Notes for a Daniel Albright bio

Notes for a biographical sketch on the late Daniel Albright, literary critic, musicologist, and theorist of historical Modernism. Albright's Wikipedia entry has a short bio and publication list. Below is a capsule discussion of his career highlights, from web and printed sources. Some additional documentation is still needed.

[Update: This article has been moved to another place of publication. If parts are edited, eventually this post will be the place for an "author's cut" of the Albright bio]

Additional Reading

Panaesthetics website -- site for Albright's next-to-last published book, Panaesthetics, serves as his personal site, posthumously maintained

Harvard Crimson obituary -- "whimsical English and music teacher" seems like faint praise for an influential thinker.

Remembrance of Albright by Andrew Goldstone, author of the book Fictions of Autonomy, in particular, how Albright inspired Goldstone's research.

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.

drawing, from daniel albright memorial


Just learned that one of my favorite teachers, Daniel Albright, died a couple of years ago.
A memorial with readings, music, and reminiscences was posted: [YouTube]
The drawing comes from a series of pictures projected on the auditorium screen, interpreting a passage from one of Albright's books. (It reminds me a bit of Erika Somogyi's work)
I'll have more to say about him -- I just ordered a few of his tomes that I hadn't read yet. I've plugged him a few times on the blahg over the years.
Several of the reminiscers describe him as a genius and there's really no other word. When he lectured he held you spellbound -- you could feel your brain expanding.
In his younger years (when I had him as an undergrad advisor and my brain was still expanding) he primarily focused on English lit. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote a book on "Yeats' creative imagination in old age." That's one I ordered -- I've always been curious about it but never found it in a library or bookstore.
Gradually he broadened his criticism to include music and painting. At the end of his life his focus was interdisciplinary studies. His pursuits took him from Virginia to Rochester to (after 2003) Harvard, whether I gather his courses were popular.
I like his writing on poetry and music and modernist theory in general. I don't really care much about the interrelationships of the arts but appreciated that he would also take the flip side of the argument, explaining why and when it was good for a discipline to remain entrenched in its area of competence (to use a phrase of Greenberg's, a critic he admired but didn't agree with).
An astute Am*zon commenter said, regarding Albright's last book Putting Modernism Together: "A great project but this original and talented thinker is finally unable to let go of the canon." You could do a lot worse having someone to explain the canon to you, but the frustration isn't with Albright's conservatism so much as it is selfishly wanting to see that brilliant mind probing outside the established greats.

Daniel Albright on Poulenc and Surrealist Music

1. "When we look at musical compositions that might be called surreal--works by Poulenc, Martinu, Ravel, and so forth from the 1920s--and compare them to Schoenberg's early twelve-tone compositions, also from the 1920s, we notice that the surrealist works seem strikingly conservative in certain ways. Melodies tend to move in a conjunct, singable manner; harmonies rarely grate; structures are often easily assimilated and full of predictable recurrences. But it is a mistake to think of Schoenberg as a more modern or venturesome sort of composer than Poulenc, because Poulenc attacked musical conventions as fiercely as Schoenberg, not on the level of harmonic syntax, but on the level of semantics. As a harmonist, Poulenc was, compared to Schoenberg, a child; but Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1930-32) depends on interpretive cues every bit as simple and rigid as those of Saint Saens's Samson and Delilah (1875)--as soon as the spectator learns that triadic figures, instead of chromatic figures, represent evil. Poulenc was original not in the way that his music sounds, but in the way that his music means." Untwisting the Serpent at 288 (emphasis in the original).

2. "The charm of Poulenc arises from his unusual adeptness at working out fluid systems of musical meaning while bobbling along on rivers of disabled textual systems." Id. at 305.

3. "The surrealism of Poulenc and his fellows didn't try to create a new language of music--it simply tilted the semantic planes of the old language of music." Id. at 289.

4. "Auden once wrote that music cannot lie but I think these passages [Honegger's funeral march for Cocteau's Les maries de la Tour Eiffel] are evidence that music can lie." Id. at 291.

annoying autobiographical post

Over the years I've bounced among art, music, and writing, the third of these being mainly parasitic to the first two. Meaning, I don't write so much to tell a story as to grapple with some art idea.
My college years were happily spent studying all the arts. This was back when you could have a "life of the mind" without going deeply into debt.
I took classes in music appreciation, electronic music (with a focus on composing), poetry- and fiction-writing, and history, in addition to my "majors" in studio art and English lit. I had a weekly FM radio show for my entire four years in school, and was music director and then program director of the station.
This was "free form radio" of the WFMU variety (which started as a college station) where I played jazz, prog rock, classical, and the beginnings of punk, postpunk and electronic pop. The mid-'70s were contentious times in music, with battle lines drawn, and people would call the station and berate the DJ for playing Cecil Taylor or Van Der Graaf Generator, depending on which set of sensibilities those artists offended. Fans of The Stooges despised fans of Kraftwerk, etc.
I wrote a couple of music reviews for the college newspaper and did some music "zine" writing. The newspaper reviews were well-regarded by the editors and I received calls fairly regularly asking if I could please submit more. By that point I was cramming a studio art major into my last year and a half of school and had no time or inclination to write.
My first newspaper review described a campus pub concert by Grits, a Washington DC-area band that played rock of Zappa-esque complexity. Grits never got a record contract, which seems to have devastated them personally, but are remembered on some later-released CDs, including a fairly representative live concert [YouTube]. I also reviewed Mike Oldfield's third LP in a piece titled "Ommadawn Suffers from Overdubbing." For Hal Dean's music zine Brilliant Corners I did an overview of Soft Machine's career.
For my literary studies I was lucky to have three classes with Daniel Albright, a consistently brilliant scholar and critic who later achieved fame as a musical theorist. My classes were The Experimental Novel (Lawrence, Woolf, Pynchon, Nabokov, Beckett, et al), The Aesthetic Movement (Tennyson, Arnold, Wilde, Hopkins) and 20th Century British Poetry (Eliot, Yeats, Pound). I asked Albright to be my faculty adviser and he gave his somewhat befuddled consent. (A condescending grad student supervising undergrad majors asked "Did you just wander into his office?") Albright and I had very little interaction; if anything he made me realize I didn't want to be an English prof because I could never delve into the minutiae of other artists' lives and works to the extent he did. I felt that to be original I would have to be that voracious and I was grossly overmatched. Nevertheless his A- grade and the "well written indeed" he jotted on a paper I wrote on Eliot kept me in high spirits for years.
My best grades and greatest enthusiasm came in Studio Art classes. I had some initial discouragement in the classes of Bob Barbee, a life drawing and painting instructor who taught classical technique deprived of anything resembling joy (another prof noted that all his students' paintings were anatomically correct "mud women" rendered in burnt umber and lead white). Then, I discovered I could paint photorealistically in oils, and quickly got a handle on printmaking methods, and was able to start building a body of my own characteristic work. We majors had weekly seminars where we took field trips to Washington DC art galleries and museums and did slide talks on the minimal and conceptual art trends we found there. I did a talk on Daniel Brush, who combined Color Field and minimalist ideas and subsequently had an under-the-radar career making objects in pure gold for a wealthy, discreet clientele. He is in most ways my opposite but I spoke passionately about his straight line paintings made with a fountain pen on canvas.

[to be continued]