- Michael Wolff, 1927–2016:A Tribute
“There is something both overwhelming and overwhelmingly attractive about periodicals research,” Michael Wolff wrote at the beginning of his now-famous essay “Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Victorian Periodicals,” first published in 1967.1 “The study of Victorian England has reached a stage in which a new sort of research material is needed,” he continued.2 Newspapers and periodicals provided “precisely that new research material”; a “new phase in the historiography of the period” was about to begin.3
Michael was at the forefront of that new phase, just as he had been at the forefront of the new interdisciplinary field of Victorian studies ten years earlier. Born in London, he read English and philosophy at Cambridge and then moved to the United States in 1951, completing his MA and PhD at Princeton. His PhD thesis, “Marian Evans to George Eliot: The Moral and Intellectual Foundations of Her Career” (1955), engendered a lifelong love of Eliot, and although it did not emerge until slightly later, a lifelong devotion to the periodical press in which she had begun her career. His appointment to the English department at Indiana University in 1955 was as formative in his intellectual development as Cambridge and Princeton had been. In 1957, he, along with Philip Appleman and William Madden, founded Victorian Studies, which became the premier journal in a new academic field. The trio were joined by George Levine and Don Gray, making the Bloomington department the intellectual powerhouse for Victorian studies in North America. In an interview with Marysa Demoor and Marianne Van Remoortel, published in this journal in 2015, Michael described Philip Appleman as the steering wheel of the new venture, with William Madden providing the brake, and himself, the accelerator.4
It was an apt analogy for the way he was to conduct his academic career. Michael thrived on starting new projects. He had a vision of what needed to be done and the energy and infectious enthusiasm to carry others along with him. On a sabbatical year in the United Kingdom from 1965 to 1966, [End Page 3] he immersed himself in the journalism of the 1860s but was frustrated by the difficulties of ascertaining the location of copies, the lengths of runs, as well as changes in title, editorial staff, contributors, and affiliations of these little-known publications.
Meanwhile Walter Houghton and his associates at Wellesley College published the first volume of the monumental Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals in 1966. Back in the United States after his sabbatical, Michael and his colleague Dorothy Deering at Purdue conceived of what they called the Victorian Periodicals Project, a descriptive and analytic directory of Victorian serials, which they publicized in the first number of Victorian Periodicals Newsletter in January 1968. The inclusive dates of the project, 1824–1900, were intended to complement and also to “compliment” the Wellesley Index. The Victorian Periodicals Project, Michael wrote later, preceded both the Newsletter and the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals and could be said to have given rise to them both.5
Michael again became the “accelerator” of this new venture. A directory of Victorian serials could only come about through collaborative scholarship, and he set to with his usual energy to convene a group of scholars from a range of academic disciplines who were interested in the nineteenth-century press. Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, at first distributed free of charge and later with a small subscription, reached a circulation just short of 900, such was the interest it generated. A meeting of a “Seminar on Research in Victorian Periodicals” at the MLA Convention in December 1968 established a formation committee charged with creating the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP, for short) with Michael as founding president.
The early issues of VPN record the various initiatives spearheaded by Michael and the members of the new scholarly society. Along with the Victorian Periodicals Project, a directory of journalists was proposed and then a more ambitious dictionary of journalists, along the lines of The Dictionary of National Biography. Looking further into the future, a multivolume history of Victorian journalism was mooted. Committees were formed: the...