A CODEBOOK FOR FRANCES BOLDEREFF
“…how goddamn unhappy do we get before we start to wake up?”
Frances Boldereff is known by scholars of mid-century American poetry as the book designer Charles Olson corresponded with, and had an ongoing love affair with, from 1947 to 1969. She is less known as the author of seven books, most of them on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Boldereff herself contributed to this obscurity by (a) using multiple author names, (b) self-publishing, and (c) choosing esoteric subjects. She defined the nature of her authorship as reader, guide, theorist, designer, or compiler, not “writer” or even “critic” (in the discursive sense). In a letter to Olson in 1954, she wrote, “I am beginning to believe we are in an era when any art including writing must appear accidentally as a corollary to getting down new knowledge.” Boldereff’s books illuminated increasingly wide-ranging references in Finnegans Wake while her research supplied the authority of history, myth, and literature for her own vitalist life philosophy. Which activity was primary and which corollary is interesting to consider. Her own life situation, beliefs, and ideas are urgently present in her projects at every level, including the authorial allonyms announced by each of her texts.
Boldereff’s influence on Olson’s poetics was first promulgated by Tom Clark in his 1991 Olson biography, and in 1999 given more scope in an edition of the first years of the correspondence, edited by Ralph Maud and me. Troubling to some readers are Boldereff’s attempts to rationalize her oppression within the relationship with Olson (adulterous on his part), but I liked her saying that her problem with Olson was that she had been “misled by joy” On the surface, her situation is abysmal: a “shadow mouth” (Jed Rasula’s phrase) for some of Olson’s most important poems; and erasure by Olson (at least publicly) of her contribution to his poetics and their articulation in both poems and essays. But Boldereff maintained a subaltern and erotic stance toward a number of male writers besides Olson—writers she believed spoke for her and in her place. She was not, as she kept telling Olson, “a writer.” Rather, appositives such as “reader” and “compiler” announced her relationship to the writers she admired.
This scruple stretched to encompass her role even as author: for Reading Finnegans Wake, she situates herself on the masthead as “reader/designer”; for the visual and referent-intricate Let Me Be Los: Codebook for Finnegans Wake, she claims the role of “compiler”; and for A Primer of Morals for Medea, holder of copyright, under the name of Frances Ward. Neither the spine nor the imprint bears an author name. In the inside cover flap of Hermes to His Son Thoth: Being Joyce’s Use of Giordano Bruno in Finnegans Wake, Boldereff writes, “This is a guidebook,” giving the large part of the page to “the making” of the book, praising the work of its typesetters. Reighard Motz (Time as Joyce Tells It, 1977); Thomasine Rose (Verbi-Voco-Visual: The Presence of Bishop Berkeley in Finnegans Wake); and Frances M. Phipps, (Let Me Be Los, 1985) are listed as authors of these works. Frances Boldereff (nee Frances Motz Brubaker) was born in 1905, but the birth year listed on the imprint for Reighard Motz is 1945; for Frances M. Phipps, 1924.
The allonyms under which Boldereff published were variations on family or marriage names. But they were also inventions and flirtations. “Thomasine Rose” alludes to her romance with her husband, Thomas Phipps, and the anomalous birth years of Frances M. Phipps on the imprint of Let Me Be Los is most likely that of her husband. Reighard Motz may very well have been a relative, or an incident or idea occurring in 1945—after all, “time as Joyce tells it” is elastic and permeable. The publisher of Reighard Motz’ Time As Joyce Tells It is listed as Mulford Colebrook Publishing of Mifflinburg, PA, Mulford Colebrook having been a romantic partner of Frances. “Frances Ward,” copyright-holder of A Primer of Morals for Medea, hints darkly at the fate of her brief marriage to Duke Ward, who died in Texas in a barroom brawl shortly after their divorce. Russian Non-Classic Library, the name of her publishing company, alluded to the married name she kept for decades, from her first husband, Sergei Boldereff, a Russian emigre.
Boldereff’s allonyms and pseudonyms can’t be construed entirely as gender-driven necessities to protect a reputation or to smooth the way to publication in the male-dominated publishing industry of the time. Her embattled experience in the printing production departments of New York publishing firms from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s ensured her daily acquaintance with a notoriously sexist industry. Until 1985, with her last book, Boldereff never submitted, as far as I can tell, an unpublished manuscript to a publisher. She preferred to design and publish her own books, using talented typesetters and printers whose work she was professionally acquainted with. The back inside flap of Hermes To His Son Thoth, for example, is devoted to the two typesetters who laboriously produced Boldereff’s complicated page layouts. Boldereff wrote to Olson about how grateful she was to these young men for saving her many thousands of dollars in printing costs: her dedication to attractive and appropriate typographical design was uncompromising to the point of bankruptcy. Boldereff also assumed both the advertising and marketing costs of her books; in the case of Hermes To His Son Thoth, telling Olson that the book was “all over” New York and that she was handling every aspect of its marketing and sales.
Boldereff must have assumed that academic presses would not be interested in her esoteric, idiosyncratic texts, nor would commercial publishers; and even if they were, Boldereff could have predicted their balking at the exacting standards she would have insisted upon. Her disdain for contemporary printing practices was made clear in a letter to Olson in 1950 in which she criticizes the production values of James Laughlin’s “New Classics” series:
I do not believe there is one publisher in the U.S. who cares absolutely about quality—either in the writing or in the physical presentation. How could Laughlin print his New Classics series on paper so cheap—so physically unpleasant that as much as I need to own Rimbaud and as fine as Varese’s translation is I cannot own his copies of either Season or Illuminations….And the spacing, etc. in his New Classics series—and he has men like Ernst Reidel who is a magnificent designer at his disposal….Laughlin hasn’t been neglected by the public and he has plenty of money—doesn’t he ever go to the plant and say I want clean printing, I want pleasant paper—I want perfect alignment—he could have it for free, just by insisting….And the Western Review—Carroll Coleman is a fine designer and when he had his own press did fine press work—how could he permit the impermissible variations in leading—how could he space a P the way your note is tightly packed in—there is no awareness of the fact that the width of the stroke, modified in musical gradation gives the beauty.
Once Boldereff established her own imprimatur, Russian Classic Non-Fiction Library, of Woodward, PA, in 1949 for A Primer of Morals for Medea, she retained it and continued to design and publish her own books (with the exception of Let Me Be Los, which was published in a beautiful edition by The Toth-Maatian Review, of Lubbock, TX.) The word “Russian” was eventually removed from her press’ name; a caution, perhaps, in a Cold War context. The term “non-fiction” was another way she publicized her work as not belonging to the category “writing.” Boldereff’s books are, rather, graphic presentations of a world-view co-constructed by Boldereff and Joyce. By this means, she could maintain a satisfyingly intimate and aesthetic relationship between her research, her design principles, and Joyce’s text.
“I wanted to state my love in public,” Boldereff declared, referring to the purpose of her first book, A Primer of Morals for Medea (1947), which contains thirty photo reproductions of Michelangelo’s sculptural works. Her “codebook for Finnegans Wake,” Let Me Be Los, uses 135 halftone illustrations to demonstrate how the Egyptian myths of Ra and Osiris are reworked in Joyce’s text. Her intervening studies locate Joyce’s imaginative forebears in Irish history and the Irish bardic tradition, William Blake’s visionary symbol-systems, the radical spirituality of Giordano Bruno and the radical wit of Jonathan Swift, Egyptian cosmology, Greek mythology, Homeric epic, and “immaterialism” of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. Boldereff’s lifelong work on Joyce (I saw on her desk at her home in Urbana that in her late eighties Boldereff was still writing about him) gave ballast to her own life philosophy and sense of moral purpose—in the case of Let Me Be Los, the ballast of Blake’s “great myth,” which John Bishop, in his 1989 review in the James Joyce Quarterly, describes as Joyce’s “overwhelmingly urgent purpose,” that of “making his reader see that Finnegans Wake is about the potential wakening from mental darkness and ignorance of the Imagination”—or, as Boldereff puts it, “a purpose identical to Blake’s of awakening man out of his deep sleep.” Boldereff claims that Joyce’s readers, when they have “adequately interpreted all [the Wake] has to tell us, [it] will cause the dead to awaken, mankind to kick off his centuries of blind and capricious faith…and to become…intensely alive.”
Against the Cold War era of prevailing and noxious “deadness,” fear, and conformity, Boldereff proposed the “joyicity” of Finnegans Wake—a condition she believed was especially lacking in the lives of women. Her feminism looks ahead to French feminism’s jouissance as a way of knowledge and authority which Boldereff endeavoured to recover in the works of James Joyce, William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and, to some extent, Charles Olson. Coincident, or perhaps constitutive, is her commitment to “the idea of Imagination in its brashest and most florid Blakean sense…according to which anyone unredeemed by Imagination is…sunk in ‘the sleep of Ulro,’” a “state of total error, the deadly sleep of the spirit, the mode of life which rejects vision, and is therefore compacted of dark, delusive dreams,” writes John Bishop. Boldereff’s compilations, guides, graphics, and designs ensured that the works and feats of Joyce, Blake, and their predecessors back to the Egyptian mythographers yielded proof of the literary and artistic pedigree of her belief in the authority of joy and the redemptive power of poetic imagination.
This description of Boldereff’s methodology is not to suggest that her scholarship cannot be taken seriously by academic scholars in the field. Her first book on Joyce, Reading Finnegans Wake, for example, clearly belongs in the canon of Wake source books. In it, she traces Joyce’s linguistic references to the whole of Irish history. The book includes a 200-page “idioglossary.” Boldereff claims that Finnegans Wake is a long poem written in accord with the formal demands of Irish bardic verse. (“I started off every guy in the business,” she said to me, “and what do I get? Nothing”—referring to the groundwork and method she laid down in Reading Finnegans Wake and the absence of any credit for it.) Her last book, Let Me Be Los, published as a supplement of the Toth-Maatian Review in 1985 was her only outside publication, reprinted in 1987 in a paperback version by Station Hill Press. It was given positive reviews in the James Joyce Quarterly and the Irish Literary Supplement. John Bishop, in the Quarterly, says that “this eccentric and engagingly weird book will be good to have around if only because it reveals so much about the possible things that books can be”; and that despite, or because of, its eccentricity, makes “immersion in Phipps’ [Boldereff’s] arguments intriguingly worthwhile” Bishop praises the book’s “excellent accounts of Blake’s theories of imagination, space-time, and art; its genres and thoughtfully explored graphics…and its share of novel and enriching insights.” That Boldereff’s title depends on a fortunate and/or deliberate misreading, however, is handled by Bishop with the tact it deserves: Let Me Be Los derives from the following line spoken by a character “who could not possibly ‘be Los’—the Urizen-like Mookse, a Gestapo Pope—and in its entirety it read, ‘Let you be Beeton. And let me be Los Angeles.’” The reviewer’s verdict:
[The book] expands our sense of the infinite range and variability of human possibility to know that we could, if we wanted, pursue the path of an Ezekiel, or of a soap-box preacher ranting on the corner, or of a William Blake, a Frances Phipps, a Thomasine Rose, or a Frances Ward…Let Me Be Los, for all its unorthodoxy and argumentative weakness, nonetheless exercises…an extravagantly expansive function.
Boldereff did note that “Beeton was a town or suburb eaten up by the growth of Los Angeles in both space (‘Los Angeles,’ heaven) and time (the angels, in Spanish and eternity).” And Bishop adds, “When Phipps writes the phrase ‘Let me be Los” she is speaking about herself, too.”
As proxy expressions given mythopoetic status, Boldereff’s meticulously-researched readings and compilations and her beautiful book designs ensure that the works of James Joyce also yield proof of the imaginative pedigree of Boldereff’s own hopes, beliefs, concerns, and ideals.