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Fruits of the MLA

In response to:

The Fruits of the MLA: II. Mark Twain from the October 10, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I found many aspects of part one of Mr. Wilson’s essay on the fruits of the MLA objectionable, but anticipating that his essay will provoke considerable mail I will limit myself here to clarifying one of his basic confusions, correcting a few of his blatant errors, revealing some of his more grotesque distortions, and answering a couple of his charming questions.

Mr. Wilson’s keen sense of disappointment over the failure of his admirable project to attract support has led him to imagine a battleground on which fiercely independent Eastern critics, whose social consciousness and fine sense of design lead them to favor small, inexpensive, elegantly printed books on thin paper, are pitted in a death struggle against Middle Western establishment pedants, whose social callousness and crude taste commit them to costly, bulky, miserably produced tomes on thick grey paper. Now this projection makes for an engaging fantasy, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. That reality Mr. Wilson is occasionally in touch with. He is in touch with it when he speaks of the need to “edit anew” the texts he has in mind to publish in order “in some cases, to establish, as has been done with Proust, the only sound and full text which exists.” He is in touch with that reality when he laments the inavailability of reliably edited texts which, like the Harrison Poe, at least “aimed at accuracy and completeness.” He is in touch with it, in short, whenever he acknowledges that textual criticism is a legitimate activity. For then the questions are not who shall do the editing and in what format shall the result be presented, but how shall it be done well—that is, with common sense, verifiable care and reasonable completeness. Though Mr. Wilson obscures it in pique, smugness, ad hominem nonsense, and rhetorical smoke-screens, this is the issue.

Mr. Wilson is at liberty to question the sense of editing certain volumes (I’ll trade our choice of Their Wedding Journey for his of Parkman’s book on rose culture), he is at liberty to question the amount of information presented and the format of its presentation, he is at liberty to challenge the accuracy of the text which is prepared; but he is not at liberty to dismiss the theory and practice of textual editing that has developed over three centuries unless he is willing to offer workable alternatives. How would he set about editing (as opposed to introducing) any of the texts of any of the writers he wishes to see available quickly and cheaply? How, in advance of any investigation, can Mr. Wilson tell us if “serious suppressions and distortions” of the kind he acknowledges need attention exist? If he thinks that all such instances have been discovered he is badly mistaken. (If Mr. Abrams and Mr. Bloomfield fail to supply examples, I’ll be glad to—at any length.) He can, therefore, either offer reprints—which are not the same as the critical editions he professes to favor—or he can investigate the extant texts and submit these texts to the same general process which the drudges he scorns submit them to. He cannot have it both ways. Cheapness and reliability are incompatible. If he intends to do some editing, let him propose how he would go about the work.

Supposing that Mr. Wilson genuinely wishes to improve the quality of the work being done by the several editions operating under CEAA auspices, he must whine and fulminate less and specify and discriminate more. If he wants to be taken seriously by those involved in this work he must also do his homework.

Textual editing is no arcane mystery and its essential principles, free of jargon, are laid out in a single paragraph in the edition of Typee which he condemned, like the rest of the volumes he “reviewed,” without reading attentively. Only when informed, temperate, reasoned, and carefully prepared reviews of the work of these editions are forthcoming will we know how well the work has been done. Until then I can’t believe that very many unprejudiced readers will believe that all of the fruits of the CEAA are fit only for the cider-press.

For these reasons, I am sorry to be told that Mr. Wilson is planning to publish a second installment, but I offer some words from A. E. Housman’s paper on “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” anyway: “Now if a subject bores us, we are apt to avoid the trouble of thinking about it; but if we do that, we had better go further and avoid also the trouble of writing about it.” Since I don’t believe Mr. Wilson will take this advice, I should like to offer a few examples of the kind of errors he committed in the first installment in the hope that his observations will be more accurate in the second.

Among the factual errors: the book was published by Indiana University Press not the University of Indiana; Professor Cady is Rudy not Reedy Professor of English; Mr. Reeves had the support of two Associate not Assistant Textual Editors (as the title-page states plainly); the “Textual Commentary” is ten not thirty-five pages long (the whole of the “Textual Apparatus” covers thirty-six pages); the “Notes to the Text” not the “Textual Notes” identify quotations and allusions (the latter discusses strictly textual matters); the two tables of variants come to thirteen not thirty-five pages, and they do not “record the variations of all the existing texts.” Finally, if the Centenary edition of The Marble Faun has 610 pages altogether it cannot have 467 of Hawthorne and 332 “of all this” apparatus. It doesn’t, but of course this is the nit-picking one would expect of a plodding textual editor. Small wonder, though, that Mr. Wilson has had income tax troubles.

Mr. Wilson must also be called to account for distortions—not only in what he says about the scholarly work of others, but in what he offers as sample interpretive commentary on Their Wedding Journey and Their Silver Wedding Journey as “documents on the American consciousness of its relation to Europe.” He quotes from Chapter IX of the first of the journeys in order to make a point about the newlyweds’ attitudes towards European and American scenes. Of the Marches Mr. Wilson writes: “They greatly admired in Quebec the ‘thick-ankled’ French Canadian ‘peasants’; but on their way back to Buffalo, they ‘owned that this railroad suburb had its own impressiveness, and they said that the trestle-work was as noble in effect as the lines of aqueducts that stalk across the Roman Campagne.”’ The trouble is that the Marches do not return to Buffalo from Quebec in Their Wedding Journey. Rather, after their adventures, they travel the Grant Trunk rail line to Portland, where they change trains for Boston. Twelve years later, when Howells has the Marches revisit Niagara with their children (in chapter XI, plainly titled “Niagara Revisited, Twelve Years After Their Wedding Journey”) he does write, as they are a couple of hours from Buffalo, on their way to the Falls from Boston, of their owning “that this…acqueductsCampagnas.” Mr. Wilson’s interpretation of this matter is also open to debate (he misses Howells’s ironies) and other distortions in his essay could be pointed out, but I am trying to be brief and factual and so will let the matter rest with this one vivid example of Mr. Wilson’s carelessness and irresponsibility.

Finally, a few answers to direct questions from Mr. Wilson. Although he did not find much else of interest in Their Wedding Journey, Mr. Wilson did come to life over the exotic mysteries of “Ihlang-ihlang” and longed for a note which would tell him whether it was “a perfume or a face lotion? a real product or an invention of Howells’s? and if an invention, a parody of what?” Mr. Wilson’s Macmillan’s modern dictionary may not give him the answer, but other dictionaries would have told him that Ihlang-ihlang is an aromatic oil used in perfumes. Mr. Wilson, quoting inaccurately in his arch discussion of our publication celebration, also wonders what “(cq)” means. It is a proofreading notation which obviously means “follow copy.” (We’re glad that he supposes he understood the joke—recorded, by the way, in an Indiana University News Bureau press release designed to boost the morale of us culturally deprived Hoosiers and printed some fourteen weeks after the book was published. Since it was not promotional material or a “bulletin,” one wonders who so thoughtfully provided it to Mr. Wilson.)

Just for the record, Their Wedding Journey is not only an exceptionally handsome piece of book-making, it weighs a mere pound and a half. It would make a fine wedding present—at least for tepid rich people without hernias.

Ronald Gottesman

Textual Editor for

Their Wedding Journey

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