Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Newman's Literary Workmanship

The Central Catholic Library is marking the recent beatification of John Henry Newman with two events. The first of these is an exhibition of early editions of Newman's writings, and is a collaboration between our Honorary Librarian, Peter Costello, and Newman scholar Dr. Angelo Bottone. (1st - 22nd October).

Secondly, Professor Teresa Iglesias (a founding member of the Newman Society) will give a lecture in the Library on 19th October. She will speak about her editorial work on a new edition of Newman's The Idea of a University, published to mark the 15oth anniversary of University College Dublin.

The essays contained in The Idea of a University are of perennial interest. They are also a very good introduction to Newman's work for those readers who are not sure par quel bout prendre this prolific thinker. To focus on just one aspect, the essays offer a perfect example of Newman's "silver-veined prose" (as Joyce called it). And in fact, they also contain a commentary on that prose, encapsulated in the concept of "literary workmanship".

Newman uses the phrase in the essay entitled "Literature", as he works out a theory of literary creativity. He understands the act of writing as being aligned with plastic arts such as sculpture. The writer works words into texts as a potter works clay. For why, asks Newman "should not language be wrought as well as the clay of the modeller?" He imagines the writer shaping a text, drafting, correcting, redrafting, "taking pains", constantly learning his craft, devoloping a personal style as he thinks his way in words. For style, as Newman defines it, is "a thinking out in language", and the dedication to faithfully and appropriately expressing his thought is the essence of the writer's creative integrity.

This understanding of the literary act underpins Newman's achievements as a literary stylist and hence, we might say, as a thinker. One of his biographers, Brian Martin, describes the cardinal as one of the greatest of English nineteenth century prose stylists, and this is a judgement shared by many, including Joyce.