Thursday, January 27, 2011


Talk at the Air Force Academy 1 December 1995

            I've just come from New York City where I signed books with the only literary genius I have ever met, Maurice Sendak.  These last years, knowing Sendak, I have stronger views than ever about what is now scorned as the solitary creative genius, or the individual literary creator.  Those views will underlie what I say here.

            Some of you have built substantial careers by working on Stephen Crane.  Well, working on Stephen Crane wrecked my career as a textual scholar.  The essay Brian Higgins and I wrote on Fredson Bowers’s edition of Maggie in 1974 and 1975 was never printed in the textual annual we wrote it for, and proved unprintable in the United States, even long after Bowers's death.  That essay was published last month, in Australia.  Offprints have not come, so I brought Xeroxes, which I urge you to copy for friends and students.  The essay on Maggie and my subsequent work on The Red Badge of Courage brought down on me repeated threats of lawsuits, and threats also to sue Nineteenth-Century Fiction and the MLA along with me.  With such threats Fredson Bowers successfully blackballed me from the Center for Scholarly Editions, when he thought I might have become its first director.  Hounded out of textual scholarship, I took what work I could get, and became a metatextualist and literary theorist in Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons. Then I was further reduced to writing a two-volume, two thousand-page biography of Herman Melville, the first volume of which should appear next Fall.  I don't get out much any more, so today I'm going to get a few propositions off my chest.

            The first one involves what I learned about Crane when the Parker-Higgins Maggie essay was so cruelly and effectively suppressed.  The lesson was not a benefit Fredson had planned for me, and not a lesson I wanted to learn.  Having the Maggie essay on our hands hurt the career of my young colleague Brian Higgins, since many months of his work went into limbo.  It hurt mine less, in some ways, more in others.  The worst of it was that I had been trying out ideas in the piece--ideas which didn't get exposed to public reaction.  Thereafter, my career had a great hole in it, so that in my own view its logic, its coherence was reduced.
            If Higgins and I felt our careers were damaged by the burden of this unpublished essay, if we felt from that point that we had done more than the public knew, that our careers were perceived only partially, then what did young Stephen Crane feel after he spent his inheritance in printing Maggie but never got it widely reviewed?  What did young Stephen Crane feel after he finished The Red Badge of Courage then tried month after month to get it into print?

            I propose to you that Crane felt that his most extraordinary literary experiments had never really been tested, so that for months on end he never really knew whether or not they had been brilliant successes or failures.  I had tenure, and Brian Higgins got tenure after our failure to publish the Maggie essay.  Crane did not have tenure.  He did not always have good food and warm clothing, and as month after month passed he was not receiving what he needed: critical responses to his boldest literary experiments.  Everyone waits impatiently for publications, but it is an especially terrible thing for a sick young genius to have his greatest efforts blocked, kept from the public.  When that happens to you, you may agree to do anything an editor wants you to do: better get the work into print, even if what gets into print is not the whole of the work.  As I know from experience, you can't quite get on with your later work when so large a part of your early work has been suppressed.

            My second proposition is about expurgated texts and the definition of American literary naturalism.  Some of you may know that I offered Don Pizer the idea of reconstructing the original form of The Red Badge of Courage for the Norton Critical Edition and that he turned me down.  I didn't have time to do it myself, so I helped a fine student of mine, Henry Binder, do it.  As you know, I edited a special Crane issue of Studies in the Novel so as to showcase Binder's assignment, Steven Mailloux's assignment, and other pieces by my students and by established critics.  Donald Pizer's opposition has been unremitting, to the point that reviewers of his recent G. K. Hall collection on Red Badge have complained about his one-sidedness.  In the intervening decades, we have learned of other works besides Red Badge that got into print in severely truncated forms, notably Sister Carrie, the restored edition of which Donald Pizer denounced in what I was told was the longest review yet published in American Literature.

            The excisions from the Appleton Red Badge were made so carelessly that words were left without referents or without grammatical agreement.  Hasty alterations have left other books riddled with such anomalies.  I talked about such anomalies in Pudd'nhead Wilson, as did my student Philip Cohen.  My student Kevin Hayes did an article on aesthetic anomalies in Sister Carrie.  The excisions from Sister Carrie tended to be patched over, although hastily, but they left incoherencies throughout.  They diminished the characterization of Sister Carrie to the point of making it less comprehensible that she would be drawn to the theatre.  One important set of excisions cut several passages which dealt with forces of nature on human beings--sections that might have been of great use in arriving at a theory of literary naturalism, just as the original chapter twelve of Red Badge might have been.

            In the unpublished Maggie essay, long ago, I said something that is truer than I knew before the Pennsylvania Sister Carrie was published.  Now I will say more emphatically that all definitions of American literary naturalism are severely flawed because in one way or another they have been deduced from severely truncated texts such as the 1895 Red Badge, the 1896 Maggie, and the 1900 Sister Carrie.  That is, whenever Pizer or anyone else has talked about naturalism in Sister Carrie, he has been talking on the basis of a text which does not contain, for example, several passages on the power of natural forces, such as cold weather.  Walcutt, Pizer, and other writers on naturalism have all drawn their examples of naturalistic novelists and naturalistic novels and naturalistic characters from texts that had been toned down and cleaned up for publication.  It may well be that more books (books of enduring significance) were altered by publishers before publication in the 1890's and 1900's than in any other decades--because in these decades several of the most energetic and original young writers were striving to break out of the limits of conventional, acceptable literature.  What we know of Crane, Dreiser--and Norris, and Upton Sinclair--has been what the publishers let the public see.  So any theories of American literary naturalism have been theories of literary naturalism as censored or otherwise screened by publishers.  Is that the American literary naturalism we want to be writing articles and books about, to the exclusion of the literature that the authors wrote and tried to get into print?

            Even after we thought everyone had agreed that we should be reading the 1893 Maggie, critics kept on writing about naturalism in Maggie on the basis of the 1896 text.  In his Norton Critical Edition Gullason uses the 1893 text, but he prints some very recent essays on color imagery by critics who drew all their examples from the 1896 text.  Is there no one who would want to see whether or not Crane in the 1893 Maggie used color imagery in a way that might be considered naturalistic?  Am I freakish in not caring much about what editors let get into print, but caring passionately about what writers write and try to get into print?

            My third proposition concerns the now triumphant notion that the literary text that counts is not the product of individual creative genius but of social forces.  This was a wondrously labor-saving idea when James Thorpe promulgated it in the 1960s and 1970s--labor-saving because you never had to do any textual research and never had to perform any textual thinking: all you had to do was read whatever got into print, because getting into print was what bestowed artistic integrity upon a work.  Now this simple idea has been adopted by Pizer, Jerome McGann, Jack Stillinger, and many others, most recently in such a way as to derogate the very idea of individual creative genius and to celebrate all works as collaborative.

            Fredson Bowers may well have thought he was God, but the more modest McGann is now being treated as God.  In the June Resources for American Literary Study Michael Guemple tries to make "A Case for the Appleton Red Badge of Courage" by reliance on McGann:
                        McGann provides us with criteria we can apply to the editing to Red Badge to show that the Appleton version is the result of Crane's efforts and is thus the authoritative edition. . . .
                        Guided by McGann's criteria in preparing a critical edition, we can conclude only that the Appleton edition is the result of Crane's efforts and thus is more authoritative than the Binder edition.
Black is white, white is black.  The author is not authoritative, the editorially approved Red Badge or Maggie is authoritative.

            The strangest thing about this celebration of the taste of the Appleton editor is that Guemple sees Crane's "development" as manifested in the process of expurgation:
                        McGann signals a resurrection of the author into the world of flesh and blood and frequently helpful editors.  In any case (irrespective of the helpfulness or intrusiveness of particular editors), he attempts to account for the actual development of texts from authorial autonomy and privacy to publication and publicity.  If we turn from Binder's account of Ripley Hitchcock's role in the publication of Red Badge to better documented accounts, we find McGann's model of the development of the text from psychological phenomenon to social artifact to ofer a reliable explanation of what happened.
Without fawning over McGann, thank goodness, James Colvert similarly talks of Crane's development as the final manuscript was changed into the Appleton text.  I suggest that last minute expurgation is not development.  If anyone wants to study development in Stephen Crane's Red Badge, the thing to do is to go to the surviving pages of the draft and compare those passages with the final manuscript.  There's development.

            If we want to talk about the book Crane wrote and the book he tried for many months to get into print, then we have to talk about the nearest thing to it, the Binder reconstruction.  If we say anything about Crane and his book after he finished the final draft and before the late stages of publication, long after the initial acceptance by Hitchcock, then we have to talk about the book as it stood then, the Binder reconstruction.  If you want to know what Crane actually wrote about war, for instance, what he tried to achieve on winter in cold New York City, and what he did achieve, you look at what he completed and what he hoped against hope to get into print, month after month.  Let me read from Henry Binder's eloquent ending:
            In the final chapter Henry reflects on his experiences during both days of battle with the intention to appraise himself. As many critics have pointed out, Henry, from the beginning of the story, goes to war in search of a mature identity, to discover what kind of man he might be. He has had the usual youth’s abiding faith in his destiny, “never challenging his belief in ultimate success and bothering little about means and roads” (p. 12). Aroused in the first chapter by Jim Conklin’s rumor of an impending engagement, he becomes introspective and discovers that “as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself” (p. 13). The Henry who sets off to war looks forward to becoming a “man of traditional courage.” But after he runs from the first battle, he needs, more desperately, a reassurance of dignity, even a false one, and pursues this not by examining his own thoughts and motives but in raging against the “universe.” Conklin’s death compounds his despair; and when he deserts the tattered soldier, he moves into an even more dangerous sidetrack of psychological and social cowardice by betraying a seriously wounded man. In the twelfth chapter, he expends himself in a waste of illusions about world-reconstruction. But for all this, “fate” rewards him with the kindness and help of the cheery-voiced soldier and the friendship of Wilson. In the next chapters, his traditional manhood is established in the eyes of all, and it seems his earlier cowardice will not be discovered; but in the concluding scenes, he has no fleeting thought for the dead Jimmie Rogers; and, never seeming to comprehend the man at his shoulder—a “duty” more fundamental and more difficult than heroism or friendship—his “interpretation” of battle is that “death is for others.”
            The Red Badge of Courage as Stephen Crane wrote it is the story of an episode in the life of Henry Fleming. The final mystery of heroism in this episode is that Henry finds no real identity or selfhood in battle, and his notions of “fate” remain justifications for his own errors, reinforcements for his youthful vanity. The intricacies of each character’s thoughts and feelings in the continuum of the war press along their own paths, perhaps breaching final walls, perhaps not. Conklin is a man before he goes to battle; Wilson becomes one; Henry does not change. From the first, we sense the advancing edge of Henry’s expectations for himself; but as the story proceeds, in the no-man’s land between his wavering self-image and his intermittent scorn and eagerness concerning bravery, there is no footing for a real change to prevail, never an awakening in him to what manhood is, only the confusion of his delusive explanations.
            There's loving criticism.  Last time I looked, we were not holding a conference on Ripley Hitchcock's taste in literature or his wary concern to avoid shocking the reading public.  After 100 years, isn't it time that we trust that skinny tubercular genius instead of Ripley Hitchcock?

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