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March 15, 2010

La Salle English Professor James Butler’s
Decades-long Scholarship is Completed — and Honored by Modern Language Association

LAfter 40 years and countless words, a scholarly task undertaken by La Salle University English professor James Butler is over, and he and his collaborators were recognized for a “Distinguished Scholarly Edition” with a runner-up citation from the Modern Language Association (MLA) at its annual convention in Philadelphia.

James Butler

Modern Language Association president Sidonie Smith (left) presents James Butler with the 2nd Place Award for a "Distinguished Scholarly Edition." (Photo by Edward Savaria Jr.)

Butler and co-editors Sally Bushell and Michael Jaye were honored for their work, The Excursion, the final piece of a 21-volume series about English poet William Wordsworth, and published by Cornell University Press. The work is 1,245 pages.

“I first began work on the series about 1969,” said Butler, who was graduated from La Salle two years earlier. “It was thus a persistent -- and occasionally irksome -- companion for four decades.” Butler edited one of the volumes, co-edited two others, and served as associate editor of the series.

“When I started graduate school at Cornell University, I wanted to work on Wordsworth’s younger contemporary, the poet John Keats. I was thus much dismayed to be told that I was mistaken in my belief that many of Keats’ manuscripts were at Cornell. But something in Wordsworth’s times and my times resonated,” said Butler. He also learned that microfilms of the Wordsworth manuscripts were available at Cornell.

Now that the series is complete, Butler jokingly says he feels, “kind of blue, but there are other things to do.” (He’s spent the last year as Director of the University’s Honors program.)

The Excursion is a long narrative poem in which an alienated character, the Solitary, is deeply depressed in the public realm by the loss of political idealism that the French Revolution once promised, and in the private realm by the death of his wife and children. The Poet, the Pastor, and the Wanderer all try to warm the Solitary back to life and to social relationships. All four of the characters are aspects of Wordsworth’s personality.

“Especially for those who hoped and believed in the idealism of the 1960s, only to have it called into doubt by assassins’ bullets, the Vietnam War, and the madness of the 1968 Democratic convention, Wordsworth’s poem is much more than a musty historical document,” said Butler.

Butler visited about three dozen archives in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for this project. There were many trips to the main Wordsworth manuscript archive in Grasmere, “a village of about 1,000 in the county of Cumbria in the spectacular English Lake District,” said Butler, whose family lived with him and attended school in England while he did his research.   “For a time, my children acquired broad Cumbrian accents,” he said. “Those accents are gone, but many English Lake District memories and friends remain. I thought that the books of the completed Cornell Wordsworth Series would be the main outcome of the work. I now know that for me the real monument is a four-decade accumulation of friends: shepherds and scholars and shopkeepers and innkeepers and antique dealers and writers and artists and actors and more.”

The MLA Committee’s citation for the honorable mention second place award for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition, 2009, reads:

“This is an elegant, astonishingly thorough and splendidly straightforward critical edition of Wordsworth's The Excursion. Whereas the most recent published edition of the work is based on the 1850 edition, Sally Bushell, James A. Butler, and Michael C. Jaye have chosen to base their edition on the corrected second issue of the first edition, printed in 1814. They have produced a meticulous account of the complex textual tradition, including both manuscript and print witnesses spanning several decades. In addition to a detailed yet transparent apparatus accompanying the reading text, they include transcriptions of all manuscripts preceding the 1814 publication, along with representative photographic reproductions. This handsomely produced volume provides a complete yet readily accessible collection of materials that will be an invaluable resource for scholars working on this text in the future.”

In the London Times Literary Supplement for December 25, 1992, Thomas McFarland of Princeton University wrote that “The Cornell Wordsworth [is] . . . incontestably one of the great scholarly ventures of our time.”