Lifetime(s) of work

One hears of a “labor of love” and a “lifetime of work” pretty frequently, but one truly sees its meaning in the Gordon A. Wilson notes and papers relating to the works of William Romaine Newbold.  It all starts with Aristotle!  William Romaine Newbold was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who lectured on philosophy and worked extensively translating Aristotle’s Metaphysics. According to the long history of the translations, before his death in 1926, Newbold handed over his work to one of his students Hartley Burr Alexander. Alexander proceeded to work on the manuscript with one of his students, Gordon A. Wilson, until his death in 1939. And then, Wilson worked with the manuscripts until his death in 1974. In case you are worried, I don’t think it was the manuscript that finished off any of the scholars mentioned above.

The bulk of the collection documents the work that Gordon A. Wilson did to make the manuscript ready to publish.  In a letter dated October 20, 1965, Wilson states that he “guarded these [manuscripts] carefully through the years and … worked on them from time to time, but the task of transliterating the notes is tedious and requires two people one to read and one to check,” (box 2, folder 11). Wilson, a teacher of English, the Classics, and ancient history at the Webb School of California, worked on the project in his spare time, and finished the translation, “using the vocabulary and interpretation which Newbold had ingeniously applied to the task,” (“Proposed Graduate Seminar in Aristotelian Studies,” 1969, box 2, folder 12).

In 1970, Wilson appears to have considered the work completed and sent the manuscript to Charles H. Kahn, professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn stated that the manuscript could not be published, and that “no amount of editing would really succeed” in making it publishable.

Wilson responded to this letter from Kahn with grace–significantly more than I suspect I could have mustered after spending 31 years of my life working on a project.  He responds with thanks for Kahn giving such careful evaluation of the manuscript and even agrees with him, finally saying, “since the manuscripts were left in my hands, I have felt a moral obligation to see the work completed … now I think that I can let the matter rest …” (letter, April 4, 1970, box 2, folder 1).

Does the fact that three incredibly intelligent and diligent people spent much of their collective lives working on a project that never came to fruition make this collection less than valuable?  No!  This collection is amazing … from the original work of translating, to the minute interpretation of every word in the translation, this collection may have less to do with the final product of academia, but strikes me as having everything to do with what being an academic is really like.  These three, Newbold, Alexander, and Wilson, translated for the good of the work–and their work may not have turned into a published volume, but no doubt enriched their lives and the lives of anyone who looks at this collection.  I feel as if Aristotle would have approved!

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