Shakespeare, Science, and Outside Scholarship: An Interview with Dennis McCarthy
The majority of the last century of research exists in the temporal space between the start of copyright and the dawn of the open access movement. Getting access to these materials presents a huge obstacle for researchers who have no institutional affiliation. But people like Dennis McCarthy are getting it done anyway. Could academic libraries be doing more to help independent scholars?
Dennis McCarthy is an unexpected mover and shaker in the world of scholarly research. Originally from upstate New York, he left college before graduating and has worked, among other things, as a freelance writer. And his curiosity, persistence, and rigor as a researcher is remarkable. He has published peer reviewed articles despite being unaffiliated with any academic institution, as well as a book exploring how evolution and plate tectonics have worked in concert to affect the distributions of animal and plant species around the world. More recently he has turned his attention to English literature and is shaking up the conversation in the field of Shakespeare studies as well, using tools from the digital humanities like online textual analysis to do so. McCarthy is proposing that two men, George North and, more crucially, Thomas North (possibly a cousin to George), provide key sources for Shakespeare’s plays. McCarthy contends that Thomas North wrote not only translations of nonfiction works like Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans that supplied Shakespeare with factual historical content, but plays that Shakespeare reworked, and that North is in fact the author of several plays attributed to Shakespeare, including the long-sought Ur-Hamlet, a version of the play that predates Shakespeare’s but has yet to be found. However, unlike Oxfordians, Baconians and others who consider Shakespeare a fraud or a front for another author, McCarthy interprets his findings as evidence of adaptation, revision, and transformation of the works of one supremely talented man by another.
In reading the recent Boston Globe article about McCarthy by Michael Blanding (an excerpt from Blanding’s book, which is newly out in paperback), I couldn’t help but be struck by the librarian’s questions: how has McCarthy accessed the resources needed to do this innovative and sometimes controversial work? How is he able to make use of databases, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century primary sources, articles, online tools like plagiarism software, and other materials necessary to add new content to scholarly conversations in two vastly different fields? Are public libraries sufficient for his needs? Are college or university libraries available to him? Does he pay out of pocket for everything? And what are the responsibilities of academic libraries, particularly at public and land grant institutions, to support the work of independent scholars and researchers like him?
Educators like Ronald Gross have been speaking out on behalf of independent scholars for decades. In 1986 Gross wrote, “Over the past three or four decades, inquiry and theorizing have become concentrated almost totally in the universities: for people with intellectual ambitions there has come to be no other choice than the academy.”1 The plight of the researcher who is unaffiliated with an institution of higher education was acknowledged briefly in the late 1990s in library literature, at a time when it was becoming clear that the future of research would increasingly be a digital one. But there has been no consistent research about this user group, much less advocacy for it, on the part of librarians. There are no descriptors for independent or unaffiliated researchers in the database Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts (LISTA), for example, and the discussions of information privilege that are emerging focus almost entirely on academic users. Yet independent researchers and scholars are creating provocative, challenging work that furthers conversations in their fields2—in other words, doing exactly what researchers and scholars, regardless of affiliation, are supposed to do.
Independent scholars can find support, community, affiliation, and occasionally funding for expenses like conference fees from organizations like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) and the Ronin Institute. But these groups cannot adequately address the issue of access to research materials held behind paywalls, severely limiting the body of work accessible to independent researchers. Restrictive licensing agreements with corporate content providers are still the norm, and independent researchers like McCarthy must cobble together a patchwork of methods to gain access to the full text of the resources they need, perhaps draining their bank accounts to pay article by article, or doing without sources they cannot afford and seeing their work suffer for it. This is particularly relevant in the humanities and other fields where engaging with the history of changing schools of thought on a topic can be as important as accessing the most current research output.
Open access (OA) shows promise in addressing some of these issues as more and more researchers choose to publish in this format. But OA, while crucial, cannot address the decades of dissertations, articles, and other resources published under the still-dominant paywall model, resources that are vital to conducting a comprehensive literature review (or simply to gaining a thorough knowledge of a subject) but are locked away in the limbo between the start of copyright coverage and the present. Public library interlibrary loan services are invaluable if a specific, known item is needed, but few American public libraries have the capacity to support a thorough literature review3 or to allow a researcher to peruse a wide range of materials in search of what will be most relevant to their question.
Academic libraries and universities are fond of talking about lifelong learning, but in practice most institutions leave the support of learning beyond degree acquisition to public libraries and the internet, the same internet that we spend years warning students is a minefield in terms of finding unbiased, accurate, quality information. And that’s just for general learning, on medical issues, current affairs, scientific breakthroughs and the like. Members of the public trying to create new content within a given field, rather than simply consume the end products of research when they appear in popular sources, are ill-served under the current paradigm if they are unaffiliated with a university or other research institution. And we as a society are impoverished when we choose not to acknowledge and support deep investigation outside of academia.
As institutions of higher education increasingly discuss information privilege and equity, we find ourselves in a fruitful moment for critically reassessing hierarchies of information access, and of credit for scholarly work. There is a long history of exclusion in academia and scholarship, whether on the basis of race, class, gender, or indigeneity, even for people making critical contributions to fields of knowledge. Participation of non-academics tends to come in the form of contribution of artifacts and primary resources, as in the case of citizen science, where members of the public—birders, amateur astronomers, whale spotters, gatherers of weather and wildfire statistics—collect data invaluable to researchers. But these non-academics are seldom acknowledged except in aggregate, have little access to the completed research until it appears in popular literature, and are locked out of the secondary scholarly conversation (and of memberships in scholarly groups or societies), which is where reputations and livelihoods are made. A persistent implication of this exclusion is that people outside academia (and industry) are not knowledge creators and therefore have no need for research support. Dennis McCarthy and researchers like him, whether PhDs working outside academia or autodidacts, give the lie to this assumption. It is past time for academic librarians to take on a more activist role in challenging information hegemonies that keep most of the last several decades of research unavailable online. We should also be championing and supporting public libraries, helping them expand what they can offer to researchers and learners outside of academia. The library community needs to honor deep inquiry no matter who engages in it.
As for McCarthy himself, I discovered in preparing for this interview that his research has been enabled by his connections with scholars within academia and with other legitimizing institutions, like the Buffalo Museum of Science. His words provide insight into the approach of a gifted mind working outside of traditional academia, and into the paths uncredentialed researchers take in getting their work done.
April 5, 2021
Rochelle Smith: Thank you so much for being willing to speak with me. I read the Boston Globe article about you, Michael Blanding’s excerpt from his book North by Shakespeare, and was intrigued. I looked at your blog, and I also listened to your podcast with Pauline Hawkins. It seems like the sciences and the humanities have played a big part in your life for a long time: you’ve studied English. And you’ve also been really interested in science.
Dennis McCarthy: It’s good to be a generalist.
RS: I agree. I think librarians, in general, tend to be generalists. I’m a little shocked that librarians haven’t talked with you more. I wanted to start off by asking if you think of yourself as having an overall approach to research. I know that you’ve done journalism, I know you’ve done a lot of writing and publishing. But in terms of diving deep into research, you published Here Be Dragons in 2009. Do you feel like you have a general approach to research?
DM: Typically, there isn’t an organization or plan, I just need to know certain facts. And I have to do whatever I can to find out what is the answer to a particular question. What’s that fact? And that may lead me to the next one. And the next one, the next one until I finally have answered what I think is the question. So there isn’t that much of a plan or organization. It’s one little bit at a time, and it just keeps me going. And there are just certain facts that I need. I’m dogged about it. I’m a basset hound.
RS: Do you think of yourself as an investigator, a scholar or researcher? If you were to describe yourself, do you use all those terms?
DM: I would use all of them. Researcher is probably the best.
RS: There was a lot of conversation around your publishing A Brief Discourse on Rebellion and Rebels in 2018. And then because of Michael Blanding’s book, there’s more conversation now. But I’m curious about Here Be Dragons. I wonder if you could talk about what drew you to that topic and what your process was like.
DM: Sure. I love the subject of biogeography because it’s from a generalist viewpoint. The subtitle was How the study of animal and plant distributions revolutionized our views of life and earth. The reason that that was the subtitle is because this was a subject that had attracted so many people in different disciplines. Charles Darwin was a biogeographer. Alfred Wegener, who developed the theory of continental drift, was a biogeographer. It’s really a fascinating subject. I call it the secret subject of geniuses, because all these geniuses who have revolutionized other fields of thought have focused on biogeography. E.O. Wilson is another one. Jared Diamond is a biogeographer. Because it’s so informative, it shows you how Earth and life evolved together. So it’s a subject that naturally drew me, and I just became obsessed as I do with a particular subject. And so started writing.
RS: In researching this book did you start by reading general articles and eventually move into the scientific literature?
DM: It was both. I was reading research journal articles and general literature at the same time, and a lot of times when I read I don’t just read the [secondary literature], I actually read On the Origin of Species, and I read about Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, I read his journal, the original documents. That also got me very much interested.
RS: One of the things that connects your work in sciences and your work in the humanities is an interest in primary sources. It sounds like in both cases, you want to go for the source material, you want to find the manuscript, you want to read Darwin’s actual words.
DM: Yes, yes, absolutely. It also got me into Hamlet. Because of biogeography I started paying attention to the fact that ideas spread across the land, just as species do. Ideas, religions, political philosophies–they all start in a certain place, and they spread from there. And I wanted to see how all of the ideas of Hamlet ended up in England and in the mind of one person. And that led me to the guy who had written the original Hamlet, the earlier play that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was based on: Thomas North.
RS: The Ur-Hamlet. I really want to talk more about that. But I want to stay on science for a bit longer. I see what you mean, in that biogeography isn’t like, say, particle physics, a very, very focused, very specific subject. It’s more like, here’s a way to talk about biology and geography and evolution.
DM: It’s a generalists’ subject.
RS: And did you imagine that you were going to end up adding new content to that field when you started out?
DM: Well, I always think I might be able to add something. Maybe not much, but I knew I could add new takes on it.
RS: How was your book received by the scientific community? And I know you’ve also published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. So you’ve published articles in the sciences as well as publishing a book and I’m sure those processes are pretty different. How did that all go?
DM: Here Be Dragons was not really that controversial, it was without doubt the work that has earned me the most praise. The reviews on it couldn’t have been more kind. And even that article in Journal of Geophysical Research; there was some good press on that article as well. But as soon as I started saying something controversial, that’s when it becomes difficult with the Shakespeare stuff.
RS: So the geophysicists weren’t necessarily particularly territorial about, Who is this guy publishing in our field?
DM: No, no. And there were very kind comments from geophysicists. That article got some press in Europe in Der Spiegel, and they were quoting geophysicists from Europe, who were very complimentary about that JGR article.
RS: Your article had to go through the peer review process. Were there any roadblocks in terms of, what institution are you affiliated with?
DM: Well, it helped that I had published other things earlier. Once I had a few articles published, then the door was a little open as long as I’m not pushing anything heretical. But it is very difficult, first of all, as an independent researcher to get anything published. And then if you’re going to publish something controversial, forget about it.
RS: You mentioned that the idea of the dispersion of species made you think about the dispersal of ideas. And, of course, the same with languages. And mythology, flood myths…
DM: Mythologies, folktales, they all travel and they evolve.
RS: I’m really fascinated by that. So can you talk about why you lit on Hamlet as your choice to investigate? Was it because it’s such a famous play?
DM: I knew it was rich with ideas. I knew it had humanist philosophy in it. I thought it would be most interesting to people to start with one of the most celebrated works in English.
RS: I want to make sure I’m getting the order right. You began to research Thomas North partly because North was a translator and translated [Shakespearean source] Plutarch’s Lives.
DM: There’s a lot that I’m going to publish very soon, [including] a video showing exactly how I know Thomas North was the author. [Playwright and pamphleteer Thomas] Nashe writes this sentence about the “English Seneca”: “English Seneca yields many good sentences…and if you entreat him fair on a frosty morning he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.” And “Hamlets” is in italics. The entire [Nashe] pamphlet is referring to Thomas North and [English writer and dramatist] John Lyly, and to North specifically as someone being imitated by a lot of other authors. There’s just line after line quoting Thomas North. It’s not just [his] Plutarch: [Nashe and other commenters] quote the “ape and the glowworm” story, which is from North’s Moral Philosophy of Doni. They call him Boreas [a reference to the North Wind], so it’s just obviously Thomas North, Thomas North, Thomas North. You research in the databases and you discover, “Oh, here Nashe is referring to John Lyly. Okay, here he is clearly quoting Thomas North and then punning on his name.” With each allusion North comes up, when you search Nashe’s references in Early English Books Online. And we know Nashe couldn’t be referring to Shakespeare at this point [because he would have been too young].
RS: Can you explain the connection between Thomas North and George North, because A Brief Discourse on Rebellion and Rebels is George North’s work. And they were cousins?
DM: That’s what we think; we haven’t been able to prove it, because we can’t find the history of George North. But we’ve got documents showing that George North is at [Thomas’ brother, Lord] Roger North’s house with Thomas North in 1576. I thought well, we can look in [Roger] North’s family library and hopefully find sources for the Shakespeare works. I didn’t think I would find a signed manuscript. But we found a handwritten text that had never been published, dedicated to Lord North, and it was an important source for a number of plays. And George North was staying with Thomas at a North family house in 1576, which is when George wrote the essay.
RS: So your assertion is that Shakespeare would have used works of Thomas North’s beyond North’s translations, which were an obvious source for his Roman plays. You’re saying Shakespeare was using Thomas North’s plays as opposed to simply using his translation of Plutarch’s Lives.
DM: Exactly! I believe that Thomas North wrote plays that Shakespeare adapted. [Scholars] know Shakespeare used source plays. For example, there are allusions to an earlier Julius Caesar. Someone quotes it in the early 1590s, eight years before the conventional date of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. [Playwright Christopher] Marlowe quotes part of it. So they know that there’s this early version of Julius Caesar. And they know that there’s all sorts of passages of Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives in Julius Caesar. So what scholars had assumed was that [Shakespeare’s] got Plutarch’s Lives open on one side, and this source play on the other, and he’s quoting that source play at times and is quoting Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives at times. What’s really going on is that he just has Thomas North’s play in front of him. Thomas North wrote the source play. All of [North’s passages are] in this source play.
RS: And the connection with George North is that his Brief Discourse on Rebellion and Rebels is a source for some of the content on the nature of what it means to rebel against a monarch, that also comes up in Shakespeare’s plays. And both Thomas and George North are having an influence on Shakespeare’s works in different ways.
DM: Thomas North is the conduit through which George North’s work gets to Shakespeare. Thomas North is the one working on George North’s stuff, and Shakespeare is adapting Thomas North. But Shakespeare’s not just adapting one or two of Thomas North’s plays a year, he’s producing something like 40 plays a year. So he’s just busy working, working, working. And he’s adapting other people’s plays that come out under his name as well. The Yorkshire Tragedy, which is a [Thomas] Middleton play: he’s adapted that as well. And so all the plays are being attributed to him. That’s my view. That’s controversial. But I believe I’ve proved that.
RS: That’s really interesting. I realize I’m asking general questions, as opposed to library specific questions, which I will get to. But I’m curious if you want to talk a little bit about Elizabethan notions of authorship. In several of the articles profiling you there was this sense of, “Are you saying Shakespeare is a plagiarist? How dare you?” We have this very modern idea that either it’s your own stuff that came out of your own head, and you’re a genius, or you’re some kind of thief. Our ideas of intellectual property have changed a lot. That’s part of why I imagine some of your findings are controversial: because we want to believe Shakespeare stands alone in this way that just isn’t really true to Elizabethan reality.
DM: At the time, a lot of playwrights were adapting earlier plays. If you look at [Philip] Henslowe’s diary, who was a theater manager for the Rose, he kept track of all the things that people were constantly adapting, and he’s paying people to adapt old plays, because public theater was relatively new. And there was all this wealth of old plays from the 1550s, 60s, 70s, 80s that had been performed for the queen or performed at universities and colleges that they could then adapt for the public stage. The difference is that Shakespeare and his group became so popular that a lot of his adaptations would become popularized under his name. I put it like this: Just as Thomas Harris wrote the novel Silence of the Lambs, then Ted Tally created the screenplay from it—that’s the kind of adaptation we are referring to. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault that he got all the credit. But saying he wrote “Antony and Cleopatra” is a little like saying, Ted Tally, the screen adapter, wrote Silence of the Lambs, or Peter Jackson wrote Lord of the Rings rather than J.R.R. Tolkien. I am saying that North and Shakespeare were both very talented, and that adaptation was the norm.
RS: I’ll pivot and ask a little bit more about your research process. I know you said you spend a lot of time with primary sources. Do you use a lot of secondary source material? And how do you access resources?
DM: This is the great question. This is an important, important thing. I’m working with June Schlueter. She’s at Lafayette [College], and she has gotten me into Lafayette. So I use the Lafayette library resources, and I’m able to log on and I’m able to work remotely. Before that, I had [access to library resources because of] friends. I don’t want to get them in trouble, so I won’t say their names, but I thank them in the books.
RS: I was doing some research to see what the library literature says about independent scholars, because [libraries’] hands are often tied by the fact that we don’t own our online information; we license it. And so [corporations] get to say, only this IP address, only these people.
DM: And by the way, before that, this is back when my children are very young, I would have to go into the libraries. And I would just walk right into the university libraries. And with enough confidence I was able to get in, I was able to get into Brown, I was even able to get into Harvard libraries a number of times. But once I was able to get into university [online] systems and everything was in databases and electronic journals, I didn’t have to do that as much.
RS: In the library literature, in the late 90s, there was some conversation about, what’s going to happen with independent scholars? That’s when we were starting to move on to online databases, when a lot of article publishing was switching to online format. People were asking, what’s that going to mean for people who are working outside of academia? And there was a little bit of conversation about that. And then we just sort of stopped talking about it.
DM: This is a hugely important subject because I think there’s too much information behind paywalls. Google Books had already had tens of millions of books readily available, but it stops at about 1920; I think copyright for books lasts 95 years or something like that, right? I would be happy if they cut that in half. And you would just open up so much more information. But right now, if you just can get to a computer, you can access the world up until the 1920s.
RS: I’ll come back to the issue of open access later, because I know some of the resources you’ve used have been open access resources. But I want to stay with this for a minute. You began thinking about Hamlet in 2005, as you were still working on Here Be Dragons. At that point, there was proportionally a lot more in print. So you’re saying you would go to a library. And if it was open to everybody? Great. If not, you would just give it a try anyway, and that’s how you were accessing a lot of resources. And also being helped out by friends who would share their university content.
And now you are working with June Schlueter, and that gives you access, because you are partnering with somebody who has access as an emerita professor.
DM: And she has the librarians there write me in. But it’s one year at a time. So every year she has to [renew me]. And eventually, you know, that’s going to fade and I’m gonna have to find someone else.
RS: Are you still on the editorial board of the journal Biogeography and Systematics?
DM: I’m not even sure if it’s still a regularly published journal. [Biogeographer] Malte Ebach got me on the board. And he also helped me get my position at the Buffalo Museum of Science. [In the same way that] June Schlueter helped me, he was my June Schlueter before. [Botanist] Michael Heads is another person who helped me by giving me some credibility and making it easier to publish. So putting me on the editorial board was more of a kindness.
RS: You are no longer a research associate with the Buffalo Museum of Science either. But when you were, did that give you access to resources?
DM: No, not really. It just helped in terms of publishing.
RS: Have public libraries played much of a role in your research efforts?
DM: Not really. The university just has so many of the journals that I need. I have gone to the Boston Public Library. It’s a stunning place. But my hometown library, I’m in a small town, doesn’t really have much. I really need the big university library.
RS: And you don’t for example use public library services like interlibrary loan?
DM: Sometimes. But I figure that whatever fact I need to know, I can figure out before the book gets to me, you know, there must be some other way of obtaining this information than waiting for days to mail out for a book. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s not something I typically do.
RS: You don’t use interlibrary loan for articles either?
DM: Almost all the articles, Lafayette has access to.
RS: I was curious partly because, since you’re in the northeastern U.S., you are close to a lot of towering giants of public libraries. But most public libraries don’t have that level of access. They do have access to some databases and materials, but it’s not generally all that a researcher who is trying to generate new knowledge will need.
You are using a lot of online secondary sources, but then also looking at actual handwritten manuscripts and other primary sources, so you’re toggling between both these worlds.
DM: Oh, by the way, the handwritten manuscripts, that’s just not [readily] available. I used to have to pay people to take pictures of every page and send me the pics.
RS: This leads to my question about open access. I know you’ve made use of Early English Books Online, as well as WCopyfind, the plagiarism software. Both of those are open source. Is that part of why you decided to work with them?
DM: No. I was getting Early English Books Online from the university. I know there’s an open access version but I’m not sure it works as well as the one that I have at the university. And I’m not sure why that is, why there seems to be a slight difference.4
RS: And then WCopyfind: how did you come across that software?
DM: I had read an article about Brian Vickers using it to find out the authorship of Edward III. And I thought, Oh, that’s it. That’s what I should be doing. Because I would notice a lot of passages in [North’s work] that were clearly matching up with Shakespeare passages, and I realized I had to get plagiarism software. What was agonizing about that is, you have to spell check everything. I didn’t have access to digitized versions of Thomas North’s works except on EEBO, but it’s in the original early modern English spelling. I had to modernize all the spelling, and that took weeks, weeks. I mean, that’s page by page, just doing Find and Replace on a big Word document. It was agonizing.
RS: The work that you’re doing is very much a part of what digital humanities is about in terms of interacting with a text in a different way. Could you talk a little bit about the digital humanities?
DM: This couldn’t have been solved [without digital tools]. The Thomas North books weren’t available at the time. You couldn’t get Thomas North’s original Dial of Princes. I’m not sure that there was ever a full reproduction of the 1619 book. There was one abridged version [that came out] in the 19th century. So there’s no way to get access to that book, until you have Early English Books Online, except to go to a library that has it, and you can’t take out a 1619 book and you got to sit there and read it. Also just discovering that Thomas North was the author was only possible with EEBO. Who is Thomas Nashe quoting right here? And you put in the line and you go, Oh, he’s quoting Thomas North. Where’s this story coming from? Oh, it’s coming from Thomas North, which I couldn’t know without EEBO.
RS: How do you reconcile some of the traditional methods in the humanities, like close reading, spending time with the text, with the more data driven approach, the kinds of things that computers do really well? Do you have an affinity more for one side of that, or another?
DM: It’s a combination. What I want is where it’s clear that [Shakespeare’s] not just borrowing the line, but he’s doing it in the same context, so it’s the entire passage that’s being taken. That’s what I’m trying to show. So I have to do both the substance, the meaning, why the playwright is writing this particular passage at this time, and to show how it matches, that he’s actually paraphrasing. So it is not just a coincidence of a word string, you know what I mean? So consider the line “word that might be to the prejudice of”, to give an example, which is in both Henry VIII and North’s Dial of Princes. Both respective passages where that line appears, are talking about the heart and spleen of hateful elder gossips. And the elder gossip defends himself in both works by saying, “I would never speak word to the prejudice of any.” So it’s clear the playwright of Henry VIII is recalling North’s earlier passage here. It’s the same thing with Iago’s speech on reputation [in Othello], or the speech on the human race having to borrow clothing from beasts in King Lear. You not only have matching lines but you have them in an identical context in which both passages are making the same distinctive point. Every time, the playwright is clearly recalling North’s passage.
RS: How many of Shakespeare’s plays have you looked at in this way?
DM: I’ve done them all.
RS: Wow. I remember reading that you and June Schlueter together published an article on Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare Survey.
DM: Yes. We just had a book out on Thomas North’s travel-journal, which is used for Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale, which turned out to be North’s first plays, and which happened to be Shakespeare’s last. They’re very Catholic. North wrote them originally, in the late 1550s, Queen Mary’s time, who was a Catholic queen. And then Shakespeare [wrote his versions] when James was on [the throne], who wasn’t Catholic, but had slightly more sympathies. His mother was Catholic. You could get away with a little more.
RS: So The Winter’s Tale is one of North’s early works. And by the time Shakespeare adapts it as one of his late works, you’ve got through the reign of Elizabeth, through a lot of the religious turmoil, and he’s able to leave some of those themes intact.
DM: And it’s also not as well known. Winter’s Tale turns out to be a parable. It’s an allegory on the life of Queen Mary. But that’s not as noticeable in 1610, when Shakespeare produces it, as it is in 1557.
RS: You’ve looked at all of Shakespeare’s plays. Are they all adaptations?
DM: Essentially all. Merry Wives of Windsor is not. And I haven’t found anything in Two Noble Kinsmen, though it would seem like it would be an adaptation and something that North wrote, but I haven’t been able to find any connecting passages.
RS: But really, all the greatest hits.
RS: So you mentioned earlier that the scientific community, in terms of what you published, whether articles or books, was pretty receptive. Can you talk about the reception of A Brief Discourse on Rebellion and Rebels and your Shakespeare work thus far, what that’s been like in the scholarly community?
DM: It’s gone about as well as can be expected. June Schlueter and I have gotten some nice comments from top Shakespeareans. But of course there’s people waiting. So far, it’s too early for the brutal reviews of our book, Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, which we just published in January. But we had one brutal review from, I won’t say who, for the book on the George North manuscript. And I told Michael Blanding to expect brutal reviews as well. Because he’s never gotten a bad review really. Everyone loves his books. And I said, Well, it doesn’t matter how good this is, you are going to get destroyed by some people. And I told him, really great books like this, Michael—which I believe his is, you know—good books get good reviews, but powerful controversial books that really change thought get five stars and one star. You’re going to get a lot of one stars, because people are just gonna hate it. They’re gonna hate every word. They’re not gonna like this much change. So expect to get both great and terrible reviews. It’s always two sides of the coin.
RS: And do you think that that’s true regardless of your status as insider or outsider? Would this be different if you were, for example, endowed Shakespeare chair at a university?
DM: If you’re an outsider, it’s much, much tougher to get published. And you’re gonna get much harsher criticism, because then they’re fearless, then they don’t care. Because then they’re not stepping on anyone’s toes. They don’t have to worry about [crossing] some university professor, you don’t have to be polite. The gloves are off on this arrogant outsider vandal that wants to destroy my viewpoint.
RS: One of the things you mentioned when you were talking to Pauline Hawkins was the idea that, this is someone’s life’s work. And it’s hard not to get attached to a position. It made me think of the decoding of Maya script [in the 1950s]. When they figured out that the some of the glyphs represented names, and they were trying to work out what it all meant, the leading scholar in the field [J. Eric S. Thompson], had this idea: he decided, Oh, these are clearly the names of gods and this is about movement of the stars. These people were peaceful astronomers, thinking about space and time in this very big way. And then another translator [Tatiana Proskouriakoff] came along and said, Well, actually, I think these are names of kings rather than gods. That would mean that the time periods that we’re counting are human lifetimes, as opposed to eons. And that means that this is an actual war, as opposed to a cosmic event. And Thompson ended up delaying this information becoming part of the scientific conversation for years, because (a) he had the power and (b) he couldn’t deal with it. He had been a veteran of World War I. It was very important to him that somewhere there were people who didn’t fight. He needed to believe that.
DM: That’s a fascinating story.
RS: It’s really very touching. It was not like [Thompson] was just flexing because he could flex; it was also like, No, no, no, you don’t understand, human beings have to be better than what I’ve seen in the trenches. But he also had the power to quash other people’s inquiry, to delay the progress of that field for years before he finally was like, obviously, you’re right. Your interpretation of these glyphs is clearly correct. He eventually relented, but there was this period where he was just like, nope, and he was enough of a gatekeeper that he could put the kibosh on the whole thing.
DM: Rochelle, that’s my new favorite story. That’s very interesting.
RS: I love that story. It’s about all the reasons we get attached to a particular narrative. And then what happens if we have the power to insist on that narrative. And then you add territoriality and prestige and all the other things that come along with it. I imagine it just gets stickier and stickier.
A couple of questions to wrap up: do you see yourself doing more research in science going forward? I know that you’re deep in Shakespeare now. But you do see yourself returning to the sciences?
DM: As soon as I can. I’ve been fifteen years on this, and I’ve got more to do. But then, straight back to science.
RS: To biogeography specifically?
DM: Biogeography, geophysics, things like that. I’ll keep on moving on. I get obsessed by subjects.
RS: Do you have a lot of contact with other independent researchers? There’s the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, for example. Do you see yourself as part of a community in that way?
DM: I’m not a joiner. But I do have people write me. And they become friends. I have friends that I’ve met through this.
RS: Do you have any advice you would give to other independent researchers, in whatever field or whatever subject area?
DM: Follow your dreams, keep going after it. And if it’s controversial, you’re going to have to self publish, probably. I would let them know that it’s going to be very difficult. But one bit of advice also: if you can get someone on the inside, who supports you, do that. Reach out, try to find someone, as you’re reading, oh, this person thinks like I do, or this person and I agree on this issue. And then write them. That’s how I met June Schlueter. And these people are so selfless and so kind to me, and they got me to where I’m published in top journals, and publishing books at academic presses.
RS: Do you have anything you’d like to say about the academy in general, whether on its approach to making information available, its approach to independent scholars, any final thoughts on that?
DM: The entire purpose of digital humanities is to make things searchable by everyone, and more freely available to everyone. And this is why these discoveries are being made. And more discoveries will be made, if they let everyone in. So that some lonely person, whether in Idaho or Mississippi, or Alaska, or Hawaii, or wherever, can just log in, and there’s all this information and all this literature available to them. Who knows what they will find?
RS: Do you have thoughts in general about the move towards open access and open publishing, having used some open access resources yourself?
DM: I don’t even know the argument against it. Reviewers and journal editors have to get paid. I understand that they should, but I am for complete open access of everything. In fact, I want full-view of all Google Books till 1957 or something.
RS: To wrap up, just general thoughts, to get back to libraries, about accessing information. I know you said that you think this is a really important topic.
DM: Free the information! There’s a Simpsons episode from the 1990s that reminds me of this. They were doing a civil war reenactment, but you had to pay to get in. Bart Simpson and few of the kids had climbed onto a wall and were peeking over it, watching. And one of the reenactors sees them and says, “Hey, those kids are trying to learn for free!” This is exactly what’s going on. People are trying to learn for free.
RS: Thank you. This has really been amazing and I so appreciate your generosity with your time.
Dennis McCarthy’s work is remarkable and game changing, certainly for the field of Shakespeare studies. As an amateur Shakespeare enthusiast, let alone an academic librarian, I deeply appreciate his insight, doggedness and tenacity. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that that doggedness and tenacity are supported by the positional privilege that allows him, as a white man, to go relatively unchallenged on his forays to gain admittance to the collections at private educational institutions like Lafayette College. This unchallenged access is routinely denied by campus police and other gatekeepers even to fully credentialed faculty and students of color, as DeMarcus A. Jenkins and others have pointed out.5 It is unimaginably more difficult to utilize those resources as a researcher of color from outside academia, or a researcher who for any number of class-coded reasons reads as “not belonging.”
McCarthy’s methods, therefore, are not scalable; nor should they have to be. And of course, physical access to library spaces is only a part of the problem for outside scholars–access to electronic resources is by far the greater obstacle. How can libraries address the information needs of all researchers, scholars and learners, so that elusive-for-some, impossible-for-many workarounds become unnecessary? Academic librarians need to be talking with outside researchers; writing about them in our professional literature, making their stories part of our mission, especially for public institutions, whether they are working solo or as part of communities like NCIS, whether they are highly credentialed or complete autodidacts. We need to contextualize their needs as part of a larger profit-driven, exclusionary system that implicates publishers, vendors and lawmakers. We need to advocate for access to information for anyone who wants it, as an issue of democracy and civic society. But not just as that: as a way to support brilliance and innovation from all quarters. As Dinah Lindauer pointed out, I.F. Stone, Barbara Tuchman, Ralph Nader, Betty Friedan, Erik Hoffer, and Buckminster Fuller were all world-changing independent scholars6. To that list I would add Gloria Anzaldúa, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Anne Balay, and Anastazia Schmid, among others. We need to honor deep inquiry no matter who engages in it. What is our culture missing out on otherwise?
This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.
My deep thanks to Dennis McCarthy and to Dr. June Schlueter, as well as to Ian Beilin, Jaena Rae Cabrera, and Lisa Hinchliffe.
Gross, Ronald. “Libraries lure and link learners.” Adult & Continuing Education Today, vol. 16, no.2 (Jan. 20, 1986).
Gross, Ronald. “Scholarship Beyond the Academy.” Academe, vol. 71, no. 1, 1985, pp. 32–36.
“Independent Scholars Organize.” American Libraries, vol. 20, no. 6, June 1989, p. 492.
Jenkins, DeMarcus A., et al. “The Second ID: Critical Race Counterstories of Campus Police Interactions with Black Men at Historically White Institutions.” Race, Ethnicity & Education, vol. 24, no. 2, Mar. 2021, pp. 149–66.
Lindauer, D. “Independent Scholars Roundtable. A Pioneering Project at Nassau Library System.” Reference Librarian, no. 16, Win 1986, pp. 97–108.
Line, Maurice B. “Opinion Paper: Access to Documents by the Independent Researcher.” Interlending & Document Supply, vol. 29, no. 4, 2001, pp. 175–176.
Wilson, Robin. “Some Ph.D.’s Choose to Work Off the Grid.” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 59, no. 20, 25 Jan. 2013, pp. A18–A21.
Appendix: Selected Recent Works by NCIS Researchers
Briat, C. “Stability and L1 × ℓ1-to-L1 × ℓ1 Performance Analysis of Uncertain Impulsive Linear Positive Systems with Applications to the Interval Observation of Impulsive and Switched Systems with Constant Delays.” International Journal of Control, vol. 93, no. 11, Nov. 2020, pp. 2634–52.
Byrne, Joshua P. “Perceiving the Social Unknown: How the Hidden Curriculum Affects the Learning of Autistic Students in Higher Education.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International, vol. 59, no. 2, Apr. 2022, pp. 142–49.
Emadi, Hafizullah. “The Politics of Homosexuality: Perseverance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community in a Repressive Social Milieu in Afghanistan.” International Journal on Minority & Group Rights, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2019, pp. 242–60.
Lavender, Jordan. “Polylanguaging and Bivalency in the Ecuadorian Linguistic Landscape: An Analysis of Public Signs in Azogues, Ecuador.” Spanish in Context, vol. 18, no. 2, July 2021, pp. 161–91.
Rebok, Sandra. “Humboldt and the American West: Defending or Defeating the ‘Manifest Destiny’?” German Life & Letters, vol. 74, no. 3, July 2021, pp. 326–38.
- Gross, Ronald. “Libraries lure and link learners.” Adult & Continuing Education Today, vol. 16, no.2 (Jan. 20, 1986). [↩]
- For a short list of recent peer reviewed articles written by researchers affiliated with the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, see the Appendix. [↩]
- According to a FY 2019 Institute of Museum and Library Services survey, more than 75% of public libraries serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and 72% have fewer than ten full time employees. https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/2021-08/fy19-pls-results.pdf [↩]
- The open access version of Early English Books Online is the EEBO-TCP (Text Creation Partnership), a joint project of Proquest and the University of Michigan. It contains transcribed and encoded text but no page images, and covers about 40% of the materials contained in EEBO. Early English Books Online (EEBO) TCP – Text Creation Partnership [↩]
- Jenkins, DeMarcus A., et al. “The Second ID: Critical Race Counterstories of Campus Police Interactions with Black Men at Historically White Institutions.” Race, Ethnicity & Education, vol. 24, no. 2, Mar. 2021, pp. 149–66. [↩]
- Lindauer, D. “Independent Scholars Roundtable. A Pioneering Project at Nassau Library System.” The Reference Librarian., no. 16, 1986, pp. 97–108. [↩]