Tall tales, scholarly spats, and a whole lot of research: A look at the Arthur Scouten papers

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

It was Sunday, September 17 1944, and the Battle of Arnheim had begun. The British Second Tactical Air Force along with the American 8th and 9th Air Forces initiated intense bombing and strafing raids on Nazi garrisons, barracks, and anti-aircraft guns in and around the capital of the province of Gelderland and several other Dutch cities. Operation Market Garden, as it was called, intended to keep pushing the Wehrmacht retreat that began on the beaches of Normandy by securing Allied control over several strategic bridges across the Rhine.

After routing the Germans at Antwerp just days before, the Allies expected little resistance or even outright surrender. Some Allied soldiers had even packed leisure equipment in their kits before heading off to battle; they certainly didn’t expect to be met on the banks of the Rhine by two elite Panzer divisions and newly regrouped battalions ready to defend their position. A heavy firefight ensued, and for the next nine days the streets of Arnheim were a war zone.

The night of the Allied attack, an Arnheim resident named Dr. Hermann Teerink was frantically busy with his own sort of battle strategy. A scholar of Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift, Dr. Teerink had one objective: to save his collection of almost 2,000 books and documents by and about Swift from being lost to the destruction of the war that had arrived on his doorstep. In a personal letter from Professor Arthur Scouten recounted by his former student Ann Cline Kelly, Scouten claims that Dr. Teerink singlehandedly moved his entire collection not once, but twice through the streets of Arnheim when the fighting first broke out. As the bombs dropped, a fire started near Teerink’s home: securing a truck (it is not clear whose, or how), Teerink loaded his collection and started barreling toward the countryside. “Then a firebomb hit the truck,” Scouten writes,

but it burned only Teerink’s school textbooks … and a couple of Swift’s Irish tracts. Teerink then found a wagon and moved the books to the wagon and pulled that wagon through the streets until he got out of town and beyond the area being bombed. [T]his amazing story … would make an atheist believe in Divine Providence to rescue Swift’s satires! (Arthur Scouten papers Box 1 Folder 1)

Divine Providence, that is, or the mania of a bibliophile and scholar — whatever the case, Teerink saved his collection, which included 13 different first editions of Swift’s Works published by Faulkner as well as the prized Bathurst editions, contemporary editions, translations, rare pamphlets, broadsides, and ephemera. Shortly after the war, Teerink began offering his collection for sale to several university libraries, undoubtedly knowing it would be safer in such a repository than in his hometown that had so lately been a battleground.

Enter Arthur “Joe” Scouten, then a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Scouten (1910-1995) was a scholar of Restoration and 18th-century drama, as well as the works of Jonathan Swift. In the mid-fifties he wrote to Dr. Teerink about a paper the latter had published on Swift — when he responded, Teerink asked if Penn would be interested in buying his collection at what he called a “very low figure.”

A xerox copy of an undated letter from Teerink to Scouten contained in Box 1 Folder 6 of Ms. Coll. 1426 contains the precise figure: 40,000 Dutch guilders, which at the time equaled 10,526 dollars. In today’s money, this amount would be just a shade over $100,000. Scouten knew that he had found a treasure being offered for pennies and began lobbying the chair of Penn’s English department to support the purchase. But, hearing of the hell the collection had been through during the Battle of Arnheim and thinking the materials likely damaged, the chair demurred.

Scouten persisted. Around April 1956, he achieved his aim and Penn purchased Teerink’s collection, which Scouten himself helped unpack when it arrived in Philadelphia. His friend and colleague Maurice Johnson, infamous for his dour demeanor and permanent poker-face, assisted in this labor — Scouten writes that the day they unpacked the Teerink Collection was “one of the few times that I ever saw Maurice show excitement.” The Teerink Collection is housed to this day in the Kislak Center for Special Collections and has made Penn a major hub for Swift scholarship.

The (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) story of Teerink’s valiant effort to protect his Swiftiana, and Scouten’s subsequent efforts to obtain it, is only one of the enthralling tales contained within the files of the Arthur Scouten papers, which I recently processed. Scouten worked at Penn for almost 40 years and was famous among students for his lively teaching style and penchant for a good story — though the Scouten papers relate primarily to several of the professor’s research projects, there is certainly a good deal of Scouten the storyteller embedded among the materials. Apart from the story of the Teerink collection, for example, I learned:

  • about Scouten’s birth and early childhood in Kenya, where his parents served as missionaries, and how he only truly discovered his love for literature after finding out that the clerical path was not for him;
  • how Scouten hitchhiked and hopped freight trains from upstate New York down to Baton Rouge, lived in hobo jungles, and ran from trigger-happy railroad cops like a veritable Depression-era folk hero;
  • about the beginning of his academic career in Baton Rouge, where he attempted to get a football scholarship at Louisiana State University but was offered a job tutoring the players instead, along with a bed in the football team’s field house. (Scouten would subsequently obtain his Bachelor, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees at LSU);
  • how the massively influential left-populist governor of Louisiana Huey “Kingfish” Long took Scouten under his wing;
  • how Scouten cut his scholarly teeth at the very epicenter of the New Criticism revolution, learning from and subsequently maintaining correspondence with then-LSU professors Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.

Scouten’s research notes are not without the occasional exciting digression, either. Box 2 Folder 1, for example, contains Scouten’s notes on the so-called “Shakespeare authorship question,” a critical tendency that holds that William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon either didn’t exist or otherwise did not write the works attributed to him. Scouten — a respected Shakespeare scholar himself — evidently found little merit in the Shakespeare authorship question and even less in the works of Charlton Ogburn, a journalist who promoted the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. One quite hilariously furious letter from Ogburn is contained in Box 2 Folder 1, the first page of which can be seen here:

Beyond its tall tales, scholarly spats, and rigorous research, the most interesting and indeed touching part of the Scouten papers is the “Student Letters” file (Box 1 Folder 4), which contains the Professor’s correspondence with former students. Even the bare fact that he bothered to maintain correspondence with his students — both graduate and undergraduate, it seems, and he is often the one to initiate contact — demonstrates the truth of what Ann Cline Kelly (a former doctoral advisee herself) says of his teaching in her memorial essay in Box 1 Folder 1:

Scouten taught scores of undergraduates and graduate students. He was known for his dramatic lecturing style and his intense concern for his students’ intellectual development. Never using a teaching assistant even in large classes of 100+ students, he always graded the papers himself and prided himself on having them ready at the next class. Unlike many professors who cursorily assigned a grade, Scouten gave a running critique in the margins. In one graduate seminar, all of the students’ term papers were good enough to be accepted for publication in learned journals. Over the years, he supervised an astonishing number of PhD dissertations—55 in all—on a wide range of subjects … As a teacher and advisor, he knew how to inspire your best efforts, and as a friend, he knew how to solace you when you’d been dealt a blow by fate or bureaucracy. When I visited him in Paris … he showed me dedication after dedication in books of former students thanking him for his encouragement. Indeed, the first sentence in the “Acknowledgments” of my Swift and the English Language records my indebtedness to him.

Ms. Coll. 1426 is not a large collection, but it does give a blueprint of the kind of teacher we all wish we had. The fact that its files also contain a good deal of old fashioned tall tales, drama, and politics (the last of which I’ve only barely touched on in this post) makes it one of the most exciting collections I’ve cataloged so far.

2 responses to “Tall tales, scholarly spats, and a whole lot of research: A look at the Arthur Scouten papers”

  1. Very interesting, this Ms. Coll.1426. Thank you. I assume the entire correspondence is in English and Teerink did not leave any mss. in Dutch?

    Rob Naborn, Dutch Studies, UPenn

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