Mutant Racism: Alive and Well at the Wall Street Journal

Posted By on October 6, 2015

the-year-of-lear-9781416541646_hrThe advance reviews for James Shapiro’s new book, The Year of Lear, have hit the internet and Shapiro has started his book tour, with a big kickoff sponsored by the “neutral” Folger library, which so far as anyone can tell, has learned almost exactly nothing from the errors and failures of Shapiro’s Contested Will, and still confuses “neutral” with “redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten where you are going,” to cite George Santayana’s definition of fanaticism.

Having yet to read Shapiro’s new book, I can’t comment in any detail on the contents, but if past experience  is any indication, the book is likely to be another Contested Will. This is the sort of book, at any rate, in which Shapiro specializes.

Simon Callow, reviewing for the Wall Street Journal, gives a probable if extreme prognostication of what is  forthcoming from mainstream Stratfordian reviewers, awed by the big money that is backing Shapiro’s reinvention of the Shakespeare biography and anxious for a silver bullet to kill off the Oxfordians.

Even died-in-wool Stratfordian Callow can’t help but notice that something is a bit off in Shapiro’s treatment: Shapiro “finds it irresistible to offer what seems to be a snapshot of Shakespeare but turns out to be heavily photoshopped.”


Indeed, declares Callow, “Shapiro is in the business of prestidigitation, conjuring, with the aid of smoke and mirrors, an impression of the man himself, summoning up, like the famous illusionist Dr. Pepper, a flickering but wonderfully lifelike ghost of the elusive author.”

While Callow is forced to admit that Shapiro’s craft is a bit like that of the stage magician, requiring him to conjure up an image that really isn’t there in any meaningful sense, through the creative use of “smoke and mirrors” that gives Callow,  at least, the warm and fuzzy feeling of  “an impression” of the “man himself” and “wonderfully lifelike ghost of the elusive author,” Callow is also a true believer in the ghost Shapiro presents. This is a clever way of apologizing for the fact that the Stratfordians don’t have a real author; they’ve got the “ghost of one.”

Normally referring to the “smoke and mirrors” required to make an argument sound respectable signals a degree of skepticism, but Callow actually loves Shapiro’s book, and is just trying to obviate the skepticism of the reader by implying that if your cause is just enough, its ok to bend reality with “photoshopping” special effects, or replace real authors with fantastic ghosts.

In case anyone was wondering why, in Callow’s mind, such dubious procedures are a GOOD THING, the answer is pretty clear: he credits Shapiro, in Contested Will, with performing the “inestimable service” of “seeing off for good the ineffably tedious gang of Shakespeare Conspiracists.”

Callow’s faith in the effectiveness of a book that was widely and convincingly debunked by the very persons whom he credits Shapiro with “seeing off for good” represents a telling sign of the dangerously willful ignorance cultivated by leading proponents of the Stratford cause, most of whom don’t have a clue about the real reasons that a growing part of the literate public isn’t buying what they’re selling any longer. You can only repeat these kinds of things so often until they start to sound ridiculous.

In fact, as Dr. Heward Wilkinson pointed out in a carefully argued guest post on this site,  Shapiro’s entire argument in Contested Will is an ad hoc expedient which rejects in its methods the entirety of modern literary criticism in order to keep Shakespeare safe for Stratfordian prejudice:

without realising what he has done, Shapiro, as an argument of convenience, repudiates the whole trend of modern Higher Critical thought and methodology, and has painted himself into a position as obscurantist as the most extreme American Evangelical Fundamentalist Creationist.

Last I checked, Shapiro’s book may have shored up the faith of those, like Callow, who don’t read, or at least don’t know  anything about, the “other side,” but among the great mass of uncommitted readers it had little effect. Some, including myself, even noticed how unreliable and arrogant the book really was, and found their skepticism of Stratfordian platitudes fortified by it.

As for Shapiro”seeing off” the “ineffably tedious gang” of the Oxfordians for good, no, Mr. Callow, go back to acting and directing. You are not an intellectual historian, or a Shakespeare scholar, and one may doubt if you ever will be either.

It was thirty years ago that Richmond Crinkley, Director of Educational Programs at the Folger in a Shakespeare Quarterly review of Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare, described the “bizarre mutant racism” towards post-Stratfordians or Oxfordians at the Folger. Such attitudes, then and now, served primarily as a form of social control of Stratfordians over one another. Oxfordians are used to this kind of treatment and over time learn to develop thick skins or find another passion.

But that doesn’t mean Callow’s callous rhetoric is defensible. Actually, it’s pathetic.

And what is really unfortunate, indeed reprehensible, is that thirty years later the Wall Street Journal, which really ought to know better by now, is publishing those kinds of trash comments by Simon Callow. If past experience is any indication, Callow is never going to understand who he’s hating with this kind of pseudo-intellectual name-calling. Is it too much to ask the Wall Street Journal to exercise a little editorial privilege by removing such pointless, derogatory, and wildly inaccurate statements from its book reviews?

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


4 Responses to “Mutant Racism: Alive and Well at the Wall Street Journal”

  1. Mark says:

    I don’t read the WSJ, but happened to be staying at a hotel where one was delivered to my door, and practically barfed up my breakfast when I read that review. I’ve never minded intellectual disagreements, but I’ve never gotten why Stratfordians in particular have to be so snarky.

    • I think they are snarky because they are poor losers. Most of them don’t know yet that they are losing, but they are — and the snarkiness is in inverse proportion to the rationality of the argument. Germaine Greer, who has written a much better and more critical review of Shapiro’s new book, is hardly snarky at all. Callow is completely confused. His intuition is telling him there’s something deeply flawed in Shapiro’s argument (hence the talk of “photoshopping”, etc.), but his rational mind abhors the thought that Shapiro is defending an illusion.

      The “snark” is what fills in the contradiction and allows him to keep his complacent but, objectively utterly false, faith in the claim that Shapiro dispensed with us in his *Contested Will*. Talk about deluded. Anyone who has left Stratford already can see it! – Right? The more they flop around and lash out, the more obvious it becomes!

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. William Ray says:

    The Wall Street Journal, James Shapiro, and Simon Callow share one survival instinct, get on the side that looks like it is winning. Facts and truth do not enter in the reckoning. But I believe Callow may gain from a humorous view of his position. It is a friendly way to, as Grant said of Lee at Appomattox, “let him down easy.”


    Advice to English Schoolboys.

    To gain command of English words and every grammar rule,
    ‘Tis best to be a butcher’s son and never go to school.
    To form good plays in perfect style, and full of classic knowledge,
    ‘Tis best to be a poacher bold, and never go to college.
    To write of ladies, lords and dukes, of kings and kingly sport,
    ‘Tis best to be a common man and never go to court.
    To write about philosophy and law and medi-sign,
    ‘Tis best to stand at horses’ heads, and never read a line.
    To treat of foreign lands in strains that all men must applaud,
    ‘Tis best to stay in England and never go abroad.
    To scale the heights of human bliss and sound the depths of woe,
    ‘Tis best to make a steady ‘pile’ and never let it go.
    If come to ripe maturity when genius has full play,
    ‘Tis best to lead an easy life and lay the pen away.
    To show that ‘knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven,’
    ‘Tis best that to your own dear child no lessons should be given.
    To surely earn immortal fame as England’s greatest bard,
    ‘Tis best to leave no manuscripts and die of ‘drinking hard.’

  3. Who is the author of that remarkable ditty, Bill?

    I’m glad you thought the blog was humorous. I must admit, I wasn’t laughing very hard when I wrote that sentence about inviting Callow to go back to acting and directing. But the glimpses of honest critique that appeared in his review, between the Oxford bashing and the Stratford hosannas, are indeed funny when placed in a larger perspective that the writer, in his adulation for James Shapiro, does not comprehend.

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