From Philology to Formalism: Edith Rickert, John Matthews Manly, and the Literary/Reformist Beginnings of U.S. Cryptology

Article excerpt

I.

Two historical veins course through the study of modern military intelligence. The first derives from an anthropological model of history. The proponents of this school, which includes writers such as the historian David Kahn and the journalist/historian James Bamford, have argued that civilian men and women made the modem military intelligence agencies.1 In the United States, mese women and men (and the primary examples are nearly always William and Elizebeth Friedman) transformed the archaic U.S. military intelligence techniques that had stagnated since the Civil War; they did so primarily by lifting cryptology (the science of codes and ciphers) out from its amateur literary residence and adapting it to quantified methods and mechanized instruments of new military and industrial institutions. In both their rhetorical figures and their scientific models, the prime movers in these historical works are always human beings.

A second school of thought favors the anonymous engineering systems, innovative technologies, cybernetics, and arcane mathematical applications that launched the modern military intelligence institutions. This school subdues the human role in modern cryptology. Paul Virilio, for example, has occasionally theorized the admixture of human life with semiotic codes at a digital interface; Armand Mattelart has discussed the matter in terms of modes of production and antique semaphores.2 By far the most insightful work in this area has been done by Manuel DeLanda, who demonstrated in War in the Age of Intelägent Machines how advanced crypto-systems and military intelligence technologies have effectively displaced human beings as primary decision-makers; rather, humans and machines have conjoined to form a new entity - a "machinic phylum."3

Both schools are incisive with respect to what was until recently a largely ignored science and its extensive, global institutional networks. Yet both have also ignored the discursive beginnings of modern cryptology; that is to say, they fail to account for its emergence and partial detachment from a cluster of late 19th and early 20th century debates over language, education, and literature. The truth of the matter lies not with human or inhuman taxonomies, but in a rendering of genealogy. I have in the following pages attempted to elaborate a genealogy in such a way that accounts for the intentional roles played by individuals in the formation (and deformation) of modern discourse. My point is not only that modern intelligence institutions or the discipline of modern English studies are conjoined by a common discourse; nor is it to expose the unique, discursive rift that generated them both from the detritus of philology. In short, what I propose is not a genealogy that must contend with literary humanism - rather, I argue that literary humanism must contend with it.4

The newly inaugurated University of Chicago hired Dr. John Matthews Manly (1865-1940) in 1898 to work as chairperson of the Department of English.5 Manly, a recent Harvard graduate, was a consummate philologist and expert in every historical phase of the English language. He began publishing upon his arrival in Chicago books on Chaucer, preShakespearean poetry and prose, and Middle English rhetoric, but rose to academic prominence primarily as editor of Modern Philology (1908-1930). During his early tenure the journal continuously published essays written by important anthropologists (i.e. Sapir) and linguists (i.e. Bloomfield) despite disciplinary and professional divisions that had begun to separate philology from those kindred sciences.

While Manly's books are today largely forgotten, his career ended on a lasting note with The Text of the Canterbury Tales (1940), a collaborative eight-volume study that compared - line-by-line - over eighty manuscript versions of Chaucer's great work. His collaborator in that work was Dr. Martha Edith Rickert (1871-1938). Manly and Rickert had dedicated at least six months of every year since 1924 to The Text of the Canterbury Tales, and they continued to do so for nearly fifteen years, and during which time they trained assistants in paleography. …