The Burden of the Past

I’m writing this from a long table at the New York Public Library, where, in these waning days before I turn in my manuscript, I’ve decided that it’s time to read W. Jackson Bate’s book, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. To be honest, I had never heard of it until June. After the Woolf conference, I sent a friend a copy of my paper and he recommended the book. My first thought was outrage, a profound and panicked sense of having been cheated: why did no one tell me about this book before? Why, it’s just up my alley and I ought to have known about it! But, of course, I was hearing about it now. And who might have told me about it if not the brilliant friend whose interests overlap with mine?

I’m stubborn, so it’s taken me until now to get to the book. It’s a collection of four lectures, published in 1970 and it’s fascinating. (Well, it’s very good. I am occasionally relying on massive doses of Altoids to keep me going.) Bate, who taught at Harvard for decades and is best known as the biographer of Keats and Pope, thanks Harold Bloom, who was to publish his landmark Anxiety of Influence just a few years later but, unlike Bloom’s, Bate’s book is not burdened by strange classical terms (clinamen anyone?) or heavy-handed psychoanalysis. Instead, he very gently and genially accepts our “belatedness,” our sense that originality is impossible and notes that this feeling was particularly intense for English poets from around 1660-1820, that in those years of neoclassical revival, poets turned away from the unquestioned genius of Shakespeare toward a neoclassical model (imported from France) that seemed to—and did—offer different paths to literary greatness. Part of his point is that we may feel less burdened, less lonely (and he does use that word) if we know that we are not original in fearing that, well, we are not original.

My Woolf book aims to offer a feminist theory of literary influence. I have been trying to write a story of how Woolf came to be without recourse to metaphors of family, so Bate’s distinction between parental and ancestral tradition interests me: I am not sure yet how significant a distinction it is or should be. (I am certainly, explicitly, working against Bloom’s heavily Oedipal model.) As Bate says, so genially, so calmly, in such avuncular (sorry—the familial words are rife) tones,” the ancestral permitted one—by providing a ‘purer,’ more time-hallowed, more conveniently malleable example—even to disparage the parent in the name of ‘tradition.’”

I grew up in a house with many books by Bate; when my grandmother went blind, I inherited copies of my own. So, I knew his name without having read much of him. Then, in 1996 or 1997, I met him. He was quite elderly at the time, and ailing. Our mutual friend, a lively and genial man probably thirty years my senior and thirty years Bate’s junior, tried to interest “Jack” in the fact of a very young professor of English. He looked right through me, asked for more sherry, and then asked, with boyish wonder, if our mutual friend had really seen Macchu Pichu on his recent trip. Not my proudest brush with greatness.