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 Manuscript Resources and Publishers’ Records Committee, the Microform and Acquisitions Committee, the Grants and Publications Committee—all of them dependent on collaboration and the pooling of information. “RSVP is now a little over two years old,” Michael reflected in his president’s report for 1970–71. “I think we can congratulate ourselves mildly on being in step with the future of Victorian Studies.”6
The Victorian Periodicals Project became a reality when John North and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo offered their expertise in computing. The Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals, 1824–1900, Phase I, edited by Michael Wolff, John S. North, and Dorothy Deering, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 1976, sponsored by [End Page 4] RSVP and Waterloo Computing in the Humanities, with a group of advisory editors drawn from RSVP. The ensuing phases of the project, now in its fifth productive decade, were taken forward by John North.
Meanwhile Michael’s seemingly inexhaustible energy was focussed on what was to become one of his most influential scholarly achievements. A symposium on the Victorian city at Indiana in 1967 became the germ of The Victorian City: Images and Realities (Routledge, 1973), a lavishly illustrated two-volume collection of essays which explored urban Victorian Britain through the lens of various academic disciplines. Michael was well matched in his collaborator, H. J. (Jim) Dyos, of the University of Leicester, who is acknowledged as one of the founders of another new academic field, urban history. Dyos and Wolff assembled a transatlantic galaxy of contributors, a veritable Who’s Who of nineteenth-century scholarship. In their epilogue, “The Way We Live Now,” they pointed perceptively to the lessons that could be learned from the cities of the nineteenth century, an analysis which stands up well to contemporary scrutiny. Michael’s particular interest in the Victorian city, unsurprisingly, was its symbiotic relationship with journalism:
The true verbal and graphic equivalent of urbanism is journalism proper, the best lens we have for a close-up of the Victorian city, of its disconnections, intimacies, conflicts, aberrations, incidents—of its whole symbiotic continuum and style. The concentration of people in such numbers created for the first time the readership on the required scale to launch newspapers and magazines in their thousands and to give vent to opinion and interests of almost every kind. Here is the earliest running commentary we have on what it felt like to have the city burgeoning out at such speed and throwing up issues of such novelty and discord. What is omitted from those pages and by whom is as important to the reading of them as it is to the reading of history itself, and what is pictured and how is as revealing of their readers’ receptivity as the magazine advertisements of today.7
Jim Dyos’s untimely death in 1978 was marked by the creation of a series of H. J. Dyos memorial lectures at the University of Leicester. Michael was the obvious choice to give the first of these. Appropriately, his subject was “Urbanity and Journalism: The Victorian Connection” (University of Leicester, 1980).
Michael was a frequent visitor and an honorary visiting fellow at the Victorian Studies Centre at Leicester in the years following the publication of The Victorian City, which is where I first met him. He persuaded us that the centre should host an RSVP conference, which we did in 1976 with great success. Out of that came Michael’s next collaborative book, The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings (Leicester University [End Page 5] Press, 1982), which we jointly edited. Like The Victorian City, a conference was the prompt for the book, but the result was more than a volume of conference proceedings. I was very much the novice in this enterprise, but Michael’s zest for collaboration and his instinctive egalitarianism made the experience a pleasure from start to finish. We were surprised and delighted by the favourable reviews the book received and quietly pleased at its enduring influence over the years.
Michael’s move from Indiana to the English department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970 was propitious for RSVP and its various projects, bringing him into close contact with members of regional Victorian studies associations, notably the Northeast Victorian Studies Association, as well as colleagues at institutions on the East Coast and in New York, many of whom became active members of RSVP. VPN outgrew its modest format and became Victorian Periodicals Review in 1978, giving Michael the rare accolade of having founded two academic journals, both of which are entering their second half century.
Teaching in the English department at the University of Massachusetts and his increasing involvement in the university and in the local community absorbed Michael’s energies in the ensuing decades. There was one final collaborative venture. With typical prescience, he urged scholars to mark the centenary of Queen Victoria’s death in 2001 with an international conference at which Victorianists could assess the changing view of the Victorian age in the twentieth century. He found a sympathetic ear in Robert Bud, an historian of science at London’s Science Museum, who formed an organizing committee, of which Michael was an influential member. A vast international conference, “Locating the Victorians,” held in London in the summer of 2001 was the result. Another outcome was his last book, The Victorians since 1901: Histories, Representations, and Revisions, co-edited with Miles Taylor (Manchester University Press, 2004).
Reflecting on his various collaborative books, beginning with 1859: Entering an Age of Crisis, edited with Appleman and Madden (Indiana University Press, 1959), Michael once said that throughout his career he had been looking for a collaborator whose name began with “Z.” It was meant facetiously, but the comment was revealing in two respects. The first was that he worked best when collaborating, having an idea for a project, thinking of how to bring it about, deciding who should be part of it, and then bouncing his ideas off others, applying his critical skills to make the submitted essays even better and unafraid to tell even the most eminent scholars how they could improve their work. The second was his egalitarianism. What he enjoyed most was the process of collaboration, undertaken with the premise that all collaborators were equal. This principle prevailed in the early years of Victorian Studies, according to the accounts of all those involved, and Michael carried it forward in the rest of his academic life. [End Page 6]
Michael’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the nineteenth century was obvious to anyone who spent time with him. His undergraduate training in philosophy and his early interest in classics no doubt contributed to his wide range of knowledge beyond his chosen academic discipline. His son Jeremy, recalling his father as an ever-ready resource during his school and college days, described him as “like Google long before the Internet.”8 Michael continued to teach seminars in Amherst under the “Learning-in-Retirement” program until the end of his life.
In his preface to The Victorians since 1901, Michael reflected on the development of Victorian studies as an academic field in the nearly fifty years since he and his colleagues had founded the journal in 1957. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s most academic work on the Victorians had been the “bailiwick” of members of English and history departments, he notes that in 2000 “there has been such a blurring of disciplinary lines that departmental affiliations have become almost irrelevant.”9 There was another important factor: “One of the major differences between Victorian studies in the 1950s and now is the current widespread use of periodicals and newspapers of all sorts, a hitherto almost hidden resource, and again one that almost invariably requires an interdisciplinary reading.”10
That this is so is due immeasurably to Michael Wolff’s efforts to bring this enormous mass of diverse research materials within reach of today’s scholars and to his foresight in seeing that it could only be done through scholarly collaboration.
In 1999, RSVP created the annual Wolff Lecture to honour Michael’s foundational role and lifetime contribution to the work of the society. The lecture is a high point during the society’s annual conference, and the list of Wolff lecturers constitutes a roll call of distinguished scholars in the field. Michael dedicated his essay “Charting the Golden Stream” to Walter Houghton, “Mr. W. H. the onlie begetter.”11 We can do no better than to adopt the compliment for Michael himself, RSVP’s “onlie begetter.”
Joanne Shattock is Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She has recently completed, with Elisabeth Jay, a twenty-five-volume edition of the Selected Works of Margaret Oliphant (Pickering & Chatto/Routledge, 2011–16). Her edited collection, Journalism and the Periodical Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain, will be published by Cambridge University Press in March 2017.
1. Michael Wolff, “Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Victorian Periodicals,” in Editing Nineteenth Century Texts, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 38. Reprinted in Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 4, no. 3 (1971): 23–38.
2. Ibid., 39.
3. Ibid. [End Page 7]
4. Marysa Demoor and Marianne Van Remoortel, “The Roots of RSVP: An Interview with Founding President Michael Wolff,” Victorian Periodicals Review 48, no. 2 (2015): 274.
5. Michael Wolff, “President’s Report for 1970–1,” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 4, no. 4 (1971): 33.
6. Wolff, “President’s Report for 1970–1,” 34.
7. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, “Epilogue: The Way We Live Now,” in The Victorian City: Images and Realities, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1973), 2:899–900.
9. Michael Wolff, preface to The Victorians since 1901: Histories, Representations, and Revisions, eds. Miles Taylor and Michael Wolff (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), xii.
10. Ibid., xiv.
11. Wolff, “Charting the Golden Stream,” 37. [End Page 8]