Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Literary Authority in American Fiction.”

11 June 85
Address at the Association of Departments of English, Western Seminar, Jackson Hole:

When Thoreau was off giving a lecture he overheard one of the local citizens ask another: “What does he lecture for?" The asker would have been happy with a simple answer: “$25 dollars and one supper.” But Thoreau said the question made him quake in his boots. He believed in getting his living by loving, and determined to give his audiences a strong dose of himself. This may be the only chance I have to talk to you.

What do I lecture here for? Best I can figure out by collating texts, it's because William Bennett couldn't come. So I wouldn't have got to meet him if he had come, and I've wanted to meet him. Last fall I was preparing an unfashionable talk on the hot topic of the MLA convention-¬-the Canon. Early in the semester I asked the dean how many literature courses a typical Delaware non-English major took and was told, “One.” If I had an undergraduate non-major in a survey class that might be the one shot anyone in the department had at him or her. I became more of an elitist than ever. Then To Reclaim a Legacy came out. So at MLA I told George Farr and Helen Aguera how strange it was to be in Washington, D. C., staying in a big hotel, not picketing anybody, and sounding just like another Texan who was up for a big Reagan appointment.

"What does he lecture for?" Well, the Summer issue of AMERICAN SCHOLAR has a review of my FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS that starts off by saving it's in a familiar genre--quest literature. The reviewer says I am in quest of a perfect copy-text. No, really not--that makes it all editorial. But there's no denying that I have been campaigning for something all the last decade and a half-¬an audience, because after years of editing and testing editorial theory I had something to say. Now, it was hard to get an audience. Too many of my fellow editors still thought soiled fish instead of coiled fish was a classic case of textual corruption and they were still begging for a chance to talk for fifty minutes about variant spellings of alleged and Affganistan and worrying in public about how they were going to deal with that ever-vexing problem of or/our variants. They're still doing it. You announce a program for SAMLA on the aesthetic implications of textual evidence and they offer you papers on accidental variants in the fourth edition of Young's Nights Thoughts.

From my chequered childhood I remember that the Rogue River runs fairly near here. a state or two away. This is near enough to be just the place for a rogue's confession. What a great hideout! I want to tell you how I became a textual editor. I was a high school dropout (if you had ended up there in eastern Oklahoma you would have dropped out too). I got out on a railroad that ran nearby, and became a railroad telegrapher in Louisiana. I got TB. In those days you still got TB. That was also before drugstore paperbacks, so for months I lay in bed (by that time I was in California) and read Shakespeare, over and over, and about the sixth time I read ROMEO AND JULIET I realized that Mercutio was saying something dirty. The realization was not just that Shakespeare was bawdy: it was that even those words in prose were supposed to mean something. Then I realized that maybe all the words in all the plays were supposed to make sense. This may not sound like much to you, but to a Southern boy it was a revelation, and it transformed the way I read. Slowed me down, for sure, but the conviction that words were supposed to make sense equipped me, a little later, in Illinois, to stop dead when I saw the word "nations" in TYPEE and change it to "matrons," and stop dead when I saw the word "argued" in MOBY-DICK and change it to "augured," and stop dead when I saw the word "murder" in THE CONFIDENCE-MAN and change it to "number" and then stop and change "bold" man" to "bald man." (Often enough, documentary evidence, in a source, for instance, can confirm such guesses--I'm not talking about flighty self-indulgent conjectural emendations.) But "stop dead" isn’t always right. You can be so caught up in the reading that you don't stop. I was visualizing the topography of Pierre's mind--mountain and cloud and mist imagery--after the Northwestern-Newberry PIERRE came out, and when I came to "nearer mist" I just scribbled "neather" in the margin and did not think any more about it, just kept on reading. Months later I noticed it, noticed I had spelled the word nether "neather," and told Harrison Hayford so he could correct the passage in the Library of America reprint, and later NN printings.

What reading this way meant was that I had learned to submit myself to the authority of the writer, to be absolutely humble in an attempt to follow meaning, which I assumed was there, so that when the meaning was violated sometimes I was paying such close attention that I was able to supply the word that should have been there. You see why I disagree so strongly with Jane Tompkins and Stanley Fish when they exalt their minds, not the author's mind, into the theatre where textual meaning takes place. I belong to the humble handmaiden school. Is there a nonsexist way of saying that? "Body-servant" won't do. So dropout or not I learned fast enough that while every sentence was supposed to make sense a lot didn't make sense because something had been corrupted. That was easy.

The harder part came years later, back in California, when I began to see that on a grander scale a lot of the texts we read all the time did not make sense or did not make authorial sense. We found meanings as we progressed from page to page even when some of those meanings were not authorial--not devised by the author at all but adventitious, the result of some cut or addition or reordering or other mishap. We were reading a PUDD’NHEAD WILSON where the Democrats who wanted to run the town pariah for office looked like fools afflicted with a political death wish, but they did that because when Mark Twain wrote the scene Wilson had just had a great courtroom triumph and was the town hero. We were reading the Cowley reordering of TENDER IS THE NIGHT where there was a great to-do for many pages about what happened in the bathroom at the Villa Diana when any reader of the Cowley edition knew precisely the sort of thing that had happened in that bathroom. Big phony mystery, it looked like. That's not what Fitzgerald wrote and it's not what he wanted. In the Cowley edition we met two male characters, Dick Diver and Abe North, and recognized right away that they were parallel characters, both on the slide, Abe farther down than Dick but Dick about to gain speed; what Fitzgerald had intended was that we would perceive them as contrasting characters for a long time, then poignantly realize that they were, after all, alike, not different. The apparent meaning in the reordering was sometimes lurid: we watched a screening of Rosemary's movie Daddy's Girl while knowing that Nicole was in the audience--Nicole who had been driven insane by incest with her father. We were reading AN AMERICAN DREAM where the hero's crucial equality with the police detective had been so reduced that one of the best critics did not mention the detective till fifty-five pages into a fifty-seven page chapter, and then only to say that Detective Roberts must be in the book for some reason.

I found plenty of examples of critics who were hell bent on reading works as if they made perfect sense when sometimes they made no sense at all. Every text you hold is a verbal icon, isn't it? It was fascinating to look at critics of PUDD’NHEAD WILSON. Now, as Mark Twain said about one form of that book, it could unseat your reason. Let me just say that what we know as PUDD’NHEAD is part--about half--of what had been PUDD’NHEAD WILSON. It had been a story about Italian twins--Siamese twins (2 heads, 4 arms, 2 legs)--who came to stay a while in Dawson's Landing, south of St. Louis, and who had a wonderful set of adventures. There was a sappy local girl who spent her time reading Scott and had renamed herself Rowena, and she fell in love with one of the Siamese twins. Mark Twain needed a love rival for Angelo, so he invented a local boy, Tom Driscoll, who drank and gambled, and who later on became a sneak thief. Mark Twain had loads of fun with his one-joke book--the joke being that you could never blame the right twin for anything they or he or it did, and that the wrong twin had to suffer for any indulgence of the other. (Luigi got drunk and Angelo had the hangover.) Jealous Tom Driscoll provoked the twin, or one of the twins, to kick him at a public meeting of the anti-temperance crowd, and there was a long trial in which the point of contention was which twin did the kicking. Far, far along in this Mark Twain had an inspiration--Tom Driscoll would be part black and a changeling, and he went ahead and completed the story that way without changing what he had already written. What he wanted to get published, for months, was this thing in which the twins were conjoined and Tom was specified as being part black part of the time. but in which the many pages written early, where Tom was lily white, were never changed to make him part black. Is that all clear?

Now, what Mark Twain published had the twins separated, except for a couple of dozen places where he overlooked references which make sense only if they are conjoined. And Tom was specified to be part black and a slave in certain points, and the reader was left to assume he was part black in the chapters Mark Twain wrote first, but which were now in the middle of the book. Because Mark Twain made money by telling on himself when he published part of the waste material as THOSE EXTRAORDINARY TWINS, Mark Twain critics have been in a terrible bind. Instead of just assuming the formal unity of the text they held in their hands, they had to explain away an apparent disunity. The situation flushed all their assumptions about literature out of hiding. They rose wonderfully to the occasion. One critic leapt in with "what is necessary"--"a thematic analysis that can answer" charges that Twain' s artistry was "uncertain" by demonstrating a coherence that "has too often been denied." One said there is "some fundamental thematic connection." namely "the necessity of the fall of man." Another argued that despite some “a priori” for doubts about the book's coherence, Mark Twain exercised "surprising control" throughout the novel: “When given a sufficiently attentive and unbiased reading, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON reveals a cogency and power that distinguish it as a classic American fable." The "real subject of the novel" is the presence in the New World of a form of feudalism. This is just a sample, mind you.

I had lots of examples of critics falling all over themselves reading unreadable texts, but saying shame-shame wasn't the point. I needed to k now why intelligent people could be driven to make sense out of nonsense. (In my book I deliberately used fine critics to make my points--if I showed Wayne C. Booth celebrating adventitious aesthetic frissons in the Cowley TENDER IS THE NIGHT, people might be willing to see themselves in the mirror I was holding up.) It wasn’t just that critics had been docile graduate students who had internalized the intentional fallacy at first reading. (Well. it was partly that. A younger theorist like Jonathan Culler, who had missed all the bloody battles could in fact internalize it that way.) I didn't know how to account for making sense out of nonsense until Ralph Rader told me about James Gibson and the Cornell group of cognitive psychologists. What Gibson explained was that just being the beasts we are, having senses which are perceptual systems, we are forced to make sense, to rule out anomalies, in order to function successfully. At first I tried to talk to literary critics about the implications textual evidence could have for interpretation. My message was simple: Look, you people, please stop writing your essays about the function of the Preface in BILLY BUDD when that thing that used to be known as the preface was really a discarded part of a late chapter. Or, please stop writing essays about foreshadowing throughout PUDD’NHEAD WILSON unless you take account of the fact that the middle part was written first, when the villain was all white, and was never revised to make him part black, although we come to those middle chapters after reading the last written part, which includes the exchange of the babies, slave and master. Or, please stop writing about the unity of PIERRE when the biographical evidence shows that it had been complete in a much shorter form and was then enlarged in an erratic, self-destructive response to some traumatic events. They did not want to hear, of course. When is the last time you heard a critic asking a textual bibliographer about anything? This exhorting did no good at all except to get people who were determined to write on, say, the unity of PIERRE to accuse me of bad things--of facile biographicizing, as James Duban did a couple of years ago.

The joke was that a biographer and student of the process of composition like me would be the last one to deny literary unity. The drive toward unity was what I was encountering every day; it is what is brilliantly described now by the clinical psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg in EMERGING GODDESS, a book about the creative process. Rothenberg showed that all during the creative process the writer struggles "actively and adaptively to achieve certain goals," engaging "in a task that makes him increasingly anxious as he pushes onward." Though the process "characteristically involves a progressive uncovering of unconscious material with attendant anxiety, the progression is controlled." (Rothenberg defines "arousal boost" as "pleasure derived directly from moderate increments of arousal.") All during the highly conscious and controlled process of composition, anxiety is followed by relief, with "delicate balances between discomfort and relief, attraction and aversion." One of the "hallmarks of the creative process” which "justifies the risks and anxieties involved " is "the struggle toward psychological freedom," a struggle which is basic “to the value and appeal of art” to the artist, freedom attained with the composing and finally the completing of the work. Struggles end with the completion of the work and the freedom (or compulsion) of the writer to turn to the creation of a new work, it being a law of creativity that a writer will usually take up "another creative task as soon as he has finished the last one.” Ironically. the New Critics had cut themselves off from the best possible evidence of literary unity when they ruled out study of the creative process and jibed at those gauche people who wanted to understand it. I'm not exaggerating. Remember the disdain that dripped from Wimsatt's description of the sort of reader who longed to have his heart throb in unison with the heart of the creating artist. (Didn't see many readers like that at Yale after 1955). In the most influential essay on authorial intention in the 1970's. Michael Hancher described three kinds of intention. one kind which preceded composition, another which immediately followed composition, and another which followed composition at some indeterminate future. Only in one footnote did he mention the possibility that intention might be identified during the actual process of composition. Rothenberg and others were showing that it was only during the process of composition that intention counted for anything, because the creative process, like any process, came to an end, ended with great finality, out of body out of mind.

Then I began trying to talk to critics and to editors at the same time, about the need to remember the creative process, and neither bunch liked being associated with the other and neither bunch liked being reminded of anything so tacky. What fascinated me at that time was the way the literary critics who ventured over into textual territory and wrote about Henry James's revisions (that is what they wrote about when they ventured over) were still pure New Critics. They did not mention Wimsatt and Beardsley, but almost without exception (until Sister Stephanie Vincec came on the scene in the late 1970s) they assumed like Wimsatt and Beardsley that in the case of revisions there was only one authorial purpose--James just could not achieve his purpose in 1877 and masterfully achieved precisely the original purpose in 1905. They almost never, until Vincec, took a look at the circumstances of composition and the circumstances of revision. Not one critic of James cited any study of the creative process, not one critic of James cited any authority on human memory. They were doing textual work in a biographical vacuum.

Editors, at the same time, were also working in a biographical vacuum. That's why Fredson Bowers thought he could edit anyone once he had the American patent on W. W. Greg's editing kit, the rationale of copy-text. Reasonable man that he was, Greg assumed that the author's control over anything he wrote lasted as long as he lived and that a responsible editor had to print the text as the author last revised it. The creative process was open ended. Not one editorial theorist tried to justify Greg's rationale by testing it against what is known of the creative process or what is known of human memory. An editor could have learned how easily an author can lose control of a literary work after the creative process is over, could have learned, from Ulrich Neisser and others of the Cornell group, how fallible human memory is, and the ways in which it is fallible.

Fail with two groups, try a third. I couldn't get the literary critics and the editors to listen, so I went for bigger game--the literary theorists. When the Summer 1982 issue of CRITICAL INQUIRY with the theoretical Knapp¬Michaels article called, ingenuously, "Against Theory," I dropped everything for a few days and wrote a response. Phyllis Franklin's former colleague and my former student Steve Mailloux dropped everything and wrote a response. Every metacritic and metatextualist in Florida dropped everything and wrote a response. I wanted to be CRITICAL INQUIRY because I was sure the theorists were aching to have a textual-bibliographer straighten them out. I knew just why E. D. Hirsch had not had the impact he should have had: he'd be glad to hear that it was his deference to the New Criticism that was holding him back--he was too kind to his old teachers like Wimsatt, gave away too much ground, conceded too fast that the author's intention is never recoverable. It wasn't just Hirsch. Show me a new glamor area of theory--reader response, the feminist aesthetic, structuralism, "deconstruction, McGann's new historicism, and I'll show you just what I found in the editors and the literary critics--the same failure to break free of the New Critical distrust of any information about the creative process, the same determination to write in a textual-biographical vacuum.

This little volume came last week--the original Knapp-Michaels article plus responses and their response to the responses, and some after shocks. I got to look at it on the plane. The editors published me and republished me and they are calling me names--what do they mean, I'm a "textual objectivist"?

And the worst thing is that Knapp and Michaels still haven't read me. In their reply Knapp and Michaels say that I believe all meaning is intentional. Folks, the title of my response in this issue of CRITICAL INQUIRY is "Lost Authority: Non-Sense, Skewed Meanings, and Intentionless Meanings." I know you think you are misunderstood too, but something weird is going on. I am regularly misunderstood in all the other time zones. Here is my buddy Jerry Klinkowitz in American Literary Scholarship, 1982: "Parker believes Mailer’s intention for the psychological equality of the novel's male characters changed between his initial composition and final revision, with the result that many narrative passages have been weakened." You know Parker doesn't believe that. Mailer's intention did not change--he had no idea these consequences would result from a little cutting. In the review in THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR John P. Sisk, who doesn't have anything personal against me, who really seems to have a lot of good will, says, "Believing as he does that there can be no intentionless meanings, Parker"-----. "Hmmmmmmm. And how LONG, Hershel, have you sensed that people were misunderstanding you?"

I don't take it personal. It goes to show that the notion that apparent meaning can be unintended, the notion that real aesthetic thrills can be derived from the author's words and still be unintended, is awfully hard for people in this business to comprehend. (Cheap thrills, I call them, because they didn’t cost the writer any effort to create.) Literary critics simply do not want to be told that they have been explicating unreadable texts and literary theorists don't want to be told that they are building their theories on unreadable texts. Sure, some of them want to call a text unreadable, but that's just funning around and being fashionable. The text has to be a verbal icon, perfectly constructed and packaged, if Hillis Miller is going to rip off the cellophane, violently, and deconstruct the icon right before your aghast eyes. But people like that are scared silly when a text turns out to be really unreadable.

I frequently take consolation from reviews in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section and in TLS that discuss the divisions in arts besides literature, analogous divisions between (on the one hand) historical, biographical, textual scholars and (on the other hand) theorists. There is much greater self-consciousness than in the study of literature, it seems to me. I instance the review by Lorenz Eitner in the 12 April 85 TLS of Norman Bryson's TRADITION AND DESIRE: FROM DAVID TO DELACROIX. Eitner complains: "The tone is authoritative, the form relentlessly conceptual, and the content far removed from any historical, biographical or psychological reality." Think how unusual that sort of comment would be in reviewing in American academic journals; it sounds like the very refreshing American Literature review by Jay Martin of Eric Sundquist's HOME AS FOUND, one of the very few recent reviews to demand that a post-Freudian structuralist pay a little attention to history. Even more interesting is Christopher Wintle's review of Joseph Kerman's Musicology in the 10 May 85 TLS, where Wintle deplores the separation of "textual criticism, archival research, lexicography, performing practice, dance and iconography" from interpretation and theory.

Plainly, it's easier for critics and scholars of the other arts to talk about gaps between approaches and the need for what Wintle calls a "composite programme." It's certainly easier for them to talk about the aesthetic implications of documentary evidence, and there is a lot of up-front comment on how textual authority can be damaged. My friend Paul Seydor does wonderful things with textually caused aesthetic anomalies in his book PECKINPAH: THE WESTERN FILMS. Newspaper reviewers regularly analyze the different aesthetic effects that a reconstructed film classic has, or analyze the effects of cutting or merging characters in an opera or shifting scenes about. Even local newspaper reviewers complain about the disastrous effects of cutting a film down for television to make room for commercials and casually talk about the wav the omission of a scene can destroy a character's motivation. You see, they weren't told about the celluloid icon.

I was planning to end my book with a chapter about textual authority in other fields, but I took the easy way out and ended it with a survey of the current practice of theory, in relation to textual evidence. Hardest thing I ever wrote. There's a great challenge for someone who takes on the whole subject of textual authority in all the arts.

So I've been trying in these years to build bridges--trying to persuade editors and editorial theorists to pay attention to the creative process, trying to persuade literary critics to pay attention to biographical and textual evidence, trying to persuade literary theorists to pay attention to creativity theory and cognitive psychology and textual-biographical evidence. I got propaganda pieces into any journal that would take something on the aesthetic implications of textual evidence, whatever that meant, and if I saw a special issue of a journal looming up I lunged for it. I also went wherever I was invited. I talked to an audience of five in San Antonio and the next year talked to an audience of four in Fort Worth. They never asked me to Lubbuck, but I'd have gone in a minute if they had gathered two or three together, and I'd have stopped over at Waco to boot. After I did Berkeley, Toronto, and New Bedford in the same year, out of LA, Michael Millgate said I was just promiscuous--I'd go anywhere. That was before I went to Laramie.

I'm in a curious suspended phase now, waiting for reviews in the academic journals, hoping that FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS will not be relegated to the textual and bibliographical journals. This trip is it. I'm through being promiscuous. The next five years I am going to work on a big biography of Melville. I tell myself I may never read a literary critic or a literary theorist again, and if anyone calls me a metatextualist or a textual objectivist, that person better smile. Out here in Jackson Hole I've learned how to deal with that kind of low talk.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Reading your intro was as much fun as when I got to ask Jaques Derrida why it had taken him 45 minutes to tell us nothing. We amateurs stand on the shoulders of giants.