Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Howard's Idea and the Idea of Hypertext

Susan Yager

Donald R. Howard's The Idea of the Canterbury Tales has substantially influenced Chaucer studies for nearly three decades, yet when it was first published critics often differed in evaluating it.1 Praised as "brilliant" (Kirby 264) and "an argument of great subtlety and power" (Kolve 391), the book was also criticized for its "unnecessary length" and "fake debates" (Mann 356) and even for the author's "inept mode" of writing and "coarse prose style" (Blyth 163). Sometimes praise and blame were mixed. In her Speculum review, for example, Florence Ridley hailed the book as a landmark, yet wrote that Howard's "journey is too long, impeded by needless repetition and what looks suspiciously like obfuscation for the sake of withholding revelation until the last"; she found it "frustrating and ultimately tedious to trace a medieval labyrinth in order to reach the heart of a modern critique" (995).

Even Howard thought his view of the Tales would trouble readers. He imagined that his take on the individual tales, in particular, would seem to his audience "like a puzzle whose parts cannot be made to fit, like a hall of mirrors reflecting everything from angles multiplied upon themselves, like a maze" (188). Readers today are, however, far less likely to struggle with Howard's discursive, conversational style, or with his assertion that the Tales has a "hall of mirrors" quality.2 Partly, of course, this is because the intervening years witnessed enormous changes in how we think about literature. In addition, we can now see that Howard was talking about the Canterbury Tales as a hypertext; he merely lacked the vocabulary. Howard's Idea of the Canterbury Tales anticipates several developments in hypertext theory—in the idea of hypertext, to give Howard his due. Howard would not, I am confident, have endorsed some aspects of hypertext theory.3 Its embrace of postmodernism, for example, contrasts sharply with Howard's views on authorial presence. Yet in several respects Howard's treatment of the Tales parallels various theoretical treatments of hypertext. A reexamination of The Idea of the Canterbury Tales reveals Howard's near-prescience with regard to hypertext and demonstrates the book's continuing significance for Chaucer studies.

A Précis and Some Parallels

A few passages in the Idea suggest directly that Howard had an interest in then-nascent electronic technologies. Discussing his key concept of obsolescence, for example, Howard observes that

a newspaper, a bibliography, or a dictionary may be obsolete the day it is published, but . . . as part of culture they will only be obsolescent if there emerges—as some think there has—a real possibility that they will be replaced by electronic devices. (91)

For the most part, however, Howard's ideas mesh with hypertext theory in the area of rhetoric rather than technology. The following brief overview concentrates on Howard's theoretical scaffolding, which comprises by far the greater portion of his book and contains those aspects of his thought which parallel ideas in hypertext theory.

Howard claims in Chapter I of the Idea that the Canterbury Tales are "unfinished but complete" (1; italics are Howard's throughout) and can be discerned as such despite their fragmentary state. For Howard, it is possible to "hold the whole" of a poem in remembrance" (19), and this allows poems to have meaning. Toward this end, he sets out "not to write a linear 'reading'" but rather "to see the whole 'idea' of the work in a historical perspective" (3). This "whole 'idea,'" teased out bit by bit, includes several elements, including a definition of pilgrimage as a one-way journey, and a consideration of the Canterbury Tales as a comedy on the theme of living justly in the world.

In his second chapter, "A Book About the World," Howard treats, among many other topics, the idea of the book. Howard claims that the term book was ambiguous in the Middle Ages, and that Chaucer would have thought of the Canterbury Tales as a book, a single work, even though he never refers to it as such. As Howard explains, the Retraction's rubric and explicit reference to "this book" are scribal additions (56). Howard describes the medieval book as having the opposing qualities of "bookness and voiceness" (63). By "bookness," Howard means its qualities of authority, rarity, and value; "voiceness" refers to the book's recording of spoken language that can be read aloud at will and thus infinitely reproduced. To these Howard adds a third, newer element, paperness: "the book is available, controllable, instrumental, in part disposable" (65).

Chapter III, "Style," contrasts the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. While the Troilus is presented to the reader in retrospect, the Canterbury Tales unfolds in a narrative "now" that is renewed with each retelling, or performance. Howard claims that the narrator is "at once teller and performer," the audience "hearers and readers . . . free to choose but told how to react" (83). The narrative "now," Howard further claims, is "rendered dramatically by the experience of obsolescence . . . the experience of things not yet obsolete about which it is feasible to predict an end" (90).

The heart of the book's argument builds on these suppositions in the fourth chapter, "Memory and Form." Howard uses the notion of obsolescence to link the Tales' momentary "now" with memory. The experience of the Tales, in fact, involves a double feat of memory, according to Howard. The stories emerge as the memory of the narrator, who relates the events of the pilgrimage; this memory, in turn, is made up of earlier memories recalled by the pilgrims. The reader calls to mind each teller as the tales unfold (Howard suggests that the pilgrim portraits may function mnemonically [151]) and experiences each story vividly in the moment of its narration. Each tale then enters the memory of the reader, who maintains a sense of the narrative whole. Thus memory, for Howard, is "central to the experience of reading The Canterbury Tales . . . and becomes the controlling principle of its form" (139).

According to Howard, the pilgrimage and the individuals on it comprise the "outer form" of the Canterbury Tales. The ending of this outer form, the Parson's Tale and Retraction, differs sharply from the rest of the work and produces "a sense of closure" even as the poem remains "open-ended in a manner which is poetically effective" (172). In contrast, the "inner form," encompassing the tales themselves, is more chaotic; many of the tales' conclusions draw the reader, Howard claims, toward "extra-literary realms" (182). The tales, "when finished, point us to the larger form of the work as a whole, or to areas of thought which fall outside the work. Everything seems to lead to something else. The smaller parts point us to the larger whole, the larger whole to the smaller parts" (182). Howard believes that what he calls the "esthetics" of this form (188) will trouble readers; the stories' "multiple viewpoints and multiple degrees of closure make the inner form of the tales seem a maze of contradictions in which the reader is left to find his own way, to participate as hearer and judge" (189).

Howard employs a number of models to explain this idea of the Tales' structure, including flowers, rose windows, and cathedral labyrinths. Following Eugène Vinaver, Howard also uses the image of the interlace, visualized as an "endless knot which interweaves and has no end" (222), though Howard does not envision the interlace as an unbroken strand.4 The succeeding discussion in Chapter V traces recurrent, often paired, themes; Howard compares the Tales' interlacing to various binary structures, including a diptych painting. However, "the best model" for this structure, according to Howard, is "the experience of turning over a leaf," for "the most familiar binary organization would have been the facing pages of an open book" (319).

The sixth and final chapter is a reading of Fragments VI and X, emphasizing the Pardoner's and Parson's discourses. Howard, like F. N. Robinson in his edition of Chaucer, describes Fragment VI as "floating": "You can put the fragment in any of the gaps in the existing structure . . . and manufacture a literary or thematic relationship, but none asserts itself" (338)5 In his conclusion, Howard claims that the Tales'

most significant quality is its ability to set one man's reality against another's. . . . While we know the world by our own experience, part of that experience is our knowledge of others' experience, and part of this knowledge is attained from books.
And seen this way, the established idea of The Canterbury Tales as unfinished is correct—not because Chaucer failed to write more tales but because he created a literary form and structure, a literary idea, whose possibilities were inexhaustible. (385)

This overview of Howard's Idea is scarcely comprehensive; the book contains more (usually fruitful) tangents than can be easily summarized. In addition, I have ignored Howard's specific readings in favor of those elements most closely corresponding to concepts in hypertext theory. These elements include Howard's interest in memory and associative thinking; his ideas about nonlinearity; his comments on the Tales as performance and the reader's role; and his thoughts on "paperness" and the book as technology.

Memory and Associative Thinking

Hypertext, like written or printed text, is a means of preserving memory, differing from manuscript or print in its means of preservation. Theodor H. Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, observed that as a student he had no useful way to organize his notecards for writing papers; every idea "needed to be in several places at once" (1/24). Computerized hypertext, of course, allows precisely this kind of immediacy, as links hold together what Nelson calls "the structure of ideas" (1/29; italics Nelson's throughout). Thus electronic hypertext, as a linked set of files, allows one (to revert to Howard's terms) to "hold the whole in remembrance" (19).

The idea of a mechanism that would allow access to preserved and organized memory was explored by scientist Vannevar Bush in the 1940's. Bush, now acknowledged as a pioneer of thinking about hypertext, imagined a desktop device that could store and quickly retrieve information. Aware of the flood of scientific knowledge accompanying the end of World War II, Bush was concerned that researchers' discoveries were often useless to others. He thought, moreover, that "[mental] trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory" (106). Bush's imagined device, which he called a "memex," would store a great number of "books, records, and communications" which could be "consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility" (106-07). This device would be "an enlarged intimate supplement to [a researcher's] memory" (107). Months or years later, a second researcher could consult the trail constructed by the first, with each successive researcher retracing and adding to the record left by others.

Bush's memex, with its prophetic similarity to internet browsers, was a visionary system, a grand scheme for capturing memory. Though it was imagined as a boon to scientists, not storytellers, and as a collection of many authors' works, not one, the memex is similar to Howard's view of the Tales in surprising ways. In Howard's view, the Canterbury Tales is a visionary system, a way to preserve memory; and (like Bush's memex) the Tales' structure acknowledges that "part of our experience is our knowledge of others' experience" (385). Both models offer, to use Howard's term, a "way of organizing experience" (19), an imagined path through what Howard compares to a labyrinth (385) and Bush calls "a maze of materials" (107). Both systems would exert only limited control over the texts they incorporate, and both offer a conception of how a loose collection of texts can create and preserve memory.

Memory is the key element shared by the scientist and the scholar. Bush's memex depends on the idea that experience and thought can be remembered, made permanent and shared; for Howard, as we have seen, memory is a formal element, "central to the experience" of the Canterbury Tales (139). Bush imagined the memex as a way to enhance the process of exploration and discovery. For Howard, the overall structure of the Tales functions in just that fashion; the relation of the "inner" tales to the "outer" pilgrimage helps the reader both to maintain a sense of the whole, and to explore specific themes or ideas as they recur.

Bush's memex is imagined as a geography, using the metaphor of the trail. Similarly, Howard sees the Canterbury Tales as an interlaced set, a "labyrinth" (327) for readers to follow. Bush's geographic metaphor emphasizes the marks left behind by one's predecessors, while Howard's image evokes the spiritual experience of pilgrimage. Neither the memex that Bush imagines nor the Tales of Howard's envisioning is merely a memorial of, or repository for, data and stories. Rather, their metaphors point to the reader's freedom to choose among paths of memory. Both imagined systems possess enormous potential, capable of yielding different configurations to successive readers.

This potential for variation is another element these systems share: the idea that one can reread or retrace a path blazed by oneself or others, though each successive journey alters the path. Bush imagined a series of readers building trails of interest and amplifying trails they had received. Howard sees a similar amplification occurring not only in generations of successive readers ("ways of reading change," he says, 17) but also within the text: "Often, it is true, the tales look back to previous tales in a parodic or ironic or disputatious spirit, but this looking back always adds something new, makes a reply, sees things in a different light" (79-80). Just as the memex trail would allow readers to combine personal experience with others' wisdom in an ever-changing body of knowledge, so experiencing the labyrinth of the Canterbury Tales, in Howard's view, would combine the reader's own experience with that of others, and with the world of books (385). Thus, neither the memex nor the Tales would ever be entirely finished; each would be a fluid, dynamic thing, based partly upon received knowledge, what Howard calls "lore" (187).

The loose structure which relates the Tales' inner and outer forms, and its parts to the whole, operates on a principle of association, another aspect of Howard's vision that parallels Bush's thought. Bush assumes that the mind operates by association: "With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain" (106). That is why, for Bush, the associative principle is "the essential feature" of the memex (107).6 Howard finds a similar principle at work in the Canterbury Tales, and points to its operation in much of medieval literature.7 The "characters are arranged in associations easiest to remember, associations of class, alliance, and dependency" (149); we remember their tales "in groups and relationships" and "are at liberty to remember them in various combinations" of audience, genre, or theme (198).8 For both Bush and Howard, the process of associating materials is idiosyncratic (Howard claims it is irrational, like memory itself, 325) and the systems themselves inherently resist closure.

Nonlinearity, Linkage, and Closure

Bush imagined that the connection joining two items in the memex could be accomplished mechanically, emphasizing that the "process of tying two items together is the important thing" (107). This connection has been realized in the form of electronic hypertext links, portals from one file or set of files to another. Links offer the possibility of different reading paths, making hypertext nonlinear.9 Nonlinearity, as the distinctive mark of hypertext, is central to many definitions of the term.10 Nelson, for example, defined hypertext early on as "non-sequential writing—text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. . . . As popularity conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways" (0/2). (Nelson's definition is not limited to electronic text; for example, he calls his printed book Literary Machines a hypertext.) Gathering disparate materials together, yet holding material in abeyance until the reader demands it, the link both joins and separates, continues and interrupts (Moulthrop 304).

As George Landow explains, elements of hypertext are connected by "multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality" (3). Nonlinearity thus entails lack of closure, and hypertext is by definition "open-ended, expandable, and incomplete" (79). A hypertext narrative like Michael Joyce's pioneering Afternoon, for example, is made up of multiple segments linked so that multiple reading paths exist, and trails branch off or recur. Only the reader's satiation (or exhaustion) determines the point of closure (or abandonment). Yet, although the organization of hypertext is nonlinear, the experience of it is not; every instance of reading is linear in that any path that is chosen is experienced sequentially. This is why, though Landow calls the multiple array of readings in hypertext "nonlinear," he adds that they are "more properly" termed as "multilinear or multisequential" (4).

As we have seen, Howard's concept of the Canterbury Tales as fluid and dynamic also entails its nonlinearity or multilinearity. Howard wishes to dissociate himself from critics who "tie analysis to . . . the 'linear' experience of reading" (16), yet elsewhere he refers to the "linear sequence" of the Tales, emphasizing the always-unfolding "now" of the storytelling that readers experience (80). In distinguishing "'linear' experience" from "linear sequence," Howard maintains a distinction between an abstract concept of the Canterbury Tales and a reader's particular knowledge of it. The open-ended relations that Howard finds among the Tales' themes and stories, and between the "inner" tales and "outer" framework, are central to both abstract idea and specific experience, but he does not refer specifically to links or linkage. Instead, to describe inter- and intra-textual connections, Howard repeatedly speaks of texts that "hover" or "float" near others, for example when he uses Robinson's term to describe Fragment VI. The "displaced or floating quality" of this fragment, according to Howard, arises from the grotesque nature of the Pardoner and his tale (339); the Pardoner "is meant to haunt us, to hover menacingly over our whole reading of The Canterbury Tales" (342). Similarly, Howard claims that the "outer form" of the General Prologue "contains and hovers over the inner form, the series of tales" (189). The "hovering" text influences other texts just as linked hypertexts do: one text influences how another is read, establishes a hold on it, shadows our interpretations of it. Yet the "hovering" or linked text can also be ignored or forestalled, since readers can exercise some judgment regarding how and when to read it.

In using Vinaver's image of the interlace to visualize relations among narratives, Howard anticipates both the hypertext link as connector and the idea that such links can interrupt or forestall connections. Howard comments:

It is convenient to visualize an interlace as the ribbon design or endless knot which interweaves and has no end; but it is extremely inconvenient that this analogy leads us to imagine continuous "strands," for that is not what we get. We get instead abrupt transitions, unmotivated entrances and exits, interruptions. The interlaced story is a collection of units pieced together by different kinds of junctures which at once divide and join episodes or groups of episodes. (222)

The Tales' inner form, he says elsewhere, is "structured like an 'interlace'" in which one story line interrupts another; the "distinguishing feature" of this structure "is the interruption or 'juncture,' the point at which a story line must be held in memory until its later continuation" (325).

This idea of juncture, much like the hypertext link, creates a double perspective. One can choose a link, or refrain from choosing it, in an electronic hypertext, but the possibility of another reading path remains. A double perspective is frequently invoked by Howard as he seeks in describe his larger idea. For example, he compares the Ellesmere miniature of Chaucer to an optical illusion: "Look at it one way and you see a comic figure on an incongruous mount; look at it another way and you see a presence larger than life" (15). Howard applies this double perspective to the Canterbury Tales as a whole: "we need to see The Canterbury Tales in two ways at once—on the one hand as a series of tales within an encompassing tale, on the other hand as an inexhaustible world of stories" (208). He emphasizes this double perspective again in his conclusion. The contrast of the Parson's Tale with the rest of the Canterbury Tales, he says, "makes the work complete. Look at it one way and you see a world of story; look at it another and you see the Way" (386).

Howard frequently invokes the flower or rose window image to describe this double perspective. These circular images "represent relationships and interrelationships within a larger unity" (208). These relationships are not linear, but associative and holistic. The flower or rose window represents the connection in the medieval mind, says Howard, between parts and wholes, as the "center of one design becomes the periphery of the other—it is wheels within wheels indeed" (203). Howard uses a recursive, circular design of his own in the Idea, for his argument often repeats and folds in upon itself. The persistence of the double perspective, the ever-present possibility of a different take or different path, is part of the resistance to closure which Howard finds in the Tales; readers "return to the unfinished book of tales again and again" because it provides a "provocative and astonishing . . . experience" (386). Howard's use of double perspective to forestall closure is surely part of the tedium Ridley found in tracing "a medieval labyrinth in order to reach the heart of a modern critique" (995). Yet this resistance to settled or definitive readings is understandable, arising from Howard's determination not to bind himself to linearity but to see "the whole 'idea' of the work in a historical [and memorial] perspective" (3).

Performance and the Reader's Role

Landow asserts (in a considerable understatement) that the "multiplicity of hypertext . . . calls for an active reader" (6). Landow, taking a literary-critical perspective, sees electronic hypertext as realizing Roland Barthes' distinction between lisible or "readerly" and scriptable or "writerly" texts. In this view, hypertext is "writerly" because readers exercise a substantial control over it and contribute to its making.11 The multiplicity of links makes the path through a hypertext unpredictable, changing with user and occasion, and thus in a sense always new.

The eternal "newness" of electronic hypertext prompts some theorists to compare it to artistic performance. Jane Yellowlees Douglas, for example, claims that every "reading of a hypertext is a single performance of the text," that is, an occasion of "creating meaningful sequences and coherent narratives" (24). In print narratives, according to Douglas, "the reader's experience of the text . . . shifts to foster fresh interpretations," but with interactive texts, "it is the narrative itself which shifts from one reading to the next" (22). Hypertext author Richard Gess draws the parallel between hypertext and performance even more sharply: "Writing is performance, a voice you put on and a speech you write for it. Hypertext, with its illusion of three-dimensional area, makes writing a physical performance, apparently taking place in space. Writing hypertext is choreography; reading it is doing it" (38). Reading electronic hypertext, according to this view, has affinities with drama, and the performance of hypertext, even more than a production of a play, offers the performer—the reader—many opportunities to interpret and alter the text. In addition, each hypertext performance is original and "live," although generally the readers/performers themselves are the only audience.

Howard's emphasis on the Tales as experience leads him to make similar claims about text and performance, though with some important distinctions. He dismisses the importance of a work's "objective historical existence," claiming that a work matters "when it is read or performed, when it is experienced, when it has an effect" (16-17). According to Howard, "the model of an extended performance is embodied in the work" of the Canterbury Tales, in the presence of "a monologuist, a performer," the narrator whose name is Chaucer (195). The narrator-performer plays the roles of the pilgrim speakers, Howard says; each of these performers, in turn, "plays the role of various figures" in the tales themselves (195). What is required of the reader, Howard says, is "participation" and "suspension of disbelief" (196).

To a certain extent, Howard's view of textual performance differs from those of Douglas and Gess. For Howard, the first performer is the narrator. Hypertext, however, being constructed in fragments and often involving multiple contributors, is often thought to have no narrator or narrative schema (Foltz 118). This is one of the points where Howard's view diverges from postmodernism; for him, readers are "drawn into a relationship" with the narrator, behind whom "we sense a living man, the author himself" (195). 12 Further, in identifying the narrator as the performer, Howard places performance within the text, while Douglas and Gess locate performance in the act of reading, in the user of hypertext. Yet even as he describes the narrative performance, Howard also posits the reader as a second performer, one in partnership with the first. The narrator's performance is retrospective, a "feat of memory" (197), and the work as a whole

directs us to look back upon tales and groups of tales, to perform our own feat of memory. But when we do so, what we remember is not necessarily a progression or an order. We remember the tales, as we remember the pilgrims, in groups and relationships. And we are at liberty to remember them in various combinations, depending on readers' preferences and ideas (198). Thus the memory of reading the Canterbury Tales is in some ways a memory of having "produced" it, having created a particular reading from among "an almost infinite number of associations, a plentitude of meanings" (199).

Howard makes much the same point when he contrasts the Canterbury Tales with Troilus and Criseyde. Readers of the Tales, he explains, "are cast in the role of listeners at a protracted performance" (123), but unlike the Troilus, which keeps the power of storytelling "in the narrator's hand," in the Canterbury Tales "the book is put into our hands to make of it what we will" (123). Howard does not imagine that Chaucer grants the reader unlimited agency and freedom in constructing meaning (though he often comes close), but he does claim that the Tales involves "a conspiratorial accord between reader and author" (185). Thus, although Howard does not explicitly equate reading with performance, he sees in the Tales much of what Douglas sees in interactive text. For Howard, each "provocative and astonishing" experience of the Canterbury Tales, a performance of memory that at the same time unfolds in an immediate narrative "now," is new.

"Paperness" and the Book as Technology

Like Bush imagining the memex and like many other writers who describe hypertext, Gess uses a geographical metaphor to explain his ideas: "hypertext reading is traveling," he says; "hypertext writing is creating countries to travel through" (40-41). Howard uses a remarkably similar set of terms to describe a quality he sees in late medieval works, particularly the Canterbury Tales. He describes a "new kind of reading experience" in which reading is "an adventure, voyage, or quest"; a book like the Tales "becomes a voyage of exploration, writing a creation of worlds, often interior worlds in which the reader travels" (66). This new take on reading, an "attitude" which Howard calls "the real heart of humanism" (66), arises, he claims, from the use of paper in addition to vellum in the later Middle Ages.13 Paper made "ephemeral writing" of drafts and memoranda easier, made copying and book ownership feasible, and made revision less burdensome (65). Thus, the book became less a revered artifact and more an object for everyday use; it is "instrumental," as Howard puts it. This quality of a manuscript, which Howard calls "paperness," allowed a reader to "choose books, select passages, bring his private thoughts to the book, pick thoughts from it, and neglect what he wishe[d]" (65).

The more traditional qualities of authority and performability, or in Howard's terms "bookness" and "voiceness," are also present in the Canterbury Tales, he argues, but alongside them is this newer element of paperness. As Sandy Feinstein points out, the freedom to "skip, select, compare, turn back, and reread" (65) is built into the Tales, with its open invitation to "Turne over the leef and chese another tale" (I.3177). This freedom is identical to the reader's liberty in choosing a path through a hypertext, which can be skimmed, annotated, reused or ignored at the user's whim. The reader of the Tales, like the user of a hypertext, has an explicit license to roam, to interrupt, and to investigate. What Howard, then, recognized as "paperness"—a kind of disposability that he thought had culminated in the cheap paperback—is abundantly present in electronic text (which, of course, requires no paper at all).

Howard's remarks on "paperness" demonstrate his awareness of the book as technology and of the significance book technology has for readers. In this Howard echoes the hypertext theorists who make a connection between the physicality of texts and the texts' organizing schemes. For example, Jay David Bolter claims in Writing Space that changes in the physical structure of texts, from papyrus roll to medieval codex to printed book to electronic text, affect how they are read and what they can say (77-79). Howard makes a similar point when he claims that the "very fact that there were books with pages (as opposed to the scrolls of ancient times) meant that two passages could be compared, that one could leaf back to something previously read and refine or alter one's understanding" (319-20). Howard also anticipates Bolter's idea when he discusses the medieval manuscript's "binary or diptych organization," which "became a fundamental organization of a single page. Very frequently medieval manuscript books are in double columns, so that the open pages of a book present two matching diptych designs, two pairs within a pair" (320). Howard finds in this binary structure a parallel to the narrative pattern of interlace and to the double perspective he admires in the Tales.

Howard's view of the book does not always match Bolter's, however. In Bolter's view, the advent first of manuscript codices and then of print created a sense of the book as a separate, protected entity; print technology in particular strengthened the idea that a book was a "complete and closed verbal structure" (78). According to Howard, Chaucer would have considered the Tales as a book because it is "integrated" (58); it is "a work, not 'works'—disjointed, various, unaccountable, it still has a consistency of style, of tact, of mind" (30). Yet in Howard's view, the Canterbury Tales, though essentially complete, is not a "complete and closed" structure. Rather, the individual tales "tend to leave matters open, throwing attention back to the outer form of the pilgrimage, forward to the next tale, or at key points into realms of discourse beyond the literary realm of the work itself" (Howard 189). Howard's description of the Tales as radically open is very close to Bolter's claim about electronic books, that they "reach out to other structures, not only metaphorically, as printed books did, but also operationally" (81).

Howard does find, with Bolter, a history behind the assumption that books are "complete and closed" structures. "Many modern readers," Howard says, "expect 'tightness' of structure and 'organic' unity—we labor under the clichés of the book trade and the opinions of Coleridge" (60). Not all books, especially in the Middle Ages, evince such unity, of course; citing Vinaver and Robert M. Jordan, Howard adds that to the "'gothic' mentality . . . a literary work might be disjunctive, digressive, inorganic, archetectonic" (60). To argue his case, Howard cites Tennyson's In Memoriam as a work that, like the Tales, lacks "organic unity": "We find in it a structure and development, concede that it is of a piece, then regret that it is loosely put together" (61). To the extent that modern readers can value In Memoriam without insisting on "unity," Howard says, they "may be in the position of a medieval reader approaching a work like The Canterbury Tales" (61). Interestingly, Landow chose Tennyson's poem as the focus of an electronic hypertext project in the early 1990s. Landow, in language very similar to Howard's, sees In Memoriam as a "radically experimental" poem whose fragments are "interlaced by dozens of images and motifs." In its challenge to "narrative and literary form," Landow claims, the poem "anticipates electronic hypertext" (54).

It is curious, but not really surprising, that Howard and Landow should have cited the same Victorian poem in their arguments. Both critics oppose the Romantic assumption that poems ought to have "organic unity," Howard from his position of resistance to "positivism and formalism" (16), Landow from his poststructuralist perspective. For Howard, In Memoriam mimics the loosely structured but unified Tales; for Landow, the poem's "antilinear . . . fragments" offer an example of "proto-hypertextuality" (54). Though they do not share a terminology, both Howard and Landow recognize in Tennyson's poem a way of thinking, a similar structure for organizing ideas.

Howard Against Hypertext?

Although there are many similarities between Howard's ideas on the Canterbury Tales and theoretical claims about hypertext, on occasion Howard seems reluctant to press ideas that have become central to hypertext theory, and he retreats from some implications of his arguments. For example, he says of the Tales' "inner form" that "everything seems open to question" and that this "questioning spirit . . . requires that we make choices" (182). Yet there seems to be no irony in his remark that, if there is multiple structuring in the Tales, "a critic could pick a tale at random and write a whole new book tracing its thematic relationships to other tales—an appalling thought" (324). Again, while he says that "tales are related to one another in more ways than the sequential or linear way" (213) and perhaps the best solution to ordering the fragments "is to say that you can read them in any order you please" (215), Howard nonetheless makes an argument for leaving the fragments in the "best manuscript" (in his view, Ellesmere) order (213).14 And, unlike hypertext theorists like Joyce and Douglas, who see only an arbitrary end to the process of reading hypertext, Howard says that the Canterbury Tales, "to the extent that it has form . . . has a degree of finality" (177). Despite the almost "inexhaustible" (385) possibilities open to readers of the Canterbury Tales, Howard argues that they will have in common "the experience of recollection which permits them to see the work as a whole when they have read it to the end" (17). Indeed, Howard sometimes eschews the theoretical completely. He remarks, for example, that the experience of leafing through manuscripts "is worth a thousand times more than theorizing about 'print culture'" in obtaining a sense of medieval "bookishness" (62). Despite some differences in emphasis, however, the Idea demonstrates its author's engagement with the same arguments about "bookishness" and texts that have animated a later generation of intellectuals.

The Future of Howard's Idea

I hope I have established that our familiarity with hypertext can clarify Howard's once murky and sometimes frustrating argument in The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. In several respects, as I have tried to demonstrate, the Idea parallels hypertext theory, and anticipates it as well, since Howard's book predates the prominent publications on hypertext with the exception of Bush's 1945 essay. There continue to be many reasons for readers of Chaucer to read the Idea, of course, but certainly one of them is its author's affinities with the claims of some hypertext theorists. Indeed, the advent of electronic hypertext makes Howard's Idea more significant than ever.

For example, the kinship between Howard's thought and hypertext theory has practical implications for Chaucer pedagogy. By reexamining the Idea, teachers can imagine different ways of teaching Chaucer in the information age. College students, screen-familiar and computer-savvy, learn, read and write in a milieu of electronic texts and computer-assisted instruction. Moreover, it is difficult for many students to read texts that are just a few decades old; reading centuries-old works becomes even more daunting. It is possible, however, to link the reading and understanding of Chaucer to a new rhetoric which, in Richard Lanham's terms, "must be built on digital technology" for example by emphasizing the double perspective that Howard identifies in Chaucer and by articulating the many and divergent readings that the Tales' structures allow (Lanham 274). In doing so, we may find new ways to make Chaucer valuable and, perhaps more selfishly, foster the continued viability of Chaucer's works in the undergraduate classroom.

There are implications for critical work as well. Thinking about Chaucer as hypertext might well provide a corrective to theorists who presume that Western texts have always been fixed and linear, and who rarely look beyond Tristram Shandy for the predecessors of electronic hypertext (e.g. Bolter 140-42). That the Canterbury Tales shares common ground not only with In Memoriam, but also with the works of John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, and others is not a new claim, certainly,15 but it can be explored in different ways if we regard the Tales as participating in a hypertextual rhetoric.

There is a passage in the Idea that uses terms from psychoanalysis to talk about the Pardoner. In that passage, Howard cautions, "the reader must not think I am 'modernizing' Chaucer . . . I am using the lexicon of our time to name kinds of behavior which the medievals already knew" (355). In the same fashion, I do not wish to postmodernize Howard; but I think he "already knew" something about the Canterbury Tales for which we can use the lexicon of our time.


I wish to acknowledge the support and assistance of John Dahle, James Dean, John M. Hill, Norman Hinton, Lee Honeycutt, Don Payne, Lee Poague, Amy Slagell, and Christian Zacher.

1This influence is seen prominently in V. A. Kolve's Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1984) and H. Marshall Leicester, Jr.'s The Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990). Whether to praise or critique, many others have also taken up The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, for example Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), C. David Benson, Chaucer and the Drama of Style (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986), and Robert M. Jordan, Chaucer's Poetics and the Modern Reader (Berkeley: U of California P, 1987). Return

2Rosemarie P. McGerr, among others, has followed up on Howard's interest in the "issue of open-endedness"; see Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse (Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998), 3. Return

3Among the many treatments of hypertext with significance for literary studies are George P. Landow's Hypertext 2.0 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997); Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, 2d ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001); and Michael Joyce, Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995). Some influential books with an emphasis on the pedagogical implications of electronic communications are Richard A. Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993), and Jerome McGann's Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2001). Return

4Howard, p. 60 n. 47, cites Vinaver's Form and Meaning in Modern Romance (Presidential Address, Modern Humanities Research Assoc., 1966) and The Rise of Romance (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971). Return

5Fragment VI is described as "floating" in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton, 1957), 726; the term is omitted (see p. 901) from the Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton, 1987). Howard liked the idea well enough to include it in Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987), 488. Return

6The idea that the mind operates associatively, though popular, has been challenged as overly simplistic. See Andrew Dillon, "Myths, Misconceptions and an Alternative Perspective on Information Usage and the Electronic Medium," in Jean-François Rouet, et al., eds., Hypertext and Cognition (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996), 28. Return

7Here Howard draws on William W. Ryding, Structure in Medieval Narrative (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1971), 84. Return

8Howard is not alone in observing this associative pattern; Helen Cooper uses a web metaphor in observing how Chaucer's interest in establishing "a number of interrelated themes" creates a "cobweb effect" with "lines of contact going off in a number of directions from any given point." See Cooper's The Structure of the Canterbury Tales (London: Duckworth, 1983), 69. Return

9I concentrate here on text-based files, rather than the broader array of text, sounds, and graphics of hypermedia. Return

10Some hypertext theorists assume that non-linearity in narrative is essentially modern or postmodern. Many have pointed to James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, or John Barth as originators of nonlinear narrative, though some find the medieval romance analogous in its repetitions and recursions. Return

11In his Of Two Minds (41-45), Joyce makes the distinction between "exploratory" or closed hypertexts (such as a read-only CD) and "constructive" or open hypertexts, which users can change. Return

12Howard takes seriously the idea of authorial presence: "Kill them (theatricality and extravagance in reading Chaucer) and he dies" (50). Return

13Howard places the introduction of paper to Europe in the twelfth century (64) but Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), dates it to the thirteenth century (18). Return

14Here, despite his many affinities with hypertext theory, Howard is quite text-bound compared with, for example, Pearsall, who once suggested that the Canterbury Tales should be presented "partly as a set of fragments in folders" (23). Return

15For example, Robert M. Jordan, "Lost in the Funhouse of Fame: Chaucer and Postmodernism." Chaucer Review 18 (1983): 100-15. Nelson, for his part, calls Nabokov's Pale Fire "a brilliant poetic hypertext" (1/31). Return

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