Adam Smyth

Invention: Literary Creativity in a Network of Notebooks

Dr. Adam Smyth, Birkbeck, University of London

Discussant: John Gallager, University of Cambridge

Modern myths of disembodied and dematerialised literary creativity have one origin in the First Folio of Shakespeare (1623), where Heminge and Condell describe their deceased friend Shakespeare as ‘a happie imitator of Nature’ whose ‘mind and hand went together’, and who ‘uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.’ Great writers, they suggest, rarely leave or even produce workings or drafts or errors. (‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ countered Ben Jonson: Shakespeare ‘flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.’)

As an alternative to this unhelpfully traceless model of literary production, I want to think about literary creativity in the light of recent work on the technologies and mechanisms of textual transmission. What does literary creativity mean amid a culture of commonplace books and note-taking? How did authors draw on notebooks to produce literary works? How visible is this process of production in the finished works? How might we recover the apparently effaced stages of literary labour that lie behind, or beneath, works we thought we knew well? To what degree did readers and audiences expect to return (parts of) literary texts to their own notebooks? And how might we read anew literary texts, including works by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton, in the light of this early modern notebook culture?

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