A series in which the editor attempts to summarize and synthesize scholarly research on aesthetics, creative writing, and literary magazines as a part of their PhD journey.
Creative writing as it exists in workshop classes and literary magazines is – and arguably always have been – attached to institutions.
It feels strange, this symbiotic relationship between the expressive freedom of creativity and the rigid nature of the institution. However, if we zoom out of the present moment to observe the so-called big picture of human history, the reasons behind the connection begin to make sense. As Ian Morris, the former associate editor of TriQuarterly, explains in Creative Nonfiction, “Certainly from the time one Cro-Magnon demonstrated a talent for manipulating pigments and was excused, to some degree, from the exigencies of hunting and gathering in order to record the result of those activities upon the cave wall, many, if not most, artists have relied on some sort of institutional support” (19).
Sure, this example of humanity’s proverbial grandfather stamping the likeness of a wooly mammoth onto a damp cave wall uses the definition of the word “institution” a bit loosely. But what is an institution other than an organized group of people, bound together by some set of expectations of each other, pursuing a collective purpose that is larger than the individual?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in this vein – “An establishment, organization, or association, instituted for the promotion of some object, esp. one of public or general utility, religious, charitable, educational, etc.” – and cites one of the earliest usage of this denotation in Francis Atterbury’s Easter sermon at St. Bridget’s Church in 1707: “Particularly Theſe, of which you have an account, are such Wiſe, ſuch Rational, ſuch Beneficial Inſtitutions, that it is impoſſible for a Good Man to hear them repreſented, without wiſhing them all manner of Succeſs; and impoſſible for one, that is both Rich and Good, not to contribute to it. To relieve the helpleſs Poor; to make ſturdy Vagrants help themselves; to hinder idle Hands from being miſchievous to the Common-wealth; nay, to employ them ſo, that they may be of publick Service” (14-15; emphasis mine).
“Jacobites” by John Pettie (1874) via Wikimedia Commons
Atterbury, an Angelicin bishop who lived during the reign of Queen Anne, was a talented polemicist. He was also a Jacobite and the titular leader of the Atterbury Plot of 1721 to restore the House of Stuart, which resulted in his exile under King George I. While delivered over a decade before the plot, Atterbury’s high praise of “Beneficial Inſtitutions” in his Easter sermon politically aligns with an important faction of Jacobites who later advocated for Christian socialism and called for a return to the Stuarts’ patronage of learning and the arts. Perhaps not coincidentally, Atterbury was an accomplished man of letters. He was a friend of satirist Jonathan Swift, founder of The Spectator magazine Joseph Addison, and poet Alexander Pope, to whom Atterbury often was a preferred editor. Pope even testified at Atterbury’s public trial following the plot, and although he chose to secretly correspond with Atterbury out of self-preservation after the bishop’s imprisonment and exile, he wrote the epitaph for Atterbury upon his death in 1732 (Jones 893): “Is there on earth one Care, one Wish beside? / Yes—Save my country, Heav’n, / —He said, and dy’d” (7-8).
The episode as it is summarized here massively simplifies the historiographic significance of Atterbury’s interwoven careers as a political activist and a member of the British literary community. Atterbury was an appointed royal chaplain and then a chief adviser on ecclesiastical matters to Anne when he was developing friendships with his writerly colleagues – but his later mission of “bringing down the Hanoverian regime and restoring the Stuart monarchy” was factional and hazardous for his friends, especially Pope (Jones 892). To this extent, Atterbury’s story isn’t a perfect allegory for the deep relationship that exists between authors and institutions. But nevertheless, it remains an interesting fact that one of the earliest records of the word “institution” is historically linked to the institutional patronage of literary genius, and perhaps this etymological connection is meaningful.
Jones, Tom. “Pope and the Ends of History: Faction, Atterbury, and Clarendon’s ‘History of the Rebellion.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 110, no. 4, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 880–902, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24392064.
Morris, Ian. “Is There a Future for the Literary Magazine in America?” Creative Nonfiction, no. 38, Creative Nonfiction Foundation, 2010, pp. 17–19, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44364596.
Scott, Samuel. A View of Alexander Pope’s Villa, Twickenham, on the Banks of the Thames. Circa 1759. Cover art via Wikimedia Commons.