Monday, August 17, 2020

Christopher Walton, William Law, and the 296-Page Footnote

It has been my tradition at this blog to take a break from current events in late August. Instead, I offer a series of posts about academia, economics, and editing, focusing on comments or themes that caught my eye in the last year. I start with the story of the 296-page footnote, and how its author cried out for an editor. 

The story of our footnote begins with Christopher Walton (1809-1877), a businessman who made a fortune dealing in silk, jewelry, and goldsmithing, and his fascination with a Church of England priest named William Law (1686-1761). In turn, Law is perhaps best-known today for his 1728 book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and more generally for his arguments that religion should include be fully lived in action and spirit, including a deeply felt and mystical piety. 

In short, Christopher Walton thought that William Law was the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas. Walton wanted the world to know about Law. So he collected writings by and about Law, and tried to write them up in a privately printed book in 1854 under the unwieldy title: Notes and materials for an adequate biography of the celebrated divine and theosopher, William Law. Comprising an elucidation of the scope and contents of the writings of Jacob B√∂hme, and of his great commentator, Dionysius Andreas Freher, which is available via the magic of HathiTrust

For background on Walton, I draw upon the entry written by David L. Wykes for the Oxford dictionary of national biography : in association with the British Academy : from the earliest times to the year 2000 (edited by H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison, British Academy, 2004). Wykes describes Walton and his book in this way:   
Alexander Gordon, a personal acquaintance, described him as physically 'of large build and in character sententious but kindly, and absolutely destitute of humour' ... He made a fortune as a jeweller and goldsmith, enabling him to pursue his interest in theosophy. He became particularly interested in the mystical works of William Law. ... About 1845 he advertised for an assistant to help prepare a biography of Law, for which he acquired a great collection of antiquarian works in addition to his existing library. He began to print an Outline of the Qualifications . . . for the Biography of ... Law in November 1847, finally completing it at Christmas 1853, but he circulated copies of the incomplete text before it was finished. To the completed work he added To the Christianity, the philosophy, the erudition, science and noble intelligence of the age. Notes and materials for . . . biography of... Law. Comprising an elucidation of ... the writings of ... Bohme, and of his great commentator . . . Freher; with a notice of the mystical divinity ... of all ages of the world (1854). The 700-page work is disorderly beyond description, 'a chaotic mixture of the relevant and the irrelevant' (Hobhouse, 196), yet it contains much bibliographical and biographical information of value.
I've only dipped in and out of Christopher Walton's book, but I can vouch that calling it "disorderly beyond description" is an understatement. Nonetheless, it also has the genuine charm of a heartfelt intellectual quest--albeit a quest that gets out of hand. For a sense of Walton's style of exposition in the book, here is the opening sentence of the "Preface:" 
The understanding of the Editor upon the subjects of recondite and practical knowledge introduced into this work, having been greatly enlarged and perfectionated during the several years he has been occupied over it, especially as he approached to its conclusion, when it was, that he first obtained a true and philosophic insight into the arcanum of "Animal" or "Vital Magnetism," so denominated, with the magical wonders that lie couched in it, both as a science and an art; and without which apprehension, it must be affirmed, that neither the original revelations of Scripture as to their literal truth, nor the purely magic phenomena of Nature in any age, can be adequately understood, or rationally explained :—such being the case, the reader will please to observe, that those only of its statements ore to be regarded as the Editor's final determinations, which shall be found to be unmodified by subsequent remarks, either in the work itself, or in the " Introduction to Theosophy," which immediately succeeded to it, or by the contents of the "Corrigenda and Addenda " prefixed to it, and immediately following the present introduction* or Preface. 
And so it goes, for 34 pages of "Preface" and 688 pages of text that follow, all in very small print. When I find myself smiling at Walton's book, I also find myself thinking: "Oh yeah, buddy? What are the 700 pages of small print that you poured your own heart and soul into lately?"

Round about p. 334, it must have been apparent to Walton that the flow of exposition wasn't going well. (And again, who among us hasn't reached p. 334 of a book we are writing and had these similar feelings?) So Walton starts a footnote with a cry for help--indeed, a cry for a perfect human being who is also AN EDITOR who will take Walton's hundreds of pages of notes and collected writings and put together the ideal biography of his ideal man, William Law. The key footnote starts like this (and I have put in boldface type a few of the traits of the EDITOR Walton is seeking): 
As a relief to the uniformity and matter of these pages, we present currently therewith, the following Notes and Memoranda, relating to the personal history, birth-place, family and friends of the subject of the proposed biography ; which, though belonging more appropriately to that work, may not be unacceptable to the readers of this preliminary treatise. 
And here we take occasion to say, in reference to the compilation and authorship of the Biography, that what is WANTED in short, as the sum and the object of the present treatise, and as necessary in the nature of the thing, is AN EDITOR, who, whilst proving himself an exact historian, a solid universal scholar, a just thinker, a profound philosopher, and a deeply-experienced, enlightened christian, shall produce a masterly picture, or biography of the individual, in all the features and developments of his mind and character ; interweaving the scanty incidents of his life that have been preserved, with such tender and manly reflections, and filling up the vacancies in his history with such elevated and charming natural conceptions and observations, and interspersing the whole with such dashes and reliefs of sublime instruction, though popularly expressed, as shall irresistibly inspire the reader with a fervent admiration of true wisdom and piety, and also fire him with an ardent and indomitable resolution, to immediately commence the pursuit of evangelic perfection, and the imitation of so perfect a model of a learned and accomplished English gentleman, philosopher and christian. The whole to be rendered as captivating, by the dignity and importance of the diversified subjects upon which it treats, in so uniformly felicitous and masterly a manner, as. by the condescending tenderness, nobility and wisdom of its sentiments, and the classic purity, elegance and sweeping rhetorical and strictly logical power of its composition : all which qualifications, a solid duly-constituted ordinary genius may engraft upon itself, by diligence and a close study of the models referred to, and through the directions and specifications interspersed throughout the present treatise. In a word, as none but a Law could design and execute a perfect biography of a man. a scholar, a philosopher, and a Christian ; so this treatise aims solely at creating another Law, possessed of all the talents of the former, with all the highest practical experiences, discoveries, and divine manifestations in the human nature, that have distinguished these last ages, superinduced thereupon ; for without a beau-ideal or model of a perfect man in all his characteristic features and particulars, how shall mankind be elevated to their proper redeemed perfection, how shall the Gospel produce its full results. To proceed.
The absolute earnestness and sincerity of Walton's hopefulness, coming in the midst of his colossal effort in putting together this manuscript of more than 700 pages, makes me a little teary. Biographies have been written of William Law, but no larger-than-life EDITOR answered Walton's call. 

Thus started the footnote then proceeds for 296 page, from p. 334 to p. 628. For the first 25 pages or so, the main text is the top half of each page, followed by a hairline, with the ongoing footnote covering the bottom half of the page. For the following 140 pages, the  mixture between text and footnote varies, with the text sometimes being the top third of the page, and sometimes taking most of the page. But about 160 pages into the footnote, the note takes over, and for over 100 pages, the "main text" is a couple of lines at the top of each page, with the rest devoted to the unending footnote. 

The story of the 296-page footnote has, at least to me, a happy ending. Wykes describes it this way in Walton's entry in the Oxford dictionary
Walton donated copies to every major public library in the world. Some other anonymous works relating to theosophy were probably written at Walton's suggestion and printed at his expense. He kept his Theosophian Library' at 8 Ludgate Hill, and made it freely available to those who shared his interests. In August 1876, at the suggestion of his friend Keningale Cook, Walton offered the books he had collected to Dr Williams's Library, stipulating that they should be kept apart as the 'Walton Theosophical Library', and always be available to those interested in the subject. His manuscripts relating to Law were included in the gift. Alexander Gordon was paid £20 to catalogue the books. The Walton collection now forms the best collection of books on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mysticism in Britain.
The two versions of Walton's book that were copied and put up on the web by HathiTrust were from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. 

After learning of this story, I have sought to visualize what one might call the "Christopher Walton editor," that paragon of humanity and editing skill with all the highest practical experiences, discoveries, and divine manifestations in the human nature," who would face that 296-page footnote with twinkling eyes and a modest smile--and edit something beautiful out of it. Christopher Walton never got the editor he had hoped for. But I suspect that in his own "sententious" and "humorless" way, he would be so very pleased that his collection of writings has remained a useful source of research, and that his book is available with a web connection to all the world. All it takes, after all, is one person to love the life and work of William Law as much as Christopher Walton did, and to take up the task of editor.