26 July 2021
Last month, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Paige Aniyah Morris for our GR2 site. Discussing the Kim Sehee short story she translated for our summer issue, “Words and Kisses,” we spent a little bit of time talking about that old saw “the general reader.” Morris states: “When I imagine this ‘average’ reader who gets invoked in many conversations about manuscripts in translation, I think about how, like so many myths, this one must have been thought up by someone looking to hide behind a monster or the supernatural rather than own up to a more difficult, human truth.” This “bogeyman,” as I call it, has been invented, Morris says, by a “relative few who have been uncomfortable when language was being made to do things beyond their capacity to understand.” Another highlight, for me, occurred when she mentioned what compels her to invest time into translating a text: “For me, there are usually several points in a story, these small turns, where I come across a sentence or sentiment so compelling that I feel the need to translate it right away to share it with people in my life who may not otherwise have the chance or ability to read it and be struck by it, too.” I’ve been thinking about these two figures in relation with each other, the general reader and the friend.
This conversation has helped me think more about something I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since I’ve gotten this job. Nineteenth-century man of letters Samuel Taylor Coleridge started a review called The Friend. He is remembered most often for his transformative contribution to both poetry and literary criticism. But many don’t know of, or undervalue, the fact that he was a DIY editor, publisher, and periodical writer. And this was not a peripheral project. “Were it in my power,” Coleridge remarks during the late years of his life, “my works should be confined to the second volume of my ‘Literary Life,’ the Essays of the third volume of the ‘Friend,’ with about fifty or sixty pages from the two former volumes, and some half-dozen of my poems.”
The Friend makes what I see as a decisive contribution to literary history, because through the mad project Coleridge formulates a practical theory of editorship under a method of friendship, and this as the modern form of the publishing world was emerging. Scholars have long established that up until the late eighteenth century, writers could generally count on knowing personally who would read one’s work, but through a decline in patronage, revolutions in printing technology, and a massive rise in literacy among the populace, Coleridge and his contemporaries had to invent their reading publics. As literary historian Jon Klancher puts it, “the English Romantics [were] the first to become radically uncertain of their readers.” We see Wordsworth and Coleridge attend to this problem brilliantly by inventing the form of the Conversation Poem, with arch-Romantic lyrics like the famous one addressed to Charles Lamb, or the one to Dorothy Wordsworth, or those from one Lyrical Ballads poet to the other.
The Friend attends to the same problem, but, in my mind, does so in a much more engaging, productive manner, as powerful as I find these Conversation Poems. Jerome Christensen’s still-indispensable chapter on The Friend, found in Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language (1981), wrestles with Coleridge’s unwieldy project to describe its literary workings and consider the subsequent theoretical stakes. “Not The Spectator, The Tatler, or The Rambler, The Friend identifies itself as intimate rather than sociable, humble but essential, amicable yet advisory,” Christensen states upfront. “Coleridge’s propadeutic figure of the Friend,” Christensen elaborates later, “is situated as mediator not only between reason and understanding but also between the private conscience and the public eye, the reader of prose periodicals.” The mediation between reason and understanding is Coleridge’s general metaphysical project, as inherited from Immanuel Kant, among others. What makes The Friend distinct in the corpus is that these metaphysical ruminations (“private conscience”) were conducted in a periodic method, one that is ongoing and historically attuned (“public eye”).
We can sharpen Christensen’s observation by noting that this is accurate in terms of a sort of periodical invested in arts and letters. The Friend was actually Coleridge’s second go at periodical publishing, but his first, I argue, in a literary vein. In 1796, Coleridge collected subscriptions for The Watchman, which disseminated his coverage of “the political Atmosphere” at the dawn of the Revolutionary era. The Watchman is not in Coleridge’s self-declared canon, because The Friend takes a different tack, redressing the shortcomings he himself saw in The Watchman, a hint of which we get from a comment he made about the contemporary magazine Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, a fully Whig counterpart to The Watchman. In a letter to friend and fellow Tory Daniel Stuart:
He [William Cobbett] applies to the Passion[s that] are gratified by Curiosity, sharp & often calumnious Personality, the Politics and the Events of the Day, and the names and characters of notorious Contemporaries . . . I bring the Results of a Life of intense Study, and unremitted Meditation—of Toil, and Travel.
Overdetermined and prejudiced, yes. But if we tune down the zealotry, we can see a strong example of the division within periodical culture, at its nascent stage, between the standard daily and what I see as the literary-cultural journal. The Friend does remark, quite often, about Personality, Politics, and the Events of the Day, among them the growing partisanship between Whigs and Tories, debates over tax reform, and the death of British admiral Alexander Ball. But Coleridge endeavors to stay away from gossip and topical coverage by insisting that these works be read as studies of the everyday underwritten by metaphysical disciplines. The Watchman is all “public eye” without the amity and intimacy of the “private conscience.” With it, as the subtitle for the collected edition of The Friend declares, the literary periodical can be read as “a series of essays . . . to aid in the formation of fixed principles in politics, morals, and religion, with literary amusements interspersed.” The aim, according to Coleridge, is to “shew my Reader . . . [how] to kindle his own torch for him, and leave it to himself to chuse the particular objects, which he might wish to examine by its light.” Just as the figure of the friend anchored Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s contributions to literature in the mode of poetry, The Friend is the main means by which Coleridge contributes to literature in the productive mode of the periodical, and the ultimate cause is the cultivation of self-reliance.
What Paige has taught me, in our conversation, is that the paradigm of the friend can be at once more concrete and more capacious than the age-old paradigm of “the general reader.” The concrete nature is self-evident, a direct engagement with the “more difficult, human truth,” as Paige mentioned. But the figure of the friend, as far as I’m thinking about it, is also defined by mystery and surprise. Isn’t a friend one with whom you can never get bored? Isn’t the pleasure of a friend that of engaging a person whose plentitude always grows, whose very nature becomes increasingly incomprehensible, because it grows ever more multitudinous? Or, as we’ve been thinking it, the absolute mystery of the “private conscience” is the germinal element for the infinite deferral of the periodical. In what was the concluding paragraph for my Spring 2021 column (which was left on the cutting-room floor, because my delinquency had me working with a fixed page count, as I was writing while the issue was in proofs), I mentioned something about wanting to be “overwhelmed by the audience,” as I remember the phrase. I now see that, in particular, I mean this in a way where the friend’s absolute plentitude overwhelms one’s rational and imaginative ability to anticipate that other person fully and with any amount of confidence.
Last month I jumped on a Zoom call with someone I hadn’t seen—thought about, even, frankly—for more than a decade. We met at a writing residency and met up a couple times during the two years that followed. Fond memories of a cheerful person, when that name popped back into my life. When I read her submission to the Review, which was the occasion for the reunion, I was shocked to see a Monique Wittig citation, the art world, and an acid response to latent misogyny at a gynecological exam. My fond memories couldn’t have anticipated that writing—couldn’t even come close. And, although I considered us friendly before the meeting, I thought, upon reading this manuscript, “dude, she can be a friend!” Yes, there’s the topicality of art and feminism, which is not a negligible matter. But, more importantly, here’s someone that I now take as a person, whose being completely overrides any conception I had, or can make, of her. To get to know her more would be a thrill—and an inexhaustible task. In this way, friendship can be defined by difference.
There’s ample fodder in this issue for thinking about friends. Turn to Paul and Matthew Otremba’s poetry for fraternal friendship, and Fatima Malik’s for paternal. Aryn Kyle’s riveting story “Copper Queen” explores the messy darkland where friendship, desire, and a life given to the pursuit of aesthetic beauty meet. After finishing the story, I thought, promptly, and viscerally, one can say, what is more gratuitous than a commitment to art as our bodies waste away? Rosa Alcalá’s “R U OK?! (8/3/2019)” makes a moving poem out of friendly concern communicated through our quotidian channels during an extraordinary time.
From around the office:
• The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame will honor this year’s inductees, Clarence Major, Pearl Cleage, and the late John Lewis, in a ceremony at the University of Georgia on 13 November 2021, time TBD.
• We’re proud to congratulate Mathew Weitman for being the winner of the ninth annual Loraine Williams Poetry Prize. Of the winning poem, the judge, Arthur Sze, wrote, “In this visionary and mythic journey, the poem moves with oblique exactitude from place to place, across wide swaths of time, and even to the underworld and outer space as it contemplates and delves into the heart of loss.” (And, if you’re inclined, read Stephanie Burt’s contribution to this issue, “Against Winning,” to consider what we are and are not doing wrong with the contest!)
• As always, visit our website and GR2 for exclusive online content, including Stephen Corey’s remembrance of Stephen Dunn, Josh English’s review of Civil Bound by Myung Mi Kim, and Mark Massaro’s review of the Flannery O’ Connor Award–winning collection If We Were Electric by Patrick Earl Ryan.
It might be ill-advised to model oneself after the editor of The Friend, what with its Tory politics, short run, and financial ruin. My thoughts on that will have to wait for another day. But I maintain that I would be my worst possible friend, if it is even possible to befriend oneself. The author of the Dejection ode knew that. Moreover, “how do you do this?” someone asked me when I talked about The Friend during my job talk. I talked about Klancher’s radical uncertainty in tandem with Levinasian hospitality and Derridean friendship, but—let’s keep it from the inquirer—I’m trying things out in practice, as we speak. It is, I’m convinced, an essentially practical matter.
One of the definitions of friendship that I prize most comes from fellow Romanticist Julie Carlson, who, I learned in a chat in her office, is also knee-deep in thinking about The Friend. This comes from a 9 November 2020 talk for the Literature and Mind group, which can be found online:
Friendship across difference is the most trustworthy path to social transformation. For all its conceptual and experiential shortcomings, I prize the relational model of friend because it is least tied to blood and hetero-biological imperatives and because the bonds between friends are non-institutional and extra-legal. That is, roughly speaking, they are chosen, not imposed but a choice that is suffused in affect, never free or necessarily freeing.
It is in this spirit that I think of you as friend, whoever you are. And it’s an honor and pleasure to do so through the literary periodical.