Friday, February 09, 2007

Woolf hunting

From 1996 through 1999, I was the bibliographer for the International Virginia Woolf Society. I took it online (where it has remained) at what was called SunSITE, then MetaLab, now ibiblio. For fun, I added a feature I called "passing glances"--a place to record other works of fiction or nonfiction in which Woolf plays a bit part. As I recall, the inspiration in part came from the work Brenda Silver was doing, culminating in her 1999 book Virginia Woolf Icon,

a book about "Virginia Woolf": the face that sells more postcards than any other at Britain's National Portrait Gallery, the name that Edward Albee's play linked with fear, the cultural icon so rich in meanings that it has been used to market everything from the New York Review of Books to Bass Ale.

Enlisting the help of Woolfians everywhere, I tried to call attention to these literary Woolf sightings. And I challenged readers to help me try to understand what these references were all about:

In these and other books making up our reading at random, Woolf is there--a testament to her genius and, further, to several decades of her readers' passionate and public scholarship. But she is not just there--she is being used. She is "passing" for (or against) something . . .

Even a decade ago, just to try to follow Woolf's tracks through contemporary writing was overwhelming. No grand theories, well really not any theories, emerged about what this phenomenon meant, although, then and now, it seems clear that there is Virginia Woolf and there is the idea of Virginia Woolf. Brenda Silver approached a theory; choosing to focus on Woolf's recurring image in popular culture, she asked why it was that Woolf seemed so often to be associated with dis-ease:

We cannot stop the proliferation of Virginia Woolfs or the claims to "truth" or authenticity that accompany each refashioning of her image; nor would I want to, however much I might disagree with or be scared by the effect produced by any particular representation. Instead, I have focused on those places where Virginia Woolf becomes symptomatic of embedded layers of cultural anxiety, in an effort to formulate as precisely as I can the issues--and the stakes.

And yet there was always more to write about. As her book was going to press, Silver was already trying to identify Woolf sightings on the web.

Woolfian friend Anne Fernald, now a professor of English at Fordham University-Lincoln Center and author of Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader, is threatening to pick up the challenge in her blog, even though it is more daunting than ever now, with the internets to contend with.

One of Anne's recent sightings is a great one for these cold winter days, Amardeep Singh's post "Virginia Woolf, In Winter," a brief meditation on Woolf's wonderful, rambling London essay "Street Haunting."

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