*from EILEEN: Can you imagine sitting down and willfully deciding to write a book review just because you felt compelled to do so, even though no one had actually requested it? Yes, I know it happens, but it is RARE, people ... RARE. There's something compelling about a book that, in its own inimitable way, calls forth a commentary, or a writing-beside (minus the usual compulsory, or professional, obligation to do so, and we've featured many such reviews here at ITM over the years). So we were delighted when Jenna Mead contacted us and told us that she had unwittingly written an entire review of Paul Strohm's recent book and micro-history Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Viking, 2014), just because she felt like it, and what should she do with it? Publish it here, that's what. So, without further ado --
Strohm’s boy & translatio studii
Paul Strohm, Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. New York: Viking, 2014. i-xv, 1-284; 1 map; 12 coloured plates.
by Jenna Mead
About halfway through his scintillating account of the wool trade, Paul Strohm’s expository third person narrator serves up one of his coolest wisecracks. Describing—of all things—the export commodity market, he says
Records indicate occasional shipments of lead, tin, leather, cheese, butter, feathers and featherbeds, resin, frippery (whether rags or sewn clothing ornament, linen, wheat, woad (a source of blue dye), wax, and fat—exports, that is, of a miscellaneous character and decidedly modest profitability . . .but wool was the ball game. Excepting the odd peasant in a remote village or a hermit in a cell, nobody in fourteenth-century England was more than one degree of separation from the wool trade. (107)
That’s it right there. Strohm’s narrator is everything you want your guide through Chaucer’s life to be: intimately knowledgeable about the material; generous but perspicacious in his judgments; technically accomplished in managing the kind of story he’s sifted out of putting the archive next to historical fiction next to micro-history and downright funny. Above all, this narrator is confident about the narrative he wants to tell and the reader whose attention he’s caught up and wants to keep. A tried and true way to seduce readers and keep them is to place those readers in the story and Strohm’s narrator does that here by pulling off a wicked piece of translatio studii. Literally “the transfer of knowledge from one geographical place and time to another,” this wonk-puncturing wisecrack and its witty amplification summoning up the stereotypes of comic medievalism—the yokel peasant and the walled-in hermit—shift a snapshot of balance of payments to less than one degree of separation from the reader at the ballpark. The effect is achieved through drop-dead timing: just when you thought you didn’t understand medieval economics, Strohm’s narrator brings it right into your twenty-first century ear and you’re there on the fourteenth-century dock watching the bales going out and the money rolling in. You’re connected to the narrative. As long as you know how to play ball that is; but more on that later.
Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury is, of course, not Chaucer’s tale at all but Strohm’s tale and it sets the bar high in what’s emerging as a renewed confidence in the genre of biography and Chaucer as its subject. This year’s MLA Convention, for example, included a session titled “Chaucer and Microhistory” at which Marion E Turner and Ardis Butterfield considered “After Biography” and "Writing Chaucer's Life: A Surrogate Narrative" while Daniel Birkholz considered "Micro-Literary History in a Pre-Chaucerian Register.” The session anchored “microhistory” to the canonical Chaucer either as subject or temporal marker. Strohm’s publisher, Viking, refines the connection by calling the book “[a] lively microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to the creation of The Canterbury Tales:” thereby shifting the genre from academic discursive formation, with a history arcing back to E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class and Carlo Ginzburg, I benandanti. Ricerche sulla stregoneria e sui culti agria tra Cinquecento e Seicento in 1963, to a commercial category that has the feel of something trending up. It’s a smart move: “micro” is small enough to read easily (no footnotes) and who doesn’t like “biography,” especially if it reads like fiction? The data on Goodreads.com are certainly pointing that way; Amazon reviews are generally in agreement with one discerning reviewer identifying the book as a “crossover” from “history” to “a wider audience.”
Chaucer’s Tale is more ambitious than that, though, and under the rubric of “a little life story” Strohm’s narrative is about a single year (1386) and the writing of a masterwork (The Canterbury Tales). So it’s a story about history and literature. It has a roll call of major characters—the dangerously skilful John of Gaunt, the dangerously perverse Richard II and all the others—whose histories dramatize a grand narrative of late fourteen-century London with deft economy, supplemented by lesser-known figures who are given their moment in the sun—egregious Nicholas Brembre and his cronies, clever, sexy Katherine Swynford and her loyal sister Philippa, Sir Arnold Savage and the folks down in Kent, taking the political temperature in London and often getting it right. But it also has an argument and here is where the fault line, as Strohm perceives it, lies between history and biography, regardless of dimensions. In an interview with Candace Robb, Strohm says, with disarming candour:
In Social Chaucer and in books like Hochon’s Arrow I let myself linger over the uncertainties of my evidence, over its recesses, its obtuseness, its silences and evasions. But when you’re writing a biography–even a “microbiography” as my publisher calls it–you have to commit to narrative. You can’t endlessly wobble about, was it this way or that way. You have to go ahead and make your best choice and get the story told. And I don’t mind that. It’s a different way of knowing. Narrative–the arrangement of details into a coherent account–is itself a powerful tool of discovery. When you narrate incidents, configure them or string them together, you learn things.
What’s at stake here is negotiating between the archive—for the most part, the Chaucer Life-Records—and the demands of “commit[ting] to narrative” and this is where Strohm’s intelligence and skills as a writer push his narrative toward historical fiction. “In the pivotal year 1386, at the mature age of forty-two or forty-three, Chaucer was a man of literary accomplishment, standing on the brink of his decision to write the Canterbury Tales” (184). Really? Chaucer stood on the brink right then? Really? There is nothing in the Chaucer Life-Records to support this claim: Strohm knows this because he observes that “[o]ne can immerse oneself in the extensive Life-Records without learning that Chaucer was a writer at all” (184). But this is the critical point in the argument. Chaucer’s annus horribilis deprives him of all that he has known and relied upon as a writer and the move to Kent demands and occasions one of the most daring innovations of his entire poetic: he invents an audience “that will live within the borders of his own work, perennially available as a resource for the telling and hearing of tales” (227). To narrativize this moment, demands a trope from historical fiction that imagines a conversation, a moment, a thought, that an historical personage might have had and uses that writerly invention to “get the story told.”
This expository narrator—thinly veiled as the impersonal “one”—has been managing the argumentative thread of the narrative from the beginning and this is the Strohm of Theory and the Premodern Text (2000). The “Introduction” is called “Chaucer’s Crisis” and after setting out historical ground his microbiography will investigate, Strohm unpacks his own crisis.
This book proposes a connection between an author’s immersion in ordinary, everyday activities and the separately imagined world of his literary work. Every literary biographer faces the problem of bridging this practical and conceptual divide. But the problem is stretched to breaking point in the case of a premodern writer who kept no personal diaries and maintained no regular written correspondence or other firsthand account of his motives and thoughts. (7)
Dismissing the “precarious ground when [literary biographers] go prospecting in an artist’s body of written work seeking nuggets of buried life experience” (9), Strohm writes “I have pursued a third option.” “Intermediary between a writer’s public life on the one hand and fictional and literary creations on the other are those activities comprising what might be called the ‘writing scene;’ all those matters of situation and circumstance that permit writing in the first place” (11). Not the “writing scene” of Jacques Derrida’s “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” and here Strohm swerves away from his earlier engagement with psychoanalysis, but a scene of writing revealed by “an evidence-based account that respects the past as past, but that simultaneously seeks out linkages between the past and our present” (13).
This scene is the rich and engaging narrative that comprises the larger part of Strohm’s tale. There is the delicate account of the web of social nuance in the first chapter, “A Married Man,” that pulls Chaucer’s mercantile background and aspirational career prospects into the glamorous orbit of “Hainault Chic” in which the de Roet girls (Katherine and Philippa) moved with the poised ambition of insiders. The net effects for Chaucer are what Strohm calls “collateral benefits” (38) and “derivative favour” (40): patronage at one degree of separation; sometimes being in the room with real power; observable frisson. Strohm is too tactful to draw a comparison that hovers over this part of his narrative. He’s not going to diss his boy. Katherine de Roet becomes Katherine Swynford. It was perhaps convenient: Sir Hugh Swynford is one of Gaunt’s retainers thus locating Katherine in Gaunt’s court with appropriate status. Katherine is also a married woman, with children of her own, while she is governess to Gaunt’s daughters. When Sir Hugh dies (c. 1372) his wife inherits property in Kettlethorp that will become a power base as she builds and husbands her own court—with her sister perhaps to mind her back. Meanwhile, Philippa de Roet becomes Philippa Chaucer and she will thrive in the dense complexities of court life. Her husband, meanwhile, isn’t singled out but neither is he forgotten as he patches together a career on the fringes of public life, without either the spectacular financial success or deadly political risks of others from the same mercantile class.
Another element in the writing scene is the rent-free accommodation over Aldgate (Chapter 2): “cramped, cold, rudimentary in its sanitary arrangements, and (perhaps most seriously in the case of a writer) ill lit, even at midday” (52). There is much evidence of the physical conditions of this scene in which it’s hard to imagine writing taking place at all but Strohm makes two points, almost inter alia, that will resonate in coming events. He notes Aldgate’s “rough-cut stone walls, its narrow arrow slits, its smelly ditch, and its generally defensive and civic character” as “ill-suited to the tastes of a classy and upwardly mobile lady, or, for that matter to the emerging tastes of [Chaucer’s] socially ambitious son Thomas” (61). Yes, exactly. Chaucer’s day job is entangled with the Ricardian faction; Philippa and Thomas operate deep in Lancastrian territory. And while Philippa astutely garners her successes and Thomas learns what he needs to know, Strohm rates Chaucer as a man of “private learning” (65), living “in London for a dozen years without the guarantees and emotional comforts of citizenship, in a city in which distinctions of citizen/noncitizen, freeman/nonfreeman, denizen/alien were attentively observed” (66). Whereas “[t]o be a citizen of London in the later fourteenth century was a splendid thing” (65). Strohm sees the materiality of Chaucer’s life as shorn off from all those forms of association—of ward or parish, for example—that structured lives in the city to which he was born and through which he might have risen to be somebody.
The day job as controller of customs and later the wool custom—his big break after (very) modest success as an esquire in the king’s household—is a complete nightmare. In an earlier, and formal, biography, Derek Pearsall characterized the role at the customs quay in 1374 as “no sinecure: it was not the kind of position that would be granted to a favoured poet to give him the leisure to write more poetry . . .[the job] usually went to professional civil servants” (99). Strohm’s corresponding third chapter, “The Wool Men,” is a triumph of drama and suspense: detailing the shakers and movers in that dangerous set of plays between the volatilities of the market interlocking with the machinations of political power, historical forces that resist just being historical, ambition-driven brinkmanship and sheer unadulterated greed. The key word in this chapter shimmers into view in the first paragraph — “compromised” (90). The point of the narrative here is “to form a judgment of Chaucer’s own culpability or, to put it differently, just how many compromises this new post would require him to make” (98). Given the culture of bribery Strohm describes, another way of putting it might be, “did Chaucer ever have a chance?”—especially since “[c]ollectors of customs were expected to be men of substance” (115). That would be a no, then. But this isn’t just a story about ethics for it also shows Chaucer’s surviving from 1374 to 1386. Twelve years is a long time to be “looking the other way; working to rule; keeping his head down; knowing when to keep his mouth shut; and allowing his superiors a free hand” (136).
Being the king’s man may have become a career-limiting move down there at the Wool Quay but 1386 opened up new possibilities for being compromised and, as Shire Knight representing Kent in the Parliament, it’s not long before it all goes to hell in a handcart. The narrative is especially good on counterpointing the macro-level—the headlong rush toward political disaster as Richard II faced down a Parliament flexing its reformist muscle in an alliance with Thomas, Duke of Gloucester—with the micro-level of Chaucer as “the least qualified shire knight to be there” (141). The smart move in the narrative here is to situate Chaucer within the culture of Parliament where he doesn’t own land and neither has he inherited it and has virtually no capital resources, having been a minor public servant with modest (finite) annuities. He is an esquire but of meindre or lower degree rather than being a sworn knight; he’s not a Kentish man, he’s a Londoner, and his people are the King’s faction, which is in all kinds of trouble. We’ve come to anticipate the next move: the expense account of four London representatives to a slightly later Parliament “is an eye-opener” (147). “A look inside Georgetown bars, and Pimlico equivalents, when the US Congress or the British Parliament are in session still gives a hint of the goings-on that might be expected when so many well-funded, short-term out-of-towners arrive on such a basis” (147). Just how out of his depth was Chaucer? “As to what an evening on the town would have looked like for Chaucer, we’ll never know” (149) but nothing in the archive leads us to expect he could cut it. And so Chaucer makes a “constrained choice:” he “resigned his positions and left town . . .without any send-off or any kind of golden parachute” (183).
The last 70-odd pages of Strohm’s narrative has Chaucer “on the skids in Kent in the winter of 1387-87” (254): the 493 Life-Records and the archive Strohm has assiduously mined for evidence evaporate as the writing scene and its literary masterwork are focalized through a character called “The Other Chaucer,” the one who is the writer (184). This character bears an uncanny resemblance to the one summarily dismissed in the Introduction “before it opens the door to the host of crackpot theories . . .from which Chaucer has been blessedly spared” (8); the one produced by when the literary biographer goes “prospecting in an artist’s body of written work seeking nuggets of buried life experience” (9). This other Chaucer, though, is an essential strategy for the narrative because he owns the writing scene: without him, there’s simply no point. My problem — and I’m happy to own it — isn’t actually that Strohm finds “Chaucer had a typically medieval attitude toward completion” (189) or that the author of Troilus and Criseyde is standing “behind” its narrator (189); that the House of Fame is Chaucer’s riposte to “his illustrious predecessor Dante as a fame-seeking windbag” (206); that the Troilus is regarded as “evidence” (213) or even lines like Chaucer is “too great an artist to rest complacently” (234). My problem is that “in biography . . .you have to commit to narrative;” there’s no “linger[ing] over the uncertainties of [one’s] evidence, over its recesses, its obtuseness, its silences and evasions.” Microbiography, in other words, relies upon a theory of textuality that literary criticism does not.
But back to the ball park—because I’m a fan of this book—and its wise-cracking narrator. Making the connection between Chaucer’s observations of parliamentary procedure and both the cacophony of the Parliament of Fowls and the shouting down of Ector that sees Criseyde exchanged for Antenor (166), the narrator comments
[t]his kind of upsurge, especially in its orally demonstrate character, appears to have been endemic to the English Parliament. After all, even today, in what appears to be a continuing tradition, the British Parliament surprises strangers who, expecting a high level of decorum in debate, are taken aback with the verbally rowdy character the prime minister’s questions and other unruly aspects of parliamentary demeanour. (164)
Actually, only if those strangers are Americans. This is the narrator who brings George W Bush into view with Knighton’s Chronicle (171); whose “loose analogy” for visiting parliamentarians on the tear down King Street is the Las Vegas strip and a run of taverns and ale-houses down to the limits of Westminster where “things got really rowdy” (148); who sees ideas that “would have been a stretch at best” (254) and a whole raft of other sparkling, funny, seductive idioms that will drive some readers crazy and delight others—if only for the truly impressive skill that weaves this demotic rhetoric together with acute archival analysis and unfailing erudition into compelling historical narrative that really swings along.
But to say this narrator’s speech is demotic isn't quite right: it’s colloquial, it’s everyday language, it’s globalized but it’s also indelibly US—and that’s not a put-down. This narrator delivers another chapter in the long-running “negotiation” in the Anglo-American academy over who owns “Chaucer.” There is a gripping, genre-trashing story to be told about the trans-Atlantic moves behind the discursive structures of Chaucer culture in the US. Including, but by no means limited to, MS EL 26 C 9 (the Ellesmere Manuscript)’s moving west; the roll-call of American editors, John M Manly, Edith Rickert, Fred Robinson, Albert Baugh, Larry Benson; the Variorum Chaucer project, Houghton Mifflin and the Riverside Chaucer; the associations like the New Chaucer Society, the forums of the Modern Language Association; the breaking up of MS Bute 13; Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya’s collection of ME manuscripts, that includes three copies of The Canterbury Tales in its treasures, now on long-term loan to the Beinecke Library at Yale. The traffic isn’t only one-way, of course, and distinguished scholars—like Paul Strohm himself—have moved in both directions. It’s a complicated story of ambition, agonistics and exceptionalism; a story of translatio studii; a story that shows, above all, how “Chaucer” thrives. Strohm’s achievements in Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury are significant and will shape the (micro)biographies of Chaucer currently underway: his book has changed the shape of the space and I’m hanging out to read what happens next.