authors and their simplifiers

While we’re on the subject of Kant, Mikhail Emelianov at Perverse Egalitarianism has a nice post about “Simplifying Kant,” where he talks about Kant’s relations with his commentators Reinhold and Fichte, whose works on this philosopher helped to establish their careers along with his philosophical reputation:

Then there is, of course, Fichte who travels to Konigsberg in 1791 to meet the great master and finds the encounter to be rather disappointing – Kant appears sleepy and receives him without “special attention.” Fichte sticks around determined to impress the great philosopher (writes what will become An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation), ends up writing him a letter asking for money to return home to Saxony. Kant is sketchy on the money but finds young Fichte a job. Fichte’s Attempt is published without an author’s name, everyone thinks it’s Kant’s new work on religion, Fichte is suddenly thrust into the spotlight (or a spot-torch, maybe) and a village youngster is now a 30-year old protege of Kant himself. Eventually, in 1794 Goethe, impressed by Fichte’s Attempt, helps him get a professorship at Jena. Reinhold got his professorship at Jena based on his Letters on Kantian Philosophy – therefore, the lesson is clear: hang out with the big shots and get professorships.

Literary critics have often downplayed this authorial role as popularizing stand-in (or explainer) for more difficult authors, because we tend to regard an author’s reputation as the product of a single writer’s intentions.  Yet if we look more closely at the details of literary careers, what we find are authorial networks, partnerships, tit for tat exchanges, logrolling, competition, friendly or otherwise–interactions like these are much more prevalent, though, the more closely we examine questions of reputation and publicity.

I’ve always suspected that Boswell’s loving depiction of Johnson was a huge factor in getting Johnson read and enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, once his cultural authority was dissipated.  But never underestimate the power of the popularizer in literary (or philosophical) history.



8 responses to “authors and their simplifiers

  1. What’s “logrolling”?

  2. Here’s the Wikipedia definition, complete with folk etymologies that date at least far back as Davy Crockett, if not Paul Bunyan himself:

    Logrolling is the trading of favors or quid pro quo, such as vote trading by legislative members to obtain passage of actions of interest to each legislative member. It is also the “cross quoting” of papers by academics in order to drive up reference counts. The Nuttall Encyclopedia describes log-rolling as “mutual praise by authors of each other’s work.” American frontiersman Davy Crockett was one of the first to apply the term to legislation:

    The first known use of the term was by Congressman Davy Crockett, who said on the floor (of the U.S. House of Representatives) in 1835, “my people don’t like me to log-roll in their business, and vote away pre-emption rights to fellows in other states that never kindle a fire on their own land.”[1]

    The widest accepted origin is the old custom of neighbors assisting each other with the moving of logs. If two neighbors had cut a lot of timber which needed to be moved, it made more sense for them to work together to roll the logs.[2][3] In this way, it is similar to a barn-raising where a neighbor comes and helps build your barn and then you go and help build his. Here is an example of the term’s original use

    “A family comes to sit down in the forest,” wrote an observer in 1835. “Their neighbors lay down their employments, shoulder their axes, and come in to the log-rolling. They spend the day in hard labor, and then retire, leaving the newcomers their good wishes, and an habitation [1]

    Though most sources support the above etymology, another possible origin is from the sport by the same name in which two contestants try to topple each other into the water by standing on a log. Each must keep up with the other or risk taking a spill, so it appears to be cooperative.[citation needed]

    Spy Magazine ran a feature entitled “Logrolling in Our Time” that cited suspicious or humorous examples of mutually admiring book jacket blurbs by pairs of authors. Private Eye magazine regularly draws attention to alleged logrolling by authors in “books of the year” features published by British newspapers and magazines.[4]



  3. But never underestimate the power of the popularizer in literary (or philosophical) history.

    I’ve found that students are attuned to cultures of “popularizing”—as a result, I think, of being immersed in a popular culture that consists primarily of self-commentary, self-promotion, and tireless self-reproduction—and are very interested to find examples of it in older (hence more mysterious) cultures. Last year, in a survey of 18th- and 19th-century British lit, I allowed myself the indulgence of using our media’s fascination with Britney Spears’s deterioration as a way of discussing Boswell’s relationship to Johnson, and was amazed at how it opened both Boswell and Johnson up to the students. We had a very lively discussion about the difference between Boswell’s portraits of Johnson (admiring, even loving) and the paparazzi’s portraits of its favorite subjects (predatory), but also how they both produce some form of “fame” that exceeds the celebrity’s own cultural production.

    It went so well, I decided to use Britney Spears as a pedagogical tool as much as possible. (I’m only kind of kidding.)

  4. Hi Gena,

    Yeah, these mechanisms of popularizing are certainly more accepted in literature than philosophy (logrolling was a term I learned during my 10-day stint in publishing), but my students are absolutely attuned to such things.

    This area of reception studies is something that cultural studies is really suited for, and to me it really resembles an earlier generation of pre-New Critical scholarship, which was so focused on recovering and editing the letters and documents of those individuals. Boswell is one of the most teachable writers in the late 8c canon, for my purposes.


  5. I’m not sure I would equate “simplifying” with “popularizing” though…

  6. OK, I’ll bite. How do you see the difference? I’d think that any successful popularization would involve some degree of simplification, no?


  7. True, but not any successful simplification would necessary involve some degree of popularization, right? To simplify seems to mean something like to make accessible but whether accessibility necessarily produces popularity I am not so sure… In my example, Reinhold manages to present Kant’s ideas in a simple form that results in popularization because once the educated public sees what the ideas are, it “likes” them – but one can easily imagine a different scenario: Reinhold explained Kant’s ideas and what before was a complex and inarticulate mess (for the sake of the argument), now became accessible and rather banal, thus what could have been popular due to its complexity/obscurity, ceased to be such due to a simplified version.

  8. Hmm, if what you mean is that not all simplifications result in popularizing their subject matter, I guess that’s right, but that to me is not the most important aspect of the question.

    I suppose when I call a “simplification” successful, I would define at least part of its success by its ability to find an audience that the text alone was not able to do.

    It’s not just a matter of successfully (meaning accurately) summarizing the matter of the source-text, I’d argue, but doing so in a manner so compelling that people seek out the source.

    Now, I fully understand that this definition allows popularizers to reinvent their source texts in all sorts of illicit or partial ways. But the popularizer has to be able to win a new audience, to be considered a success, right?
    Look at Bakhtin and Rabelais, for example.

    But I don’t think there are large numbers of writers out there who have become popular by virtue of their complexity/obscurity/turgidity, etc. I could name names, but I think these are the authors whose reputations always get whittled away over time, simply because they will not be reread thoroughly after they die.