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Approaching Literary Problems in New Ways — Including Scientific

September 9, 2013

Sam Fallon (English) is writing a dissertation that focuses on a series of unusual literary figures in England in the 1580s and 1590s. Tentatively titled “Personal Effects: Persona and Literary Culture in Elizabethan England,” he analyzes “authorial alter-egos which other writers seized upon and reimagined to produce new fictions of their own.

In one chapter, for instance, I study the tales of ghostly haunting that followed the death of the popular author Robert Greene in 1592.” Contemporaries of Greene wrote stories in which he returned from heaven, hell, “or somewhere in between, to visit the London print audience he had left behind. I argue that these personae became a way for writers and readers to think about the rapidly emerging literary culture of Elizabethan England.”

Sam reports that “The dissertation has been a joy to research and write, for it has led me to revisit some of the greatest and most well-known Renaissance texts – such as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – as well as authors and books that are less often read today, but no less exciting and revelatory.” Working on this project has also encouraged him “to approach literary problems in different ways, combining the traditional practice of close reading with attention to the material history of books and to the sociology of early modern culture.

The highlight of my time at Yale has been the weekly meetings of our working group of English department graduate students specializing in the Renaissance, begun a few years ago by my adviser, David Kastan.” They meet on Wednesdays over wine and pizza to discuss each other’s papers. The meetings “are casual and friendly but tough: one of the founding rules is that criticism, not praise, should guide the conversation. Those Wednesday evenings are where I’ve learned to argue, to grasp the arguments of others, to speak articulately about difficult ideas, and to understand that sharp disagreement is one of the best forms of intellectual friendship.”

In a separate endeavor, he and his adviser are doing some detective work on two printed book fragments that were recently acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “One contains poems by the 16th century poet and rhetorician George Puttenham that scholars didn’t know had ever been published in print; the other, even more thrillingly, appears to contain two poems by Philip Sidney, one of the greatest writers of the English Renaissance, that are entirely new — hitherto unknown to scholars,” he says.

Were these fragments originally part of the same printed book? One fragment belonged to an anthology of lyric poetry called The Muses Garland, “which a publisher had once planned to publish; there are no other known copies of the book, so this fragment proves that it existed in some form. The other fragment doesn’t have a title, but its contents would have fit in The Muses Garland, and we began to wonder whether the second fragment was evidence of another unknown book, or a different part of the same one.”

Working with Beinecke curator Kathryn James; Marie-France Lemay, a paper conservator with the Yale library; and Aniko Bezur, director of scientific research at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), they turned to technology for the answer. “We were interested in the composition of the paper in each fragment: in the arrangement of marks called ‘chain lines’ that survive from the paper-making process, in the placing of binding holes, and in the chemical makeup of the paper. If the chemical composition of the two fragments of paper matched, we might have evidence that they were the work of the same printer.” Bezur arranged to analyze the paper using an x-ray fluorescence machine. The results indicated minor differences in the composition of the paper.

The lack of match, of course, doesn’t prove that the two fragments didn’t go together; it just means we don’t have proof that they did,” says Sam. “In one sense, then, we’re back at the beginning of the mystery, but in the process, Marie-France and Aniko had opened up exciting new ways of solving it. Now, we know more clearly what it is that we don’t know.”

Although this work isn’t central to Sam’s dissertation, “it has been a marvelous example of what a wonderful place Yale is to be a graduate student in the humanities: a place with imaginative, curious, brilliant people to work with everywhere you turn, and with peerless resources for research in the Beinecke and the YCBA.”

Sam grew up in South Bend, Indiana, in an academic family. He came east to Princeton for college, and then earned a master’s degree at Oxford before arriving at Yale, which he chose “because of the incredible strength of its faculty, especially in the Renaissance” and “the wonderful intellectual community of the graduate students here.”