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Harold Feldman: How I Became an Oxfordian

Here is another classic from our files. This article was originally published in the Summer 1983 issue of our newsletter.

I was never a Stratfordian. I learned my authorship theory as I learned my Shakespeare, and I learned them from the best teacher I have ever known, my eldest brother whom you all knew as A. Bronson Feldman.


The Purple Cow

He was eighteen at the time, already a trained poet and bristling with interests and learning in a dozen directions like the batteries of a battleship.  For him, the most objective scholarship was always merged with a militant advocacy. This, together with an unequalled gift for hilarity, made life with him a privileged education.

I was going on fourteen when Abe read Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? to me. Ever since then, the idea that the Divine William was an author has been a joke to me. The next item in this course that I recall was Abe’s bringing home a huge heavily-bound volume of Ignatius Donnelly’s The Great Cryptogram, which he explained to me as a classic example of what happens when a good thinker becomes a cranky fantasist. Then came the final step, and it still gives me a sentimental chill when I remember those dog-eared pages full of sense and sensitivity. The decisive book was Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified. For Abe, and then for me, there was no major doubt left after that.

But we learned early that good sense and evidence were not enough when it came to the Shakespeare superstitions.  Abe’s friend, Jess Frank, who brought H.G. Wells and Thomas Huxley into our lives, would not yield, and the air was blue with the debates on the steps of the Free Library (in Philadelphia) between Abe and Jess. Abe’s teachers, who loved the plays as much as anyone, Lutton Pennypacker, Boileau would not budge on the authorship question. And if any Oxfordian slipped into a repetition of the Baconian nonsense and began claiming that Edward de Vere wrote all the plays of Philip Massinger (1583 –1640), wrote the songs of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), and discovered the circulation of the blood, they were sure to let us know about it, and Abe’s ears would blush. 

The happiest time of my apprenticeship in the Oxfordian cause was at Temple University when I succeeded in bringing Charles Wisner Barrell and Gelett Burgess to talk and show slides. The University pooh-bahs were upset about Burgess. Shakespeare aside, he was a world-famous literatus, quoted in the anthologies, and associated with the poem about the Purple Cow:

[I never saw a Purple Cow, I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I’d rather see than be one! 

He also wrote,

If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead. – Editor]

That day, why wasn’t he speaking on a platform graced by Deans on some non-combat subject like Whimsy and Virtue in the American Ethos? Instead, it was probably the liveliest and most educational afternoon in the history of Temple.  No English professor attended.  But the Stratfordians had two champions from Philosophy and Latin Classics to represent them.  Still, after Barrell’s demonstration of the portrait alterations, they had little spirit for the job. Abe gave a beautiful summary at the close, lucid and polemical.  It was a great day.

I don’t think the Oxfordians will win as a direct result of their educational and research efforts.  As Abe showed many times, we are dealing with an entrenched superstition, reinforced by private interests and fairytale myths.  One day a new generation will look freshly at the subject and say, “Of course, Oxford wrote the plays. What was the fuss all about?”

— Harold Feldman

[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/gelett_burgess.html

“How I Became an Oxfordian” is edited by Bob Meyers. You may submit your essay on this topic (500 words or less in an editable format such as MS Word), along with a digital photo of yourself, to:info@shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”).

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