Strange Case of Dr. Slobins and Mr. Greditor.
I interviewed Mr. Slobins concerning confirmation of status on 14 February 2013. The interview began at 12.10 and ended at 12.35.
Mr. Slobins’s thesis examines a range of informal literary criticism (principally letters and coterie activity) from the early to the mid eighteenth century. The importance of such material (it is claimed) is that attending to it will allow us to redress the imbalance introduced into our curent ideas of Augustan literary criticism by an overwhelming concentration on printed texts. Once this fugitive, neglected material has been re-presented for scholarly scrutiny, we may expect that our ‘current understanding of the politics and ideology of criticism’, and ‘the narrative of the increasing commercialisation of eighteenth-century literature’ will be enriched and complicated.
These are attractive promises, but they immediately provoke some sceptical concerns. In the first place, if (as we are assured) it is necessary to strengthen our knowledge of eighteenth-century criticism by appreciating its ‘oral … and clandestine’ dimensions, how precisely can those dimensions be recovered in sufficient detail to be measured and assessed? The oral evaporates upon the breeze, and the clandestine is, well, clandestine. Secondly, how will informal, casual chat about books and poems be filtered out? And finally, if such filtering is possible, how much valuable critical residue will be left behind?
As well as an abstract of the topic of the thesis and a chapter-by-chapter statement of its current state of completion, Mr. Slobins submitted a draft on the literary coterie surrounding Aaron HIll. This piece was written with elegance and knowledge, But it failed to deliver on the promised benefits advertised in the abstract of the thesis.
In the first place, the chapter is almost entirely descriptive rather than analytical, and its descriptions have, for the most part, been assembled out of existing secondary material. Secondly, although Mr. Slobins deplores and hopes to correct the distortions arising from an exclusive use of printed sources, his own sources in this chapter are almost entirely printed. ‘Almost entirely’, because there is one shred of MS evidence, namely Hill’s annotated copy of Young’s Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job (the location of which, however, is not specified, as it should be, in n. 37). Yet, as Mr. Slobins himself admits, the quality of reading and of critical acumen revealed by Hill’s annotations is very disappointing, and acts almost like a disproof of the central claims of the thesis. Hopes are once more raised by the section of the chapter describing the Hill coterie’s promotion of the second edition of Thomson’s Winter . Yet here again, what Mr. Slobins describes tends to undermine his large contentions, in that, far from Hill’s coterie being the prime mover in this literary campaign, it rather seems as if they were manipulated by Thomson. On this showing, it is hard to attribute to Hill’s coterie the active, shaping role which Mr. Slobins has suggested they assumed.
The principal problem with the thesis, then, has not greatly changed from ‘Transfer of Status’, when the assessors noted how the submitted material flinched from, or was unable to produce, a direct engagement with the primary material: ‘we suggested that the submitted chapter might also usefully draw more attention to the critical substance of the conversations described’. The thesis still suffers from the lack of attention to such critical substance. In part this is because this critical substance cannot now be recovered, in part because (as with Hill’s annotations), when it has left recoverable traces, they are slight, thin, and disappointing.
My recommendation, therefore, is that Mr. Slobins’ D.Phil status cannot at present be confirmed. Before he re-submits, he needs to think hard and realistically about what can be achieved, so that the present embarrassing gap between what the abstract promises and what the submitted material delivers is eliminated. The broad subject of literary sociability in the eighteenth century is a good and attractive field in which to conduct research, but it is not in itself a research topic. Hard and realistic thought is also required in respect of the timetable fo completion of work, and of the habits of steady, reliable application which will need to be cultivated in order to stick to it.