Five Questions: Daniel Cook on Chatterton

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Daniel Cook - Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius

Dr Daniel Cook is currently Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee and has previously worked at the University of Bristol and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760-1830was recently published by Palgrave.  He kindly answered the following five questions on his work on the Marvellous Boy.

1) How did you first get interested in Chatterton and his afterlives?

Well, I’ve been reading Chatterton’s poems since I was a teenager, before university.  Nick Groom — still my favourite Romanticist — published and edited some of the key modern Chatterton criticism in the late 90s, which I read at school and then as an undergraduate in the noughties.  Keats was always my poet, though, and so when I began to see some verbal echoes of Chatterton’s works (particularly Aella and the Saxon epics) in Keats’ own, it seemed like something I wanted to know more about.  I wrote an undergraduate dissertation on Keats and Chatterton, and, I think, another for my taught postgraduate.  When I started my PhD it seemed sensible to take it further still, and I certainly remember mentioning Coleridge and Shelley in my proposal.  In fact, I spent the first month or two in graduate school reading every bit of secondary criticism on Coleridge that I could find on the assumption that he’d be as prominent a figure in my thesis as Chatterton or Keats.  When, a few months further in, I began to spend a lot of time in the rare books room at Cambridge, poring over the various newspapers and periodicals of the 1770s, 1780s — I mean, the Gentleman’s Magazine and The Monthly Review and the like — it became increasingly obvious that I should be focusing on Chatterton’s critical reception rather than on his influence on other poets.  After all, there have been a (perhaps surprisingly) large amount of excellent studies of Keats and Chatterton — by the great Robert Gittings, among others — and Clare and Chatterton, and even more so on Coleridge and Chatterton.  No one had really considered the scholars’ interest in the poet, though.  I’m thinking of scholars such as Thomas Warton, Thomas Tyrwhitt, Edmond Malone, William Hazlitt and a whole host of the most influential literary critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Even Dr Johnson had his say.

2) In what ways did Chatterton’s legacies differ from your initial expectations?

The most surprising thing would have been the sheer volume of material.  Each of the monthly issues of the 1777, 1778 Gentleman’s Magazine features at least a short letter, but more often than not a lengthy essay or three, on Chatterton and the Rowley poems.  There are clear peaks of interest, most of which coincide with the publication of a new edition of his works or a contentious revelation, to be sure, but the interest in Chatterton never really waned, at least not until the twentieth century.  Scores of biographies, literary-critical and philological essays, editions, anthologies, imitations, abridgements and such things flooded the print culture of the long eighteenth century.  Dozens and dozens of odes, elegies and monodies were written in his memory.  In the end, I had to focus far less on Keats, Wordsworth and the various other prominent Chatterton acolytes and more on the scholars and critics.  I had planned to have at least one fairly detailed chapter on the Victorian responses to Chatterton.  Browning, Rossetti, Wilde, and others took an interest in the youngster both as a writer and a literary phenomenon.  Fortunately, it turns out, the Victorian Chatterton has been addressed fairly comprehensively by modern scholars in the last ten years or so.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin with modern treatments of Chatterton.  Peter Ackroyd’s counterfactual novel Chatterton would have to feature; but each year sees a new production or engagement with the life and works of the marvellous boy.  In Sydney last year a young librettist performed a one-act piece, for example.  So I’m glad that I attended to might seem pretty traditional a topic: the Romantic cult of Chatterton.  It’s traditional but still under-furrowed ground, I hasten to add.

3) This project began as your doctoral thesis. How did you approach the process of turning this into your book?

In hindsight I was very fortunate insofar as I managed to get a bit of distance between my doctoral project and my new work on Jonathan Swift.  There’s a lot of pressure on early career scholars to turn the thesis into a book, often before they’ve even secured a permanent post — certainly in the middle of a REF cycle.  But the Swift project led to a Leverhulme Early Career fellowship at Bristol during which I planned to study the legacy of Swift, Pope and others in the nineteenth century and beyond (a sort of commingling of my doctoral and postdoctoral interests).  When I turned back to my thesis I had a better sense of both how unique Chatterton’s case was (as a poet much read in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but relatively unknown today) and how much it intersected with developments in scholarship and criticism in the period.  The main challenge when turning a thesis into a book, I think, is opening it up a bit more, making it far less narrow in its scope without losing its details.  A doctoral thesis is by definition deeply focused whereas a book should feed into further research for others to pursue, often tangentially.  I was tempted, and strongly encouraged, to turn the project into a series of case studies, of which Chatterton would be but one, but a number of publishers were actually keen on Chatterton — Palgrave, in particular, as they’d already published a chapter of mine, and Groom’s Chatterton collection, of course.  It’s quite common to add a chapter or two when revising a dissertation, but in my case I had to cut quite substantially — from something like 100,000 or 110,000 words to around 85,000 — in order to confirm as closely as possible to the publisher’s scope.  I pretty much started the Bibliography from scratch, limiting myself to works cited rather than consulted.  Most of the rewriting centred on the introductory chapters (a brief Introduction proper and a sort of theory chapter), a couple of duff chapters — it’s difficult writing about sensibility as a movement, I find — and the Afterword.  Two or three chapters remained substantially the same but I worked hard to improve the prose.  We’re encouraged to think of the book as a very distinct thing from a doctoral thesis, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  They’re perhaps different versions of a common document, if you like, a repackaging of your central findings or new readings.  Is it a rewriting or a rebooting?  Depends on your project, I think.  Publishers prefer to see a completed book typescript from a first-time author, of course, rather than a warmed-up dissertation, or at least a clear indication of where you’ll be working it over.  Certainly it’s difficult to know where to slash or what to remove, or what to add and where to expand.  But it’s important to go through each chapter — assuming you retain the same or a similar structure — and cross out any bits that seem ‘thesisy’ not only in the diction but in scope and arrangement.  You need to retain some semblance of the literary review but you can afford to — indeed, you should — jettison much of the bibliographical work needed in a thesis.  It’s hard to press the delete key — I used to print out every draft, but this became impractical when moving across the country (and even the Atlantic) in pursuit of a job.  Now I have the habit of versioning dozens of very similar documents in my Dropbox.  My final typescript included such files as “ch3 version 36” (77 is as high as I got, I think).  Publishers favour short, purposeful proposals (ideally with very short chapter abstracts).  If you can’t sell the book in 200 words or fewer, then neither can they.  A dissertation supervisor will keep asking you, ‘so what?’  A publisher will ask, ‘for whom?’

4) Chatterton is a figure who’s often more read about than read. Which works would you recommend to scholars wanting to dip into his oeuvre, and are there any of his poems that you think could be taught profitably as part of undergraduate or Masters-level courses?

I’ve always tried to smuggle Chatterton’s works into various courses.  Until I got my position at Dundee I’d taught widely on other people’s modules, mainly period surveys.  Even if there wasn’t a set curriculum of eighteenth-century or Romantic-period texts, there wasn’t any room for him, really: he falls between most versions of the period surveys, such as between the early modern (up to 1750, say) and Romanticism, which still seems to begin (perhaps out of convenience) with Blake or Wordsworth.  It’s also difficult to justify library expenditure on even the handful of Chatterton sources available.  Now that I’ve settled at Dundee we’re building up a bank of texts, so I feel more comfortable asking students both to read and write about Chatterton.  I’ve been evolving a third-year undergraduate module (one that I inherited from a former colleague) on Romantic and Gothic Literature.  Chatterton happens to fit in really well here both chronologically and thematically.  The module begins with Horace Walpole (an infamous figure in Chatterton’s reception, it turns out) and then considers Equiano and Coleridge as writers on race, among other things.  I’ve added Chatterton’s African Eclogues in there (‘Heccar and Gaira’, ‘Elinoure and Juga’, and ‘The Death of Nicou’) but haven’t yet added his more famous works (The Battle of Hastings, Aella, An Excelente Balade of Charitie).  His Ossianic works would profitably be taught alongside Macpherson and his followers.  Chatterton’s satires on hack writers — in the style of Pope and Churchill — would work well in many modules.  Much of Chatterton’s works can be found online or in the standard critical edition: Donald Taylor’s Collected Works for the Clarendon Press.  You can also find a decent selection of Chatterton in some of the major teaching anthologies — Lonsdale, Wu, McGann or Fairer — but not the Norton, as far as I can recall.

5) What’s next for you?

Miscellaneous bits and bobs, really, now that I’ve settled into my teaching.  After my PhD, as a postdoc, I joined the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift, and since then I’ve been invited to write various chapters on him, particularly on his late poems, early critical reception and the first, posthumous biographies.  Old Swift interests me as much as young Chatterton, it seems.  Now that I live and teach in Scotland I’ve been reading lots of Burns and Scott.  (Scott, as an aside, took an interest in Chatterton).  Next semester I’ve put together a new module on Scottish Literature before 1900.  A logical next step in my research would be to look more closely at the relationship between Scottish and English literary ballads.  Chatterton, like Scott, Wordsworth and others, was a keen student of Percy’s Reliques and the ballad revival of the eighteenth century.  Like them he sought to polish and modernise old ballads.  In the past two or three years I’ve written about the vexed issue of literary property — and authorial proprietorship — in the long eighteenth century.  I’m hoping to tie it all together as a book.  I’ve also written a couple of commissioned essays on Wordsworth.  But I haven’t forgotten about Chatterton.  As we speak I’m writing up a piece on Wordsworth’s use of Chatterton’s works, particularly in the early years of his career.  Its a topic much alluded to but little discussed.  I certainly didn’t have room for it in my book.