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
“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.
Mr. M. H. Abrams and Mr. Morton W. Bloomfield, of Cornell and Harvard respectively, are more briefly and bluntly self-defensive. They are “surprised” at Lewis Mumford and me. Are they really to understand that we “believe it is better to make available to the public texts which these authors did not write, or which they wrote only in part?” This sounds as if there were discrepancies as great between the extant texts and those the MLA is preparing as between, say, Laforgue’s softened and polished version of Casanova’s memoirs and the original Brockhaus text that has only lately come to light, or that it had just been discovered that The Gilded Age had been written by Mark Twain in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner—which is a ridiculous exaggeration. Can these scholars of Cornell and Harvard provide us with actual examples of such serious suppressions and distortions?
Other letters from MLA editors seem to betray an uneasy sense of guilt. A long epistle from a “Center for Textual Studies” from a man whom I have never met and of whom I have never heard begins with what I suppose to be meant as a propitiatory paragraph, in which he professes to envy me my enjoyment of spring on Cape Cod—which is actually rather bleak—since the part of the Middle West to which he is at present condemned cannot be said to have a spring. The roses do not bloom out there nor have the lilies any fragrance. Yet his favorite locality, he says, is not Cape Cod but Plum Island off Newburyport. A description of this follows. But in paragraph three he gets down to business. He proceeds to confuse the issue. He believes that he and I are really, as Mr. Gibson believes that he and Mr. Mumford are, in fundamental agreement. He is one of a team of thirty-five scholars who are working on the Mark Twain papers (which I shall deal with in a second article). He acknowledges that this project is “a boondoggle”—the verb is defined in Macmillan’s Modern Dictionary as “to do (and be paid public money for) trivial or unnecessary work.” It seems that eighteen of these Mark Twain workers are reading Tom Sawyer, word by word, backwards, in order to ascertain, without being diverted from this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times “Aunt Polly” is printed as “aunt Polly,” and how many times “ssst!” is printed as “sssst!” It seems that “a careful check on a Hinman Collating Machine” has shown that, in the text of Tom Sawyer, there are not really any serious problems about either the state of the text or the alterations Mark Twain made in it. This boondoggling, the writer of the letter explains, is a natural consequence of a new federal program called “work-study,” by which the government puts up 85 percent of what the students earn by academic work. But who decides the kind of work they do? The MLA acting through the government? The writer does not make this plain. He disapproves of what is being done and has ideas for improving the situation. I hope that I am not violating his confidence in making public the substance of what he has written me; but I take it that his letter is in the nature of an open plaint, and I assume that he would not have been at pains to describe the situation so carefully if he had not been willing to have me make use of the information.
The writers of other letters have enthusiastically seconded my recommendation that an overall library of the American classics should immediately be begun and be put as soon as possible on the market. A typical example of these supporters is a teacher of American Literature from Queens College, New York, who is at present a Fulbright lecturer in Tokyo. She writes me that it is bad enough one’s not being able to get, when one is teaching at home, the works of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and James, but that it is even more difficult and embarrassing not to be able to provide her students in Japan with anything but a few scrappy reprints of the great American writers whom she is supposed to be leading them to appreciate. “Both members of my family and close friends have benefited from the academic editing industry, so I really do know how accurate you are in that letter.”
THE LATEST PRODUCTS of the MLA editions have been Herman Melville’s Typee, edited by three professors, with a fourth as “Bibliographical Associate” and a fifth as “Contributor of the Historical Note,” published by Northwestern University Press in association with the Newbury Library; the fourth volume of the Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, published with the sanction of half a dozen editors, by the Ohio State University Press; and William Dean Howells’s Their Wedding Journey, edited by John K. Reeves, with the support of a “Textual Editor” and two “Assistant Textual Editors.” Each of these volumes is stamped with a kind of official imprimatur: “AN APPROVED TEXT. MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA.” I propose to disapprove, and I shall begin with Their Wedding Journey, which is certainly the reductio ad absurdum of the practice of the MLA. It is announced as the first volume of a forty-volume selection from Howells, but the number on the spine is “5.” Now, Their Wedding Journey was Howells’s first published novel, and it is hard to imagine which volumes of his earlier published work could be made to run to four volumes. This is, in any case, the first step in an operation under the general editorship of Edwin H. Cady, Reedy Professor of English at Indiana University, assisted by an editorial board. This series is to be published by the Indiana University Press. I learn from a publicity handout that this publication of the first of these volumes was nothing less than “a momentous occasion for the entire staff. To celebrate, Professor Cady was host at a party attended by I.U. [Indiana University] President Elvis J. Stahr and other officials. And just to be sure the editors were still on their toes, Mrs. Cady brought forth a festive cake on which was described in pink frosting, ‘The Weeding (cq) Journey.’ The error was caught in far less than five successive readings.” I suppose I understand the joke, but what does “(cq)” mean? It does seem perhaps unfortunate that so many of these MLA volumes should be products of the Middle West.
In the first place, what is the point of reprinting this first novel of Howells at all? It is one of his least interesting books. What, especially, is the point of reprinting it with thirty-five pages of “Textual Commentary” which record the variations of all of the existing texts? We are told in the bulletin quoted that “Howells spelled ‘millionaire’ with two n’s, and sometimes used a comma-dash”—as did many of the writers of his period. What is the desirability of retaining Howells’s spelling of “millionaire” or even his comma-dashes? Mr. Reeves announces in his Introduction that “in view of Howells’ eventual distinction as a realistic novelist, it is particularly fortunate that materials have survived which enable us to trace the process by which he transformed his travel experience into his first successful piece of fiction. These materials are: (1) travel articles which as a young correspondent Howells had written for the Ohio State Journal and the Cincinnati Gazette in the summer of 1860, when on his famous pilgrimage to New England he covered some of the same ground over which he later sent his honeymooners; (2) a diary of ‘last summer’s travels’ (i.e. 1870), which took him and Mrs. Howells over the entire route of the wedding journey; (3) a brief diary of a trip to Niagara Falls with his father probably in the early summer of 1871; and (4) the working manuscript of the novel.” We learn that Mr. William M. Gibson, of whom I have already spoken as director of and apologist for the MLA, has already made “a detailed study of Howells’s use of the travel articles in the early novels. He estimates that about a tenth of Their Wedding Journey was drawn, often verbatim, from these newspaper pieces. Later, when the manuscript came to light, printed portions of these articles were in fact pasted into the text.”
What on earth is the interest of all this? Every writer knows how diaries and articles are utilized as material for books, and apart from a few very exceptional cases, no ordinary reader knows or cares. What is important is the finished work by which the author wishes to stand. All this scholarship squandered on Their Wedding Journey is a waste of money and time. We are told that all nineteen of the people in the Worcester Depot in Boston who appear in the Wedding Journey had been noted in Howells’s diary, but that “several figures in the diary do not appear in the novel.” Three pages are devoted to “Word-Division.” These attempt to show the proper policy for dealing with compound words when they are broken at the end of a line. The editor has to find out how they are printed, with or without a hyphen, when they are not broken up in this way. The “Textual Notes” are meager: they explain quotations and allusions and matters of punctuation and spelling. But in connection with a description of what Howells calls a “conventional American hotel clerk,” who is said to exhale “from his person…the mystical odors of Ihlang-ihlang,” Mr. Reeves, in his notes on hyphens, rather unnecessarily establishes that “Ihlang-ihlang” is to be hyphenated even when it is not split in two at the end of a line, without any attempt to tell us what Ihlang-ihlang is—a perfume or a face lotion? a real product or an invention of Howells’s? and if an invention, a parody of what?
IN MR. REEVES’S INTRODUCTION, there is very little of literary interest. He explains that Their Wedding Journey marks the point at which the Howells who wrote the travel sketches modulated into the writer of novels, and he gives some examples of the favorable comments that the book received when it was published in 1871. It was republished several times and became very popular as a wedding present. I read it in an edition of 1894, obviously intended for this purpose, with gilt edges and a white and gilt cover and with up-to-date illustrations in which the characters wear the costumes of the Nineties instead of the original illustrations in which the ladies wore the hoop-skirts of the Seventies, which are mentioned at one point in the text. I noted that, in Chapter IV, the word “amazement” had been printed for “amusement,” and I looked at once to see whether the textual editor had caught this error. He had. But Mr. Reeves, in his Introduction, totally ignores the fact that Their Wedding Journey was followed in 1900 by a sequel, Their Silver Wedding Journey, in which the same couple, Basil and Isabel March, travel to Austria and Germany instead of to Canada and Niagara Falls. I should think that if there were any reason for reprinting the first Journey at all, it ought to be combined with the second, since together they illustrate the aging of what can be called a happy marriage. The second of them is actually more interesting than the first because it involves a real story and presents a greater variety of American types. Nor is the special importance of the Marches to Howells’s whole work explained. Mr. Reeves does note that the Marches “were found so useful [by Howells] for creating fiction out of his actual experience that he used them in eight more stories at various times in his career.” But why does he not tell which these stories are? And why does he not emphasize that Basil March is to become the central figure, when the Marches are made to immigrate, like the Howellses, to New York from Boston, in one of Howells’s most read novels, A Hazard of New Fortunes?
I have read both these wedding journeys with a mild rather cozy interest of tranquility recollected in tranquility. I myself, at a not much later period—at least one in which things had not yet much changed—have waited in upstate New York railroad stations, made a steamboat trip down the St. Lawrence, on which I bought bead work from an Indian woman, and visited Montreal and Quebec; I, too, have spent part of a summer at Carlsbad and stayed at Pupp’s Hotel and had breakfast out of doors at the Freundschaftsaal, “done” Nuremberg, Cologne, and Frankfurt, and made a sightseeing trip down the Rhine—so I could check my own childhood memories of the early 1900s with the contemporary impressions of mature minds. These “journeys” are also documents on the American consciousness of its relation to Europe. In the first of them, the Marches, who had already been abroad, are constantly looking in America for approximations to what they regard as the superior picturesqueness of Europe. Of the chapel at Laval University in Quebec: “There was nothing in the place that need remind them of America, and its taste was exactly that of a thousand other churches of the eighteenth century.” 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.” But in the later book the Marches are comparing American and European habits and institutions in a more nearly objective and critical way. They do not approve of the German carts that are drawn by a dog and a woman, the lack of heating in German hotels or the hideous militaristic monuments; but they like the once princely parks and gardens now converted into “the playground of the landless poor” and reflect that they “did not know why Goethe should be held personally responsible for the existence of the woman-and-dog team.” Aside from such considerations, I cannot imagine why anyone except dedicated specialists in Howells should take the trouble to read these tepid books—especially at the price of ten dollars apiece as the cost of hyphen-hunting and regularizing the spelling.
THE MLA VOLUME of Melville’s Typee has three professors listed as editors together with a “Bibliographical Associate” and a “Contributor of the Historical Note.” The Historical Note is meager, and it is followed by seventy-one pages of MLA textual notes. There does exist a slight textual problem here that has to be dealt with seriously. The original manuscript, except for one page, has disappeared. The book was first published in England, and the later American edition was somewhat purged in the interests of propriety. Melville afterwards published in New York a new revised edition, omitting, as he explains, certain passages, with an appendix irrelevant to the narrative proper and with a few alterations in style. In 1922, the English publisher Constable began bringing out the now out-of-print but still only complete collected Melville. In this set, the text is different from any other: it follows in general practice the original English text, but in parts the American revised one, and shows some new emendations of its own.
All this did certainly need straightening out; but the editors make very heavy weather of it. What to do about the inconsistency in the first American edition in spelling nouns that end in -or or -our or verbs that end in -ize or -ise? And then there is the great hyphenization problem: “The missing hyphen in ‘married’ at E213-2 [191.34] is also obvious, since the word is not a compound.” I am prepared to acknowledge the competence of Mr. Harrison Hayford, Mr. Hershel Parker, and Mr. G. Thomas Taselle in the stultifying task assigned them (though they do not seem to have noted that Melville’s reference to Chapter 3 in the fifth line from the bottom of page 312 ought to have been to Chapter 4). I am told that these MLA editors are the constant recipients of edicts in which the management lays down to them the principles on which they must proceed in their work, and that they are sometimes as much bored and annoyed as the reviewer is by these exactions; but the project in the case of Typee has been so relentlessly carried out in the technical language of this species of scholarship—of “substantives,” “accidentals,” and “copy-texts”—that a glossary should be provided for readers who are not registered union members—if there are any such readers—of the Modern Language Association. The great Demiurge behind all this editing seems to be Mr. Fredson Bowers of the University of Virginia. I am on friendly terms with Mr. Bowers, and I know that he is an impassioned bibliographer. I have been told that his lectures on his subject are so thrilling that young students often leave them with no other ambition than to become master bibliographers. But I have found no reason to believe that he is otherwise much interested in literature. It has been said, in fact, I believe, by someone in the academic world that, in editing Leaves of Grass, he had done everything for it but read it.
The Historical Note for Typee by Mr. Leon Howard of the University of California is informative as far as it goes. He deals briefly with the interesting question of how much of Typee is based on actual experience, how much derived from other books, and how much supplied by imagination. It is, one supposes, impossible completely to disentangle these elements, yet one would like to have had some checking and commentary by an anthropologist who knows Polynesia. One could not, I suppose, however, expect that the MLA would care to humiliate its Hinman Collating Machine by associating it with a raw anthropologist.
BOTH THESE VOLUMES have the common American fault—Typee even more than Their Wedding Journey—of being too large and heavy to hold and being set with too wide a page for the eye to travel from one line to the next without effort. But the fourth volume of the Centenary Edition of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which contains only The Marble Faun, is the masterpiece of MLA bad bookmaking. I have weighed it, and it weighs nine pounds. It is 9 × 6 1/8 inches, and 2 3/8 inches thick. The paper is heavy and grayish. I first read The Marble Faun, on a plane coming back from Italy, in an English pocket edition from Bohn’s Popular Library, “reprinted from that first published, with such slight alterations from the American edition as appear to have resulted from the author’s own revision”—having read the “New England Romances” also in a pocket edition, also published in England, but imported over here by Scribner’s. This volume belonged to a more elegant series whose format more or less represents the kind of thing I have had in mind for a series of the American classics. It was printed on thin paper and bound in blue leather—size 7 1/4 inches by 3 3/4, weight hardly one pound. Its 713 pages contained all three of these novels. If one made the books a little fatter, one certainly could get the whole of Hawthorne into two Pléiade size volumes. (A “preface to the Text” of this edition states that it will provide “established texts of the romances, tales, and associated shorter works.” What does “associated” mean? Are we not to have the whole of Hawthorne?) But the Centenary edition of The Marble Faun, since it is mainly Mr. Bowers’s work, embodies the spirit of Mr. Bowers as no other of these volumes does. Of its 610 pages, the 467 of Hawthorne are weighed down by 89 pages of “Textual Introduction” and 143 pages of “Textual Notes.” There are 44 pages of historical introduction preceding the textual introduction. We are told in these introductions, in accordance with the MLA formula, that, in the course of writing the book, the author, as novelists often do, changed the names of certain of the characters; and that many of the descriptions in it—as has been noted, also a common practice—have been taken from his Italian notebooks. This information is of no interest whatever. Nor is it of any interest to be told that Hawthorne’s wife corrected certain inaccuracies in the Roman descriptions and otherwise made occasional suggestions, which Hawthorne did not always accept. It has evidently been trying for Mr. Bowers to find that, in the original manuscript, the author had been so inconsiderate as usually to make his changes “by wiping out with a finger while the ink was still wet and writing over the same space.” But the places where these smudges occur have been carefully noted and listed.
Now, what conceivable value have 332 pages of all this? Surely only that of gratifying the very small group of monomaniac bibliographers. I do not, of course deny that the scrutinizing of variants may, in some cases, be of interest. Where a mystery is involved, as in Edwin Drood or The Turn of the Screw, the revisions by the author of his manuscript or first edition may throw light upon his intention. In other cases, the revelation of the methods shown by successive rewritings may have something to teach other writers. “Dernières Pages Inédites d’Anatole France,” intelligently edited by Michel Corday, prints, from an unfinished dialogue, several versions of an ironic passage on Kant that shows him, after the long cogitations that produced his philosophic system, falling back on a conventional view of God. Here a longer and fuller statement is gradually reduced to forty-nine words. And in the volume of the manuscripts of Madame Bovary published by Jean Pommier and Gabrielle Leleu we see that the most beautiful passages that have stuck in one’s mind like poetry—Charles Bovary in his boyhood looking wistfully out the window, the old farm servant at the Comices getting an award for her years of service—one finds that it was Flaubert’s practice to begin with an accumulation of accurate realistic details, and that the poetry came much later and involved elimination of many of these details. The definitive text of Proust in the Pléiade, which I believe cost its two editors ten years of work, is the only text that should be read. The last volumes of A la Recherche were published after Proust’s death and much edited for easy consumption. Here you have these as Proust had to leave them as well as an omitted episode apparently withheld from the earlier volumes, though reference is made to it there, in order to introduce it later on when it would have a more shocking effect. The variants, too, have a curious interest. If the printer garbled something or left something out, Proust did not refer to his manuscript to find out what he had written but filled in with something else. And then there is the case of the Russian writers such as Pushkin and Tolstoy, who were censored by the Tsar’s censor. The Soviets, in excellent editions, have now published these cut or altered passages—though they have made some suppressions of their own in the case of Chekhov’s letters.
Mr. Mumford made a very important point in the second of his letters to the The New York Review in the course of the controversy aroused by his article. He said that we do not want served up to us the writer’s rejected garbage. He had no doubt shuddered at the thought—which is likely to trouble any careful writer—that all his early notes and drafts might survive and fall into the hands of the MLA editors or be handed over to those of young PhD candidates, who could only benefit from them—the brighter ones—by becoming convinced of the absurdity of our oppressive PhD system of which we would have been well rid if, at the time of the First World War, when we were renaming our hamburgers Salisbury Steak and our sauerkraut Liberty Cabbage, we had decided to scrap it as a German atrocity. The indiscriminate greed for this literary garbage on the part of the universities is a sign of the academic pedantry on which American Lit. has been stranded. It requires discrimination to understand the difference in value between, on the one hand, the drafts of an unfinished work by Anatole France exhibited as exercices de style and the manuscripts of Madame Bovary, so long and so exactingly labored on, and, on the other hand, the relation of Their Wedding Journey to Howells’s travel notes and the variants of its reprintings. But of anything like discrimination these MLA editors do not have a gleam, or if they have, they are afraid to reveal it.
(This is the first of two essays on the MLA editions of American writers.)
September 26, 1968