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Working in the Archives: an Interview with Jay Zysk

TAMPA, Fla. -- Jay Zysk is an assistant professor of English who completed a two-month fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in fall 2014. The following is an interview conducted by Ph.D. candidate Curtis LeVan.

How did you first hear of the Folger Shakespeare Library fellowship, and what was the application process like?

The fellowship I received was a short-term fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library. To apply, you must present a 1,000-word description of your research project with a focus on how the Folger’s collection will support the work you propose. You must also solicit letters of recommendation from two senior scholars, preferably ones outside your home institution or those who advised your dissertation project.

The Folger receives more than 100 applications for short-term fellowships every year and makes about 50 awards ranging from one to three months. I applied for two months, and that’s what I was awarded.

What were your expectations—or what did you hope to accomplish through the fellowship? Did you find that your personal expectations changed as you progressed?

In my fellowship application, I proposed that I would conduct research on late medieval and early modern Eucharistic theology in order to write the first chapter of my book project, “Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Semiotics in Early English Drama,” which is under contract at the University of Notre Dame Press.

In my dissertation work, I read the “heavy hitters”—Aquinas, Luther, Calvin—but I quickly discovered (with the help of my examiners) that there were many more voices to consult. I was aware of them, of course, but I didn’t fully engage with them. These authors include Richard Hooker, Thomas More, William Tyndale and John Jewel. They also include some surprising figures like Thomas Wright, who is best known for his writings on the early modern passions, but also wrote a treatise on the Eucharist.

One of the joys of a research fellowship is that simply plumbing the archive helps you to formulate new ideas. There were so many times that I called up a printed book to read and quickly discovered that another demanded my attention.

I found that I was incredibly productive during my time at the Folger. I felt extremely motivated by the talented scholars with whom I had the privilege of working, and being around such people kept me focused and engaged. By the end of my time at the Folger, I had not only finished research for the chapter I proposed, but I also was able to research and fully write two additional chapters and a new version of my introduction.

Did you have to fulfill any requirements during the fellowship aside from your research?

Yes. Every Folger Fellow gives what’s called a “lunch time talk.” Basically, you are asked to give a 30-40 minute presentation of the research you’ve done at the Folger before a public audience that comprises Folger librarians, staff, the Director and your “fellow fellows.”

I gave my talk on an anonymous Protestant Resurrection play called “The Resurrection of Our Lorde” (c. 1530-1560). The play exists only in one scribal copy (held by the Folger) and not much work has been done on it.

It’s interesting to me because I read early and late medieval resurrection plays in my book, but it is important to keep in mind that the genre resurfaced in the 16th century with many reformers using the biblical story of the Resurrection to pursue debates about the Eucharist.

There is also only one scholarly edition of this play—it dates to 1912—so in the near future, I want to prepare a new annotated edition. I’ve got some great images of the manuscript, and I plan to share them with my “Staging the Sacred” graduate seminar in Fall 2015.

Aside from academics, how did the experience affect you? In other words, how magical was it to work with the texts?

“Magical” is the right word to describe the Folger. Every part of the experience is second to none, and I’ve always felt that way since I first started doing research there in 2007.

First, the Folger treats its fellows very well. They offer subsidized housing so that you can live right on Capitol Hill (and right across the street from the library) for much less than you would normally pay. Not only were the apartments beautiful and conducive to scholarly work, but it was so convenient to live so close to the library. It made it very easy to be there at 8:45 and stay right until the closing bell at 5.

Second, it is such a wonderful opportunity to conduct research and write chapters in the company of other fellows. By the second week, I made fast friends with those at the tables and carrels around me, and these friends have proven to be invaluable contacts. Over the course of my time at the Folger, I got to meet likeminded colleagues who were working on medieval drama, early modern print and play books, and festivity and folk drama.

This brings me to another “magical” part of being a fellow: the actual fellowship. Writing a book is isolating; there’s no way around it. But having the opportunity to talk with like-minded people who not only share your interests but also share the process of writing a book project proved extremely valuable.

How does working with manuscripts and first editions differ from working with facsimiles and electronic copies?

Working with actual printed books and manuscripts is different than reading facsimiles. It cultivates a slower, more deliberate reading process at the same time it fosters a sense of intellectual adventure. In some cases, one will find a great bit of marginalia or some other kind of unique marking in a text. My most exciting “find” was what I thought was a signature of John Bale in William Tyndale’s “The Practice of Prelates,” but after a half day’s investigation (including some very painstaking analyses of Bale’s crabbed hand), I could only conclude that it was a forgery.

In a less exciting, but ultimately more important sense, I also enjoyed ready access to so many of the printed books and manuscripts that comprise some of the major theological debates in the periods I was covering. It was very important to have the books in front of me to do my research properly.

Let me give one example. The Eucharistic controversies were a thoroughly textual phenomenon. They unfolded in printed debates—and long debates, we’re talking over a thousand pages per tome—between the likes of John Jewel and Thomas Harding (the former an Anglican bishop, the latter a Catholic apologist) and Thomas Cranmer and Stephen Gardiner (the former the famous Archbishop of Canterbury and the latter the Catholic Bishop of Winchester). To do responsible scholarship, you need to read these debates intertextually. That means that it was necessary for me to have multiple books open at one time so that I could follow the trajectory of the debates.

Of course, there were many moments in which I was simply stunned that I was handling a book printed in, say, 1550, and that this very book was circulating in London at the very same time that the debates I am now writing about were happening. This produced in me a profound appreciation for a community of readers that stretches back almost 500 years. It’s really incredible.

In addition—and this is the reason we need to continue supporting primary research in archival libraries—one always makes new discoveries as one is reading. Having an entire archival library at one’s disposal actually changed the tenor of my project in certain places. This is not the result of merely mining data; rather, it is the result of following a lead and tracking it through multiple texts, which I could call up and have right in front of me in real time.

What is more, the great thing about being at the Folger is that once fellow fellows know what you are working on, they will share references and say, “Hey, Jay, you need to look at this text!” There were some days I had two or three call numbers on my desk. The entire experience reaffirmed for me that there is such immense power in the human database.

What is the next step for you as you work on your book?

Right now, I am in the process of revising my manuscript. My strategy is twofold.

First, I printed out all six chapters and the introduction, and I started retyping the entire manuscript. I find that by retyping my prose I cut out extraneous clauses, sentences, and even whole paragraphs and notes. Some of those things that seemed so important in November have become irrelevant in March! The physical act of retyping also helps me to think about organizational choices and often results in a clearer presentation of my argument. I streamline, I simplify and I elucidate.

The second thing I do is read every chapter out loud, word-for-word. I read with a Sharpie in hand, not a pen or pencil. I do this so that all I can do is mark passages that sound funny or cause me to stumble, without getting caught up in fine edits. Then I go back and examine the problematic portions of the text and rewrite them. I’ve been making good progress on these revisions and hope to have the entire manuscript ready to send to press (gasp!) by late June.

Curtis Le Van is a doctoral candidate in literature, and he is currently writing his dissertation on early English drama. He can be reached at


Filed under:English Arts and Sciences Faculty Awards   
Author:Curtis Le Van