By Brianne Burrowes
It’s hard to imagine a place like the Huntington Library in California as a setting for rejection. In the expansive, picturesque buildings, one can find an original Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum–one of only twelve in the world–and renowned paintings such as Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinky” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy.”
But in 1971, Paul Zall, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of English romanticism and American literature, found rejection. So much, in fact, that he jokes, “the letters could wallpaper my entire office.” It was then that a young Zall set out to prove his conviction that British literary giant Samuel Taylor Coleridge (best known for writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) authored the 1821 English translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust–an epic tale about a man who sells his soul to the devil.
Zall began looking into the translation in the ’70s when he created a bibliography of all Coleridge works in the Huntington Library. When Zall read the anonymous translation, he thought only one person could have written it—Coleridge. Zall set out to prove this theory, and eventually found good fortune in 1971 when the journal of the New York Public Library wanted to publish his discovery. But, as luck would have it, shortly after accepting his piece, the journal folded.
Zall was back where he started—submitting his work for peer reviews—all of which were sternly disapproving. “They just simply would not believe that Coleridge translated Faust,” Zall says. “There were many rejections, and finally I simply said, ‘To hell with it. Life is too short,’ so I switched over to other things.”
A minnow among tritons
Then in 1990, a young James McKusick—now dean of UM’s Davidson Honors College—was working at the Huntington Library when Zall passed on his Coleridge and Faust research to McKusick as a gift.
Zall liked McKusick and saw him as one of the most promising of the younger Huntington scholars. When Zall gave McKusick the manuscript he said, “You take it. Run with it. Someday you may be glad.”
McKusick took the twelve-inch-thick manuscript, read it and was convinced the translation was without a doubt authored by Coleridge.
“But I also knew that if a titanic scholar such as Paul Zall could not prove it, what chance did I have as a minnow among tritons?” McKusick says. So, he did what Zall himself had done with the piece for the previous decade: he let it sit.
In 2003 Coleridge’s literary ghost came back to haunt McKusick when Fred Burwick, a colleague and fellow Huntington scholar and professor emeritus of English at UCLA, gave him a call.
“And he said, ‘You know, Jim, let’s take another look at this. I think maybe we can prove it,’” McKusick recalls.
And, like lawyers at trial defending their witness, McKusick and Burwick set out to prove that Coleridge was indeed the author of the 1821 translation. The duo focused on providing internal and external evidence in order to convince their literary peers.
The internal evidence is McKusick’s specialty. Using a program called Signature Software, a freeware program developed by the University of Leeds, he undertook a stylometric analysis of the Faust translation in direct comparison with other works of the period with known authorship.
A Musical Translation
The effect of Faust in its time
It was during an advising meeting that Immanuela Meijer and Davidson Honors College Dean James McKusick first discovered their shared passion for Faust.
Meijer, a junior majoring in vocal performance, is a UM honors college student. After helping her select classes for the upcoming semester, McKusick asked her what she was working on in her studies.
“I told him I was singing the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust,” she recalls.
Charles Gounod, a French composer best known for his “Ave Maria,” as well as his opera composition of Romeo and Juliet, made the Faust story into an opera.
McKusick quickly shared his Coleridge finding with Meijer, telling her that he would present the information at the Huntington Library in March. He invited her along to perform selections from Gounod’s Faust as entertainment for the celebration.
“It relates to our theme,” McKusick said, “and it shows the impact Faust had in its own time.”
So last March, Meijer, along with Anne Basinski, a UM music professor; Veronica Turner, a graduate student in vocal performance; and Emily Trapp, a junior in piano performance and music education; traveled to the Huntington Library to perform to an audience of Coleridge scholars in Friends Hall.
Basinski delivered an hour-long presentation on the opera’s impact, as well as on other musical adaptations of Faust. Peppered throughout were six performances from various musical settings of Faust by Meijer, Turner, and Trapp.
“I like the idea of music after an academic conference,” Basinski says. “It shows that artists inspire each other. Song especially is a marriage of poetry and music.”
Stylometry—an investigation of style by means of numerical analysis—has been regarded as a reliable method of determining authorship since 1964, when statisticians Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace published a landmark study on the Federalist Papers. By analyzing the relative frequency of keywords, their computer-based study showed that James Madison was the writer of twelve “disputed” papers, whose authorship could not be determined with certainty by external evidence.
McKusick explains that anything you can count in a text can be analyzed statistically. More importantly, anything that recurs in a text—including words authors have a preference for using—can be counted to develop what he calls a “linguistic fingerprint”—a list of words that often are used in characteristic frequencies. Those form the distinguishable marks of a writer’s style and are not intentional, but unconscious features, McKusick says.
“Stylometrics looks at recurrent features—things that occur more than once in a text. That’s the little words like ‘this’ and ‘the,’” McKusick says. The point is not that these are words that are unique to an author, but rather that a particular author will use these words in relatively the same frequency, no matter what they write.
McKusick used a set of ten keywords to create Coleridge’s literary fingerprint—he, in, which, your, to, now, then, of, this, and shall. He took this keyword set, along with those he developed for other known translators of the time—including John Anster, Francis Hodgson, Daniel Boileau, Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, and George Soane—and compared the frequency of occurrence with words used in the 1821 Faustus translation. What he found didn’t surprise him.
The set of keywords had nearly the same distribution in Coleridge’s play Remorse as in the anonymous Faustus of 1821. Not only that, but the word-length distribution closely matched on both texts. McKusick then used the program to find the chi square value—a feature built into the software that indicates whether the observed variations in word frequency are statistically significant.
“The result of this analysis shows you that there is a highly significant difference in keyword frequency between Coleridge and each of the other translators,” McKusick says.
But McKusick is quick to point out that stylometric analyis alone is not enough to convince peer reviewers of his theory. “If this were the only evidence for the attribution to Coleridge, I would not consider it definitive,” McKusick says. “However, it is strongly suggestive, and I would say it does indicate a high probability that Coleridge was the author of the 1821 translation.”
The 'smoking gun'
Around the time McKusick was crunching numbers, Burwick found evidence that British publisher John Murray asked Coleridge to complete a Faust translation in 1814. Even though Coleridge was given payment in advance for his work, he never produced the piece, although many scholars assume he began work on it. The £100 advance that Murray gave Coleridge is enough to live comfortably for a year in a nineteenth century middle-class lifestyle, McKusick says, but Coleridge asked that the sum be paid to his estranged wife. Because of this, he says, Coleridge—a known procrastinator and opium addict—would not have reaped any immediate benefits from the advance. Murray didn’t pursue the matter, but McKusick says this suggests a motivation for why Coleridge would want to remain anonymous when the 1821 translation was printed by someone else.
Combined with that, Burwick then provided another piece of external evidence to help back up these claims—a letter written by the German author Goethe to his son, stating that Coleridge was translating Faust. McKusick refers to this letter as “a smoking gun.”
In mid-March of this year, McKusick flew to San Marino, California, to present these findings—along with Burwick—during a celebration ceremony for Zall at where else, the Huntington Library.
“Year after year I sent it (the Coleridge finding) out and got it back with the same excuses,” Zall says. “There wasn’t enough evidence. And then to be justified by a computer? That hurt too much, it was a painful period. But now all the naysayers are dead. So who do I say, ‘I told you so,’ to?”
Well, the Coleridgean community isn’t a bad start. Despite all the rejection faced by the theory, the whole literary community now will know the truth. This September, Faustus: From the German of Goethe, Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, co-authored by McKusick and Burwick, will be published by Oxford University Press in England.
And as for any remaining naysayers? McKusick says to have them check his homework. “I want to underline the fact that I’m using free shareware and text samples that are open and available to anyone .... And I hope that other scholars will pursue this analysis a bit further.”
Brianne Burrowes ’07 is the editor of the Montanan. She is a graduate of UM’s School of Journalism. Her articles have appeared in Seventeen, Montana Magazine, and Empire Builder.