A meeting of the minds

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt and Queen’s professor George Logan talk about their longtime friendship, authorship and their favourite Shakespeare plays

Greenblatt became a full professor at Berkeley in 1980, where he taught for 28 years before taking a position as the Harry Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard.
Greenblatt became a full professor at Berkeley in 1980, where he taught for 28 years before taking a position as the Harry Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard.
George Logan retired this year as the head of Queen’s department of English. He has been a Queen’s faculty member for 40 years.
George Logan retired this year as the head of Queen’s department of English. He has been a Queen’s faculty member for 40 years.

Stephen Greenblatt and George Logan started working together 10 years ago, but met face-to-face for the first time last Sunday at Kingston’s airport.

These names may not immediately strike a chord with you but if you’ve taken first-year English, you will undoubtedly remember the weighty, 6,000-plus page books that make up the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volumes 1 and 2. Greenblatt and Logan both edit the 16th-century section of the Norton, and Greenblatt is the book’s general editor, and the editor of the Norton Shakespeare.

Greenblatt is also a renowned Harvard professor, Shakespearean scholar, Pulitzer Prize finalist and literary and cultural theorist. Logan is the former head of the English department at Queen’s. After retiring this year, Logan asked Greenblatt to come and speak at Queen’s in his honour. Greenblatt gave a speech on Monday entitled “Shakespearean Beauty Marks.” Greenblatt said never meeting Logan in person before resulted in some confusion recognizing his friend.

“I looked very hard at someone else who doesn’t look anything like George— some man who was standing by the gate and said, ‘You know, maybe that’s what George Logan looks like,’ ” he said. “For 10 years, we’ve been friends. Have you never had a pen-pal? It’s like Internet dating—or Internet trading.”

Logan said the two friends have exchanged around a million e-mails since he first asked then-associate general editor Greenblatt to join his section of the Norton.

“I was the editor of the 16th-century section but I thought about it a little bit and I thought really, he ought to be in a section and the 16th-century section is the one he ought to be in,” he said. “Anyway, I’d done two of those editions; I wasn’t eager to do another one. So I asked the person in New York who was running the anthology to ask him if he would do it and he agreed to do it.”

Greenblatt said he chose to speak at Queen’s in honour of Logan’s retirement. “Everyone is busy, we’re all busy. It’s not so easy to find the time. But this wasn’t hard to find the time for; I’m honoured to do it.”

What follows is an edited version of the Journal’s 40-minute interview with Greenblatt and Logan.

The Journal: What led you to pursue a career in English? Greenblatt: Well, it didn’t happen
immediately after junior high school. I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Why did you change your mind?

Greenblatt: No good reason. I applied to law school when I was in college, but also got a fellowship at Cambridge. So I deferred my admission to law school, and in Christmas vacation of my year at Cambridge, I heard I’d gotten renewal of the Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge as well as renewal in acceptance at Cambridge. I was standing on the bridge over the Golden Horn [in Istanbul], I had the two letters in my hand, and I tore up the law school admission and threw it in the water.

There are lots of things you can do in your life, and my decision was partly the effect of youth, partly stupidity, and it was a buoyant time. Did your family influence you in your academics or your work in English literature?

Greenblatt: They influenced me by being reasonable, and not saying that I should do something where I’d be sure to make a lot of money. My mother loved to write, and so in that informal way she would help me that way, and I associated writing with pleasure, and with sitting with my mother.

Logan: Some people become bookish and some do not, as Stephen talked about being influenced by his mother. It was the same with me; my mother loved books and read so much to me. It took, and I started reading for myself. I think the really crucial period was the teenage years, when I started
reading the big novels of the 19th and 20th century, the big Russian novels like [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] Crime and Punishment. The same thing happened to me with music. I remember when I started listening to classical music. It was the same process; it’s like an infection … .

My father, like Stephen’s, was a lawyer. He opened a bank after the Great Depression and didn’t practice after that. Like many lawyers, he was a wordsmith, and loved to write speeches and such, and my mother was a reader and loved poetry. So it just goes on from there.

As renowned scholars of Shakespeare, what are your thoughts on Shakespeare and authorship? Was he really the author we think he was?

Greenblatt: There is an overwhelming scholarly consensus that a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon, born in 1564 from a middle class background, coming from a town smaller than Kingston, wrote the plays. It’s been a source of disappointment over the years that it wasn’t a glamorous aristocrat from a fancy background who went to Oxford and Cambridge. I think maybe 100th of one per cent of people with
a scholarly background believe this, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. A couple years ago, the New York Times published an article referring to a teacher of mine as a noted Stratfordian, which is what they call someone who believes someone else wrote the plays. I wrote into the Times, and said what is odd about this is they don’t refer to astronomers as noted Capernicuns.

They take seriously the scholarly consensus that this has been proven. What that suggests to me about the New York Times is that they don’t take these things seriously.

I don’t think anyone who works in this field has any doubts about the author, but I think the impulse to look for another author is a very interesting cultural phenomenon.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with conspiracy theories like that?

Greenblatt: Well, having said what I said, there are problems. How is it that someone without a university background wrote some of these plays? How is it that someone without a glamorous background wrote plays about aristocrats? How is it possible that someone who didn’t scribble his name on a lot of books as far as we know wrote plays that indicate he had access to books?

Where did he access books? There are issues that make us ask “how did this happen?” The tax collector who came to London to get a “William Shakespeare” to pay his taxes, did an estimate on his property, and didn’t list anything we would assume he would have, like a library. We assume that
what happened is that Shakespeare did have a library, but didn’t like paying taxes, so hid things like this. Why do you think these works appear to have stood the test of time? Why has Shakespeare become so renowned compared to other authors?

Logan: Milton says that a great book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, and I think that’s about right. Some people are smarter than us, and more perceptive than us, and have a greater command of language. To have the privilege of seeing the world through their eyes is rare and valuable, and
people don’t want to let that go. Do either of you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

Greenblatt: I don’t really, almost on principle.

Logan: It’s like picking out your favourite children. I can’t say I love one more than the others. I guess I can say, though I guess Hamlet is my favourite. But I must say, the one I’d actually had the most sustained contact with over the years is King Lear, because it’s in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, so every time a new edition comes out, I go through it carefully. Each time, I remark over how good it is, and it always feels new to me. It’s just so unbelievably good.

You have the same experience with music sometimes, where you can’t conceive that a human being could think at that level, or use language or music at that level. How many times would you say you’ve read over the newest Norton Anthology volume?

Greenblatt: Oh, I’ve certainly read certain parts numerous times, but in terms of reading every page, every gloss, every note, everything, I wouldn’t say I’ve done that many times.

Logan: We’ve both been through the 16th-century section of it many times, and every time you do a new edition, you read it several times. There are periods where you spend weeks doing nothing but reading through it. You do examine every single word of your section every time.

Greenblatt: Anything new that goes in it, I read, but I trust the section editors to read their sections with every new edition. If you’re going to read every note and every gloss, it isn’t reading for pleasure, so you don’t want to be doing that repeatedly, for certain.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.