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It was Jacques Derrida who famously—infamously—taught us to look with suspicion at the supplement: that “something extra,” he suggests in the Grammatology and elsewhere, always masks a lack. But of course, the supplement is also the seductively whispered promise of commodity culture: the CD’s bonus track(s), the reckless baker’s dozen, the bottle of shampoo tempting us with “BONUS 4 FL. OZ. FREE.” So which is the supplement—bonus or bogus? What are we to think about the advertising for Gloria Estefan’s Greatest Hits compilation, promising “the best so far . . . and more”? Does the very existence of the Times Literary Supplement insidiously suggest a lack in literature, or—worse, surely—in the Times?
“Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—nothing remains outside the text. Any literary supplement, whether fashioned by the Times, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or Ezra Pound, inevitably calls attention to a snag within the fabric of the text; start pulling at that loose thread, no matter how discretely, and before you know it you’ve got a major run on your hands. In Framing Pieces, John Whittier-Ferguson examines, with great skill and probing intelligence, the modernists’ propensity to gloss themselves before our very eyes—“self-consciously creating,” he writes, “an exegetical tradition into which they place their lives, their poetry, their prose, and their own glosses.”
Whittier-Ferguson begins, logically enough, with a discussion of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, the locus classicus of modernist self-commentary. I was somewhat disappointed that Eliot, though arguably the most complex and interesting of modernism’s supplementers, gets only a relatively brief treatment in the introduction; it was never clear to me on what grounds Woolf’s notes and photographs in Three Guineas, for instance, should merit a more probing analysis than Eliot’s perennially vexatious apparatus. What Whittier-Ferguson’s discussion does make crystal clear, however, is the self-serving nature of Eliot’s various statements about the notes over the years. Eliot’s “story” regarding the notes, Whittier-Ferguson writes, “constitutes a revisionary glance at the scrupulous aesthetics of modernism, well after those aesthetic principles have triumphed in the academy.” No wonder [End Page 508] Pound called him Possum; Eliot pushed the notes on a grateful readership until their wisdom had been absorbed, at which point he (rhetorically) repented of them. Eliot’s critics were, consciously and unconsciously, to repeat this same pattern; I’m reminded, for instance, of F. R. Leavis’s gyrations in New Bearings in English Poetry, attempting both to have his notes and bury them too, reading The Waste Land through the notes while maintaining that the poem “is a self-subsistent poem, and should be obviously such.” Leavis thus both exploits and dismisses Eliot’s notes, by turns, using the notes to read the poem only to conclude that the notes were not in fact necessary—that context alone would have sufficed to settle the meaning for “any fit reader of poetry.” “I must be / An acrobat / To talk like this / And act like that,” as another, more self-conscious contortionist (Bono) puts it.
The two chapters on Joyce as auto-glossator are Whittier-Ferguson’s best, and are by themselves worth the price of admission. Joyce’s literary supplements are many and far-flung; Whittier-Ferguson wisely chooses to focus, as he does with Woolf and Pound, on Joyce’s activities during the 1930s. While this eliminates Joyce’s sometimes comically conniving promotional work for Ulysses, it allows Whittier-Ferguson to look in some detail at Joyce’s meddlesome editing of Herbert Gorman’s biography (and Whittier-Ferguson’s work here with the galley proofs in the Croessman Collection at Southern Illinois is a model of judicious, applied textual scholarship), his orchestration of the first critical study of Finnegans Wake, and Joyce’s own antic footnotes in the “Nightletter” and “Lessons” chapters of the Wake. Not surprisingly Joyce, in Whittier-Ferguson’s reading, emerges as a far more self...