie, as it were, between texts from a given culture and allow them to have what meaning they do” (523). In fact, intertextuality, according to Jonathon Culler, was “designed to ‘transcend’ that of allusion” (Culler 109). But the world being the world, and criticism being criticism, intertextuality came to be used as the more fancy modern version of allusion, though Machacek insists on a distinction: “The broad distinction is between approaches that study the text diachronically, in connection with earlier works of literature, and those that examine the text synchronically, in connection with a contemporaneous semiotic field made up of literary and nonliterary texts” (524). (Given what Friedman and Battestin said above, it’s not as if annotating editors were unaware of the distinction. As an editor, I would insist that annotation is the place for the negotiation between diachronic and synchronic examinations, that is, it’s where the rubber meets the road.) But, to continue, Machecek offers the following general definition of his subject: “The type of diachronic intertextuality under consideration in this essay—a textual snippet reminiscent of a phrase in an earlier author’s writing but smoothly incorporated into the new context of the imitating author’s work—is distinguishable primarily by being brief, discrete, and local and evoking a single text that the culture of the alluding writer associates with an identifiable earlier author.” (525). I’m rather surprised that the PMLA editors allowed “identifiable earlier author” to stand, as a culturally significant text may lack author authority—but let that pass too. Instead of the terms allusion and verbal echo—the former “too broad” because it includes both “learned or indirect reference and phraseological appropriation”; the latter “too narrow … if it suggests that the prior text can be evoked only through a verbatim repetition of its phraseology”—Machacek proposes spur and reprise (527; 528). (I abbreviate Machacek’s thorough treatment, which surveys and examines numerous alternative formulations for describing elements of intertextual allusiveness.) Here’s the gist of Machacek’s suggestion: “I propose that when it would be useful to distinguish the phase that recalls from the phrase that is recalled, we speak of the echo as the reprise and the initial version as the spur” (529). Why this matters, and how it may be treated in editorial annotation, is discussed below.
  • In The Fluid Text (2002), John Bryant offers a theory of editorial revision, in which he argue that conventional scholarly apparatus is not up to the task of informing readers about authorial revision and the consequences of such revisions. Therefore, “editors must become narrators of revision; that is, they must convert the bewildering array of data in their encoded textual apparatus into pleasurable revision narratives” (144). This call, for editors to narrate revision rather than build a conventional apparatus, has significant consequences for the matter of choosing a base text. The base text, which serves as a scaffold on which to hang the editorial apparatus, must often be the most extended version of a text, the manuscript before the cuts, the uncensored American printing, etc. But in the case of annotation for allusion, choosing a base text is no longer as significant. Fluid text revision narratives could become an informative means to annotate allusions and clarify their significance. In other words, to use Machacek’s suggestion, the reprise, because it is the author’s text, will of course still appear as the text. But in the apparatus, the version to which the author alluded, the spur, is presented first, and the echo, the reprise (in the text) follows as part of the apparatus. That is, an editorial annotation of an allusion should include the verbal form of the source text, and the verbal form of the reading text. In other words, treat allusion as a revision sequence. Consider, for example, the following description about what a revision narrative should do:

    In assessing the mechanics, agents, phases, direction, and modes of revisions, the editor will inevitably speculate upon the strategies that dictate revision. A revision strategy may involve the micromanipulation of words for stylistic ends or the broader modal reconceptualizing of the social and rhetorical impact of the words that may be evidence of inferred versions. Thus, the editor will naturally use the revision narrative as an opportunity to distinguish tactical phases of revision from strategic phases of composition. As such, each narrative tells a story of a revision and initiates discourse about that story. (160)

    I admit that one is far more likely to have “evidence of inferred versions” when the surviving materials include the author’s annotation of her reading, the initial and revised manuscript drafts, and an initial printing, but the style of narrative that Bryant suggests, “relate the events in an intelligible, pragmatically pleasurable way” (159) seems well adapted to allusion as well.

I’m going to stop here, but I have spent a bit of time thinking about complex allusive passages in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including Sam’s “evident and eminent” and Stowe’s strategic misquotation of a passage from Horace Mann’s Slavery: Letters and Speeches. If you are intrepid enough to read all the way to here, I’d appreciate any suggestions in comments.

Posted in annotation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ohio STRS Pension Reform: The Death Benefit

STRS Ohio, the state faculty retirement system under which I live, sought to strengthen the financial standing of the retirement pension system without imposing any costs on the institutions. The proposal, under Governor John Kasich’s guidelines, was that all increases in funding and reductions in benefits would coming directly from the participants. Some of the highlights, according to the STRS, are the following:

  • Member contributions from 2013 to 2016 will increase from 10 to 14 percent of salary, and stay there.
  • One skipped Cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for current retirees, and no COLA for future retirees (after 2023) until 5 years after retirement date
  • Now need 35 years of service for full benefit

I have a humanities PhD, and in my particular situation a few details about how long, on average, it takes humanities PhDs to finish degrees are relevant.

  • Earliest age to start PhD (21)
  • Average time to PhD, 11.8 years
  • Average age to achieve tenure, 39.5 years (pg. 12)

Assuming a 5- or 6-year tenure track appointment, most professors start working at a faculty position at approximately 34 or 35 years old. Supposing they start working in Ohio today, they must work 35 years before receiving full retirement benefits. If they retire at 70, they can receive full benefits with no cost-of-living adjustment for the first five years. And then, at ripe old age of 75, they can start receiving COLA adjustments.

I’m an English professor and not so good at math, but I’m beginning to realize that the real heavy lifting is not being done by any of this shaving around the edges: the actuarial tables that define life expectancy have real teeth. So here’s the key fact: life expectancy today in the United States, according to CDC, is 78.5 yrs. Eight years after retirement begins, you can expect, on average, to have received three cost-of-living adjustments—by then on average you can be expected to be dead.

Of course, individual lives may vary. Take mine. I started a PhD program late in life, at 33. I went through PhD program in a hurry, 4 years. After two years in a post-doc, I started a tenure-track position in Ohio at ripe old age of 39. And if tenure case goes well, I can hope to earn tenure at 45. By the time that I could retire with full benefits, I can expect to be 74. In the revised plan, I will contribute 11 percent of salary to retirement system for 7 years and an average of 14 percent of salary to STRS for 28 years. If my employer match contributes 14 percent for 35 years total contributions between myself and employer will be about 10 times my average salary. So I’m pretty close to the ideal employee for the new benefit regime in Ohio. Under this reform it is now reasonable to suppose I and my employer will make more in contributions than I will receive in benefits, because I’m almost guaranteed be dead before the break-even point. Since I can be expected to die within 4.8 years or reaching retirement age, there’s little doubt that I will be contribute more into the system (in real dollars) that I will receive from it. I’m just guessing, but I suspect I could expect the same results if I could opt out (I cannot) and put my annual contribution in a safe deposit box. There is one caveat here. Should I die well under average number of years, a degree of financial protection will extend to my spouse.

Meanwhile, my Ohio treasurer refers one to some exorbitant estimates of Ohio’s liability. When Buckeye Institute is accessed from the Ohio Treasurer site, it offers a projection of pension liability for me. You can look me and my salary up. According to their estimate, the estimated liability for me is $783,000. How do they get that figure? Well, they assume a lifetime expectancy of 18 years in retirement. That will be correct should I live until 92, 14 years longer than actual life expectancy for me. They calculate how much higher Ohio pension estimates are than Social Security by assuming person could retire at 65 for social security but will retire with big fat pension instead at 60. In other words, Buckeye Institute just makes shit up to over-inflate the projected pension liability.

Currently, employees have a choice at time of hire whether to join the STRS defined-benefit or a 401k-style defined contribution system. If we assume future faculty hires can do math, anyone who starts working after age 38, most folks with PhDs, will have to make a choice. The math in favor of defined benefit was reasonably close when I started. One was taking a guess about market performance. The changed after I was locked into system.

Provided that Ohio limits new hiring and provides an opt-out choice to all future employees, I suspect that the defined-benefit plan will be dead within two decades–unless the next generation of employees is filled with do-good liberals who would be happy to harm their own persons. The main factor redefining STRS pension plan is mostly silent, life expectancy: the most recently enacted pension reform has almost without question destroyed the Ohio pension system for public employees. I’m inclined to believe that reduced faculty hiring and diminished pension benefit will kill it.

I’m not a trained actuary. I’m an English major. But that’s what the writing on the wall looks like from my perspective. That’s why I think of pension reform as the death benefit. I’ve a fairly good chance to die before I could benefit, which is now the plan for Ohio pension reform, I suppose.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment