Charles LaPorte is a distinguished scholar in Victorian literature, particularly with regard to the topics of religion and secularism. He earned his Ph.D from the University of Michigan in 2004. He has taught at Vanderbilt University and, since 2005, at the University of Washington, where he is currently an Associate Professor of English. He has published articles and book chapters on George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Victorian reception of Shakespeare, and Spasmodic poetics. His articles have appeared in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Literature and Culture, Studies in English Literature, and English Literary History. He has also contributed to the Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature and the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. His essay, “Aurora Leigh, A Life-Drama, and Victorian Poetic Autobiography,” was honored with the Monroe K. Spears Award in 2013. His book Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, which analyzes how major poets responded to higher criticism, was awarded the Sonya Rudikoff Book Prize in 2011.
His paper, “Post-secular English Studies and Romantic Cults of Authorship,” examines religiously-inflected Victorian-era literary criticism from the London Browning Society. He considers how such literary societies questioned and explored the religious value of secular poetry, turning to modern literature for sacred texts without dogmas that could appeal to theists, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists alike. LaPorte suggests that the earliest manifestations of what some now call post-secular English studies can be found in these literary societies, and that these early examples can therefore offer insight into our own post-secular moment.
Robert Browning. The Ring and the Book. Second edition. Four volumes. London, 1872.
This edition of The Ring and the Book was presented to Browning in honor of his seventieth birthday (May 7th, 1882) by several ‘Browning Societies’ that formed after the poet gained a national reputation. The societies represented here are from London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bradford, Cornell, Cheltenham, and Philadelphia. The presentation page of volume 1 of The Ring and the Book adds an extra paragraph to the dedication, suggesting Browning’s evident need for a copy of his own works:
These Members, having ascertaind [sic] that the Works of a great modern Poet are never in Robert Browning’s House when need is to refer to them, beg him to accept a set of these Works, which they assure him will be found worthy of his most serious attention.
The text itself contains several corrections by Browning.
"Ring and the Book" VII, 673 with corrections
"Ring and the Book" VII, 755 with corrections
"Ring and the Book" VII, 860 with corrections
"Ring and the Book" VII, 1099 with corrections
"Ring and the Book" VII, 536-538 with corrections
"Ring and the Book" VII, 673 with corrections
The volumes of The Ring and the Book were presented to Browning in an oak bookshelf with a symbolically carved headpiece under which the words “To Robert Browning, 70, May 7, 1882” stand out in bold relief. The item is now displayed in the offices of the Armstrong Browning Library.
Letter from S. L. Clemens to [Mary Hallock] Foote. 02 December 1887.
In this letter Clemens (who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain) explains his role in the Browning Society to Mrs. Foote:
Now when you come to think of it, wasn’t it a curious idea—I mean, for a dozen ladies of ^ (apparently) high intelligence to elect me ^their Browning-reader? Of course you think I declined—at first; but I didn’t. I’m not the declining sort. I would take charge of the constellations if I were asked to do it. All you need in this life is ignorance & confidence; then success is sure. I’ve been Browning-reader forty-two weeks, now, & have ^ my class has never lost a member by desertion. What do you think of that, for a man in a business he wasn’t brought up to?
I wonder if—in one particular—your experience in your new avocation duplicates mine. For instance, ( I used to explain Mr. Browning—but the class won’t stand that. They say that my reading imparts clear comprehension—& that is a good deal of a compliment, you know; but they say the poetry never gets obscure till I begin to explain it—which is only frank, & that is the softest you can say about it. So I’ve stopped being expounder, & thrown my heft on the reading. Yes, & with vast results—nearly unbelievable results. I don’t wish to flatter anybody, yet I will say this much: put me in the right condition & give me room according to my strength, & I can read Browning so Browning himself can understand it. It sounds like stretching, but it’s the cold truth. Moral: don’t explain your author; read him right & he explains himself.
- Exhibition Text by Aaron Cassidy