Thursday, March 17, 2011
THE BOWERSY TALES
THE BOWERSY TALES
“GOD MAKES MISTAKES, FREDSON DOESN’T”—A sentence vehemently and frequently uttered by Matthew J. Bruccoli in Chicago in the summer of 1965.
In 1973 or 1974 the editor of Nineteenth-Century Fiction handed me a copy of BOWERY TALES, the first volume of the Virginia edition of Stephen Crane. He did not want me to review it, as I remember. Perhaps he wanted me to find for myself that it had been cased upside and backwards in an outburst of symbolic bookbinding by some honest workman at Kingsport Press, for it proved to be almost unbelievably error-ridden, to start with, and almost unbelievably incompetent in its textual arguments and textual policies. I was horrified at the shoddy work in a book carrying the Seal of approval of the Center of Editions of American Authors, for this was close to the attacks by Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson on the CEAA, and here I saw evidence that could blacken the Melville edition by association. After agonizing weeks of trying to make sense of what Bowers’s crew had done, fighting off 1930s screen images of a mad-scientist laboratory, I decided that the only way the CEAA could gain any credibility was to rescind the Seal it had granted MAGGIE, the principal work in the volume. I wrote to Bruccoli, the Director of the CEAA, asking that the executive committee rescind the seal on the basis of a long article I enclosed. I will have to check to see if what I sent Bruccoli already contained passages written in collaboration with Brian Higgins, who collaborated on parts of the piece before it was first offered for print, in an annual where I had published in each volume. This became the Parker-Higgins MAGGIE article that no American textual journal would publish for fear of reprisals from Bowers. Bowers achieved this with bluster which began with only slightly veiled threats to sue the individual members of the CEAA Executive Committee if they rescinded the SEAL and perhaps even to sue the parent organization, the Modern Language Association. A little later he blackballed me from the successor organization, the Center for Scholarly Editions, although he later denied doing so. Here I put bits of documents in sequence.
Bowers was determined that the public would not know what I had to say about his MAGGIE and that the CEAA never reveal what he wrote in its defense and in denunciation of me. This brings up the great failure of the CEAA. The “vetting reports” from the first ought to have been made available to all editors of CEAA volumes and to all members of the MLA, for they were, at least at first, produced with federal money. By keeping the reports private, seen only by the parties involved and the executive committee, no editors of the other CEAA volumes had a chance to learn from what was being discussed in other editions. This was suicidal. I happened to see what was going on in several editions because I was for a time the most-used vettor, and examining a variety of textual problems in different writers was a powerful fast education. Everyone ought to have had that opportunity to learn.