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Alexandra Haehnert | Editorial Theory, Fall 2014 | Dr. Per Henningsgaard

Essay #1: The Role of the Editor and the Ideal Text TANSELLE, ZELLER, PECKHAM, AND SHILLINGSBURG “Scholarly editors may disagree about many things, but they are in general agreement that their goal is to discover exactly what an author wrote and to determine what form of his work he wished the public to have”—thus begins Thomas Tanselle’s 1976 essay “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention” (167). The editor’s “goal,” her functional role in relation to the author and the text—and, therefore, her answer to the question ‘What is the ideal text?’—is what this essay shall revolve around. I will illustrate the twists and turns of what this question entails, and the variety of responses it generates, by putting into conversation with Tanselle selected contributions to the field of textual scholarship by Hans Zeller, Morse Peckham, and Peter Shillingsburg. I will take Tanselle as a point of departure from which the other theorists diverge.1 The following short section will lay out what I believe to be the most important assumption in Tanselle—an author’s work exists as an integrated whole; an editor must be familiar with the author’s oeuvre to make critical judgments on what the author intended this integrated whole to be. I will then introduce the other critics’ points of view and contrast those with Tanselle’s central conception of the editors’ role. I will


This is solely based on the fact that Tanselle is most closely aligned with the longstanding (some might say hegemonic) Greg-Bowers school of textual scholarship; there is neither a chronological basis to the structure of my essay nor one that would immediately reflect my preference for one approach over another.

also put them in conversation with more particular arguments in Tanselle’s article in order to show the differences in their approaches.2

The Eclectic Text, Authorial Intent, and Tanselle The principles introduced in W. W. Greg’s “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (1950/51) and further refined by Fredson Bowers had become, “by the third quarter of the twentieth century, . . . the dominant mode of Anglo-American textual criticism”: “the copy-text school of eclectic editing designed to produce a reading clear-text whose features were a fulfillment of authorial intentions” (Greetham 334–35). The versions produced under these principles derive their authority from a critical, a learned, inference about what the author would have wanted to present to the public, a version purged, as much as possible, of ‘contamination’ introduced during the work’s previous editorial and production history. It rests on the distinction between, the divided authority of, ‘accidentals’ and ‘substantives.’ Texts edited with these guiding principles result in a version of the work that has never existed before, a version thought to approximate as closely as possible the work as such. Tanselle, in “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention” (1976), responds to the emerging criticism of the basic assumptions of this strain of editorial theory by interrogating the meaning of ‘final authorial intention’ in a manner more systematic than his predecessors (he explicitly mentions Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional 2

Another preliminary: for reasons of space, I cannot offer exhaustive readings of the individual scholars’ articles (and I assume the reader is sufficiently familiar with their central tenets). While I will try not to be reductive in showcasing their standpoints, I will focus on specific aspects of their work that to me seem most pertinent to their conception of the role of the editor and the ideal text.


Fallacy” [170]). He concedes that interpretations of a text independent of the author’s intentions are possible; the possible multiplicity of interpretations, however, makes him reject the New Critics’ assumption that a text “embodies a determinate meaning” (177). Yet he curiously doubles back: it is “the work itself [that] provides the best evidence of the author's intended meaning” (179, my emphasis). I mean to suggest that Tanselle, while granting divergent interpretations, still conceives of the work as a choate entity, even though, in a sense, he as editor—by a close reading of “the very text which is the subject of his inquiry” (179)—has yet to bring into the world the ‘work’ that he speaks of.

The Question of Author Revisions: Tanselle and Zeller As concerns nonauthorial changes, Tanselle distinguishes between changes made in the process of “true collaboration” (191) and changes to which the author merely “acquiesced” (190). The textual scholar must employ her knowledge about the text’s history to make a judgment about which category changes fall into and subsequently purge the text of the contaminations of latter category. The Swiss textual scholar Hans Zeller, in “A New Approach to the Critical Constitution of Literary Texts” (1976), approaches this issue from another perspective: At the outset, he regards as “authorised those manuscripts which the author worked on himself, or which were demonstrably commissioned by him” (260); even when the author overlooks type-setting and other errors, those “need not necessarily remain unauthorised from the ‘second generation’ on, and do not by their original nature alone entitle the editor to emend the text” (257).


By contrast, Tanselle argues that versions with such uncanceled variants “do not reflect the essential nature of the work itself” (205, my emphasis). Tanselle also puzzles over “cases where the editor faces alterations unquestionably made by the author but must still decide which readings represent the author’s ‘final intention’” (Tanselle 170)—Zeller addresses this dilemma by doing away, quite radically, with the concern about ‘finality,’ which to him implies a teleological understanding of the work (242), acknowledging instead that author intentions change over time and that even minute changes to the text result, essentially, in a new version. He poses the question of “whether the sum of authoritative readings [in the accept-ordiscard process of eclectic editing] yields an authoritative text” and embodies his larger editorial philosophy in the rhetorical question, “Should not the authority of a text be considered to extend equally to the texture of the text, to the relationship of its elements to one another and to the whole” (237)? Instead of an eclectic reading text, then, he proposes the editor strive for a “diachronic” representation of the text’s various versions (244). For Zeller, ‘contamination’ consists of enmeshing one version’s fabric with another (244), and he deems creating a new text reflecting the unadulterated intentions of the author “unhistorical” (248)—a clear countercharge to the eclectic text method. Zeller takes a decidedly historical approach to editing. He sees no way to reliably judge an author’s intention (246); instead, he shifts the focus to authorial practice, which is observable. This approach locates authorial intentions not as an inferential, unchangeable ideal but in the empirical ‘factuality’ of authorial process. To a degree, then, Zeller—for want of a better word—humanizes the author: she is no longer an 4

exalted being but somebody who works, who reworks, whose ideas and whose practices are in flux. At the same time, he significantly restricts the editor’s interpretative authority, recommending changing only what can clearly be shown to not be authorized revisions.3 While Zeller does not explicitly put forth a concrete methodology for editorial work, his article implies that the ideal edition would present the reader with a multidimensional historical edition that takes note of any variant in the revisions process that is not nonauthorized (one gets an idea of what that would look like in his examples). Zeller does not indicate how to detect nonauthorized alterations, however, and thus seems to ultimately fall back on inferential reasoning as well. While Zeller does take a step back from reifying the author’s intentions, he still makes assumptions about the author’s ad hoc decisions: ‘The author must have liked this misprint as he sat down to revise his work, since he didn’t restore the original.’ Shillingsburg points out the problems of this approach and remarks that “Zeller was unhappy with the result of his own recommendations—as well he should be” (Gutenberg 170). He goes on to quote Zeller himself writing in 1995 that with specific texts, “the corruptions are so blatant and scandalous that one would hesitate” to implement the principles he had proposed (qtd. in ibid. 170).4



On this point, one might (simplistically) posit that of the adherents of the Greg-Bowers school, Zeller is most in accord with Philip Gaskell, who proceeds from the notion that authors expect their spelling to be normalized by their publishers and generally endorse their emendations; he therefore recommends taking the first edition as copy-text rather than the manuscript (339–40). Shillingsburg is quoting from Zeller's article "Structure and Genesis in Editing: On German and Anglo-American Textual Criticism," collected in Contemporary German Editorial Theory,


Literary Hagiolatry: Peckham Morse Peckham, writing his “Reflections on the Foundations of Modern Textual Editing” in 1971 (before Tanselle’s and Zeller’s articles appeared), approaches the question of the editor’s role from a radically different perspective. Instead of proposing an alternative methodology, his essay is concerned with questioning the underlying assumptions of the Greg-Bowers school of editing. His critique is systematic, aligned with the vocabulary of behavioral studies, and it addresses issues that would later be taken up on a larger scale with the rise of literary theory. Where Zeller proposes the locus of authorial intention to be in the area of authorial practice, Peckham calls into question the basis for any assumption of authorial intention at all. Authorial intention for Peckham, in short, is the product of the interplay of various well-regulated behavioral patterns (the author’s, readers’, editors’) that revolve around mediating and sanctioning the author’s divergences from cultural norms, which we translate into ‘creativity’ (148–55). The author, according to Peckham, is “a function of the human communicational system” (144) whose existence is “cultural and semiotic”; the author is not an “unchanging entity, . . . a fixed monad who emanates ‘works’” (138). Authorial intention, as understood by Tanselle and other proponents of the Greg-Bowers school, is created only in the moment we decide that we are reading An Author’s Creation.

ed. Hans Walter Gabler, George Bornstein, and Gillian Borland Pierce (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995), 95–123.


Zeller’s objection to the eclectic text method, as I have described, is grounded in methodological concerns. Peckham echoes these—“the subsumption of the group of versions under ‘work’ is a linguistic process, not a non-linguistic or empirical observation” (127)—but he extends his objection into a more fundamental theoretical debate: the editor “is making judgments about the relation of the versions to a postulated work,” a version that does not and has never existed but can only be constructed (127, see also 151). This practice, like the assumption of the author as “a fixed monad” and exalted creative being, Peckham decries as “literary hagiolatry” throughout his article. The notion of literary hagiolatry in practice is well illustrated by considering a specific passage in Tanselle that I have expressed concern with before. Tanselle distinguishes between treating texts as historical artifacts and as literary creations, editing them as documents on the one hand (letters, diaries, etc.) and literary works on the other hand (203–06). Works edited as historical artifacts, he argues, need to keep everything in place (205), which seems to accord with Zeller’s empiricist historical conception of the editor’s task. Tanselle proposes, however, that “the fact that Emily Dickinson did not ‘intend’ [for many of her poems to be published] does not alter the basic nature of the material and automatically convert into notebook jottings what would have been called poetry if published” (206). That is, despite the fact that there is no indication Dickinson intended to publish her poems, Tanselle recommends treating them as though she did (in Peckham’s terms, looking at Dickinson’s “utterances” [her writings], Tanselle judges them to form a “discourse” [literary output]). Peckham elucidates Tanselle’s somewhat inadequate, circular logic: “Once [the editor] accepts 7

the author as canonical he is condemned to giving all that author’s discourses the same status”; since Dickinson’s notebook inscriptions “manifest the stigmata of creativity” (150), Tanselle can view them as literary and ignore what for him is the guiding principle of authorial intent. In his concluding remarks Peckham posits a hypothetical edition that records all textual variants (again, we can detect here a vague relation to Zeller). While such an edition might not do “much that the literary scholar will thank him for . . . the production of versions of a postulated text is the best historical evidence we have for the fine grain of human behavior,” evidence that is “so rich and so exquisitely revealing” (154). At the same time, Peckham warns that any editor must be wary of the methodological choices he makes and recognize them as “consequence[s] of his own unavoidable cultural ethnocentricity” (155). While practically, Zeller occupies a position somewhere between Tanselle and Peckham, his concern is still fundamentally technical (like Tanselle’s); Peckham, by contrast, opens up a more thoroughgoing theoretical interrogation of editorial practice. I chose to discuss Peckham at this point in the paper because, even though his essay is an incisive challenge to editorial principles rather than a contribution to methodology, his article refutes many of Tanselle’s basic assumptions, overlaps to a certain extent with Zeller’s, and anticipates Shillingsburg’s.


Contextually Aware Editing Practices: Shillingsburg Peter Shillingsburg’s thinking is very much indebted to Peckham,5 who posits that “there can be no ‘best’ or ‘definitive’ edition. There can only be a best or definitive edition for the purposes of a constructed class of readers” (129). This goes to the central argument of Shillingsburg’s “The Autonomous Author, the Sociology of Texts, and the Polemics of Textual Criticism” (1991). He responds to the various voices, which by the time of his writing had swollen into a loud chorus, leveling critiques against the GregBowers orthodoxy. Rather than negotiate, as Peckham did, the intricacies of the assumptions that dominated editorial theory until the rise of deconstructionist literary theory, he accepts the counterarguments that have been brought forward and proceeds from the notion that “there cannot be objective, nonideologically-based [sic] uses of texts” (23). Subsequently, he suggests that instead of arguing about the objective truth-value of our assumptions, editors can test the success of their implementation by whether it generates a coherent reading of the text (24). His recalibration of the editor’s task prompts the editor to ask, ‘Is my method coherent?’ rather than ‘Is my method accurately representing the truth of the text?’ Therefore, then, different approaches to critical editorial work need not be mutually exclusive; they merely depend on “the context of the discourse” the editor embeds herself in (24). Editors, according to these different discourses, merely shift textual


Indeed, all of Shillingsburg’s writings that I surveyed in preparation for this paper include explicit references to Peckham’s article.


authority from one locus to another (be it the author, the production process, the textas-such, etc.) and hence “proceed to edit in such a way as to fulfill the dictates of that authority” (25). No one approach will ever comprehensively satisfy all the questions raised by engaging in textual scholarship; the goal of establishing “a single finishedproduct text” will remain futile (26). Tanselle, as I mentioned, concedes that a readers take different interpretations away from a work, depending on their context, but he makes no similar acknowledgement in reference to the editor’s work. In emending texts according to one set of principles, Shillingsburg cautions that editors might not be “sufficiently aware of the influence of the contextualization they are using to determine the meaning that identifies the textual anomaly as a demonstrable error” (29) and of “the way any single-text edition of [a] book is capable of distorting it and hiding its possible meanings by privileging one context over others as the determiner of meaning” (39). Therefore, I would argue that Shillingsburg adds to the discussion of the role of the editor, in much more explicit terms than Peckham did, an imperative to be self-aware and -reflexive; she has to comprehend the limits of her undertaking, and understand that her edition enriches the conversation about the work but does not, or should not, define it. Shillingsburg neither firmly divorces himself from any one set of methodological principles nor is he strictly wedded to a particular one. If anything, his thinking revolves around the text’s ultimate indeterminacy and a belief in the illuminating powers of a variety of editions, seen in its entirety. The sheer multiplicity of editorial approaches that can be exercised with a given work, in fact, speaks to “richness rather than . . . corruption,” “richness, not purity” (40) in the material the editor sets out to work with. 10

This sanguine, conciliatory outlook allows for a proliferation of meaning (or meaning-making), as has become obvious. Yet I cannot help but feel that Shillingsburg’s argument, in one way or another, puts a halt to the conversation about best practices; the terrain between laudable inclusiveness and intellectual laziness is treacherous and slippery.

Conclusion My discussion has shown different manifestations of the idea of the ideal text: a postulated, metaphysical entity that needs to be recovered (by constructing it) in Tanselle, and a diachronic representation of its various incarnations in Zeller. Interestingly enough, Peckham began to erode the idea of the ‘ideal’ text several years before either Tanselle’s or Zeller’s articles appeared in print. Given the abstract level at which he is arguing, I think Peckham’s argument is impressively systematic and insightful (even though the behavioralist vocabulary may at first appear obscurant); he is also the only one who acknowledges the sway of the idea of the literary canon, an in-depth discussion of which in relation to editorial theory I am still missing. Shillingsburg takes up the problems Peckham demonstrates only to ‘deproblematize’ them. While I cannot think of any viable alternative to Shillingsburg’s general proposition (indeed, in theory, I should welcome and embrace it), I hope scholars will continue to grapple with the question of what makes a good textual critic and what makes a well-edited text. Then again, best practices reveal themselves in practice, so perhaps we should suspend theoretical discussions for now, until we come upon a text


so intractable, so astonishingly multilayered, that no existent theory can successfully grapple with it.


Works Cited Cohen, Philip, ed. Devils and Angels: Textual Editing and Literary Theory. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1991. Cohen, Philip, and David H. Jackson. “Notes on Emerging Paradigms in Editorial Theory.” Cohen 103–23. Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New York: Oxford UP, 1972. Rpt. New Castle: Oak Knoll, 1995. Greetham, D. C. Textual Scholarship: An Introduction. New York: Garland, 1992. Greg, W. W. “The Rationale of Copy-Text.” Studies in Bibliography 3 (1950/1951): 19–36. Peckham, Morse. “Reflections on the Foundations of Modern Textual Editing.” Proof 1 (1971): 122–55. Shillingsburg, Peter. “The Autonomous Author, the Sociology of Texts, and the Polemics of Textual Criticism.” Cohen 22–43. –––. From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention.” Studies in Bibliography 29 (1976): 167–211. Zeller, Hans. “A New Approach to the Critical Constitution of Literary Texts.” Studies in Bibliography 28 (1975): 231–64.


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[Research] The Role of the Editor and the Ideal Text  

A comparison of Thomas Tanselle, Hans Zeller, Morse Peckham, and Peter Shillingsburg.

[Research] The Role of the Editor and the Ideal Text  

A comparison of Thomas Tanselle, Hans Zeller, Morse Peckham, and Peter Shillingsburg.

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