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Charles (Al) Carpenter

Charles (Al) Carpenter - Personal Retirement Story

Instead of retiring from Binghamton University (BU) in 1999 at the reasonable age of 70, when I would still be a passable teacher, productive scholar, and fair-to-middling breadwinner, I leaped at the chance to bow out and change my reclusive, nose-in-a-book life. The cause was my second wife Martha. Two weeks after we married late in 1993, we celebrated by flying to Heathrow with about a dozen students to participate in the BU English Department’s annual London program.

My life in London for nearly five months, apart from weekend trips and occasional recreation, involved attending plays that I would teach in class, locating copies for sale, preparing for classes, and grading papers.

Both my Modern Drama and Shakespeare courses were intended to include as many plays as possible that were being performed in London at the time. I had never taught a course that had more than one Shakespeare play, and performances turned up everywhere from the Old Vic to a few pubs. Many of the modern plays were so recent that texts were hard to locate, but at least I knew enough about them to grant each one at least half a class.

The occasional chaos and exhaustion of BU’s London program added many wrinkles to our honeymoon trip. On returning home, it struck me that if I could retire quite respectably after I turned 66 I could evade such stress and enjoy a self-chosen new life with my fabulous new wife. So I retired from BU in 1995. 

Martha and I had learned quite conclusively on the weekend bus tours in England that she could not avoid getting sick when travelling. However, she still had her engrossing activities at Roberson Center, Tri-Cities Opera and the Phelps Mansion, and I joined her at the many classical and jazz performances that we both relished. I was an incurable duplicate bridge player, and along with senior softball those were my chief time-killers.

In my last few years teaching, I had concentrated on the absurdist literature and art of the post-World War II period. (One of my courses was entitled “Shapes of Chaos in Contemporary Literature, Art, and Music.”) In my early retirement, I started researching plays that dealt significantly with the atomic bomb. This led to a compact volume entitled Dramas of the Nuclear Age: A Descriptive List of English-Language Plays. But my main objective was to nail down the subject described in my title: Dramatists and the Bomb: American and British Playwrights Confront the Nuclear Age, 1945-1964.

So far my professorial career had not been heavily focused on Bernard Shaw. I had published a book on him in 1969, but in the seventies, I had taught and written articles about Beckett, Pinter, and their ilk. In 1980 I joined the new International Shaw Society, and someone asked me if compiling a secondary bibliography of Shaw would appeal to me. I responded with a selective but wide-ranging list of books, parts of books, and articles on the topics that I thought would be pursued, and sold it as a Microsoft Word file starting in 2005. Later it graduated to an online product.

The attention it received frankly embarrassed me, since it was by no means as complex a job as people envisioned. But it did make me a genuine member of the Shaw community. It drew me (and on one occasion Martha) to the annual Shaw Symposium in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, and stimulated a series of talks and articles about Shaw’s plays. I finally turned a long article which cried out for further development into my second book on his drama, Bernard Shaw as Artist-Fabian. I was invited to read the most interesting part of it as a “featured speaker” at the coming Shaw Convention in Washington, D.C. in late 2009.

Meanwhile, Martha had contracted cancer two years before, and I had to plead with the gods to keep her alive so that she could hear the talk and see my new book, which was dedicated to her. As usual in cases of terminal cancer, the gods did not see fit to honor my plea. It was hard to get through the talk with my daughter and her two children from Virginia in the audience.

Martha’s death in April 2009 was devastating, and pretty much wiped out my confidence to do anything mentally challenging for a while. I had previously compiled a selective checklist of works about Samuel Beckett’s plays, so I reacted after she died by launching recklessly into a highly improved version, a relentlessly researched international secondary bibliography of Beckett’s dramatic writings and their “conceptual backgrounds”—a huge component in the case of Beckett.

By the time of the Shaw Convention I had compiled hundreds of the entries for this version. There, an empathetic friend, and not coincidentally the General Editor of Toronto’s Shaw Correspondence series, asked me cautiously if I might be amenable to editing the letters of Shaw and his close acquaintance Gilbert Murray during the next few years. I made what turned out to be the correct decision, though it felt unlikely at the time: Yes; I will alternate the two projects and thus stay doubly preoccupied.

Most of my early efforts went into the Beckett cumulation, so that I reached the phase of approaching publishers in early 2010. I had learned how eager academic publishers are to publish bibliographies when the Shaw project was rejected by both American firms who had featured Shaw on their lists. Neither wanted to touch it. By chance I noticed that a relatively new British publisher, Continuum, had adopted Beckett as a special interest. They were at first reluctant, but an insistent letter from their chief advisor (whom I had recommended) swung them in my favor. This was Christopher Innes, one of the world’s most prominent scholars in modern drama and theatre and a good friend. After I slaved over an attempt to verify every entry that I could and worked out an innovative index, a 515-page book was published in 2011 with a $350 price tag. No, it has not sold anywhere near as well as I could wish, but it is, after all, a bibliography.  

I had naively welcomed putting together the Shaw/Murray letters edition but my eyes were gradually opened to the scope and difficulties of the task. A comment from the oldest living Shavian said in a letter to me, “I would caution you to consider how daunting a challenge it is . . . . You will be dealing with writings of two voluminous authors who have written about every subject imaginable. Those who have written extensively about them are dead, dying, or frequenting medical facilities.” (The writer, incidentally, was Sid Albert, whose first teaching job was at Triple Cities College of Syracuse U, later known as Harpur College, which eventually became Binghamton University!) Ultimately, it turned out that of the four or five hundred letters that Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Murray had exchanged, only about 150 were still in existence. True, a great many of these did turn out to be lengthy and dealt with “every subject imaginable.”

Amazingly, the sudden “uptick” in the fortune of the Beckett bibliography was paralleled by an “uptick” in the Shaw/Murray project. Coincidence, then misfortune, made it possible for me to avoid most of the need to track down the bulk of the existing correspondence and save most of the money I would have spent working in the London and Cambridge depositories recording their letters. I learned quite early that another scholar, a Dartmouth librarian and professor, had begun to assemble the needed correspondence and had collected a large set of transcriptions, all of which he succeeded in locating over a lengthy period of time. This man faded from the scene, first, because he could not reconcile himself to the standard format features of the series – he found a printing firm willing to do the job his way – and second, because he got sick and died, leaving everything up in the air.

The General Editor of the Shaw Correspondence series informed me that a large packet of the transcriptions – the earliest Shaw/Murray letters through those of 1905 – had been passed over to him, and he sent it on to me. Then, mostly by accident, I discovered that the Dartmouth library housed a large collection of transcriptions of the remaining letters, those from 1906 to 1950. The curator there was pleased to ship them to me.

My task had therefore been reduced to contacting an array of depositories that might hold originals or copies of whatever letters I did not have, but no extended travels to achieve the same end. The long, difficult, but rewarding job of introducing and annotating the 150-odd letters thus took most of the time and energy I expended, and the volume – Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw: Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Murray(Toronto: University of Toronto Press) was published in July 2014.

One would think that this achievement called for a prolonged vacation. However, the research bug would not let me off the hook. Getting a dog was a welcome distraction, but would not deflect me from my newly-acquired habit: scholarship. The present project, a compilation of reviews of Shaw plays by critics working in the United States, already exceeds 400 pages. It is proving to be a much stronger leash than a 30-pound Beagle. 

Retirees Service Corps