Publishing may not have been Jonathan Spence’s topic for the 2010 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, but publishing’s concerns, and headaches, were a recurrent theme for the historian, a professor emeritus at Yale University. Speaking to a packed Warner Theatre in downtown Washington last week, Spence unraveled a winding tale of encounter between China and the West-centering on three men and their “meeting of the minds.” The scholar made no apology for his micro-approach for the talk, arguably the biggest official gig for the humanities in the United States. As a historian, Spence said, he has “always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story.”
In this case, the tease-worthy material began with an account of a letter of introduction sent in July 1687 by an English linguist named Thomas Hyde to the famed scientist Robert Boyle concerning a young Chinese man, Shen Fuzong, who had arrived in England a few months earlier. Shen had been helping Hyde catalogue Chinese books for what became the Bodleian library at Oxford. Shen’s ultimate destination was Portugal to complete training for the Catholic priesthood. However the occasion for his leaving his homeland was a publishing project. One of the Jesuits who had taught Shen Latin in China was bringing him to Europe to do the final proofreading of a Latin translation of Confucius. Shen was also to insert written Chinese characters at key places in the Latin text, “so as to prevent any interpretive mistakes,” Spence said.
Like many a publishing project today, it had its problems. A deal with a Dutch publisher fell through while in Rome nobody with the “right resources” could be found. Finally a publisher in Paris took on the book and, working through the King’s Library, secured what was essentially a 10-year monopoly on the text. But while handsome sums were spent on the book, for some reason no money was allocated to include the special Chinese characters, “even though the notation numbers for those characters had already been typeset in the first few chapters.” They stand today, said Spence, as “mute testimony to the problems of cost over-runs in technical publishing, even when one was backed by the prestige of the King himself.”
Still the book made a splash. In what is probably not in the job description of editors today, one of that ilk hand-delivered a copy to Louis XIV at Versailles. In addition, Spence said, the leading intellectual journal of the day published a seven-page review of the Confucius, which was six more pages than that same issue gave to another hot Latin title for 1687, Isaac Newton’s Principia.
For more early modern publishing tidbits, there is the full text of Spence’s talk, alas not with his genial asides. The National Endowment for the Humanities flagship publication also has an interview with and appreciation of the scholar, whose most recent book was Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man (Viking, 2007). But woe to those who brought that or any other book in the Spencian canon to the Jefferson lecture. Nobody, the NEH admonished the throng, nobody, should approach Professor Spence with any books to sign during the post-lecture reception. Understandable perhaps, if not exactly a boon to publishing.—Nina Ayoub