Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Collecting and the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy by Samuel Blumenfeld

(this article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 newsletter of The Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies)

Anyone embarking on writing a book about the Shakespeare authorship question cannot know in advance what he or she will find in that solitary but wonderful search through the hundreds, if not thousands, of books already written about the Elizabethan era and its writers. And so I began my own journey at the age of 73 in 1999 and wrote the final chapter eight years later in 2007. In the interim I had gained a literary education equivalent to a Ph.D.

Writing on such a subject automatically turns one into a book collector, a haunter of antiquarian bookshops and internet sources. There is no greater delight than coming across a book which has that single bit of vital information you are looking for. At first I thought I would have to go to England for research, but I was amazed at how much information was available in books already published. But it also became clear that there were still many books that needed to be written about the events and people in the Elizabethan era. There is still a lot more to know.

Once the manuscript was completed, I was anxious to get it read and published. I had already sent out sample chapters to the usual trade publishers hoping to find an enthusiastic editor anxious to offer a contract. My old contacts in the New York book publishing business were gone, and the younger generation of editors were not interested in what I had written.

I then tried university presses and found a delightful editor at the University of Virginia Press who was intrigued by the subject. I sent her the manuscript of over a thousand pages, which she asked me to cut down. Which I did. She then sent copies to two scholarly reviewers who complimented me on my writing style, but did not think the book should be published. I could never understand why they came to such a negative conclusion. One of the reviewers never returned his copy.

In any case, after sitting on the book for almost a year, the Virginians turned it down. Fortunately, I found a publisher in North Carolina, McFarland, who specialized in publishing well-researched books for the library and academic market. Which meant that I would never be able to retire on the proceeds from the sales of the book, but at least I had a handsome looking tome I could hold in my hand and perhaps sell at lectures. Its final title was The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection.

I had actually become interested in the authorship controversy back in my days at Grosset & Dunlap, where I was editor of The Universal Library, their quality paperback line. One day, back in 1956, a man by the name of Calvin Hoffman came to my office to urge me to publish a paperback edition of his book, The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare. Hoffman had studied the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare and came to the conclusion that they were all written by one man, Marlowe.

But hadn’t Marlowe been killed in a barroom brawl at the age of 29? Hoffman said he was not, and that the so-called murder was a faked death staged by his employers in the Secret Service to save him from Archbishop Whitgift’s inquisition. I read the book and became convinced that Hoffman was right. We published his book, and I’ve remained a Marlovian ever since.

Forty years later I decided to write my own book on the subject, using the methods of a detective to prove beyond any doubt that Christopher Marlowe was the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. That meant reading all of Marlowe and all of Shakespeare, which I did, and which proved to my satisfaction that Christopher Marlowe was indeed the author of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio, most of which were written in exile. Shakespeare, a good businessman, was the perfect front for the hidden author.

In retrospect, I doubt that I would have embarked on this journey had I known in advance how difficult it would be to get such a book published. In those eight years I could have written perhaps a half-dozen books on subjects I already knew a lot about. My first ten books were on education and literacy. Again, my interest in literacy also began at Grosset & Dunlap where we published all of those series books for young readers.

An attorney friend, Watson Washburn, came to my office one day to enlist me as an advisor for his newly created Reading Reform Foundation. I asked him what the purpose of the Foundation was, and he told me that it was to get phonics back in the schools. Get phonics back in schools? Since when was it taken out? And how could you teach reading without it? He advised me to read Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, which I did. That’s what turned me into a critic of our public schools, and that is why years later I wrote The New Illiterates.

We book lovers deplore the decline of literacy not only in America but throughout the English-speaking world. Despite computers, the Internet, cable television and other forms of entertainment and distraction, there is no substitute for the actual book that one can hold in one’s hands and revere as a source of ageless wisdom. Book collecting speaks of a rational civilization which values ideas, lives, and history. And for that reason, as long as there is a humane civilization, there will be writers, publishers, readers and book collectors.

© Samuel Blumenfeld, 2010

Samuel Blumenfeld, a regular contibutor to MSC, has authored more than ten books. His latest, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question, was published by McFarland. His writings have appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Reason, Education Digest, Vital Speeches of the Day, Boston, and many others. His Alpha-Phonics reading system has taught thousands of beginning and struggling readers.Emmerich Shakespeare

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JanisMc said...

Sam has always told it like it is regarding education. And I've used his Alpha-Phonics on two of my kids with great results. I will be sure to pick up the Marlowe book.

ElSid said...

Shakespeare is becoming more irrelevant to high school curriculums in America. That's the reality.

Maureen Duff said...

I have read Sam Blumenfeld's wonderful "The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection". If you are unaware of just how much Marlowe can be found in the "Shakespeare" plays and poems prepare to be astonished. Marlovian references, allusions or direct quotes can be found in just about every play attributed to Shakespeare. Sam's book is incredibly well researched and his informative and relaxed style makes the Marlowe trail easy to follow. Anyone who is interested in the authorship question will find this book invaluable.

Sam Blumenfeld said...

Thanks Maureen for your very kind review of my book. Whenever I speak on the subject I always urge the audience to first read Marlowe's plays and poems before reading Shakespeare's. Otherwise, they will miss all of the clues Marlowe put in the plays. For example, you must read Marlowe's Dido before you can understand the significance of the scene in Hamlet where he asks the players to give him a sample of their acting. It's wonderful how he plugs Dido as "caviar for the general." Thanks again for your endorsement.

GPaul said...

Sam is one of the great homeschooling pioneers.

Isabel Gortazar said...

Good article, Sam.
Your defence of books and a more literary-oriented education is most welcome to those of us who have grown up with our noses buried in books.

One thing I would like to mention however, and it refers to the growing habit of academic (and fiction) writers making their points by quoting their colleagues, rather than studying the literary and historical sources directly.
The result of this mutual back-rubbing is that their books often miss vital points.

How many scholars writing about "Anthony and Cleopatra" bother to read the original Plutarch? Or how many of those writing about "Troilus and Cressida" begin by reading Homer?

Literacy is one thing, scholarly back-rubbing is another; if we are to encourage a less commercial, more humanistic approach to culture and art, we need the younger generations to become once again familiar with, and interested in, the Classics.

Just a thought.

NickPasqua said...

love you, Sam!