Doubtful Readers

Erin McCarthy. Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2020.

The EMPOP interview with the author

EMPOP: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Erin. Wasn’t the first official EMPOP event a discussion of a draft chapter from this book over Zoom? The group’s early Zoom discussions featured partial drafts of several books by original EMPOP stars, all of which have been accepted for publication by academic publishers. Yours is the first of those to appear.

Erin: Thank you! Yes, we discussed my introduction, which was (of course) the last part of the book written. I also remember that I participated in one of those early chats from the British Library café. It might have been that one. It seems like so long ago now.

EMPOP: What has been your favorite response to the book so far? It came out shortly before a global pandemic hit. That led to the cancelation of an in-person book launch, and to a digital book launch, hosted by the Renaissance Society, with over 100 people in virtual attendance. (The launch began with some memorable feedback, which provides the soundtrack for this interview.)

EMPOP: Since then, you have also recorded an episode of “A Bit Lit,” not yet released. Is that episode about this book as well? Reviews can hardly have appeared already.

Erin: I really enjoyed the generous comments made at the launch by both EMPOP co-founder Josh Eckhardt and my PI on RECIRC, Marie-Louise Coolahan. I was struck by the way the book intervened in multiple conversations. I guess, as the author, I should have known that, but hearing what other people found interesting really drove it home. 

The “A Bit Lit” episode is a little more wide-ranging. We first started talking about the episode in relation to the book launch because the idea of a virtual book launch seemed so novel way back in April, but by the time we were able to record it in late June, there were so many virtual launches and seminars that it didn’t really seem that noteworthy anymore. So I did talk about the book, but I also talked about my work on manuscript miscellanies for RECIRC and my plans for my next project on manuscript description.

I don’t expect to see any reviews for a while, but an assessor for a grant application commented favorably on the book, so I guess people are reading it!

EMPOP: EMPOP focuses on poetry in manuscript. Your book focuses on poetry in print. Most books about print include references only to printed sources. But your book refers to manuscripts as well, beginning with just a few in the first few chapters, and culminating in a major section on the O’Flahertie manuscript. Why is the O’Flahertie manuscript so important for your reading of Donne’s poems in print? Does it demonstrate what manuscripts can teach us about print?

Erin: Oh, gosh, that manuscript is so interesting. SRS even shared a clip of me talking about it at the launch.

The O’Flahertie manuscript (Harvard MS Eng 966.5) is important for several reasons. First, it’s the largest surviving manuscript of Donne’s poems, although it also includes thirty-five poems that we’re pretty sure aren’t by Donne. Second, it organizes Donne’s poems into genres, which we don’t see in any of the other surviving manuscripts. Finally, its compiler seems to have been interested in or at least aware of how a printed edition might look; he or she even includes a table of contents headed, “The Poems of D. J. Donne not yet imprinted,” I think calling attention to the inevitability of their appearing in such a collection. Of course, Donne’s publisher, John Marriot, didn’t get access to it until work on the 1633 first edition of Poems was underway, so its influence is most apparent in the 1635 second edition.

Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Eng. 966.5 (O’Flahertie MS), title page (image courtesy of Digital Donne: the online Variorum)

Erin: I think the O’Flahertie manuscript shows us clearly that manuscript and print were closely related in the early modern period; there wasn’t a teleological movement from manuscript to print, and books (broadly defined) didn’t become fixed and unchangeable once they were printed. But I think it also raises important questions about the manuscripts underlying printed books that don’t survive, which is something that I address more fully in my final chapter. There was a tendency in some of those mid-twentieth-century editions—which are, of course, great and authoritative, and which I wish I owned a complete set of—to assume that because something doesn’t seem to exist now, that it never existed. And I think the O’Flahertie manuscript sort of hints at the other manuscripts that must have existed at one point. I don’t think compositors were standing around the print shop shuffling through piles of manuscript separates. They must have had fair copies like the O’Flahertie manuscript. Maybe once the poems were printed, it didn’t seem necessary to keep the manuscript sources anymore, or maybe they just got lost. This isn’t a problem specific to poetry, though it might be more complicated because of the sometimes-piecemeal way manuscript verse circulated.

EMPOP: Your Donne chapter devotes much of its attention to the stationers John and Richard Marriot. At least two other original EMPOP stars have been writing about the Marriots as well. Is it safe to say that the Marriots are EMPOP’s favorite printers? If EMPOP were ever to undertake research on printed sources, do you think that some of those sources should come from the Marriots, such as one of their many editions of poems by Francis Quarles? What do you like (or dislike) about either of the Marriots’ work?

Erin: It’s probably safe (if pedantic) to say that the Marriots are our favorite publishers, although I think that may have more to do with Donne’s centrality than any particular interest in the Marriots. That said, I had planned to write a chapter on the Marriots in my dissertation a million years ago. My argument was that John Marriot was kind of the Humphrey Moseley of his time, publishing all the big literary hits—including Quarles! So I guess that’s the thing that draws me to the Marriots: they seem to have published many of the books that were, or became, important to literature scholars, and Quarles’s case shows that they were willing to work with authors. I’m actually hoping to write an ODNB entry about John Marriot, who somehow doesn’t have one yet. I should probably remind Anders!

EMPOP: Right, of course the Marriots were not actually printers; they did not operate a press. They were stationers and booksellers, publishing works by selecting, financing, and selling them. That certainly makes them publishers. But I’m not sure that EMPOP can officially endorse them as the organization’s favorite publishers, out of respect for all of the scribal publishers, such as Peter Beal’s Feathery Scribe, or the scribe associated with Henry Feilde (and possibly named Henry Feilde), or even the compiler of Folger MS V.a.103 and University of Nottingham, Portland MS PwV 37. But as long as professional scribes weren’t called booksellers, we could probably call the Marriots EMPOP’s favorite booksellers.

Erin: Would we call Feathery a publisher or is his role more akin to a printer?

EMPOP: Good question: is a scribe more like a printer than a publisher? After all, we can see that a scribe did the work of actually reproducing the words, choosing the letters and applying the ink, corresponding to the work of a compositor and press worker. We cannot usually see that a scribe was responsible for selecting, funding, distributing, or otherwise publishing those words, like a stationer and bookseller would have been. Nevertheless, I think that it’s consistent with Harold Love’s argument to say that a prolific scribe like Feathery was involved in scribal publication. Was he not, therefore, a scribal publisher? To be sure, Love mentions Feathery only as an example of a late secretary hand (111-12). But if Love could convince us that even “user publication” and “publication through a single copy” occurred, then a clearly professional and collaborative scribe such as Feathery would have been involved in publication as well. Beal called Feathery “an agent for the vigorous, persistent, organized dissemination of…materials and ideas” (108). Granted, Beal did not use the word “publisher” here. And perhaps neither should we. Nevertheless, it takes only a small, logical step to proceed from Love’s notion of “scribal publication” to the slightly modified designation “scribal publisher.”

Erin: Good point. And luckily, we don’t have to choose favorites. We can study all the printers and all the publishers and all the booksellers.

EMPOP: Let’s do that. Thank you for answering these questions, Erin, and for allowing EMPOP to associate itself with your success. If this blog can serve as a place to collect links, images, reviews, or anything related to the book, just let us know.

Erin: Thank you! Thanks for having me and for all of your support over the years.