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Romantic Originals’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In your issue for December 17, 1987, Charles Rosen upbraids an unidentified academic establishment (“editors and biographers [=bibliographers?]”) for two “bibliographical fetishes”: the choice of “copy text”; and the privileging of the author’s “final version.” Since an editor has to print something—some copy-text, good or bad—these two fetishes evidently boil down to one: the obligation to print a “final version”; and Mr. Rosen indeed uses “copy text” in the sense of version. That is not the case with the doctrine to which I suppose he alludes, the so-called Greg-Bowers “Rationale of Copy-text,” which normally prescribes the choice of the first edition as the basis (“copy-text”) for the critical edition. In theory, nothing but punctuation, capitalization and the like depend on this choice. What Mr. Rosen objects to depends on the rather different doctrine of “final intention” (not “version”), which directs the editor to insert into his copy-text his author’s later changes of words or meaning, so long as these do not constitute an entirely different version. Mr. Rosen’s fetishes are thus utter phantoms. Editors have “legally” edited, and will continue to edit in peace, early versions of such classics as Piers Plowman, the Dunciad A, Everyman in His Humour (1598) or (as Mr. Rosen confesses) the Prelude (1805).

This correction is necessary because Mr. Rosen rather romantically represents himself as a lone creative voice in a world of mechanicians: nothing we have in editing that is his. But even his own rationale has been anticipated by Soviet textologists, and is espoused, in the West, by the distinguished French scholar Roger Laufer. So there are others who maintain that an author can “betray” his work by revising it, and indeed, it is hard to imagine who Rosen is speaking of that today (or at any time) deny “the conflicting claims of multiple versions.” The voice of orthodoxy is perhaps best represented by G. Thomas Tanselle (Studies in Bibliography 29 [1976] 167)—but he attempts to reconcile these claims; as do, in their different ways, J.J. McGann, D.F. McKenzie, Edwin Honigmann and the Oxford Shakespeare. If editors make “automatic” choices, as some, inevitably, do, the bulk of scholarly opinion is against it.

I also found myself wondering why this éditeur terrible should fear the charge of “subjectivity,” and would like to reassure him. He summons up a grim future, in which his theory

no doubt opens the door to a certain kind of irresponsible editing, a descent back into the Dark Ages of publishing when an editor altered and repunctuated as he pleased and made up eclectic texts of all the little bits of different versions that he liked best.

That “no doubt” is a nice touch—or is he unaware that received notions of editing are explicitly eclectic, and that most authorities agree that editors must exercise their subjective judgment? Indeed, if I understand his rationale at all, it ought to lead to less choice, not to more. And many editors would welcome this result—e.g. Morse Peckham.

Like many another before him, Mr. Rosen inveighs against “definitive editions.” He has two beefs: they generally fail to establish the author’s first thoughts as the definitive text, a kind of censorship that does not “permit” the truth of Mr. Rosen’s theory; and second, they cunningly record the author’s first thoughts in the apparatus, thus permitting Mr. Rosen to attack them for want of imagination. This “imposture,” in Rosen’s opinion, has an intimate connection with bibliography, though he never explains how bibliography causes the editor to take down the 1850 Prelude from the shelf (an easy, objective choice, according to Rosen) instead of the 1805 model (an awkward, subjective motion).

It is some measure of his abilities as a complainer that one of the four editions he reviews prints all authorial versions, and another would like to. But this is evidently not enough. I am reminded of a true story. An elderly Jew asked to be referred to an analyst who spoke Yiddish—which, with some difficulty, was accomplished. The first session seemed to go satisfactorily, but at the end the patient declined to go on. “You asked to see an analyst who spoke Yiddish,” said the analyst; “I speak Yiddish—so what’s the problem?” “You don’t understand,” replied the patient; “I want an analyst who speaks only Yiddish.”

Mr. Rosen’s problem is that he wants definitive editions that print only original intentions. It is not enough that respectable bodies of opinion find this a legitimate option—or rather, it is precisely because bibliography today is so open to new opinion that Mr. Rosen raises his voice to accuse it of fetishism and—predictably—imposture. His own sincerity is not in doubt, alas: he really believes in a scholarly world where people at best pretend to speak his language. This is the latest Fruit of the MLA, I suppose.

Hugh Amory

Textual Editor

The Wesleyan Edition of Fielding

Charles Rosen replies:

Something seems to have made Mr. Amory mad—so mad, in fact, that he becomes incoherent (what does “nothing we have in editing that is his” mean?: that I have never edited anything? or that nobody else’s edition pleases me? neither is true). He has even lost what I imagine to be a textual editor’s normal grasp of English grammar (surely it should be “it is hard to imagine whom Rosen is speaking of”). Scholarly rage has, in fact, so clouded his mind that he ascribes to me a set of beliefs none of which I hold, and none of which could have been legitimately inferred from my review.

At no point did I plead for “definitive editions that print only original intentions.” On the contrary, what I wrote was that “for a small number [of works] the conflicting claims of different copy texts are so strong that all should be represented.” I also said that

the purpose of a critical edition of a modern work, on the other hand, is more often than not to multiply versions. Its reason for existing is to show us the way a novel or a poem developed from the sketches and drafts to publication, to reveal the improvement or deterioration through successive editions, and to allow us to perceive how its reception has formed our present understanding.

It is clear from the review that I thought this multiplication of versions a good thing. I did deplore the parsimonious habit of printing the more interesting versions as variant readings in small type at the back of the book, with the verse run together as prose. What I called an “imposture” for a critical edition was precisely the impression given of a single, clean, definitive text in large type. Amory seems to have taken umbrage as if I had been calling his colleagues frauds and imposters. They do not need his defense, and I should be surprised if many of them welcome it.

I was interested in observing that, of a minority of works for which the most interesting verson is the earliest one, a surprising number are to be found in the early nineteenth century. An editor of these texts who prints only what the author at the end of his life wished the public to see does both public and author a disservice.

Why does Amory think I represent myself “romantically…as a lone creative voice in a world of mechanicians” when I was celebrating the recent scholarship that has made so much new material available and, as I said, has transformed our view of Romantic style? His misinterpretation of my review is the kind that gives rise to cheap jibes about bibliographers being able to do anything with a text except read it. I should have welcomed a letter simply pointing out that the critical independence I expect from editors is more widespread than my review may have implied, and could have added the recent editions of Dickens and Hölderlin as examples.

Nevertheless, Amory is comically wrong when he claims that it is standard practice nowadays to print what the editor considers the most interesting version rather than simply the final one, and it is still less frequent to represent all significant versions adequately even in critical editions for which the publisher charges an unreasonably high price. Neither of the two critical editions of Baudelaire, for example, prints the first version of Les Fleurs du mal, although the order of the poems is very different from that of later editions (the first edition mixes the pictures of lower middle-class life with the more highfalutin poems instead of relegating them to a separate section): you can dig the order out of the variants, but you cannot read the poems in that order with any pleasure. The dead hand of “final intentions” still weighs upon editorial practice.

If there is an omission I regret, it is not having remarked on the excellence of McGann’s commentary on Byron’s poems or on the thoroughness of his scholarship. He does not, however, need my praise. (On copy text, by the way, McGann writes, “the term can be used in a general sense to refer to the editor’s chosen base text or version.” I used this general sense since present discussion of copy text derives directly from the old quarrels of editors of classical texts about how faithfully to follow the best manuscript, and this can have no bearing on “final intentions.” It is only with editing modern works that the two obsessions of copy text and final intentions partially, although never completely, coincide.)

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