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The Fruits of the MLA: I. “Their Wedding Journey”

Their Wedding Journey

by William Dean Howells, edited by John K. Reeves
University of Indiana (Center for Editions of American Authors), 276 pp., $10.00

The New York Review of January 18, 1967, contained an article by Mr. Lewis Mumford called “Emerson Behind Barbed Wire,” in which he reviewed The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by five scholars and published by the Harvard University Press. Mr. Mumford attacked this edition on the ground that it included too much material which Emerson had wanted destroyed and that it presented this material in a totally unreadable text, the editor of which, by resorting to twenty diacritical marks, had made it look like something between an undecoded Morse-code message and a cuneiform inscription.

I applauded this article in a letter in which I criticized the prevailing practice of the Modern Language Association in reprinting the American classics and explained that I myself had had a project for publishing the American classics in an easily accessible form such as that of the French Pléiade series; and that I had at one time persuaded a number of people, publishers, writers, and foundation administrators—some of them themselves members of the Council of the National Endowment of the Humanities—of the important place which such a collection could fill, in view of the fact that the complete works of so many of the American writers who are at present most talked about and taught are unavailable to the ordinary reader. In order to make my position clear, I am printing the letter that I sent to Mr. Jason Epstein of Random House, which was sent to the persons mentioned above.

August 18, 1962

Dear Jason:

I am glad to hear that you are going to take up with the Bollingen Foundation the possibility of bringing out in a complete and compact from the principal American classics. I have, as you know, been trying for years to interest some publisher in this project. It is absurd that our most read and studied writers should not be available in their entirety in any convenient form. For example, the only collected edition of Melville was published in England in the twenties and has long been out of print; and there is not, and has never been, of Henry James and Henry Adams any complete collected edition at all. The only serious attempt, on any large scale, to do reliable editions of our classics was the publication by Houghton, Mifflin of such New England writers as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, and these are now out of print. For years there was no scholarly edition of Poe which even aimed at accuracy and completeness except that by James A. Harrison of University of Virginia, also long out of print—though I understand that Mabbott of Columbia is about to bring out a new one through the Harvard University Press.* The collected Stephen Crane was published by Knopf in a limited edition which can only be found in large libraries.

The kind of thing I should like to see would follow the example of the Editions de la Pléiade, which have included so many of the French classics, ancient and modern, in beautifully produced and admirably printed thin-paper volumes, ranging from 800 to 1500 pages. These volumes, published by Gallimard, have evidently been commercially successful, for they are to be seen in every bookstore in Paris. Mondadori of Milan has been publishing two similar series of Classici Italiani and Classici Contemporanei Italiani, though not on the same scale. But Benedetto Croce persuaded another publisher, Laterza, to bring out the series called Scrittori d’Italia as well as a philosophical series, the former of which includes such not easily available works as Sarpi’s histories and the macaronic poets. In England, the Oxford Press has brought out the English poets and a certain amount of prose in cheap and well-edited volumes. Only the United States, at a time when the interest in our literature has never been so keen, has nothing at all similar. Parkman, for example, now much talked about, is, I believe, available only in paperback with the Oregon Trail and a few volumes of his history. There has never been a complete collected edition that included his novel and his book on rose culture. In the case of many writers of not necessarily the first importance, but such as are often included in the Pléiade series, there exist—except for random reprints by university presses, and occasionally by paperback publishers—no modern editions at all. Such writers need not be printed in toto, but there are several which should have a volume of selections—DeForest, George, Cable, Henry Fuller, Harold Frederic, John Jay Chapman, Kate Chopin and others. Such poets as Emily Dickinson, Frederick Tuckerman and Trumbull Stickney should also be made available. Such a series as the John Harvard Library or the paperback series now being brought out by Hafner-Stechert is not able to cover their field, and in the former case gives in a single volume too little at too high a price.

Almost everything should be edited anew, as in the case of the Pléiade editions. It would be possible, thus, in some cases, to establish, as has been done with Proust, the only sound and full text that exists.

Of course, there would be questions of copyright, as in the case of Emily Dickinson’s newly published poems or Mark Twain’s posthumous writings, but these are the kind of thing that, after first being published in expensive editions, are likely afterwards to be sold to the paperbacks, and they might just as well be sold to a series of classics.

I am told that it would be necessary to apply for a government subsidy; but I do not see why this should not be done. If we can squander billions of dollars on space rockets, nuclear weapons and subsidies to backward countries, why should not the United States government do something to make American literature available? The French government has now for decades contributed to the publication of French history and literature. I am informed by M. André Malraux, Ministre d’Etat Chargé des Affaires Culturelles, that the French government at the present time, through a Caisse Nationale des Letters, is contributing to the publication of the complete works of Ernest Renan, Gérard de Nerval and Paul Verlaine; the correspondence of Balzac and Villiers de I’Isle Adam; critical editions of Charles Nodier and Mme. de Staël; learned works such as L’Histoire des Monuments Détruits de l’Art Français; bilingual editions and translations of such foreign writers as Goethe and Kleist, etc. I was rather surprised to learn that a new edition of Les Stances of Jean Moréas had been subsidized. But this volume of his is a landmark of the Parnassian school of poetry, and is needed by students of the subject. In 1939, however, only 309 copies were sold, in 1960 52, and in 1961 24. In view of this, the publisher, the Mercure de France, applied to the government for aid in bringing out a new edition. Further projects are new critical editions of the complete works of Pascal, the complete correspondence of Voltaire, Chateaubriand and Flaubert. Recent writers who have been aided by subsidies from the government in order to carry on their work are Blaise Cendrars, Louis Guilloux, Pierre-Jean Jouve, François Ponge, Yves Bonnefoy, André du Bouchet, Henri Thomas, Wladimir Weidlé, Loys Masson.

Our record in this department is, so far as I know, nil—except, perhaps, for the job of poetry librarian in the Library of Congress, which is given every year to a different poet.”

The people to whom this letter was sent were W. H. Auden, Marius Bewley, R. P. Blackmur, Van Wyck Brooks Alfred Kazin, President Kennedy, Robert Lowell, Perry Miller, Norman Holmes Pearson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and Robert Penn Warren. Of these, only the late Perry Miller, a Professor of American literature at Harvard, even brought up the question of the difficulties of preparing authoritative texts—though he admitted that “the project on Hawthorne, to cite only this one, being undertaken by the University of Ohio is perhaps more ‘academic’ than the average reader needs.” The others expressed cordial approval. The Bollingen Foundation decided that a project such as this did not come within the scope assigned to it; but I was told later that a substantial sum of money had been set aside for this purpose by the National Humanities Endowment which was established as a part of the functioning of the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities, the bill for which had been enacted by Congress in 1965. The next thing I heard about it was that this money had somehow been whisked away, and my project “tabled.” The Modern Language Association had a project of its own for reprinting the American classics and had apparently had ours suppressed. The MLA, founded at Johns Hopkins in 1883, is in its way a formidable organization, to which, it would seem, almost every teacher of literature or language is obliged to belong. It publishes a periodical usually known as the PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association), which contains mostly unreadable articles on literary problems and discoveries of very minute or no interest. An annual countrywide conference of the MLA is held during the Christmas holidays, and is attended by from 5,000 to 10,000 people, and there are also regional conferences. At all of these, papers are read, which have been or are to be published in the PMLA or some other learned periodical. In the program of the First Annual Conference of 1968 of the New York-Pennsylvania branch, forty-nine such papers were featured. The list is too long to quote here. A few of them I should look at if I saw them, because I happen to have lately given attention to their subjects: “Madach’s Tragedy of Man and German Literature” and “Comparison of Goethe’s Mephistopheles and Balzac’s Vautrin”; others I think I should skip: “Flowers, Women; and Song in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams,” and “The Unity of George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale.” But my point of view about these papers is almost entirely irrelevant because they are meant not to appeal to my possible interest in them but to serve as offered self-qualifications in what is really an employment agency. The head of a department attends the conference in order to fill some chair when an occupant has been discarded or lured away by higher pay to some other institution; the candidate tries to impress the employer by displaying some of his wares. This is all of course perfectly legitimate; the Modern Language Association has no doubt performed a useful role. But what I am going to deal with here is the ineptitude of its pretensions to reprint the American classics.

TO RETURN to Mr. Mumford’s article and my letter giving voice to my own complaints, these provoked a remarkable correspondence, some of which has been printed in The New York Review. First of all, Mr. William M. Gibson, whose name heads the list of scholars that are responsible for the editing of the Emerson papers and who is, it turns out, the Director of the MLA Center for the Editions of American Authors, wrote me that he had no idea what had happened to the money we were supposed to get. I knew, however, that the MLA had a strong and determined lobby to further its own designs and that representatives of the MLA had attempted to discourage our project and had, it seems, very soon succeeded. Mr. Gibson also wrote a long letter to the editors of The New York Review, which was published in the issue of March 14. He argued here with an eloquence almost Ciceronian that “there is no serious difference between Mr. Mumford’s view and the views” of the MLA editors: “Mr. Mumford wants accurate unexpurgated texts: so do the editors. Mr. Mumford especially wants the text uncluttered with revisions or footnote numbers or any kind of ‘barbed wire’: so do the editors.” He says that the Center editors want to produce the “clear text” that “Mr. Mumford favors”—“clear text,” sometimes hyphenated, is a part of this scholarly jargon and means little more than a readable book; but the task of their peculiar kind of editing must be accomplished “first” (Mr. Gibson’s italics) before a “clear text” can be made that will “serve the interests of scholars and plain readers alike.” But in the meantime we shall have to wait a century or longer before, according to the requirements imposed by the MLA, such texts will become available, and, in the case of each $10 volume, two years, it is stipulated, will have to elapse before a commercial publisher will be allowed to take them over. So Mr. Mumford and the MLA do not want the same thing.

  1. *

    Professor Thomas O. Mabbott recently died, and the edition has never been published, 1968

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