review by daniel albright (in and out of pull quotes)

I've been working on an informal bio of the late Daniel Albright, a college prof of mine and writer I subsequently became addicted to. I've found quite a bit of material online, including some feisty reviews he wrote for the New York Review of Books. The following post is a detour from the bio but it's a funny example of how publishers massage pull quotes.

In 1983, Prof. Robert M. Adams, one of the founding editors of the Norton Anthology of Literature, produced a volume of English history meant to accompany and contextualize the anthology's writings, titled The Land and Literature of England. Albright, at that time teaching literature at the University of Virginia, wrote a rather scathing NYRB review disguised as a good review, or at least, good enough for the publisher to cobble together some prominently-placed quotations (still in use -- this screenshot is from the current volume):


What's missing from the clips is an overwhelming tone of bemused contempt. Albright's main beefs are that Adams gives too much space to politicians at the expense of artists in his history, that he has a taste for conventional and orthodox thinking, and he is more interested by artists who deal with historical subjects than airy-fairy or abstract ones. The sly humor in this review of an admittedly pedantic text borders on cruel, and the mocking tone continues in an exchange of letters between Adams and Albright after the former wrote to correct some misimpressions in the review.

So you can get an idea of what's going on here, below are those pull quotes with chunks from the original review excerpted immediately afterward. The review itself is paywalled -- $4.99 -- excerpted under fair use.

"Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet...retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer."

Not many people would be capable of writing a book like this one. Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet, instead of turning to dust along with the crumbling books, retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer.

"In addition, he knows how to tell a story..."

In addition, he knows how to tell a story:

And their foot soldiers used bows and arrows to rain death from a distance on the Saxons, who had no way to reply. As long as the shield wall stood unbroken, neither cavalry nor arrows could do much execution; but sometimes, after an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Saxon foot could not resist the temptation to pursue, and then the archers did deadly damage. After a full day of heavy fighting, Harold lay dead with an arrow in his eye…. His mistress, Edith Swanneck, was summoned to make identification, and though the face was mutilated beyond recognition, she knew, by certain marks on the body, that indeed it was Harold.

It is not until some thirty pages later that we hear that the principal source of historical knowledge for any account of the Battle of Hastings is the Bayeux tapestry; and Professor Adams does not mention the historiographical difficulty posed by this fact. One might hesitate to reconstruct the Trojan War if Homer’s Iliad had been lost and only Penelope’s weaving survived; and it is not clear that the weavers of the Bayeux tapestry knew as much about the Battle of Hastings as D. W. Griffith knew about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan; but probably Professor Adams did well to respect the urgencies of storytelling in a book that treats history in relation to literature.

Adams wrote the magazine to gripe that he knew of the extensive writing on the Battle of Hastings and blamed a picture caption for creating the impression that the source was the Bayeux Tapestry. Albright didn't relent, getting in a last crack that the text quoted above was a "cartoon."

"One of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail..."

I have not yet spoken of one of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail. Students, and readers well past their student years, will be grateful to learn that a fifteenth-century humanist, John Tiptoft, requested on the scaffold that his head be severed, in honor of the Trinity, in three separate strokes; and that the last entry in Napoleon’s schoolboy notebook for his geography class was “Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic”; and that a French wit said of the conservative Lord Liverpool that, if he had been present at the creation, he would have cried, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos!” Such examples could be multiplied.

Coming immediately on the heels of a complaint that Swift has been reduced to mediocrity in Adams's account, and immediately preceding a criticism that the book has some "astonishing omissions," the above passage seems ironic -- "flinty" reads as lurid, batty, or irrelevant. Perhaps Albright actually liked these details but it's not all that clear.

"Much of the pleasure....lies in [the book's] rich texture of cross-references between history and literature..."

Much of the pleasure of Professor Adams’s book lies in its rich texture of cross-references between history and literature. Perhaps it would be ungracious to ask for even more. In his reference to the Old English “The Battle of Brunanburh” he might note that Tennyson translated it into modern English, with the help of a crib written by his son. Professor Adams quotes with gusto the climactic lines of “The Battle of Maldon”; Auden translates these same lines in an ode (“Though aware of our rank and alert to obey orders”). When Professor Adams tells the complicated story of Henry II and his two sons, Prince Henry and Richard the Lion-Hearted, he might mention that this history is the basis of Pound’s ambitious attempt to write a long Imagist poem, “Near Perigord.” Professor Adams would like to see something of a circular form to English literary history: he proposes that the rest of the twentieth century may be a recapitulation of the fifteenth (that is, empty of talent), and on his last page he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog people as a renewal of prehistoric vitality. The references I have suggested might help to improve the feeling of the convergence of beginnings and endings.


After reading Professor Adams’s exhilarating book, I was chiefly impressed with the disparity between the achievements of the English political life and the achievements of the English literary life. No culture known to me has produced a body of literature superior to that of England; while the political narrative seems, with a few exceptions, a mean tale of temporizing, squalor, sordor, hollow glory. Professor Adams says in his foreword that history is “a matter of fascinating interest in itself,” and so it is, the shimmer of the snake’s rippling scales. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra a frightened eunuch runs up to Caesar to tell him that the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the world, is on fire. Caesar tells him that it is a shameful history—let it burn. Were I tempted to give the same order, I would not want to see Professor Adams’s history perish.