A life of books

Books define the life of Peter Stallybrass, an English professor who has retired after 30 years at Penn, known for his History of Material Texts workshop. He explains the five seminal books of his storied academic career.

Penn English Professor Peter Stallybrass 2018
English Professor Peter Stallybrass has retired after 30 years of teaching at Penn. He is known for his History of the Material Texts workshops.

Books define the life of Peter Stallybrass, an English professor at Penn for the past 30 years.

Starting as a child reading favorites with his family, and throughout his storied career, it is the book that has fascinated him more than anything else. 

“My passion? Books. Old books but not necessarily just books that are old. Books that have been used,” he says. “I’m interested in the history of their use, particularly if they have been used over a long period.” 

A favorite of his in the Penn Libraries collection is a 14th-century book of psalms that nuns read and revised, recording the names and dates of the deceased, rebinding it, and adding new bookmarks, he says. “That’s the kind of book I love.”

A quarter century ago, he founded Penn’s workshop in the History of Material Texts, a program he has stewarded ever since, bringing together a group of as many as 50 people on the sixth floor of the Van-Pelt Dietrich Library on Monday evenings for lectures by invited scholars from around the world, on texts from antiquity to today.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with people who want to do it,” Stallybrass says. “A lot of it for me was getting to better know people I knew already and attracting people I didn’t yet know but whose work I admired.”

Retired last summer, Stallybrass continues to co-direct the workshops, while also teaching three classes this semester: graduate classes at Yale and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and an undergraduate course at Penn. 

He is known at Penn for his “Topics in the History of the Book: Reading, Writing, Printing” undergraduate seminar that is perennially oversubscribed. A Shakespearean by training, he now works on rare works, from medieval books of hours to the manuscripts of Walt Whitman.

“Very few scholars have had an impact as broad and as profound as Peter,” says English professor Zachary Lesser, undergraduate department chair. “By creating the History of Material Texts, a program that has been widely imitated elsewhere, Peter has helped to found an entire field, studying the relationship between texts and the forms in which they are produced, circulated, and read.” 

Penn colleagues are holding a conference, Reading, Writing, Printing, on April 19-21 to celebrate Stallybrass at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, his home-away-from-home. Colleagues, authors, scholars, and former and current students are slated to speak. Workshops include “Manuscript and Print,” “Shakespeare and Early Modern Theater,” and “Sheets, Pamphlets, Books.” 

“One of the things I find most impressive in Peter’s career is how he is always changing, always open to new ideas, new approaches, and new methods,” Lesser says. “We’re hoping that this conference embodies a bit of that energy and intellectual creativity.”

Just five years ago Stallybrass started the Penn Manuscript Collective for undergraduate students to transcribe rare manuscripts in the Libraries. At the moment they are transcribing letters from writer Anne Gilchrist to poet Walt Whitman in the 1800s.

 What I’ve really been doing for the last 30 years is to get students to work on primary materials,” Stallybrass says. “My ideal would be for them to be reading Walt Whitman’s manuscript drafts of his poems the first week that they arrive at Penn.” 

Curator John Pollack is a collaborator at Penn Libraries and helps organize the manuscript collective and the material texts workshops.

“Peter has been a transformer of library culture,” Pollack says. “He has turned the rare book library from a quiet treasure hall into a hub of investigation and activity. No one could be more ‘hands-on.’ Peter wants us to look, to handle, to question the books, manuscripts, and objects that are our historical record.”

Penn English Professor Peter Stallybrass 2018

Although it seemed an impossible assignment, Penn Today asked Stallybrass to choose his five top books and explain their importance to his career. 

Five Seminal Books 

Since I was a child, books have been central to my life. I came from a family in which everyone read aloud to each other every day. My father read aloud to my mother the complete works of Dickens over several years while she took her evening bath. And, when preparing lunch or supper, we would take it in turns to read aloud our favorite books: Wind in the Willows; Pride and Prejudice; Ivanhoe; the Just So stories. At other times, my brother would read aloud to my mother the Lord of the Rings, his favorite book, to which for some reason my father and I were both allergic. In a later, pious phase, after my brother had left home, I would read to my parents Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (still one of the loves of my later, impious self), with Julian holding the world in her hand like a hazelnut or repeating the consolation that would mean so much to T. S. Eliot: “Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.” That was just the reading aloud, ignoring all the times that my brother and I were caught reading by torchlight underneath our blankets or when we had shut ourselves away in the lavatory. 

So I don’t think that I could have been asked a more difficult question than to name “the five seminal books” in my life. Hundreds of old loves clamor for attention: “why not me?” “How could you pick Hamlet over Wind in the Willows, when you know how you love Mole and Ratty and Toad and Badger?” I made the ruthless decision to write about the books that have been seminal for my teaching, mainly since I came to the U.S. in 1986, more than thirty years ago. 

Is it cheating if I also mention (excluding them from my official list) the books that were formative in my becoming an academic in the first place? I left home at 16, and worked as a trainee mortician in a small English hospital that mainly treated broken arms and legs. There were few deaths, and so I had hours and hours every week to read my favorite books. I was going through a morbid and self-pitying phase in late adolescence and I devoured Dostoevsky and Kafka. But fortunately, I kept alive my love for Jane Austen, so that when I later applied to university and was interviewed, I knew immediately who was being referred to when my interviewer read out a passage from W. H. Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron that described “An English spinster of the middle class.”

When I finally arrived at Sussex University as an undergraduate in 1968, I was immediately transformed by “theory”—not by any of the fascinating French, German and Italian theorists whom I would later read but by two books from the 1950s: Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind and E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational.

What these two great books have in common is that they treat the question of what it means to be a person as an historical problem. What if we are not the center of ourselves? What if our own voices are the (unique) combination of hauntings through which we speak and are spoken? The fact that I speak with an English accent has nothing to do with my inner being and everything to do with what I took in through my ears, growing up in England: everything to do with how my parents and brother spoke, how my school friends (and enemies) spoke, how the Beatles (in the phase where, like so many of my friends, I aspired to be a rock star) spoke, how my lovers spoke. In that sense, to have an “original” voice would not only be a bad concept but a cruel one, in that it would excise from us all those voices that have taken up a local habitation in our own bodies. And those voices include, of course, all the books that we have read, not only in terms of vocabulary and grammar but also in terms of rhythm and sound. I have missed buses and trains because I have been reciting to myself one of the many favorite passages that I began to learn by heart as a child.

Do I love these five books that I have chosen? Yes, I do. In a different way, but every bit as much as the books that I reread every year: Hamlet; Wind in the Willows; the poems of John Donne, George Herbert, and Emily Dickinson; the novels of Jane Austen; and (at least every other year) John Berger’s To the Wedding; Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute; and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

So, now, the five seminal books that have shaped my teaching:

The History of Sexuality, volume 1, by Michel Foucault. First published in French as La Volonté de Savoir (The Will to Knowledge) in 1976, it was translated into English in 1978. I first read and taught this book at Sussex University. For me, this was never primarily an academic book; rather, it overwhelmed me like a revelation. I had grown up in a wonderful, loving family, a life of books and travel and laughter, but my parents belonged to a Christian sect that believed in daily confession within the family and, more rarely, public confession in front of dozens or even hundreds of people. What one confessed to was above all sexual desires and transgressions. Other topics of confession included dishonesty and jealousies, but from as early as I can remember, sex was always the real topic. When I left home at sixteen, I already had the narrative of my life fully in place: I had been repressed and I had needed to leave home to escape that repression. 

At a single stroke, Foucault’s book turned my world on its head. In his reading, a major turning point in the history of sexuality was the 16th century, when the seven deadly sins (pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth) began to be condensed into an obsession with a single sin: lust. And far from this being a form of repression, it was, Foucault argued, an incitement to discourse—so that, at the very heart of our innermost selves, we began to discover the secret of our sexuality. But the most interesting of these secrets were implanted by the very apparatuses that demanded that we confess. Rather than having escaped from the “repression” of my parents when I left home, I was never more their son than when making my sexual “freedom” the key to my whole life. 

Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives by Carolyn Steedman. Steedman was an undergraduate at Sussex at the same time as me, but I barely knew her. I came across her book many years later, just as I was moving permanently to the U.S. But whereas Foucault spoke to me directly, enabling me to rethink the categories through which I had told the story of my life, Steedman wrote, with scarcely controlled rage, about a working-class life with which my own had nothing in common. Landscape for a Good Woman is an account of Steedman’s childhood in which her mother was deprived of the material things of this world—and lived an unenviable life of envy for what she could not have (including middle-class respectability). 

What Steedman’s mother desired above all in the 1950s was a New Look coat—a coat that she would never be able to afford. Her face was pressed against a shop window through which she saw, but could not touch. Her mother wanted things. Politics and cultural criticism can only find trivial the content of her desires, and the world certainly took no notice of them. It is one of the purposes of this book to admit her desire for the things of the earth to political reality and psychological validity. 

If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. I read and began to teach this book (hideously mistranslated in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz) shortly after reading Steedman’s book. As Levi shows, only those who have things can afford to ignore or have contempt for them—starting with shoes. When I’m climbing in a comfortable pair of boots, I don’t have to worry about my feet. That comfort is a privilege that Levi systematically unlearns in the concentration camp: “we must take off our shoes but pay great attention that they are not stolen. ... Stolen by whom? Why should our shoes be stolen?” Levi’s first lesson is that everything has a value and that everything must be protected: “if one goes to the latrine or the washroom, everything has to be carried along, always and everywhere, and while one washes one’s face, the bundle of clothes has to be held tightly between one’s knees: in any other manner it will be stolen in that second.” His second lesson is about why shoes in particular matter. 

Readers, and especially academic readers, have normally wanted to treat the riddle of the Sphinx (“what walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”) as an allegory for something more important, more soulful than mere walking. They have equally wanted Levi’s If This Is a Man to be about more than merely shoes. But what both the riddle and Levi’s story teach us is that there is no such thing as “merely” walking. As a baby, Oedipus has been left to die with a nail driven through his ankles; old and blind, Oedipus depends upon the hand of his daughter to guide his stumbling feet. And Levi will learn that the “right” shoe—or rather, the least wrong one—is a precondition for even the briefest of survivals: death begins with the shoes, because if you cannot walk and work, you will be killed. 

My final two seminal books are by two Penn colleagues with whom I have had the great good fortune to collaborate over the years: Margreta de Grazia, the Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities, and Roger Chartier, the Annenberg Visiting Professor in History. 

Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus by Margreta de Grazia. Let me be honest: This didn’t look like the most promising of titles, particularly for a Shakespearean who had rarely ventured into the eighteenth century. Did I really need to find out about Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of Shakespeare’s plays? Little did I know that de Grazia’s book would have as radically a transformative effect on my life as Foucault’s History of Sexuality had done a decade earlier. Indeed, it was Shakespeare Verbatim that led me to become an historian of material texts, the career that I have pursued ever since at Penn, and continue to pursue in “retirement.” 

If de Grazia is right in Shakespeare Verbatim, it means that most of our scholarly work on both Shakespeare and the Renaissance as a whole is quite simply wrong. It is wrong because, de Grazia argues, we have been transferring our own assumptions to a period that resists those very assumptions: assumptions about the central significance of dating texts; about relating those newly-dated texts to a biography of the author; about establishing clear boundaries between the author’s own hand and the intrusive hands of collaborators; about the centrality of character and psychology as opposed to plot and performance. In giving (highly speculative) dates to each of the plays, Malone transformed them into biographical texts that could be read in the order in which Shakespeare supposedly wrote them. 

The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind by Roger Chartier. I chose this work since it guides my present scholarship, while being formative in the shaping of new projects on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. When it comes to the history of authorship, there is no one from whom I have learned more than Roger Chartier, the foremost historian of the book today, with whom I have been lucky enough to teach for the last 18 years. Like de Grazia, Chartier argues that the 18th century marked a radical break with earlier notions of authorship. There is nothing new in this claim in itself, which has been pursued by many scholars in the field of copyright. But, in the title essay, Chartier brilliantly analyses the new significance attached to the author’s own hand and signature as the necessary marks of authenticity. For it was in the late 18th century that literary archives were established for the first time—and with them, the collecting of body parts (Shakespeare’s and Milton’s hair; Schiller’s skull), signatures and manuscripts. When those body parts and manuscripts did not exist (as in the case of Shakespeare and Milton), they began to be forged. Prior to the eighteenth century, as Chartier shows, it was taken for granted that the printed work (the collaborative result of the work of scribes, censors, editors, correctors, and compositors as well as writers) was what readers usually desired. 

The problem that both de Grazia and Chartier pose for us is how to read Shakespeare before “Shakespeare,” Cervantes before “Cervantes,” Molière before “Molière.” And they equally show that it is impossible simply to go back—as if we have not ourselves been situated by all the later constructions that have shaped our own interpretations. But what is so exciting and challenging about their work is that every time I sit down again to read Hamlet, I see things that I would never have seen before reading de Grazia’s ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet or Chartier’s “The Time of the Work.” 

To conclude, in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote: “a picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” It is those pictures that have held me captive from which each one of these five seminal books has, however partially, helped to free me: from a misguided “repressive hypothesis” (Foucault); from a political theory that erases the significance of envy (Steedman); from a sentimental account of the “human spirit” that fails to recognize why objects matter (Levi); from the desire to substitute for a difficult text and its histories the simpler pleasures of a reductionist contextualization (de Grazia; Chartier).