By Gary R Varner
An authors response to a recent book review.
A few weeks ago the editor of Fortean Times, the British magazine of the weird and unexplained, wrote to me requesting a copy of my Leland book. He stated that one of his reviewers had specifically asked to review the book. I was somewhat surprised as the Leland book certainly didn't seem to fit the Fortean Times theme but nonethless had a copy sent to them.
Recently the review was published on the Fortean Times website. I include it here in its entirety along with my response:
Fortean Times review of Charles G. Leland: The Man & the Myth
By Stephen Toase August 2010
"Charles Leland – a folklorist, the author of the humorous Hans Breitmann stories and a distant relative of the English antiquary John Leland – is best known for Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. He was an authority on gypsy folklore, and Native American and African American legends. With his complex attitudes towards race and identity, as well as his talent for embellishment, Leland is an excellent subject for a biography. However, a good biography is a reflexive study where the author enters into a dialogue with the evidence to reveal the life of the subject (see the review of The Devil is a Gentleman, FT263:61). This book fails significantly in this respect.
Large sections of text – up to two pages! – are lifted verbatim from Leland’s memoirs and from the biography written by his niece, Elizabeth Pennell. A good editor would have focused the quotes to highlight significant points within Leland’s life. Instead, the exploration of Leland becomes muddied. The referencing system also suffers: a quote critical of Leland is attributed to him.
Elsewhere, Varner’s understanding of the current Travellers’ persecution in Great Britain is overly romanticised. On page 69, he states “…in fact, in Britain today several ‘reservations’ have been established for them, but should they stop anywhere on their way from one to the other they face arrest and fines.” While there is undoubtedly prejudice, this view doesn’t allow for events such as the annual Appleby Horse Fair.
Pennell’s biography is available online. Read it for free rather than spending money on this poorly-edited rehash."
Response: (Why I do this I have no idea but all authors actually care about what people think of their work.)
First I find it interesting that someone would specifically request a review copy unless they were familiar with the subject or they had some nudging from others.
Mr. Toase is correct that I do include some extensive quotes--but after reviewing the book myself I did not find "two pages" lifted verbatim from the two works he mentions. I do have a large quotation from an article that LeLand wrote on "darkies" to illustrate LeLand's mindset and beliefs about race. However this quote was not "lifted." I use extensive citations throughout so anyone may check on the valildity of the information. I also quote heavily from reviews which Leland's books received. The use of extensive quotations are not uncommon in biographies which many times quote entire letters and materials about the individual from primary sources.
Mr. Toase's statement that "Varner’s understanding of the current Travellers’ persecution in Great Britain is overly romanticised. On page 69, he states “…in fact, in Britain today several ‘reservations’ have been established for them, but should they stop anywhere on their way from one to the other they face arrest and fines.” While there is undoubtedly prejudice, this view doesn’t allow for events such as the annual Appleby Horse Fair."
My statement is not "romanticised" but a statement of fact. I am sure that the average English enjoy attending the Appleby Horse Fair just as the average American enjoyed the wild west shows featuring Geronimo--great entertainment but nothing to minimize the discriminatory policies of a government or a people.
Finally, Mr Toase's claim that I attributed a critical comment about Leland to Leland is not found. While I certainly may have made an error in one of my citations I cannot locate it and Mr. Toase did not have th curtesy to indicate what the comment was or were it could be found in the text.
These three "faults" which Toase claims in view of the material would appear to be of a "so what" significance--if they were true. However they are not.
Interestingly enough Mr. Toase seemed set out to defame the book and my writing rather than to review the content. No mention of Leland's literary world, his war experience, his schooling, his establishment of the inductrial arts programs in the United States or his manipulations contained in his folklore work.
I find it also difficult to reconcile Toase's remark that my book is a "rehash." There has been scant witten about Leland in the last 100 years other than a few articles praising his character by New Age writers and a few mentions in other scholarly books. The best book about Leland's manipulation of his Native American informants is Thomas Parkhill's book "Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey
Leland, “Indians,” and the Study of Native American Religions." (Albany:
State University of New York 1997)
I find no other work which treats Leland, his work, personality, relationships or talents as mine does--there can be no "rehash" with nothing to "rehash!"
I am not generally a suspicious person but I suspect that Mr. Toase is another staunch admirer of Leland and is somewhat dismayed that my book is starting to sell in the UK and has been purchased by the British Library. Be that as it may I stand by my book and challenge anyone to dispute my research and conclusions.
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