University of Virginia Library


A list of representative errors, by no means exhaustive, by sound men whom I admire in all other respects will make clear how faulty the texts of novels are, and how little we care. A good editor has put The Nigger of the "Narcissus" in The Portable Conrad, an excellent volume the introductions to which contain some of the best Conrad criticism. But what, one may wonder, is the copy-text for The Nigger? A search through the book discloses two references, the less vague of which reads as follows: "It is from the editions published and copyrighted by the latter [Doubleday and Company] that the texts reproduced in this volume have been drawn" (p. 758).

After a spot of searching the reader can discover for himself that the copy-text for The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is not the collected English edition, which as is well known was Conrad's major concern. The copy-text was an early American publication, which Conrad


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habitually did not supervize. The new critic immediately asks, does it make any difference?

The collected English edition was, as one might suspect with an author who was constantly revising, changed in many ways. This final version cuts down Conrad's intrusive "philosophizing," and corrects Donkin's cockney accent, among other shifts.[4] I yield to no man in my admiration for Conrad, but if he has a fault, it lies in that adjectival "philosophy" which is admired by some, charitably overlooked by others, and condemned by a few as pipe-sucking old seadog-talk. Surely the following, from the early part of Chapter Four, is inappropriate in the mouth of the sailor-narrator: "Through the perfect wisdom of its grace [the sea's] they [seamen] are not permitted to meditate at ease upon the complicated and acrid savour of existence, lest they should remember and, perchance, regret the reward of a cup of inspiring bitterness, tasted so often, and so often withdrawn before their stiffening but reluctant lips. They must without pause justify their lief. . . ." Most of this passage, and much similar sententiousness, were cut by Conrad from the collected English text; but they all stand in The Portable Conrad.

As for the class of books known loosely as "reprints," I suppose that no one expects a good text for twenty-five or thirty-five cents. These books I am not concerned with, but the more serious paperbacks, obviously intended for use in colleges, are sometimes faulty. For example, Rinehart Editions' copy of Pride and Prejudice reprints Chapman's excellent text—but suppresses the indication of three volume construction by numbering the chapters serially throughout.[5] Though three volumes are mentioned in the introduction, this misprinting of such a tightly constructed novel can only be regretted, for the effect on the college reader must be odd.


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What of the publisher of more expensive novels? It can easily be seen that errors are not limited to the paperback field. Consider, for example, the one-volume Scribner edition of James's The Wings of the Dove, dated 1945 or 1946. Here is no scrimping for paperback costs, but the book is not what one would think. It is not a reprint of the famous New York edition; it is another, unacknowledged impression of the 1902 first American edition, dressed up with a new-set New York preface—an odd procedure the reason for which is not apparent. The publisher nowhere tells the reader that this is like some wines—an old text with a new preface. Yet one line of print would have made the matter clear. It is only by his own efforts of collation of the preface and the text itself that the reader knows where he is.[6]

To turn to the errors of scholarship, take F. O. Matthiessen's lengthy appreciation of Melville's phrase "soiled fish of the sea" in White Jacket. Melville's narrator says of himself, after he had fallen into the sea, "I wondered whether I was yet dead or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side—some inert, soiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled. . . ." This section Matthiessen acclaims as being imagery of the "sort that was to become peculiarly Melville's . . . hardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some 'soiled fish of the sea'!" Then follows a discussion of the metaphysical conceit and its moral and psychological implications.

As has been pointed out, the genius in this shuddering case of imagery is not Melville, who wrote coiled fish, not soiled fish. "Coiled fish" stands in the first editions of White Jacket, and to an unknown Constable printer should go the laurels for soiling the page with a typographical error.[7]

Matthiessen's error does not concern me now, but it does concern me that the scholar who first caught the mistake has a strange but perhaps understandable attitude toward textual matters. Recognizing that such an error "in the proper context" might have promulgated a "false conception," the scholar feels that the slip does not actually matter in Melville's case. Furthermore, he feels that Matthiessen's position is essentially sound — he was merely the victim of "an unlucky error." While sympathizing with common sense and professional etiquette, one may still wonder, however, how many such slips in illustration are allowable. Could the critic, if challenged, produce as many


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sound illustrations as one would like? Does not Matthiessen, in his categorizing of conceits, virtually admit that this particular kind is rare in White Jacket?

When we look at the texts of novels from the other way, how many good editions of novelists do we have? How do they compare with the poets? We know a good bit about the bibliographies of Scott, Trollope, Meredith, but those of Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, Hawthorne, and many more are completely out of date.[8] How many collected editions can be put on the same shelf with Chapman's 1923 Jane Austen? "We have virtually no edited texts of Victorian novelists," says Mrs. Tillotson in the introduction of Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954). How slowly we move, if at all.

Take Hardy for example. In 1946 Carl Weber said that "many scholars have apparently made no attempt to gain access to Hardy's definitive texts." In March, 1957, a scholar can complain that "As late as November 1956, sixty full years after the publication of the book, the only edition of Jude printed in the United States took no account of either of the two revisions which Hardy gave the novel. . . . The New Harper's Modern Classics edition . . . [however] is almost identical with that of the definitive 1912 'Wessex Edition.'"[9] One is hardly surprised that Professor Weber is the editor.

Sixty years is a long time, but American literature is no better off. Moby-Dick, our greatest novel, presents no problem of copy-text. Yet more than 100 years went by after publication before we had what a recent scholar called the "first serious reprint," by Hendricks House. Before that, the careful reader did not even know, for example, the punctuation of the famous "Know ye, now, Bulkington?" passage. But how good is this reprint? The same scholar — not the editor — asks us to consider it a definitive edition. His reasons? It contains only 108 compositor's errors and twenty silent emendations.[10] Would anyone make such a claim for a volume of poems?

So much for editors, publishers, scholars. The sins of the bibliographer are mainly those of omission. For well-known reasons he tends to slight 19th- and 20th-century books in general, and in consequence most novels.[11]


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The critic therefore needs convincing that novels should be approached bibliographically. The critic appreciates the sullied-solid-sallied argument about Shakespeare, but not that of 108 typos for Moby-Dick. A false word in a sonnet may change a fifth of its meaning; the punctuation at the end of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can be considered crucial to the meaning of the whole poem; but who, the critic argues from bulk, can stand the prospect of collating 700 pages of Dickens to find a few dozen misplaced commas? Like the "soiled fish" reading of White Jacket, a few mistakes seriously damage neither novel nor criticism. They are swallowed up in the vast bulk of the novel, which by and large (and excepting a few well-known oddities such as Tender is the Night in which case one must be sure which text one is attacking) is decently printed and generally trustworthy. The critic feels that a mistake here or there in the text is immaterial. "It doesn't really alter my interpretation," is the standard phrase.

This attitude has long since been defeated by bibliographers for all genres except the novel. One wonders indeed, if the critic would be willing to make his plea more logical. Could not the attitude be extended to some formula for trustworthiness versus error? It ought not to be difficult to arrive at a proportion expressing the number of errors per page, exceeding which a novel could be condemned as poorly printed.

Amid bad reasoning, there is some truth to the critic's defence against bibliography. The argument can be shifted from the ground of a novel's size and a reader's energy to the aesthetic nature of the novel. The critic is certainly right in maintaining that novels are more loosely constructed, even the best of them, than poems or short stories. The effects of a novel are built through countless small touches, and the loss of one or two — whether by error in text or inattention in reading — is immaterial. Putting aside the counter claim that this truth is damaging to the critical and crucial premise of close reading, surely all is a matter of degree. And what is more, the theory applies mainly to character portrayal. If we fail to recognize Collins as a fawning ass on one page, we will certainly see him aright on another.

That much must be granted the critic. In other concerns, however, the novel may not be repetitive. To give just one illustration: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon as published in unfinished form contains a


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boy whom the reader should compare to the "villain" of the piece, Brady (or Bradogue as he was called in an earlier draft). In Fitzgerald's directions to himself left in his MSS, he says "Dan [the boy] bears, in some form of speech, a faint resemblance to Bradogue. This must be subtly done and not look too much like a parable or moral lesson, still the impression must be conveyed, but be careful to convey it once and not rub it in. If the reader misses it, let it go — don't repeat."[12]

My last and painful reason why virtually no one is concerned with the texts of novels is this: most bibliographers are also university teachers and many of them suffer from schizophrenia. I do not refer to that familiar disease which makes us scholars by day and diaper washers by night, but that split in the man between Graduate Seminar number 520 in Bibliography and Freshman "Intro. to Fic.," 109. How many of us make bibliographical truths part of our daily lives or attempt to inspire our graduate students so to do? In this respect many bibliographers are like socialists and Christians: walking arguments for the weakness of the cause.

Let me give one or two illustrations from experience. Not very long ago I sat in a staff meeting while we worried over a sentence of Conrad's introduction to Victory in the Modern Library edition. The sentence contained the odd phrase "adaptable cloth," used about mankind. It made no sense until it was finally pointed out that "adap-table" was divided at the end of the line in both American collected edition and reprint — a domestically minded compositor was talking about a table cloth, while Conrad was saying that Man is "wonderfully adaptable both by his power of endurance and in his capacity for detachment." And our silly discussion had gone on despite long teaching, and one's natural suspicion of the cheaper reprints that perforce must be used in college classes.

More seriously, consider Dickens' Great Expectations, taught to freshmen at many universities, by staffs composed of men nearly all of whom have been required to "take" bibliography. Yet how many of these teachers have turned to the facts of serial publication to explain the figure of Orlick, extremely puzzling by critical standards alone? One immediately sees that Orlick's attack on Mrs. Joe, which ultimately causes her death, is used by Dickens to pep up a three instalment sequence the main purpose of which is simply to let Pip age. This sequence would have been too dull, too insistent on domestic scenes round the hearth while Pip gradually withdraws from Joe, were it not


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for the Orlick subplot.[13] The novel apparently had to have thirty-six weekly units, and Dickens therefore could not simply skip this period of Pip's life. The figure of Orlick may not be critically acceptable, but he is at least understandable when one views him in the light of publishing history.

I am also indicting myself for not understanding this point; for it was not many months ago that I looked up the weekly issues of All the Year Round and now have far more detail than, as the saying goes, "the short space of this article will permit the discussion of." I was derelict in my duty partly because life is short and bibliography is long, but also partly because I unconsciously resented the editor of my paperback Great Expectations whose job I was having to do.

For I am more familiar with the schizophrenia than most people, though mine takes a different form. With critics I am apt to claim to be a bibliographer; among bibliographers, I proclaim myself a critic.

The critic, one must recognize, can argue on aesthetic grounds against working on the texts of novels. He can produce the tu quoque argument. And he can say that the bibliographer neglects what he is working on. Of 244 articles on textual bibliography in the Studies in


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Bibliography list for 1954, only three were related tonovels.[14] "What has the bibliographer been doing?" asks the new critic.

It may be that under the aspect of eternity George Sandys' Ovid is more important than Conrad's Nostromo or Melville's Moby-Dick, but it would be hard to convince the novel critic of that.