Literary Forms, Frye and a Farewell: Mark Vessey Gives the Richard V. Ericson Lecture

Green College Staff

On the twelfth edition of the Richard V. Ericson Lecture in honour of Green College’s first Principal, Mark Vessey punctuated his fifteen-year stay as the head of the College with a lecture on the concept of literature.

Ten minutes past the start time, chairs were still being brought into the Coach House to accommodate the overflow of guests, including Green College Advisory Board Members, Resident Members, Members of Common Room, former residents, members of the English faculty and those who share an interest in English literature.

Giving the speech was an honour, Mark joked, that he had been afforded only so that he’d step away quietly. But for a Principal who has attended hundreds of talks across a variety of disciplines, and helped hundreds more students from all over the University and all over the world, it would not seem fitting to give him an exit without one last chance to share his own passions, in his usual engaging and enthusiastic style.

Mark’s choice passion for the evening was the question of literature as a discipline and as an idea. He began with the question, “What (or where) is literature?” The “where” was a simpler question, both in premise and in answer because, as it turns out, the truth is that it is declining in usage in recent years. Mark pointed to two occasions he had found, the first an observation of his from a recent flight, with photographic evidence. The seat back on his plane featured a pocket labelled “literature only” (“papier seulement” in  French). The pocket was large enough for the in-flight catalogue, the safety sheet and perhaps a small book picked up from the airport newsstand, along with chips and bottled water. Any leather-bound editions of Erasmus would have to be stored under the seat in front. The second occurrence was in the aisles of a local Indigo bookstore. Where one used to be able to find the broad category of “literature,” Mark explained, one now finds the two categories of “fiction” and “essays,” with perhaps a shelf or two devoted to “literary criticism.”

These developments show the vast gap between the heyday of literary criticism in the twentieth century and now. Raymond Williams, Mark observed, included “literature” in his influential 1976 book, Keywords. This was after the interventions into literary criticism coming from the trio of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis, who collectively laid the groundwork for the study of literature throughout the twentieth century. Their emphasis was placed on close reading, and in the case of Richards—an experimental psychologist recruited into Cambridge’s English department—the experience of reading a work of literature.

Then came Northrop Frye, the seminal Canadian critic, who released Anatomy of Criticism in 1957. Anatomy, Mark pointed out, was an interesting word to use in the context of literary criticism. He recalled when the former President of UBC, David Strangway, a geophysicist, entered the English department and remarked, “English doesn’t change much over time, a bit like human anatomy.” For a man coming from Frye’s home of the University of Toronto, it was a particularly good joke.

Frye’s model for Anatomy of Criticism, Mark explained, was likely Robert Burton’s seventeenth-century work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, an investigation into melancholy that was really more akin to a philosophical work of literature than it was the scientific work that it purported to be. Anatomizing, as described by Burton, was a close, careful investigation of an experience. For Frye, too, it was the experience that needed to be dissected.

As Mark observed, the experience of a book has changed throughout the years, especially with the recent explosion of e-readers. He recalled his time as a young student, when he was given a device that would only show certain portions of the text at a given time and would move down the page at a set speed. The aim was to teach students to read faster but the result was an approach that taught students to “mechanically digest” information, reading a text to try and understand what it says instead of how it might make a reader feel.

This was a far cry from I. A. Richards’ principles, the scholar who emphasized, as Mark quoted, the “depth and honesty, the sincerity and stress of the reflection through which we choose, which meanings among its possibilities we will take seriously into our considerations.”

Coincidentally, the text Mark had been reading through this speed-reading device was Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a late nineteenth-century humorous novel by Jerome K. Jerome about three men (and a dog) who take a boat journey up the Thames to escape their overworked lives and in hopes for a cure to their various physical and psychological ailments. Prior to this journey, one man reads from a medical textbook at the British Library and feels the impact of his readings so acutely that he writes he “walked in healthy, and walked out a decrepit wretch.” The mechanical process of the speed-reader, as Mark experienced it, was used in an exploration of the emotional force of literature.

Returning to Frye, Mark then shared the critic’s chart of book literature, organized around two axes. On the left pole of the X-axis was ‘romance,’ with ‘novel’ on the right. On the upper pole of the Y-axis was ‘confession,’ a “monological and bookish” thing, as Mark observed, with anatomy on the lower pole, a “dialogical and encyclopaedic” thing. There were various ways to reinterpret these distinctions, Mark explained, placing perhaps ‘memoir’ and ‘catalogue’ in place of ‘confession’ and ‘anatomy,’ or ‘scripture’ and ‘history’ in place of ‘romance’ and ‘novel’ respectively.

For as Mark has learned throughout his years of research, and is uniquely qualified to speak to, these distinctions were perhaps not stretched back far enough in Frye’s work. The confessional approach was in use back in the later Roman Empire in the work of Augustine, and with the work of Jerome—about 1,500 years prior to Jerome K. Jerome—embodying at times scripture and at times the catalogue.

This observation led to a late twist in Mark’s lecture. While he will be stepping down from Green College, he will remain well within the academic world for some time to come. Next year, he will be writing a book on this very topic for Cambridge University, tracing the development of literature as a discipline and a concept back to the work of Augustine and Jerome, some sixteen centuries before the great debates of the twentieth century.

Recalling that Jerome is often depicted alongside a lion, Mark joked that he would like to name the book Two Men in a Book (To Say Nothing of the Big Cat), wrapping together the disparate themes of the late Victorian humorous novel, the debates of the twentieth century, the work of two hugely influential late Roman authors and his own early experience of reading a book. Following fifteen years devoted to interdisciplinary conversations and students, Mark Vessey, Green’s longest-serving Principal, will get to once again dedicate himself wholly to his work, and enrich the scholarship on this idea we call Literature.

Mark Vessey has been Principal of Green College at UBC from 2008-2023, and a Faculty Member of Common Room since 1994. Mark has an MA in English from the University of Cambridge and a DPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford. He came to UBC in 1989 as an I. W. Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English, and was appointed to a faculty position in that department the following year. He held a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls’ College, Oxford, in 1997 and was Visiting Professor of Augustinian Studies at Villanova University in 2000. In 2001 he was awarded a Canada Research Chair in Literature / Christianity and Culture (renewed in 2005), and in 2005 won a Senior Killam Research Prize at UBC. Before taking up his position as Principal of the College, he served as Associate Head of the English Department and Chair of the Graduate Program in English. He was a member of the UBC Senate, representing the Faculty of Arts, from 2002-2003, and again from 2008-2014.

His scholarly research focuses on processes of text-, canon- and discipline-formation in the Latin culture of the later Roman Empire (4th to 6th centuries) and their long-term role in shaping discourses and institutions of “western” culture, particularly those associated with “literature.” He has published extensively in the fields of late Roman history, Latin patristics, early medieval studies, Latin and English Renaissance literatures (notably the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam), literary theory, and history of the book.

His books include a collection of essays on Latin Christian Writers in Late Antiquity and their Texts (2005), an edited volume on Augustine and the Disciplines (2005), an edition of Augustine’s Confessions (in English) for Barnes & Noble Classics (2007), a Companion to Augustine (2012) and an edited volume on The Calling of the Nations: Exegesis, Ethnography and Empire in a Biblical Historic Present (2011), derived from a Thematic Lecture Series at Green College and an Exploratory Workshop at UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. He is the editor of Erasmus on Literature: His Ratio or "System" of 1518/1519 (2021). Most of his work takes the form of essays for journals and collections, of which he has published 100 or so.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member