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H.J. JACKSON Writing in Books and Other Marginal Activities Margins and the marginal are, as we paradoxically say, so central to academic writing these days that we are liable to forget that when we use these words we are trading in metaphors. There can be no doubt that bringing forward the socially or historically neglected and disadvantaged has been a welcome development in literary criticism. It gratifies the liberal politics of most academic readers and at the same time it enlarges their field of study; it is worthy and interesting, or as tradition puts it, useful and pleasing. It is therefore surely peculiar that there should have been no public discussion of texts that are literally marginal, those words that readers write on the edges of the pages of manuscripts or printed books.1 This essay aims to initiate such discussion. The first section proposes a description of the typical features of marginalia, drawing on examples from the last two centuries or so and distinguishing marginalia from related kinds of writing; the second considers the specific case of the best known of literary marginalists, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the third tries to cope with the collision of the general and the particular. I 'NORMAL' MARGINALIZING On planes and trains and buses, when the sympathetic stranger whose conversation I've been enjoying for miles makes the mistake of asking me what I do, and I make the mistake of telling the truth, I sometimes manage to recover lost ground by telling the (true) story of my great discovery , how I went to an ancient library for the clergy in London and identified two of their books as having marginal notes by Coleridge in them - notes that pushed the market value of the books up probably above the annual salary of the librarian. The librarian herself, when I / shared my triumph with her, said, 'People aren't supposed to write in our books.' When it's told under the circumstances I've described, this story has the usual effect of successful jokes: besides releasing social tensions with a laugh, it makes my listener an ally again, in league with me against our common enemy, the stereotyped pedantic librarian. I'm telling it again now because I think the librarian's reaction exposes one of the most intriguing qualities of marginalia, the attitude of defiance in which they are UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 62, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1992/3 218 H.J. JACKSON often produced. This is an elusive but important quality, one that I will not have time to say much more about, and therefore one that I want to give prominence to here at the start. An excellent modern specimen came my way recently, when I borrowed a library book containing an article by Geoffrey Hartman and found that a grumpy student had had it out before me.2 When Hartman, tracing the incidence of in, un, and urn sounds in a short poem about yew-trees, wrote, 'The in and un struggle to come together as one intense meaning, while urn presents itself as a stronger or heavier un,' the marginal comment was a sarcastic 'Long live the Professor of English!' When Hartman proposed the idea that the word 'united' was perceived at the same time as 'Yew-nited/ he got a pithy 'Fuck yew.,3 The satisfaction and comradeship that every reader except Hartman must feel at such a moment arise partly from appreciation of the student's skill in this unpublicized medium and partly from a kind of complicity peculiar to the genre. In allowing our attention to stray from the text to the notes, we become accessories in a seditious act, a crude challenge to the authority of the original writer. Thackeray ruefully acknowledges the risk of encountering this kind of challenge in the reader whom he imagines - and depicts in an engraving - as reacting to the account of Amelia's leaving her boarding-school at the beginning of Vanity Fair: All which details, I have no doubt, Jones, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 217-231
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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