Emil Holms Kanal 6, 2300 København S
Primary fields of research
Primary research areas
Throughout six decades as a university teacher, I have felt a responsibility to defend and promote the rights of others, of humans, of women, of minorities, of animals. And also to investigate the basis of those rights. As a student at Oxford, I served as Secretary of the University branch of Amnesty International and was deeply engaged with questions of censorship, self-censorship and the diverse modes (commercial as much as ideological) by which textual production and publication can be licensed and controlled. In all my teaching I have been concerned to promote neglected women writers. As a lecturer in Sweden (1980-82) and as a professor in Canada (1982-96), I learnt to respect the rights of minorities living on territory dominated by a non-indigenous population; this led to research on Native Canadian culture—and specifically on petroglyphs—and to an interest in the peoples of Alaska and the Arctic. Teaching African literature led to a commitment to the cause of the Ogoni people of Nigeria, whose protest movement, MOSOP, had been founded by Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) to oppose the ecological devastation brought on the Ogoni by oil-drilling. My service in the cause of MOSOP realised some of the ambitions nurtured at Oxford, where I was involved in the early days of what is now termed ‘green politics’.
Much inspiration has been drawn from John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), the subject of my Oxford D.Phil. dissertation in 1982. Since 1990 I have been Editor (2010-20) and Associate Editor of the Powys Journal; I have published extensively not only on John Cowper but also on his brothers T.F. Powys and Llewelyn Powys, and on their circle. I have also written extensively about Thomas Hardy, especially the poetry; I am responsible for many of the annotations in the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy (Clarendon Press, 1978-1988).
My research ranges across all eras and areas of the English-writing world and beyond, to art history, comparative literature, literary theory and book history. I have published articles on central aspects of English literature from the 14th century—The Cloud of Unknowing, a mystical text—to the modern: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Patrick White, Iris Murdoch. Following the death of the poet Anne Blonstein in 2011, I was appointed as her literary executor and devoted much of my energy over the next ten years to the preservation and arranging of her papers and their deposit in the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo (NY), the leading archive for contemporary poetry. My interest in contemporary poetry has been global within the anglophone world, with essays on Geoffrey Hill, Les Murray, Derek Walcott, Roy Fisher, Maureen Duffy and Tabish Khair, as well as on Anne Blonstein.
Among the research-based courses I have taught are a number on recent and contemporary avant-garde literature, and a course on ‘Rotten English’ based on a long engagement with the work of the Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa. That involvement led to a politically motivated visit to Ogoni in 2002, during which I delivered the UNESCO lecture at the University of Port Harcourt. This was followed by a landmark case brought in Geneva on behalf of the Ogoni in which ‘civil society’ was acknowledged as a legitimate plaintiff.
At the University of Toronto I chiefly taught American literature and offered courses on writings by women from minorities and oppressed groups in North America, including First Nations; I maintain that interest. Here I regularly teach courses on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, Hardy, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and other ‘canonical’ English writers. I have given a number of courses on the history of literary theory since Aristotle. A lifelong pleasure in the reading of detective fiction led in 2005 to a course on the topic of crime and detective fiction, taught with Susan Moody. Virginia Woolf is only one of many important women writers of her generation, and I have been keen to promote the work of, among others, Gertrude Stein, Helen Waddell, Rose Macaulay, Dorothy Whipple and Sylvia Townsend Warner. In the series of ‘Engeromic Recognitions’ I have helped to arrange symposia on Leonora Carrington (2009) and Flora Tristan (2011). A third was devoted to George Stephens (1813-95), first Professor of English at the University of Copenhagen, building on a long-standing interest in the history of academic disciplines. I have also taught courses on the literature of London, on the literature of Scotland, on literary depictions of European cities, on trauma and terror, and on modern representations of the Middle Ages. In spring 2023 I am devoting myself to animal rights and ecological concerns with a course on Moby-Dick and the image and status of the whale in human imagining.
Within literary theory I have worked on the linguistic thinking of M.M. Bakhtin and Roman Jakobson and my publications explicate and advance their understanding of ‘novelistic discourse’ (Bakhtin) and of the inseparability of metonymy and metaphor (Jakobson). An essay on translation theory is indebted to Derrida in its insistence on the radical distinction between translation (graphic) and interpretation (phonetic). Semiotics has guided my thinking in both literature and the visual arts; an essay on Native Canadian petroglyphs was published in Semiotica. I have written extensively on the semiotics of perspective, both in Byzantine icons and in nineteenth-century landscape painting, and on the use of pictorial frames. An interest in the theoretical aspects of writing led me to book history, with a particular interest in punctuation, layout, scripts, and the iconic properties of text. Some of these have been presented in a set of essays on ‘heterographics’: that is, forms of writing that draw attention to diverse scripts and alphabets.
Among them Greek: for six years, from 2012, I was responsible for disbursing the Sophia Scopetéa bequest for promoting Modern Greek Studies at the University of Copenhagen; some ten conferences were arranged, with publications ensuing; the last symposium, on the English travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, was held in January 2018 in the presence of H.M. Dronningen Margrethe and her sister, H.M. the Queen of Greece.
Most recently I have attempted to explain how the lettering in the 6th century Codex Argenteus (the ‘Gothic Bible’, now in Uppsala) was represented in type for its first printing, in 1670—the first printing of any text in Gothic. Also forthcoming is an essay, ‘According to the First Writing,’ that investigates our terms ‘source’ and ‘copy’; this followed a long contemplation of the ‘Nestorian stele’ in Xi’an (a stele from the 8th century in which Chinese script is matched by Syriac). Such reflections, and the travels that enabled them, have led to writings on global history, with a recent publication on the city of Harbin in north-eastern China, and a work in progress on Russian Alaska; there are earlier essays on migration literature, on life-writing in postcolonial spaces, and ‘thinking on location’: how location inflects one’s thinking, as my own academic trajectory has given me occasion to recognize.
In 2013 I edited for the Powys Journal the correspondence between John Cowper Powys and the American writer James Purdy (1914-2009). In consequence I became intrigued by the work of this now neglected figure, and as well as writing about his novels I found myself in 2019, in long-deferred fulfilment of Purdy’s last wish, holding a casket in an English churchyard alongside his executor; there we laid Purdy’s ashes to rest next to the grave of Dame Edith Sitwell. The most grounded and grounding of rights, the right to be returned with honour to the soil, was affirmed by Antigone and upheld by the mother of Emmett Till; no less than for other rights, much has been sacrificed for this one, and of a writer much admired I can make this boast: Reader, I buried him.
By appointment, by email