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Greenblatt sez sorry to Oxfordians

Stephen Greenblatt speaks during the closing session titled "Where are we now?" at the Folger Institute's "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography" conference held April 3-5, 2014 in Washington DC.
Photo by Teresa Wood. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

By Linda Theil

Regarding his mention of Holocaust denial in proximity to the study of Shakespeare authorship in a 2005 New York Times letter to the editor, Pulitzer Prize winning author Stephen Greenblatt, PhD, replied yesterday to Dr. Richard Waugaman’s request to make a public apology for his remarks. Greenblatt said:
. . . I very much regret my Holocaust example, I had meant it only to call into question in the sharpest terms the apparent difference between the NY Times' treatment of scientific consensus and its treatment of historical consensus. But I had not reflected — as I should have — that Oxfordians might draw the implication that I was likening THEM to a particularly abhorrent group.    
Waugaman spoke to Greenblatt at the Folger Institute “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference held April 3-5, 2014 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. He reported his encounter with Greenblatt in a comment on Hank Whittamore’s Shakespeare Blog in an April 7, 2014 post titled “Shakespeare and the Black Hole of Stratfordian Biography”:
The opportunity to converse with the speakers during the breaks was amazing. I thanked Stephen Greenblatt for graciously retracting one of the speculations in Will in the World during a discussion period the previous day. I then asked him how he’d feel about apologizing for comparing us with Holocaust deniers. He denied that he ever did.I did some research later, and learned that he did in fact bring up Holocaust deniers in connection with authorship skeptics in his brief letter to the editor of the New York Times, published on September 4, 2005:
“The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the ‘authorship controversy’ be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that ‘intelligent design’ be taught alongside evolution.
“In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time.
“The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?”
So I think Greenblatt has forgotten what he wrote. To his credit, he could not have been more cordial during our chat.
Waugaman followed up with an email to Greenblatt repeating his request for an apology. Waugaman explained his persistence in this matter:
. . . it is my impression that many Oxfordians have been beaten down psychologically over the years by the academic taboo against even discussing the authorship question; as well as by the virulent ad hominem attacks on our allegedly disreputable motives for questioning the authority of the Shakespeare experts. A respected colleague got livid when I told him the Stratfordians are bullies. Well, we know we have to confront bullies. Otherwise, we are implicitly accepting their right to be abusive. All this led me to ask Greenblatt for an apology at the conference, and again by email. . . . I do want to emphasize that, much as Greenblatt was wrong to ever link the authorship question with Holocaust denial, I feel his apology was the decent thing to do. He could have just ignored my email.
Both Waugaman’s request and Greenblatt’s reply appear after the jump.

*** 
April 8, 2014
Dear Professor Greenblatt,

I very much enjoyed your talk. And it was a privilege to get to chat with you, albeit on a painful subject.

Since you are arguably the best known Shakespeare scholar in the country, it seems to me that you have a special responsibility to make sure your words are less open to misinterpretation. After our conversation, I looked online, and found that you wrote the following to the New York Times in 2005:
'The idea that William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the "authorship controversy" be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that "intelligent design" be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?' [emphasis added]
I heard yesterday from an Oxfordian friend who especially objected to my report that you told me you never compared us with Holocaust deniers. He lost 70 relatives in the Holocaust.

It is not just Oxfordians who believe you compared us with Holocaust deniers. I listened again to NPR’s Renée Montagne’s interview with you, and these were her words about you on July 3, 2008, “He has, in the past, compared [authorship] doubters to Holocaust deniers.”

I am confident that you can put yourself in our shoes, mindful of the ad hominem abuse to which we have been subjected, at least since Sidney Lee’s slurs against us. 

So, once again, I would respectfully ask that you publicly repudiate what you believe is a misinterpretation of your letter, and make it absolutely clear that you would never make the repugnant comparison of Oxfordians, or post-Stratfordians in general, with Holocaust deniers.

And, I really must add, the recent conference only confirmed my impression that your characterization of the authorship debate should be reversed. David Ellis’s book should have gotten much more attention at such a conference, not just the brief mention by me. I believe it is more accurate to label partisans of Shakspere as clinging to “passionately held fantasies.” The “hard evidence” is extremely unfavorable to Shakspere. The “hard evidence” in favor of Edward de Vere is seemingly unknown to Stratfordians, even when they publish a book such as Edmondson and Wells’s Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

Sincerely,
Rick
Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.
Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus, Washington Psychoanalytic Institute
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts, Georgetown University

***
April 10, 2014
Dear Dr. Waugaman,

Thank  you for your note. It should be clear from the quotation you have sent me that I was not in fact for a moment suggesting that Oxfordians were somehow the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers. The context was a criticism of the NY Times for referring in a news article  to Harold Bloom as a "noted Stratfordian."  This was in an account of a demand that the Oxford hypothesis should be routinely included in school curricula, whenever Shakespeare is taught. My point was — and is — that the NY Times does not refer to astronomers as "noted Copernicans"; it does not do so because it accepts the general scholarly consensus as sufficiently weighty and evidence-based as to need no such designation, and it does not believe that alternative hypotheses about planetary movements should be included in the curriculum.  

That said, I very much regret my Holocaust example, I had meant it only to call into question in the sharpest terms the apparent difference between the NY Times' treatment of scientific consensus and its treatment of historical consensus. But I had not reflected — as I should have — that Oxfordians might draw the implication that I was likening THEM to a particularly abhorrent group. As I say, that was not at all my intention. It would never have occurred to me in fact because I regard the denial of Shakespeare's authorship as a simple mistake, while I regard the denial of the Holocaust as an instance of moral bankruptcy and intellectual bad faith. I apologize for any distress I may have inadvertently caused.

Best,
Stephen Greenblatt

Note:
Greenblatt is not the only Stratfordian to compare Shakespeare authorship study with Holocaust denial. Stratford Festival (Ontario) Director of Communications David Prosser made the same connection at a Toronto conference in 2012 as reported in the Oberon blog:

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