Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"The Excessive Rationality of Greg's Rationale"

South Central MLA 1983
The Excessive Rationality of Greg's Rationale:
Authorial Intention and the Determinacy of the Creative Process.

I want to begin with the old bibliographical cliché of "soiled fish" and why that single-word compositor's error in a 1920's reprint of WHITE-JACKET had such an extraordinary vogue in textual discussions for so long as it did. Of course the fact that a famous critic, F. O. Matthiessen, on the basis of the typo had been seduced into an extravagant tribute to Melville's unique style had a lot to do with its vogue. But the real reason everyone from Harkness to Bowers made so much of the error was that everyone was acting as if textual corruptions came in the form of single-words, a misreading, a typo, or else a pair of variants. If you search the literature of our field in the 1950s and 1960S you will see that no matter what complex textual situations people knew about, they regularly talked in terms of single-word corruptions or pairs of variants, and they didn't at first have many interesting examples of either. Look at the dull mileage Bowers tried to get out of routine corruptions in late reprints of The Scarlet Letter. We were at the level of saying to the fancy critics (Oh, so much better paid than we were and so much more respected), that, hey, really you ought to pay attention to us, because sometimes you might end up making a little mistake like Matthiessen did.

We were not at the stage, then, of saying, as we now can,for example, that every piece of criticism ever written on the theme of slavery in PUDD’NHEAD WILSON is largely wasted effort because every critic who has written on the topic has assumed that slavery is a theme throughout the book, when in fact some of the middle chapters survive, unrevised, from a stage when race was not a theme in the book at all and the villain was all white; or of saying, as we now can, that every critic who has written on the ending of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE before 1978 had to a large extent wasted effort in trying to criticize something which was cut so it would not plainly mean what Crane wrote it to mean but was NOT rewritten to make it plainly and definitely mean something else; or of saying, as we now can, that the reason even the fine critics of Norman Mailer (and he has had marvelous critics, despite the perversity of some early reviewers) have never been able to do something so simple as say who the main characters are in AN AMERICAN DREAM is just because you can't tell, from the book version, who they are. Now we are at the position of saying, as sweetly and winsomely as we can, that in many cases all literary criticism has been more or less wasted because of a flawed text. (And it doesn't matter how fine the critic is at all—look at the cheap thrills Wayne C. Booth has in celebrating adventitious aesthetic effects in the Cowley edition of TENDER IS THE NIGHT.)

That's very far from where we were back in the 1950s, when no one seemed really to believe that there were, seriously, aesthetic implications of textual evidence--and biographical evidence. For my present purposes, the important point is that back then we all talked about textual corruptions as coming in tiny forms, usually one word errors, and that it was that way of thinking about textual corruptions that allowed us to make scripture of W. W. Greg's “The Rationale of Copy-Text” in the years after its publication in the 1949-50 STUDIES IN BIBLIOGRAPHY. Greg works perfectly in cases of such one-word corruptions. In the PROLEGOMENA TO THE OXFORD SHAKESPEARE, you recall, Ronald B. McKerrow had realized that the first edition (assuming that no manuscript was extant) should be copy-text rather than a later reprint based on it, and he realized that you could often identify authorial readings in later reprints and emend them into the first edition, thereby keeping the first edition's closeness to the writer's' spelling and punctuation and of course keeping the overwhelming number of authorial words but also gaining the advantage of correcting the text at particular points where a later text contained a restoration or an authorial revision. Not having thought through the problem of how to deal with the variants in a late text which plainly contained some authorial corrections or revisions, McKerrow rather haplessly concluded that the editor who identified authorial variants in a later edition had to emend all of them into the first edition, the copy-text, except any which were obvious blunders, such as typographical errors. Greg took a crucial half-step beyond McKerrow by realizing that an editor could discriminate among variants in later editions. Knowing that minor variants in wording will almost always occur in resetting, whether the compositor makes them deliberately or inadvertently, Greg suggested that an editor should evaluate the variants and reject any he thought were compositorial while adopting any he thought were authorial, whether he thought they improved the text or not. The point was to maximize the number of authorial readings adopted, and to take the chance of rejecting some more or less indifferent readings which might be authorial in order not to cram the text with a hoard of later variants many of which almost surely would not be authorial. It was wonderful in simple cases in which the original authorial wording, misprinted somehow in the first edition, was restored in some later edition, by the author or someone else, and it was wonderful when you wanted your text to contain the last revisions the author made in a given passage without straddling yourself with all the compositorial changes that had crept into a late printing.

Perfect in his advice on how best to incorporate authorial corrections and revisions while minimizing the risk of adopting non-authorial changes along with the corrections, Greg simply asserted, without debating the issue, that it is not up to the editor to decide whether or not authorial revisions are improvements but merely to decide whether or not they are authorial, and then to adopt them. Greg avoided, I now see, the basic difference between correction and revision, the former restoring an original intention and the latter embodying what may well be a new intention--one which seldom will take the whole of the work into account. The distinction was not immediately enforced upon the new American editors as an important one, for most people took for granted their agreement with Greg that an author had the right to do whatever he wanted to do to his text and that an editor's job was to present to the reader what the author's final intention was for any text. The inexperience of most of the new followers of Greg assured that no CEAA editor in the early 1960s would immediately identify the problematical nature of revisions as a major sticking point in the application of Greg's rationale. Objections were voiced only hesitantly, or else were briefly raised then blurred by the confused textual arguments which accompanied them. Nor was Greg's essay ever intruded upon the notice of literary critics, and literary theorists, for the rationale was published in the American bibliographical annual and Greg's arguments, in any case, were couched in terms of what an editor could do or might want to do, not in terms of what a literary critic or a literary theorist might do with the evidence behind the editorial decisions or with the product of such editing.

In the absence of serious discussion, Fredson Bowers acted as apostle for Greg's rationale in many speeches, essays, and editions, beginning even before he published the "Rationale" in his STUDIES IN BIBLIOGRAPHY in 1950 and accelerating in the 1960s about the time of the founding of the Center for Editions of American Authors. By the time he wrote the "Textual Criticism" essay for the 1963 MLA AIMS AND METHODS pamphlet he had firmly concluded that the "duty of an editor" was to edit according to Greg, "to synthesize the authority of the revised substantives with the authority of the original accidentals"; that is, to choose the first edition as copy-text (assuming no manuscript survived) and emend into it any words and even punctuation marks from a later edition which the editor decides are authorial. In "Scholarship and Editing" (1976) Bowers flatly asserted the triumph of eclectic editing according to Greg: "Opposition has been voiced to such eclectic texts by a small group of students of American literature who were not brought up under the discipline of textual criticism as developed for English literature; but the idea of a single composite final text as defined by Greg's theories seems both so practical and so rational a benefit to both to author and to reader as to admit of no controversy as a proposition, subject only to the caveat that a few literary texts exist in such special multiple revised forms as to resist conflation and to require either separate publication or the modified form of separate publication represented by parallel texts." In the 1970s G. Thomas Tanselle put his own constantly growing prestige in support of Greg's rationale--prestige built up, primarily, by his unrivaled series of magisterial essays in each year's volume of STUDIES IN BIBLIOGRAPHY. According to Tanselle in the 1975 essay, Greg's rationale of copy-text "would seem to apply to all situations," the only qualification to "its universality" being the rare problem which Bowers had identified as "radiating texts," variant texts all based on identical originals, as in the case of pieces published in various newspapers from the presumably identical proofs sent about by a newspaper syndicate. Otherwise, Tanselle said it was self-evident that Greg's "recommended procedure would serve in handling editorial problems involving manuscripts as well as printed books, arising in twentieth-century literature as well as sixteenth," and of course arising in those situations in other centuries as well.

In the decade and a half after the founding of the CEAA there was hardly any public argument against this orthodox belief that Greg's rationale was universally applicable--it was assumed that it WAS, although Bowers as early as 1963 in the Fielding edition was quietly reverting behind Greg's basic insight to McKerrow's imperfect position, incorporating compositorial and editorial changes from late editions along with authorial ones. Bowers continued to violate some of Greg's soundest principles in the Stephen Crane and William James editions, particularly the latter, where he elaborated a rationalization for repudiating Greg which obviated the need to transcribe the manuscripts. Of course, when I checked some of the holograph for PRAGMATISM in the Houghton I found that the original compositors had sometimes misread James's hand and that Bowers had preserved their errors by not using the manuscript (which HAD been printer’s copy) as copy-text or at least transcribing it accurately and consulting it during the editing process. Bowers's very long 1978 essay on "Greg's 'Rationale of Copy-Text' Revisited" must be understood as part of his ongoing rationalization of his expedient choices of copy-text and his expedient (and McKerrowesque) decisions to adopt far too many variants from particular late editions. Tanselle, more than the late Bowers, has carried the day, and in fact Greg's rationale has not been subjected to much skeptical challenge. I propose a fundamental challenge here.

It is easy enough to understand why Greg would have focused on evidence which could be derived from collation of texts: in his period, the Renaissance, he would very rarely have had much detailed evidence about the circumstances of composition and revision. And it is easy enough now to see why a rationale which focused on the author's ultimate intentions instead of the author's composing process would have found such favor as Greg's rationale did. The timing was uncannily propitious in this country--and it is important to remember that Greg's influence has predominantly been in this country, where it was first read (by someone else, for him) and where it was first published. The beginning of the 1950s was precisely the time when the theorists of the New Criticism had triumphed and the followers of the New Criticism were beginning to publish their explications of one literary text after another, focusing on the product they held in their hands, not on the process by which it reached that form. In practical terms this meant that graduate students were not only NOT being trained any more as biographical and textual researchers but that graduate students in some of the most prestigious schools were being actively deterred from doing biographical and textual research, especially into the creative process. Today it is hard to recapture the sense of disdain toward studies of the creative process which infused W. K. Wimsatt's and Monroe C. Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy.” John Livingston Lowes’s THE ROAD TO XANADU appalled them, perhaps because it seemed theoretically naïve, perhaps because it seemed glibly over¬confident in its dealing with sacred mysteries—perhaps because of other factors hard to recapture now. It is clear that Wimsatt and Beardsley were reacting against a swarm of irresponsible, sentimental, and impressionistic accounts of the composition of this work or that. Their hostility was enormously influenftial. It seems clear that Wimsatt, in particular, through his writings and his graduate seminars at Yale discouraged some of the best graduate students of the 1950s from study of literary creativity. He made it seem so boorish, gauche, and downright tacky that to engage in it must have marked you as unfit to come any closer to him than Bridgeport. I'm sounding a little extravagant, but you can see the results of his disdain in the writings of his student who became the foremost champion of authorial meaning, E. D. Hirsch. If you look carefully, you will see in VALIDITY IN INTERPRETATION a profound reluctance to dwell on accounts of the creative process or to dwell on evidences for authorial intentionality, for what the author must have meant. The dread in Hirsch, I suggest, is almost visceral. The more recent theorists have not felt such a sense of shame at handling a disgusting topic, but it is instructive to see what they do say about authorial intention. Notably, Jonathan Culler, in “Prolegomena to a Theory of Reading” (THE READER IN THE TEXT) rather than being uneasy with accounts of what an author meant, simply and very coolly advocates not bothering to try to find out what authors meant--the evidence is bound to be unreliable, anyhow, and there exists hard evidence much more interesting, the evidence about how readers have read literary works, evidence surviving in great abundance in the form of ever-fascinating critical essays.

We tend to talk about the gap between theory and practice, but in fact there is hardly any time lag between theory and practice. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, almost every critic of Henry James's revisions, almost every critic of Stephen Crane, was acting as a New Critic, although very rarely did a critic indicate that he or she knew something called literary theory existed. Not being trained as biographers and textual scholars. being at times trained NOT to be biographers and textual scholars, on principle. the critics of Henry James's revisions managed to abstract their essentially extrinsic topic from James's life, so that they could talk about authorial revisions as in effect intrinsic evidence, with no reference to James's life as he first composed a work or as he later revised it. It's an astonishing performance. They wrote on James's revisions of THE AMERICAN or whatever without ever compiling a literary log of the sequence of James's literary activities in 1905-1907 and therefore they never asked some of the most intriguing questions about the relationships of texts and revisions. And Crane critics such as James B. Colvert, when they found it necessary to make biographical comments, as all critics do, began to biographicize--that is, to make biographical comments on the basis not of the life but of the work--so that Colvert brutally batters Crane as a failed artist and a failed human being on the basis of the flaws in the Appleton text of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, never stopping to realize that the failures he is condemning have nothing to do with Crane's achievement but only result from what the editor at Appleton insisted that he take out. Colvert is absolutely correct in his analysis of what is wrong with the Appleton text, but cruelly wrong to blame Crane for it. You could show the same sort of thing with critics of the 1950s, 1960s, and later on any other writer you name. With the rarest of exceptions, critics avoided biographical evidence and tended to handle essentially biographical topics as if they were merely critical. So did theorists, including the very influential theorist of the 1970s, Michael Hancher, who in "Three Kinds of Intention" discussed authorial intention before beginning to compose, intention just after completing a work, and intention long after completing a work, but only in one footnote mentioned anything about authorial intention during the creative process.

The bibliographers and editors of the 1950s and 1960s were very much a part of their times. One could--I'm serious--write an essay on Fredson Bowers's affinities with the New Critics. In fact what Bowers made of Greg's rationale was a magic formula for editing literary works even when you were not an authority on the life of the author of those works. The formula made it easy to train many critics and the fewer available scholars to be CEAA editors, when the time came in the mid-1960s. If you were already a biographical scholar of the author you were going to edit, that wasn't held against your chances of learning fast how to apply Greg's rationale, but editing was very often promoted as a skill which any good technician could master and apply to any old textual situation, whoever the author was. Hence the advent of young free-lance Bowers-trained textual editors in quest of a CEAA Edition. Hence Bowers's elbowing aside the Crane specialist who had expected to be general editor of the Crane edition so he could become the general editor himself. Now, I can't say what Ed Cady would have done as an editor, except that he is on record as saying he wouldn't have messed up MAGGIE, but I think one can be pretty sure that a Crane scholar would not have made some textual blunders which Bowers made merely because he did not know the field--did not know that a pre-publication excerpt from THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE had been reported several times, did not read catalogues of collections which listed important letters which the editors of the collected letters had missed, and so on. In many of the CEAA editions the accounts of composition and revision did not bulk very large when compared to the space devoted to hypotheses about compositorial stints, multiple typescripts and carbons, and frequently unprincipled principles for regularizing the punctuation and spelling.

In this period when editorial theorists and editors avoided talking about the writer during the creative process as much as literary theorists and literary critics did, you could still find an aesthetician like Murray Krieger who would discuss the creative process, but in recent years the most valuable contributions have come from the clinical psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg, especially in his EMERGING GODDESS. What Rothenberg shows on the basis of his clinical studies is obvious when you think about it a moment: the creative process really is a process--which means that like any other process it begins, continues, as Rothenberg shows, with varying admixtures and varying sequences of excitement, arousal, boredom, anxiety, and determination, then ends, ends with stubborn finality. The process is physiological as well as psychological, intellectual, and aesthetic, and since the process involves such physical and mental strain the writer tends, Rothenberg shows, to put it out of mind as soon as possible. Many writers are driven by inner compulsion or external circumstances into an immediate repetition of the whole exalting and exhausting process, turning at once to the composition of a new work, often even before the old one is quite finished. We can go to any number of writers for testimony as to the finality with which they end the creative process. What they say (about dreading to look at the work again or hardly being able to bear the thought of it again) comes out to mean the same thing, whether they go at it like Henry James and talk of expelling a work from the mind or like Joyce Carol Oates and talk of the work's expelling her from it. With the rarest of exceptions, writers lose control of a literary work very soon after completing it and can very rarely regain control over it when they want to revise it, weeks or years later. Of course most writers tend to think they can intervene in their texts without disturbing anything except the particular passage they want to disturb, but their later alterations to their texts tend to disrupt their original achievements without achieving any new unity. No matter how sophisticated they are in literary techniques, writers almost never are able to foresee what their interventions into a completed text will cause. They have lost control, once the creative process was passed. And it is precisely this natural tendency of writers to lose control of a literary work once they have finished it that Greg's rationale makes no allowance for. Rationally, rationalistically, Greg assumes that a writer's control over his work lasts as long as he lives. And this seems both modest and reasonable. It's the author's work. isn't it? Who is a mere humble editor to quarrel with Mark Twain for agreeing to drop the raftsmen episode from HUCKLEBERRY FINN? Who is the editor to go against Crane's own willingness to cooperate with the Appleton editor's desire to cut certain controversial passages from THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE and MAGGIE? Yet the modern editor may often identify more accurately the author's achieved unity in a literary work than the author did and will often display more principled respect for that achievement than the author did. Simply because they are human beings, not machines, writers cannot retain complete aesthetic, intellectual, and economic control over every work they write, as long as they live. Greg’s rationale, wonderful as it is in the simplest cases of single-word corruptions corrected later on, is useless in any complicated editorial situation, useless once textual revisions are involved instead of corrections and restorations of lost readings. So I shouldn't have said I months ago that I would talk about the irrationality of Greg's rationale but instead about its excessive, and inhuman, rationality. Greg’s “The Rationale of Copy-Text” simply is incompatible with what we know about the creative process, about human memory, about human psychology, and about what we know that real writers are willing to do or let someone else do to their works, once the creative process has ended.

1 comment:

  1. I have scanned this from a fanfold printout with perforated borders for posting here. In 1981 Stanley J. Idzerda came up to me after my talk in Madison, Wisconsin, saying, "You certainly blew Greg out of the water." I was taken aback, for I was still thinking of qualifying Greg, not refuting him, but in the following months I sharpened my criticisms into this demonstration of the great but limited virtues and the greater inapplicability of W. W. Greg's "The Rationale of Copy-Text."