Wednesday, May 30, 2012


     Fredson Bowers and the Abuse of Power in the 1970s: 
    An Episode from an Abortive Academic Autobiography.

But trouble had begun well before, in 1974. . . . That March I arranged to write an article on the Virginia Maggie: A Girl of the Streets for Katz's Proof 5 and by August 1974, during Nixon's last days, I had drawn Brian Higgins in.  I found the textual work not "scientific" but the work of a peculiarly inattentive egomaniacal mad scientist of a 1930s B movie.  Bowers had leaned over backwards in order to justify his preference for the expurgated 1896 edition over Crane's honest 1893 book.  The evidence would have supported only the most conservative Gregian text, but Bowers had talked himself into justifying the 1896 text so that the product was a titivated version of the 1896 expurgation: the mad scientist was reaching for 1893 and seizing on 1896.  Fantastic editorial decisions (such as the deletion of the fat man in Ch. 17) were justified by grotesque literary arguments.  The textual lists were a horror.  Even aside from the fact that they contained far too many unjustifiable emendations and were illogically and inhumanely designed, they were so weakened by omissions and errors as to be totally useless.  The CEAA had tied itself to the great bibliographer who had descended into fantasy, no more capable of riding herd on the expenditure of vast sums of money from the federal government than he was of rounding up and riding herd on a list of variant words.  Idealistic in those days, I wrote up my evidence with the help of Brian Higgins and submitted it to the CEAA in January 1975, asking that the seal given to Maggie be rescinded.  On 4 June 1975 the CEAA Advisory Committee refused to rescind the seal, and I was told in a letter dated 26 June that the Committee felt "that it would be inappropriate for the CEAA to explain for publications its reasons for refusing to withdraw a seal already awarded to a volume." The CEAA closed ranks around Fredson Bowers.  Worse, Katz abruptly dropped the Maggie article from the 1975 Proof then in September 1976 declined to publish it in the next Proof either.  By then, on 11 February 1975, Bowers had written to the director of the CEAA making an only slightly veiled threat: "I am not at all sure of the legal position in desealing a volume . . . .  It is a purely hypothetical situation, but a publisher of a desealed volume might question the legal basis as causing him financial harm and bring suit with punitive damages, which I suppose would be collected, if successful, from the individual members of the Committee, or possibly MLA."  He added: "It should be thoroughly understood that under the copyright laws, this communication is my private property, and that verbal dissemination as well as printed is covered by my rights--indeed any form of reference in anything that could be construed as public."  The foot of a page contained this warning, all in capitals: "CONFIDENTIAL COMMUNICATION.  NO PART MAY BE PRINTED OR REFERRED TO IN PRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE WRITER ON PENALTY OF A PROMPT LAWSUIT." On 3 April 1975, Bowers wrote to John Gerber, who was heading the committee that established the successor organization, the Center for Scholarly Editions:  "In my private and confidential view, the only person I think ought never to be considered for the committee or chairman is Hershel Parker."  The blackballing worked.  I lost opportunities to evaluate textual situations for the CSE as I had been doing for the CEAA. No one would touch the Maggie article.  I thought for months that it would be published in Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography.  The editors promised not to ask [ . . . .] to review it, but they did, before they rejected it.  Fredson had to be protected.

A lot of federal money for projects all around the country was involved--not a lot in relation to one helicopter for Viet Nam, but a lot by academic standards.  Deprived of my chance to work through textual histories of CEAA volumes, I seized other opportunities to focus in great detail on a handful of American masterpieces.  It happened that one of them had been edited by Bowers.  On 10 November 1974 I took on the chore of reviewing Bowers's Virginia edition of The Red Badge of Courage for Nineteenth-Century Fiction along with his 1972 NCR / Microcard Editions The Red Badge of Courage: A Facsimile Edition of the Manuscript.  I had made one of my casual notes in 1972 that I should reconstruct the manuscript of The Red Badge of Courage (as far as possible) and read the book that way.  I had not gotten round to it.  Now, after a time, I focused on what was wrong with Bowers's facsimile edition of the manuscript.  This elaborate, enormously expensive book, I soon realized, was not a facsimile of "The Final Manuscript."  It contained in sequential pages a facsimile (some edges carelessly cut off in the photographing) of the pages of the manuscript which Crane had given to a friend and which had ended up at Charlottesville.  It was a facsimile of the portion of the manuscript which was at Virginia--the greater part of the whole manuscript, some of which survived elsewhere and some of which was lost.  Not in sequence at all but relegated to the back by Bowers were the surviving pages of Chapter 12, the longest and by all odds the most crucial chapter in the book.  These pages were mislabeled "Discarded Chapter XII," instead of something like "Surviving Portions of Chapter 12." When the book had been the manuscript Crane was trying to sell, Ch. 12 had followed Ch. 11 and preceded Ch. 13.  It had been an integral part of the manuscript.  It was typical of Bowers, who tended to fixate on later texts and work backward from them, not to realize that the value of a facsimile edition of the manuscript would lie in presenting all the known leaves of the final manuscript in sequence, whatever institutional or private library they happened to come to rest in.  In terms of textual theory, he was more or less systematically abandoning the wise council of W. W. Greg and reverting to the advice of Ronald S. McKerrow, taking any excuse to adopt readings from a late text.  What this showed, ultimately, was a predisposition to ignore the creative process.

In November 1975, for one of the most ecstatic two hour stretches of my life, I read the first 11 chapters, then read the surviving parts of Ch. 12 and whenever possible fill out gaps with portions of the fortuitously surviving rough draft, so as to get an idea of the lost content, then read what had originally been numbered 13, and so on to the end reading the original words whenever they survived.  Fleming's self-delusion and vainglory was consistent throughout the book.  If what Crane wrote had been printed, there would have been no controversy over the young man's courage or cowardice: the text was so mangled as to be uninterpretable in any final way.  I said in the review: "This rather motley and slightly incomplete reconstruction, I wager, would be the best possible basis for New Critical demonstrations of the unity of the novel--the sort of essays which have been lavished upon mere reprints (or reprints of reprints) of the Appleton text, a text which reached its final form as the result of omissions so hasty and ill-conceived that several passages still depend for their meaning upon passages which were excised."  After I had read Red Badge almost as Crane wrote it I went back into an undergraduate class at USC and confessed that I had taught it wrong in the last class.  Sitting on the corner of the desk, a triangular tear in what a librarian called my Viet Cong pants, I passionately explained how Crane meant the title to be understood.  It was a remarkable fifty minutes, the first time anyone in the world had taught The Red Badge of Courage from the text Crane had tried so long and hard to get into print.  In the evaluations two students said I was incompetent because I had admitted not knowing how to teach a book and had taught it again.  Well, after Kent State all standards had been thrown out the window, but I would continue to teach passionately.

When published in the March 1976 Nineteenth-Century Fiction, my article contained as a final zinger my new student Henry Binder's discovery that, on the most mundane level, Bowers had faked an essential CEAA requirement, a Hinman Machine collation of first and last texts of the Appleton edition.  On 8 April 1976 Bowers wrote "Dear Parker": "if I hear of any further innuendoes about my expenditure of NEH funds, and the ethics of my work, you will be hearing from my lawyer in the matter of libel, and so will any journal that prints such remarks.  I am in fact reserving action on some statements made in this review."  He sent a copy to the editor, who scoffed at the threat.  Fredson Bowers, the most famous American bibliography of the time and at his best a brilliant expositor of copy-text theory, had become a slovenly researcher willing to fake research, a pompous, idiosyncratic literary critic, and a vehement bully who silenced critics by threats of lawsuits and who intimidated colleagues into acquiescing while he silenced genuine literary criticism. 

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