Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 15.

John Henderson, Oxford Reds: Classical Commentaries on Latin Classics. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. viii + 183. ISBN 0-7156-3516-6. UK£45.00, US$47.25.

Sean Alexander Gurd,
Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics,
Concordia University, Montreal

The ‘Oxford Reds’ in Henderson’s title will be familiar to anyone who has studied Latin literature: eight commentaries on four Latin authors published by Oxford University Press between 1933 and 1976, all but one of which were bound in maroon cloth, written by R. G. Austin, C. J. Fordyce, R. G. Nisbet and R. G. M. Nisbet. As a set, they were conceived for ‘middle-form and undergraduate’ readers. Henderson diagnoses their importance as follows: they ‘established a new model of commentary, with full attention paid to explaining literary effect, to bringing out rhythmical and rhetorical properties, without short- changing the grammar -- syntax, and accidence -- of classical Latin or the historical context in Ancient Rome’ (p. 1); in them, ‘the last two or three generations of English-speaking classicists picked up their idea of what reading and studying Latin look like, for real’ (p. 2). That ‘for real’ is crucial. The commentaries in question were written for pedagogical contexts and therefore aimed to create a particular culture of reading. That they have succeeded justifies Henderson’s ‘for real’ in the sentence just quoted; the ’Oxford Reds’ are the incunabula of ‘true scholarship’ as this is currently defined in some quarters. To use the language of philosophical hermeneutics, commentaries like this produced the ‘horizon of expectations’ that define how many contemporary readers approach Latin texts. To study them is to cast important light on why we read the way we read, and even, in exceptional cases, to show up the source of some of our blindnesses. The topic is thus vital, and ‘Oxford Reds’ succeeds in this task.

There are four chapters here, plus an introduction. The first tackles R. G. Austin’s commentaries on the Pro Caelio (1933, 1952, 1960), eliciting a poetics for this type of commentary from Austin’s revisions and locating the ideological source for the whole in Quintilian’s pedagogical philosophy (Austin’s take on Quintilian is accessed via his commentary on Book XII of the Institutio). Chapter Two engages Austin’s commentaries on Aeneid I, II, IV, and VI, again tracking the evolution of the ‘middle commentary’ as a genre and situating its engagement in the cultural politics of the post-war period. Chapter Three, in some ways the strongest but also the most intractable chapter, takes on Fordyce’s Catullus, which was forever in the making and scandalized many readers by its seemingly unwarranted excisions. The fourth and final chapter turns to the commentaries on R. G. Nisbet’s De Domo and (his son) R. G. M. Nisbet’s In Pisonem. Throughout, Henderson promises to reveal ‘interesting -- touching, even amusing -– angles which make the authors come alive as personalities, and show up the development of our modern subject in a vivid light, of struggles between wills and prophecies, fads and failings, accident and hunch’ (p. 2); such a story is supposed to ‘deepen and enliven the experience of using is set of mainstay textbooks in Latin studies, for students, teachers, and dons alike, on into the twenty-first century’ (p. 6).

Most of Henderson’s interpretive strategies will be familiar to those who work on classical texts. The first is close reading. Henderson reads the commentaries as texts in their own right, not as windows on other texts, and he pays due heed to how each commentary constructs an authorial voice, how its choices about what to discuss and at what length contribute to the creation of what could fairly be called a readerly culture and an epistemic paradigm (though Henderson does not use these terms), and how the specific political and interpersonal milieu of OUP and the British university system played a role in the forging of the commentaries and their reception. There is inherent value in this. Taking the commentary as a text and reading it closely and critically opens perspectives on the ideological and literary engagements of twentieth-century English classicism and, to a lesser degree, makes it possible for these ‘classic’ commentaries to be a little less authoritative and for readers to be a little more free in their own approaches to the classical texts they so decisively framed.

Henderson has also done some archival research on the production of these commentaries. To be more precise, he has gone to the OUP archive and read the documents which relate to each of them. These are mostly internal memos and correspondence with authors and reviewers, and here I found the pay-off to be less impressive, though there is some interesting information about the time frames and the personalities of the commentators involved. We learn, for example, that the decision to allow Austin to do a commentary on the Aeneid explicitly for the school curriculum was influenced in part by the reflection that ‘[Austin] has produced good (though unremunerative) books so far [ . . . ] and if we make an enemy of him he’ll do our reputation a good deal of harm’ (p. 44), or that the outrageous omissions in Fordyce’s Catullus were not the work of Fordyce himself, but of Austin, the series’ eminence grise. Much of this documentation is reproduced, verbatim and at length (and, in a few cases, in facsimile), frequently with minimal intervention from Henderson himself, and these sections (comprising a good chunk of the total page count) will be valuable as a surrogate for scholars who cannot go to the press themselves, though Henderson does not present a complete collection of the relevant documents. I found myself wondering whether there were other archives related to the commentaries that he might have tried to see, in the form of personal papers, corrected proofs or even early typescripts, where more of the genesis of the commentaries’ substance might have been traced, or whether these documents (to the degree that they exist) will be protected from the importunate eyes of critical scholars for many years to come.

The result of the able combination of these two approaches is a refreshing re-take on texts that sometimes seem purely authoritative; this book will permanently alter the way they are read. Some readers, especially those engaged in the history of scholarship (a growing field) and the history of the book (for which this study is also relevant) will probably cavil at some of Henderson’s characteristic gestures: he tends to cite lengthy passages (from commentary and archive alike) with minimal discussion, and the lack of substantial analysis left me wanting more unpacking from both a theoretical and a historicist viewpoint. His reticence, and the occasional hyper-abbreviation of what comments he does offer, are well motivated, however, and the nature of this motivation constitutes one of the book’s greatest strengths. The kinds of complaints just outlined are, of course, exactly the sort of thing one might say about the commentaries themselves, and the proximity between Henderson’s tactics and those of his objects is not at all accidental. If ‘the pegging together of scholar’s persona and his text’s didactic potential drove the enterprise toward a robust and committed vision to teach civilized values, and their imbrication with the institutions and technologies of the humanities’ (pp. 37f.), Henderson was himself one of those who got his own civilization there (‘these books taught me as a student; and I have taught (with) them as supervisor’, p. 4). This produces a delicate and difficult tactical situation in which the gestures he wants to read are also his own. One name for this procedure is irony, and that is here in spades. No reader should move through Henderson’s dense and unyielding prose without suspecting that he is working commentarial style against itself, trying to get as close to its typical gestures in order to push it in another direction altogether. Henderson is one of the more notable stylists working in the humanities today -- his writing invites comparison with that of Avital Ronell and with Richard Doyle, especially -- but while his wordplays and lexical transfers sometimes seem gratuitous, that is emphatically not the case here; the ironic space he has put himself in demands it. The wierdly contracted and sometimes frustratingly uninformative comments he offers on the equally contracted and diffident commentaries in his object-texts seem the inevitable answer to the question: how to critique and pay homage to the commentarial mode? Given his position within the cultural envelope he is trying to diagnose, I doubt that any other mode of writing would have been possible. Some readers, convinced of the importance and even the urgency of the topic, will want more constative and less performative analyses, just as they will want more archival detail and more interpretation than Henderson delivers; but that desire comes from a longing for a transcendent critical standpoint, one that would have freed itself of history, and such a longing is just what Henderson is at pains to refuse.