12 Winters Blog

TWP taking submissions and Beowulf book makes its way in the world

Posted in September 2013 by Ted Morrissey on September 15, 2013

I’m happy to announce that Twelve Winters Press, which I founded last year, began taking submissions today for its first anthology:  [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, slated for a spring 2014 release.  I’m also happy to acknowledge that I’ve been joined on the Press’s masthead by two of my oldest Benedictine University and Quiddity friends and colleagues, John McCarthy and Pamm Collebrusco.  In fact, John will be serving as editor of the anthology, while Pamm will be a reader and ultimately do what she does as well as anyone I know:  edit and proofread the book before it goes to press.  Pamm has generously edited and proofread my last three books, and is at work on the galleys of my latest novel, An Untimely Frost, probably even as I write this blog post.  (Her work on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, with all of its technical terminology drawn from a host of disciplines, copious citations, and its Old English, was nothing short of herculean — more on the Beowulf book in a moment.)

The anthology will consist of poems, prose poems and flash fiction (up to 1,000 words in length), and John is accepting submissions through November 30.  Please check out and share the submission guidelines.

My monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem, came out in March, but with the advent of the new academic year university libraries have started to add it to their collections (nearly every day a new library or two pops up on WorldCat — and, yes, I’m checking its progress, just like you would a child who’s beginning to make his way in the world).  To date, libraries that have added either the print edition or ebook edition to their collection include Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Pepperdine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Loyola Notre Dame, Lewis and Clark, Smith College, and Australian National University.

Beowulf Poet cover

The book actually grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2009 (Zeitgeist and the Zone:  The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and “Postmodern” Literature).  My primary focus was American postmodernism, but I included quite a bit of research on Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and the poem Beowulf in way of support for my thesis.  As almost an appendix to my dissertation I also wrote a trauma-theory reading of Beowulf; however, the Anglo-Saxon scholar on my committee wouldn’t accept my theory about the poem, so I ended up cutting that chapter.  Anglo-Saxonists are notoriously uncomfortable with post-structural criticism (they tend to prefer analysis of a more traditional philological nature), so it wasn’t a big surprise that she didn’t care for my reading.  Nevertheless, I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and I felt it was valid (even revolutionary — hey, sometimes you have to toot your own horn).

Even as I was cutting the chapter, I had vague plans of bringing my theory out somehow or another (perhaps in an article). After successfully defending my dissertation, my mind switched gears back into creative writing, and I spent the next three years working on the novel that would become An Untimely Frost.  I teach Beowulf every fall, so I continued meditating on the poem and my analysis of it.  Then in late winter 2012 I met with an editor from Edwin Mellen Press who encouraged me to pursue writing a monograph about Beowulf and my trauma-theory reading.  I accepted a contract, and in May of 2012 I began work on the project in earnest.  I transported home from my classroom three copy-paper boxes of books and articles, transforming my bedroom into a Beowulf and postmodern critical theory library (it was a mess, and it was a good thing I was living alone because if I hadn’t been, I soon would’ve been).

I thought I could knock out the project in three to five months; I was wrong.  I pulled quite a lot from my dissertation, but it was now three years old.  An important book or article on Beowulf appears once a week or so, according to the University of Toronto, which is the epicenter of Beowulf scholarship, and to say I’d been keeping up only at my leisure would be putting it rather kindly.  So I had a lot of reading to do.  Also, I’d done a little translating of Old English for my dissertation, but for this monograph I felt that I needed to analyze the original language of the poem, so I set about translating numerous key sections.  Much of the summer of 2012 was spent with my nose in the poem, various Old English dictionaries, and translations that I admired.  I was often at my kitchen table entombed in stacks of books.

The project that I thought I could finish by September (2012) dragged on into the fall … and winter.  In the meantime, two of my three adult sons had moved back home for various reasons, and it became a running joke as nearly every day they’d ask me what I was doing, and I’d say that I was finishing my Beowulf book (or I’d ask them, “Guess what I’m doing today?” to solicit their groans of skepticism), as I was in the process of finishing it for about six months.  There were a thousand details to attend to to get it right.  I was not a known Beowulf scholar, at all, so I was determined to make it as solid a piece of scholarship as I was able to produce.  When I needed to procure supporting reviews before sending it to the press, I sought opinions from the most respected Beowulf scholars in the world, and I was grateful that James W. Earl and Robert E. Bjork, both of whose work I’d admired for years, agreed to review my manuscript.  I waited, a little anxiously, for their reviews — and was considerably relieved when they were returned so favorably.  (See my Beowulf book’s page to read blurbs of their reactions.)

It ended up taking ten months for me to complete the project.  Shortly after its publication, Edwin Mellen’s editor-in-chief awarded it the press’s D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship.  Considering I had to cut from my dissertation the chapter on which the monograph was based, I was especially pleased with Earl’s and Bjork’s good opinions, and then the Prize.  In fairness to the Beowulf scholar on my committee, my chapter paid little attention to the poem’s original language, and my analysis of the Geatland/dragon section of the poem, I knew, was undercooked (in writing the monograph, that was the section that received the most new material and most extensive revision — by the time I wrote the book, I had a clearer idea what I’d been wanting to say all along).  Also, her reaction inspired me to make my scholarship as airtight as possible as it represented what the mainstream of the discipline was likely to say about my rather wild reading of the poem.  I thank her in the book’s acknowledgements, and my thanks is sincere.

The press is just beginning to solicit reviews of my Beowulf book in scholarly journals, and I don’t know of any that have appeared so far. As I said, I’m gratified that universities are adding it to their collections, so hopefully some Anglo-Saxonists will begin to pay attention to it (as well as scholars and doctors in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology, which are also important aspects of my trauma-theory reading).

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The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters Introduction

Posted in March 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 21, 2013

The following is the Introduction to my monograph The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem (Edwin Mellen Press, 2013).  Please see the book’s page for further information, including reviews, a brief description, the Table of Contents, and a promotional flyer (flyer also available below).

The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters

* * *

“[I]t is a drink dark and bitter:  a solemn funeral-ale with the taste of death.”

Thus wrote J. R. R. Tolkien of Beowulf in his prefatory remarks for the republication of John R. Clark Hall’s 1911 prose translation (ix).  The professor’s dramatic metaphor captures what many readers sense when they engage the text of the poem, either in the original Old English or in one of the myriad languages into which it has been translated since Sharon Turner began the process in 1803, whether it be a student’s first encounter or a scholar’s innumerable one.  To extend Tolkien’s metaphor, the purpose of this monograph is to analyze the recipe of that dark and bitter brew.

The method by which I identify the various ingredients and discuss their influence on the poem’s morbid flavor is trauma theory, a term that Cathy Caruth is given credit for coining in her 1996 book Unclaimed Experience:  Trauma, Narrative, and History—though the idea of literary trauma theory as a discernible critical model can be recognized earlier in the decade in such practitioners as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  Of course, one can easily make a case for even earlier sightings of trauma theory, with Caruth herself pointing to Sigmund Freud’s marriage of psychoanalysis and literary study via terms like the Oedipus and Elektra complexes.  However, in spite of trauma theory’s presence in the humanities for roughly two decades, a precise and universally acknowledged definition has yet to emerge, which provides me an opening to put forward a definition as I am using it in this work.

In the previous paragraph I quietly inserted literary as a qualifier to differentiate between trauma theory as it exists in the vocabulary of psychiatric professionals versus how scholars in the humanities may regard its meaning—though both groups are concerned with how traumatic experience affects the subject’s mind, and they borrow freely from one another, explicitly or implicitly, to advance and articulate their understanding of trauma.  In psychiatric medicine, the overarching goal of trauma theory, broadly put, is to use that understanding to assist victims of trauma overcome its devastating effects.  In literary scholarship, the goal of trauma theory, broadly put, is to use that understanding to document the effects of traumatic stress on language production.  To state it simply (in fact, overly so), psychiatric professionals examine the speech of patients (perhaps “clients” is a better word), while scholars examine texts (e.g., Beowulf).

My specific purpose is to make the case that Beowulf reflects traumatic stresses which the anonymous poet and his fellow Anglo-Saxons felt in their day-to-day lives, and I concentrate my trauma-theory reading on the three monsters, who represented, in all likelihood unconsciously, particular sources of trauma to the poet:  the terror of extreme violence, the dangers of sexual reproduction, and the deprivations of chronic disease.  My training as a scholar is in English studies, a program that requires coursework in literature, linguistics, rhetoric, and pedagogy—also a program that has prompted me to draw from a wide range of fields, including medicine, history, anthropology, philology, sociology, and psychology, with special emphases on the branches of psychoanalysis and neuropsychology.  In other words, English studies in general and this monograph in particular have allowed me to indulge my “attention surplus disorder,” a phrase I commandeered from Susan Sontag, who uses it to mean that she is basically interested in everything.1

What is more, I consider myself primarily a creative writer—a novelist, short-story writer and sometimes poet—which, I believe, gives me further insight into what I call “the psychic origins of creativity” when I take on the roles of critic and scholar, further, that is, than someone who has never tried to devise characters and plot and setting, and to coax them through a narrative arc via dialogue, metaphor and a plethora of other storytelling techniques.  That is to say, I feel a brothers-in-arms kinship with the Beowulf poet and an affinity for the task he set before himself that many literature scholars, simply, do not.

In bringing to bear on the poem knowledge from so many different fields, my reading represents a departure from what has been the dominant discourse in Beowulf studies for at least the last thirty years, a discourse that has tended to focus on the extant Cottonian manuscript, a discourse that has resisted critical theory “in the name of empiricism, objectivity, or common sense,” according to John D. Niles (“Introduction” 9).  However, as James W. Earl points out in his introductory remarks to Thinking About Beowulf (1994), intense study based on the extant manuscript has failed to yield much that is irrefutable about the poem and even less about its poet.  In fact, Earl draws on the concept of the Strange Attractor from chaos theory, meaning “that underlying presence, or nonpresence, that gives its shape to chaos” (10), to conclude the following about new directions in Beowulf scholarship:  “If we cannot anchor our thinking about Beowulf in history any longer, we may have to entertain at long last the freedoms of modern and postmodern critical thinking—at least within the parameters set by the fractal text, and its Strange Attractor, the poet” (27).

That is, to better understand the poem, we must do all that we can to better understand the poet.

The trauma-theory reading of the poem rests largely in Chapter 4 of this monograph, while Chapters 1, 2 and 3 lay the groundwork necessary to the reading.  The first chapter, for example, discusses the close association between thought and language by examining the work of pioneering psychoanalysts Freud and Jacques Lacan, as well as contemporary trauma theorists and neuropsychologists.  Key concepts in the chapter include the effects of trauma and how these effects can be passed from generation to generation, and from location to location.  Integral to these concepts are discussions regarding the establishment of trauma cultures and the production of trauma texts.  The next chapter focuses on the mimetic parallel between postmodern narrative technique and the narratival characteristics of someone who has been traumatized.  In this chapter and elsewhere, the theories of Michel Foucault are engaged, especially those related to analyzing the minds of past peoples via the texts they left behind.  When I introduce Foucault to my students, I use the model of the double helix with one strand representing thought and language the other.  When a culture has passed, like the Anglo-Saxons’, it is as if its double helix has been stretched and flattened, and we view it from an angle that makes it appear as though only the language strand remains (i.e., its texts), but Foucault tells us that inseparably bonded to that language is the thought that shaped it; therefore, by studying a past culture’s language, we can come to know the culture’s thought as well.  In short, the Beowulf poet’s mind produced the topography of the text, so by carefully studying the text we can discern the topography of the poet’s mind.

Chapter 3 is less theoretical and more practical as it examines aspects of the lives of Anglo-Saxons that likely would have resulted in traumatic stress and in particular the traumatic stress I believe to be represented by Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.  That is to say, if the poet and his people were in fact traumatized, what events and day-to-day features of their lives could have caused that trauma?  For this chapter, I rely principally on the writings of Bede and Eddius Stephanus, the anonymously composed Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the period’s medical texts:  the Herbarium, Leechbooks, and Lacnunga.   Then, finally, Chapter 4 brings all of this diverse knowledge together in a trauma-theory reading which focuses on the original language of the poem.

It is important to note, too, that while my reading is a departure from much of the traditional scholarship, I incorporate and build upon a great deal of that scholarship, bringing into the conversation (to name a few) Klaeber, Tolkien, Malone, Mitchell, Robinson, Niles, Bjork, Orchard, Kiernan, Earl, O’Brien O’Keeffe, Chance, Howe, Lerer, Lapidge, Liuzza, Acker, and Foley, as well as newer voices like Joy, Ramsey, Kim, Mizuno, and Warren.  All of whom have contributed mightily to what we know about the poem, and thus contribute mightily to what we could possibly come to understand by pursuing critical approaches born of postmodernism, like trauma theory.

Feel free to share the following promotional flyer either electronically or in print.

Beowulf Poet – Morrissey flyer

Note

1. See “Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143,” interviewed by Edward Hirsch for The Paris Review, available online at theparisreview.org.

Works Cited

Earl, James W.  Thinking About Beowulf.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford UP, 1994.  Print.

Niles, John D.  “Introduction:  Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning.”  Ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles.  A Beowulf Handbook.  Lincoln:  U of Nebraska P, 1998.  1-12.  Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R.  “Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf.” Beowulf and The Finnsburg Fragment.  Trans. by John R. Clark Hall.  3rded.  London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1950.  ix-xliii.  Print.

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