Friday, December 21, 2018

The Talented Mr. Carpenter

Humphrey Carpenter with Dame Antonia Fraser (1988)

Alan Bennett's 2009 play The Habit of Art, a curious work devoted almost wholly (it would seem) to denigrating the late great W. H. Auden (cf. the Guardian article on Bennett entitled "why Auden the bore almost turned me off writing") was broadcast as a "live theatre" performance to cinemas all over the world in 2010.

One of those locations was the Bridgeway theatre in Northcote, Auckland. As an Auden fanatic - unaware at the time of Bennett's views on the poet - I duly turned up to watch the strange farrago unfold.

Alan Bennett: The Habit of Art (2009)

Reading between the lines, it seems probable to me that Bennett set out to write a play about Auden's unhappy last days domiciled in Christ Church, Oxford. It must have got away from him somehow - perhaps it seemed too nakedly spiteful, even to him? - so he decided to turn it instead into a play-within-a-play. "The Habit of Art," then, actually consists of a dress rehearsal for another play called "Caliban's Day". As Bennett explained to the author of the article mentioned above:
in order to address the many queries and notes on the text ("do we need this?"; "too much information") from the play's director, Nicholas Hytner, he invented a framing device: the play would be set in a rehearsal room.

"Queries about the text could then be put in the mouths of the actors who (along with the audience) could have their questions answered in the course of the rehearsal."
In other words, any crappy writing in the Auden play could then be explained away by someone in the cast exclaiming: "what crappy writing!" - one of the many reasons (I speak as one who knows) why such metafictional structures tend to appeal so much to authors and so little to their audiences.
The device also allowed Bennett to introduce the character of the author – himself – who complains about real cuts that Hytner suggested to the play.

Alan Bennett: The Habit of Art (2009)
[l-to-r: Richard Griffiths as Auden; Adrian Scarborough as Carpenter; Alex Jennings as Britten]

The tone of the whole was set early on, when one of the other characters makes a remark about the latest book by Auden's old friend and teacher, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien. "More fucking elves," quips Richard Griffiths (standing in for Michael Gambon at this particular performance).

This may very well encapsulate Alan Bennett's views on Tolkien's Middle-earth, but it seems most unlikely to represent Auden's, given that the poet praised The Lord of the Rings so fulsomely, in so many places, over the years.

Who knows, though? Maybe the worm had turned by the early 70s, when the play is set. There was, after all, a famous controversy between the two over Auden's alleged "denigration" of the house Tolkien lived in (he was quoted in the New Yorker in 1966 as having called it as “a hideous house — I can’t tell you how awful it is — with hideous pictures on the wall.”)

Another less forgivable dig in Bennett's ill-natured play is what seems a weirdly unmotivated assault on the memory and reputation of Tolkien's first biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. As the wikipedia summary puts it:
Auden has hired a rent boy, Stuart (Tim) and when Humphrey Carpenter (Donald) - who will write biographies of both Auden and Britten after their deaths - arrives to interview him, Auden mistakes him for Stuart.
It isn't quite so simply as that, in context, though. In the actual play as broadcast, the actor playing Carpenter comes on in drag, screeching like a lunatic, and generally embodying some of the "research" the former has been doing on him - as he explains to the director when the latter objects to this rather over-the-top impersonation.

And, yes, apparently Carpenter was a keen amateur musician, who occasionally performed in drag, and generally came across as somewhat larger than life. It's only after that exchange that the play limps on into the long, unfunny and unbelievable scene of Auden's mistaking Carpenter for the teenage rent boy he has "ordered."

To add insult to injury, Bennett tries to undo the rather spiteful impression given by this awful set of caricatures of Auden, Britten and Carpenter by giving his own alter-ego, the author, a long pompous monologue about the "value" he places on each of these lives - the rentboy as much as the poet, the bit-player as much as the star - towards the end of his melodrama.

I guess the reason this rings so false is that the actual nature of these walk-on parts is so stereotyped and perfunctory that one would never know from internal evidence that the writer placed the slightest importance on any of them. If Bennett had made them strong characters in the first place, he wouldn't have needed the face-saving soliloquy.

Why do I dwell so much on this rather forgettable play of Alan Bennett's? I guess because it should remind us all of how fickle is literary fame and reputation. No-one's really in much danger of forgetting the fact of Humphrey Carpenter's remarkable series of trail-blazing biographies, but at the same time their author seems to be receding more and more into oblivion. His wikipedia page doesn't even contain a partial bibliography, though there are a couple of paragraphs describing his books, some not even with their correct titles.

Here's my own attempt at a list (most - though not all of them - from my own collection):

Humphrey Carpenter: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977)

Humphrey William Bouverie Carpenter

[titles I own are marked in bold]:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
  2. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
  3. Jesus. Past Masters Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  4. W. H. Auden: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
  5. O.U.D.S.: A Centenary History of the Oxford University Dramatic Society 1885–1985. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  6. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
  7. Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1987.
  8. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1988.
  9. The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends. London: Faber, 1989.
  10. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber, 1992.
  11. The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946–1996. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.
  12. Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.
  13. Dennis Potter: A Biography. London: Faber, 1998.
  14. That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the 1960s. London: Victor Gollancz, 2000.
  15. The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s. London: Allen Lane, 2002.
  16. Spike Milligan: The Biography. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003.
  17. The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty. London: John Murray, 2008.

  18. Humphrey Carpenter: The Angry Young Men (2002)


  19. [with Mari Prichard]. A Thames Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  20. [with Christopher Tolkien]. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
  21. [with Mari Prichard]. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  22. Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits. London: Viking, 1994.

Humphrey Carpenter & Mari Prichard, ed.: The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984)

Of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Carpenter. His interest in children's literature manifested itself in a strong desire to make a lasting contribution to the field. After a few ranging shots with such works as The Joshers: Or London to Birmingham with Albert and Victoria (1977) and The Captain Hook Affair (1979), he eventually arrived at Mr Majeika. Long before Harry Potter made the whole idea of wizards as school-teachers a commonplace, the former gave rise to a dizzying variety of titles:

Humphrey Carpenter: Mr Majeika Collection (1984-98)

  1. Mr Majeika
  2. Mr Majeika and the School Trip
  3. Mr Majeika and the Lost Spell Book
  4. Mr Majeika and the Ghost Train
  5. Mr Majeika and the Dinner Lady
  6. Mr Majeika and the School Caretaker
  7. Mr Majeika and the Music Teacher
  8. Mr Majeika and the Haunted Hotel
  9. Mr Majeika and the School Book Week
  10. Mr Majeika and the Internet
  11. Mr Majeika and the School Inspector
  12. Mr Majeika joins the Circus
  13. Mr Majeika and the School Play
  14. Mr Majeika Vanishes
Mr Majeika was also successfully filmed as a children's TV series (1988-90), which resulted in the spin-off book The Television Adventures of Mr Majeika.

But who exactly was Humphrey Carpenter, and why has his star gone into (at least partial) eclipse? When you add to the works listed above a punishing schedule as a radio presenter and interviewer - not to mention his regular gigs as a jazz musician (the double-bass was his instrument) - the answer must surely include the words "a workaholic."

One of the last of the great English eccentrics, Humphrey Carpenter was brought up in the Warden's Lodgings at Keble College, Oxford, where his father worked until his appointment as Bishop of Oxford. He lived virtually all of his life in Oxford, though his work as a biographer took him all over the world. There's an interesting aside in the acknowledgements at the end of his monumental life of Ezra Pound (p. 973):
my American hosts in the spring of 1985 ... coped with me on my whirlwind research trip when I was at least as mad as Ezra Pound was ever supposed to have been.
What exactly is that supposed to mean? Ample evidence for eccentric behaviour on Pound's part has been given in the 900-odd pages preceding this disclaimer - for Carpenter to describe himself in similar terms is really saying something, therefore.

Perhaps, then, the grotesque caricature who comes flouncing out in Bennett's play is not so far from the reality of Carpenter's ebullient personality as might have been thought from the thorough-to-the-point-of-sober-sidedness nature of (at least) his scholarly books. Who knows? Certainly I don't.

There's room, I would have thought, for a life of Carpenter himself. He must have been a fascinating, many-sided man. Some at least of his biographies can never be superseded, given their priority in setting the terms of the discourse on such authors as Tolkien and Auden. Some of the others (the Pound, the Waugh, for instance) are already receding from view as a result of the ever-increasing outpouring of writing on certain mid-century literary figures.

The sheer range of his interests: not just literary but musical, not just theatrical but theological, too, may have perversely worked to his disadvantage. Only a reader interested in all of these things is likely to notice the solid work done by him in virtually all of the fields he touched.

Carpenter's life of Tolkien was read by all the Lord of the Rings obsessives in my family - which was most of us - the moment it appeared in 1977 (as a double-bill with the first edition of The Silmarillion). We hated it. The lack of empathy he seemed to show with his subject (whom he only actually met once) contrasted greatly with Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper's life of C. S. Lewis, which preceded it by three years.

Over time, though, I came to appreciate the distanced, nuanced nature of Carpenter's approach to biography. he didn't really major on scandal, but he never ignored it, either. His pioneering life of Benjamin Britten, for instance, examines in detail all the sexual innuendos alleged against the composer at various points in his life (and afterwards) with admirable balance and finesse. He isn't so much concerned to make you like his subjects, as to understand them better.

Having a Humphrey Carpenter biography about you guarantees a certain standard of scholarly documentation and research. Far from the grotesque figure of fun of Bennett's play, he shines as a man of protean talents who applied them cannily to create a major and lasting body of work.

Humphrey Carpenter: The Inklings (1978)

Closer examination of his otherwise prodigious rate of production reveals certain recurrent patterns. There is, for instance, his tendency to produce at least two books rather than one from the same approximate area of research. His work on J. R. R. Tolkien (1977) led to a 1978 book on his circle of friends, the Inklings (C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, et al.) - as well as an edition of Tolkien's Letters (1981), co-edited with Christopher Tolkien. His 1981 biography of w. H. Auden must have helped immensely with his later work on Auden's early friend and collaborator Benjamin Britten a decade later, in 1992. His 1988 biography of Ezra Pound is closely shadowed by Geniuses Together (1987), a book on American writers in Paris in the 1920s.

Need I go on? Work on Spike Milligan also informs his work on British satire in the 1960s (not to mention the OUDS). Secret Gardens (1985), his book on classic children's writing, comes hot on the heels of his magisterial Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (1984).

I guess that everyone works like that to some extent: one project motivating and informing the next. In aggregate, though, it does have the effect of making Carpenter seem like a kind of octopus, with a finger in every cultural pie.

Efficient workers work efficiently. It would be different if Carpenter had produced a series of slipshod, perfunctory, ill-researched books. In fact the opposite is the case. There's nothing belletristic in his approach to his craft. If anything, at times one could wish him to be a bit less self-effacing.

Humphrey Carpenter: Quotes

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Herman Melville as Poet

Herman Melville: Complete Poems (2019)

Complete Poems: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War / Clarel / John Marr and Other Sailors / Timoleon / Posthumous & Unpublished. 1866, 1876, 1888 & 1891. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 4. Ed. Hershel Parker. The Library of America, 320. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2019.

I remember remarking to a fellow Melvillian (or Melville-omaniac, if you prefer), A/Prof Alex Calder of the University of Auckland, how great it would be if the Library of America decided to follow up their three-volume set of all his prose works with an equally complete edition of his poetry. He agreed, but clearly thought it unlikely ever to happen.

  1. Typee, Omoo, Mardi. 1846, 1847, 1849. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 1. Ed. G. Thomas Tanselle. The Library of America, 1. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1982.

  2. Redburn, White Jacket, Moby-Dick. 1849, 1850, 1851. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 2. Ed. G. Thomas Tanselle. The Library of America, 9. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983.

  3. Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales & Billy Budd. 1852, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1922 & 1924. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 3. Ed. Harrison Hayford. The Library of America, 24. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1985.

It's with a certain satisfaction, then, that I've just seen on a pre-announcement of just such a volume. Mind you, the timing of it is not exactly a surprise. Even by the somewhat lax standards of other magisterial editions of American writers, the completion of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's complete works has been a long time coming: almost fifty years, in fact.

  1. Melville, Herman. Published Poems: Battle Pieces; John Marr; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising & G. Thomas Tanselle. Historical Note by Hershel Parker. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 11. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 2009.

  2. Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 1876. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Hershel Parker & G. Thomas Tanselle. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 12. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 1991.

  3. Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings: Billy Budd, Sailor; Weeds and Wildlings; Parthenope; Uncollected Prose; Uncollected Poetry. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg & G. Thomas Tanselle. Historical Note by Hershel Parker. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 13. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 2017.

It all started with a hiss and a roar in the mid-1960s. The first volume appeared in 1968, with a vague estimate that the whole project might take five years or so. As you can see from the dates listed above, it took a bit longer than that: the final volume devoted to Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings finally appeared last year, in 2017.

Admittedly it was volume 13, which might be thought to predispose it to bad luck, and the trawl through the archives for unpublished and uncollected material always takes longer than editing the works that appeared in an author's own lifetime. (If you're curious, you can find Meaghan Fritz's account of the whole strange saga here, on the Northwestern University Press website.)

Herman Melville: Collected Poems (1947)

Melville, Herman. Collected Poems. Ed. Howard P. Vincent. Chicago: Packard and Company / Hendricks House, 1947.

Until that monstrous feat of scholarship was complete, however, it was no good even thinking of a new edition of Melville's Complete Poems to replace Howard P. Vincent's pioneering Collected Poems. Probably the best that could be done was the volume below, a collection of all three of the books of poems published during Melville's lifetime, with a few selections from Clarel to give an idea of its scope and complexity:

Douglas Robillard, ed.: The Poems of Herman Melville (1976)

Melville, Herman. The Poems of Herman Melville: Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War; John Marr and Other Sailors; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Douglas Robillard. 1976. Kent, Ohio & London: Kent State University Press, 2000.

As America's Civil War obsession grew and grew - especially after the success of Ken Burn's 1990 documentary TV series - more attention came to be focussed on Melville's 1866 book Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, probably the only collection of its kind which can stand comparison with Whitman's Drum-taps (1865). Facsimile and other separate editions of that began to appear, also:

Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces: The Civil War Poems. 1866. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2000.

At this point a little-known critic named Jack Ross decided to weigh in with his own opinions. This is what he had to say on the subject on in 2005 (underneath Douglas Robillard's 1976 edition of The Poetry of Herman Melville, pictured above):
J. Ross:
4.0 out of 5 stars
Is Melville's poetry really worth reading?
October 22, 2005
Format: Paperback

If the difficulty of getting hold of it is any indication, then most people think Melville's poetry isn't worth it. I've been waiting for years for the poetry volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition to appear (it was promised for 2002, but still shows no signs of coming out). That will be the ultimate answer, as it'll include all the materials, commentaries, etc. that one could desire.

In the meantime, it makes a lot of sense to collect Melville's own three published volumes of verse in this beautifully compact book. This may not represent his poetic legacy as a whole, but it shows (at any rate) his public face as a poet.

And a very odd poet he is indeed. He has a lot in common with Thomas Hardy, I think: both are addicted to convoluted diction, impossibly complex and confining stanza forms and metrical schemes, a general sense of labouring over every line and of lack of music and ease.

Hardy is, nevertheless, a great poet. When the occasion demands it - "The Convergence of the Twain" about the Titanic disaster, the superb poems of 1912 about his dead wife - there's a kind of clumsy power about him which overpowers any reservations.

Melville's technical shortcomings are - if anything - even greater. The chains of rhyme and metre chafe him more than virtually any other nineteenth-century poet I can think of. He seems to have almost no natural facility for verse.

And yet (as all readers of his prose are aware) he is a genius. His prose-poetry in Moby-Dick, "Benito Cereno" and "Las Encantadas" is incomparable. And every now and then it glimmers out in the midst of the most clotted poems. There are certain lines from his Civil War poems included in Ken Burns' PBS documentary series which seem almost to beat Whitman at his own game:
In glades they meet skull after skull
Where pine-cones lay ...
... Some start as in dreams,
And comrades lost bemoan:
By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged -
But the Year and the Man were gone. [102]
The equation between the skulls and the pine-cones is haunting, yet unobtrusive, and the invocation of Stonewall as a kind of force of nature works brilliantly. There's a mythic force in some of these Civil War poems which is unsurpassed.

Once you get over the surface defects, then, there's a lot encoded in the depths of Melville's verse - a submerged continent of perceptions every bit as vivid as his fiction. The wait continues for the definitive edition, but for now I'm just grateful to have this one. It seems somehow characteristic that he should have to wait so long for the critical establishment to do justice to his talents in this field -- Herman Melville (both as a man and a writer), was, it seems, born to be overlooked.

Certainly that bit about my long wait for the poetry volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition rings true - I didn't then realise that there would be two: one for the poetry published during his lifetime, and another for his posthumous and uncollected work. I already had a copy of their edition of Clarel, which was some comfort, at least.

I see from their site that I first ordered books from in 1997, and virtually the first things I went after were Melville's Poetry (Northwestern-Newberry edition) and the Complete Poems of W. H. Auden (a two-volume edition, edited by Edward Mendelson, then promised for 1998). I 'pre-ordered' both, only to endure years of delays and excuses and finally their complete disappearance from the site.

The Melville project has now - almost - cranked to a close, awaiting just that last Library of America volume to complete the tally. Auden's Complete Works, however, took a long detour through six volumes of his collected prose, on top of two of his plays and libretti, and so, twenty years later, I'm still waiting for those poems. Never say die, though: I'm sure that when they do eventually appear, they'll be very thoroughly collated and annotated.

W. H. Auden: Prose (Volume 1: 1997)

So do I have much to add now to the rather self-assured remarks I made in 2005? I read somewhere recently that America's three greatest nineteenth-century poets were Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson - and Herman Melville. That does indeed seem to be the view which has become prevalent, judging at any rate by the amount of critical prose spewed out on each of them.

Certainly it's a shift from Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Whittier and all those other Boston Brahmins who seemed to have the field sewn up at the time, in the late 1800s. Poe is still in the running in either schema, I suppose.

These new "big three" do indeed have a lot going for them - if contemporary obscurity can be seen as the most reliable gauge of merit. Dickinson was almost invisible till well after her death. Melville's early vogue as a writer of sea-going romances did not translate into a scintilla of interest in his later poetry. Whitman was visible: but more as a figure of fun or opprobrium than someone to be taken seriously except by a few disciples and true believers.

More to the point, perhaps, all three are strange: their poetics defy the conventional practice of the time, and yet have gone on to have an immense influence on the writing of the twentieth century (in particular).

In Harold Bloom's terms (The Western Canon) they are canonical because otherwise unassimilable: they simply can't be pigeonholed beside anyone else - even each other. I do think this Library of America volume will be timely for Melville enthusiasts to try to substantiate their claims, therefore. It's not much use calling him one of America's greatest poets if readers can't get proper access to his work.

It'll always be a tough nut to swallow: harder even than Dickinson and Whitman, given his more earnest attempts to accommodate himself to conventional nineteenth-century prosody - but I think, in the end, there's no point in trying to overlook it any more. If Moby-Dick - then Clarel. The latter is not that much more difficult than the former. He is weird, though: best to bear that in mind from the start.

Here's "The Portent," his poem about the "martyr" John Brown:
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
"Lo, John Brown", eh? ... Law / more / war and Shenandoah as rhymes ... You see what I mean about the strange clumsiness of his proceedings? There's generally something to it, though - his choice of words ("weird John Brown" / "the meteor of the war") repays scrutiny.

In any case, here are some more samples from my own Melvilliana:

John J. Healey: Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance (2013)

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

  1. Melville, Herman. Romances: Typee; Omoo; Mardi; Moby-Dick; White-Jacket; Israel Potter; Redburn. 1846, 1847, 1849, 1851, 1850, 1855 & 1849. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1931.

  2. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Ed. Harold Beaver. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  3. Melville, Herman. Pierre, or The Ambiguities: The Kraken Edition. 1852. Ed. Hershel Parker. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

  4. Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. An Authoritative Text / Backgrounds and Sources / Reviews / Criticism / An Annotated Bibliography. 1857. Ed. Hershel Parker. A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.

  5. Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). Edited from the Manuscript with Introduction and Notes. 1891 & 1924. Ed. Harrison Hayford & Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1962. A Phoenix Book. Chicago & London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1970.

  6. Leyda, Jay, ed. The Portable Melville. 1952. The Viking Portable Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  7. Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. 1974. The Critical Heritage Series. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1985.

  8. Parker, Hershel, & Harrison Hayford, ed. Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851-1970). A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Patrick Arrasmith: Herman Melville (2013)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Breaking the Million-Hit Barrier


I definitely feel like breaking out the champagne today. One million hits on my blog! That seems like quite a lot to me.

It all started in 2010, when they introduced a new feature on blogspot which made it possible to access easily a range of vital statistics about your site/s. As well as the basic count of how many hits each blogpost achieved, you could study your main sources of traffic, the ways in which visitors accessed your site, and other intriguing pieces of trivia.

Pageviews 2010-18

I started The Imaginary Museum back in 2006, so I'm not sure if those earlier posts (half of the 462 to date) are included in the tally. Whether they are or not, though, I find it rather amazing that this most self-indulgent of websites, dedicated to so many subjects which I suspect I'm quite unusual in finding fascinating - bibliography, ghosts, poetry, the 1001 Nights, poetry readings and book-launches - should have clocked up so many individual hits over the past eight years.

Top-earning posts

Mind you, I do understand what a blunt instrument such counters can be. There's nothing qualitative about this data. A long read of a post will show up just the same as a momentary glance at a headline or an image.

They're not all from me, either. There's a little link you can click on to make sure that your own pageviews don't get counted in the total, otherwise it would all seem a bit incestuous.

Pageviews by countries

And as for the countries the hits are coming from, why so many from Russia, for instance? Why more from Belgium than from Australia? It's hard to reach clear conclusions about such matters, beyond noting the bare facts.

More to the point, though, I recently conducted a census of all the various websites I operate (you can find a complete list of them here, if you're curious). The nearest contender to The Imaginary Museum was my book collection site, A Gentle Madness, which has reached 276,970 pageviews. Most of the others were considerably less than that - though I was pleased to see that my Leicester Kyle site had clocked up more than 50,000 hits.

In total, they came to more than 3,000,000 pageviews, so I'd have to say that this long experiment on online writing / publishing must be seen as a success. I don't see how I could ever reached anything like that number of people by conventional means.

No doubt Whale Oil and the Daily Blog get more than that number every hour, but then they are targetting a rather different audience.

Pageviews today

Imaginary Museum stats (22/12/20)

[Postscript - 30th December 2020]:

As you'll see from the above, it's taken me roughly two years to collect another quarter of a million hits here on the Imaginary Museum. In the meantime, there's been a complete redesign of the editing platform, so the results present somewhat differently.

All-time Pageviews (30/12/20)

Here's how the pageviews break down over the past ten years. And below you can see a list of the top posts on the blog to date. I guess it means that there's some kind of an audience for my wares out there - it certainly makes me feel more like persevering with it, for the time being, at any rate.

Top-scoring posts

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Jack's Beijing Adventure (4): To Peking University

Ariva Hotel, Haidian Road South, Beijing

So, if you imagine us taking a walk through the streets of Beijing towards Peking University, this is our starting point: the massive Ariva Hotel.

A somewhat Edward Hopper-esque window view

From there you can take either of two routes. Either the subway:

Or else the half-hour walk along Suzhou Street, through all the traffic and noise:


looking north

Haidian Bridge, facing west

In any case, eventually you have to go in by one of the gates, showing your ID to get in. This is the West Gate:

West Gate

And here's the main administration building (no less a personage than Mao Tse-Tung himself was once the librarian at Peking University, but that was when it was still located near the centre of the city):

Administration Building

stone lion outside the Administration Building

It really is quite a spectacular campus. The most beautiful part of it is undoubtedly Weiming Lake:

map of Weiming Lake

Weiming Lake



stones from the old Summer Palace

The ruins of the old Summer Palace are a little way north of the campus. They were destroyed by barbarian invaders - i.e. us - in 1860 during the second Opium War. The rebuilt palace is some distance away, and is a celebrated beauty spot (I didn't get the chance to go there, unfortunately).


memorial for Edgar Snow

Here's another interesting sight: a memorial to Edgar Snow, author of Red Star over China (1937), the first comprehensive account of Mao Tse-Tung, the Long March, and other historic details of the Chinese communist party's rise to power.

pond beside the New Zealand Centre

The NZ Centre is fortunate to be housed in a building so near the most beautiful part of the university. My friend Xiaotong told me that all through his childhood he had dreamed of walking by the Weiming Lake as a student of Peking University. Now that he'd achieved that ambition, he felt a little lost.

the pagoda

towards the East Gate

l-to-r: Professor Lui Shushen, me, A/ Prof Liu Hongzhong & A/Prof Mei Shenyou

My hosts were kind enough to invite me to dinner at a very famous restaurant, Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant, to sample the celebrated delicacy ("you can't go home without trying it"). It was certainly very tasty, though a trifle complicated to eat.

Discussion time after my second lecture, with Hongzhong & me
& some visiting Kiwi students from Canterbury (28/11/18)

So there you are. It was certainly a great experience. I hope the rest of the course goes well - I've already sent in my exam questions for the students, so now it's all up to Hongzhong and the others. I did get lost once - on the way back from the university, the first time I went there, but luckily a kind English-speaking passerby took pity on me, and gave me directions back to the hotel.

Haidian Road South & the Ariva Hotel (21/11/18)