Saturday, March 19, 2011
The Living and Even Posthumous Power of Fredson Bowers
On 1 January 1994 my diary shows that I devoted some hours to “tcb” (after all, Elvis’s birthday was only a week away): “ . . . Wrote A&EB letter after 5 years. . . .” Actually, it was after more than 4 years, since 21 November 1989. I also wrote to the President and to the Provost of Northern Illinois University, appealing to them on the basis of my years as an Illinois taxpayer. This letter resulted in the discovery at A&EB of the long-lost 1989 letter, but in the end the editors substituted a new letter which was printed in an issue in 1994 (although dated 1992); I received my copy 14 October 1994. Then an American textual publication asked to see the MAGGIE article but decided to pass on it: Bowers was still too hot to handle. On 15 December 1994 I received a letter from Brian McMullin of Monash University, a man universally known for formidably heroic honesty and profound scholarly insight and besides all that the powerful editor of the BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY OF AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND BULLETIN. On 31 October 1995 I received the issue containing the MAGGIE article, Vol. 19 (Third Quarter, 1995), 131-166, and 300 offprints, since I wanted to mail out many of them in the United States.
The publication of the MAGGIE article in the mid-1970s might have inspired all the CEAA and then the CSE editors to rethink their workshop procedures and to rethink their application of Greg’s rationale of copy-text to their particular textual situations. It would have affected the course of textual theory, I am sure, although it would have come at the moment when the look-ma-no-sweat forces were organizing to exalt the James Thorpe theory that whatever was published ought to be what we read. (The great appeal of this theory was that you did not have to look at a manuscript if you had a printed text.) It might, coming that early, have influenced the direction of criticism on Stephen Crane. It certainly would have let two universities know that I and Brian Higgins had not invented our work on an article that went from being listed on our annual reports as “forthcoming” (since it was written for one particular annual) to being dropped from our CVs after a few more attempts to get it into print. It did not drop out of our consciousnesses: we had devoted months to it, all in all, and it was strange to watch the way people who had read it in typescript danced around mention of it in their reviews of Bowers and other CSE editors. A shadow at the feast, Melville said.
From the experience I learned a powerful literary lesson partly based on remembering what it felt like to be young, tubercular, and unsure how much of a future there was. I came to understand just how tragically frustrating it was for a young tubercular writer to finish and (sort of) publish a brilliant first book and to finish a genuinely great book and not be able to get them truly published and read. He wanted his out-bring to be brought out. You can’t go on to the next experiment (for each new work was an experiment) with great confidence when the previous experiments have never been noticed. I came to think of him as finishing little literary bombs which should have exploded gloriously as he was writing and finishing the next, so he would be lighted by the brilliance of the reception of the previous one. Instead, he was working in pitch dark, sick, and vulnerable to pressures, such as the powerful opinions of “The Talented Ripley Hitchcock.”