Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Scholarly Editor as Biographer

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Scholarly Editor as Biographer

Article excerpt

Of the sub-disciplines practiced in and around departments of literature, scholarly editing looks to be one of the few with an empirical foundation. To some extent this is true: scholarly editors do gather and analyze physical evidence, and they present it in the form of facsimiles, variant tables, diagrams, and lists of emendations. Much of the theoretical writing published by editors has an empirical cast, often concerning itself with the rules by which textual evidence should be interpreted. And certainly we appear to be empiricists to those outside the humanities - a perception that many of us welcome. It is almost uniformly believed by those who control the budgets of American universities that truth can best be apprehended through empirical methods. Thus scholarly editors, however low their stock might sink at MLA-style conventions, are at least able to explain to their deans how they marshall and deploy evidence and why their work has utilitarian importance.

In this essay, however, I should like to suggest that scholarly editing is not, at base, an empirical pursuit. Certainly it has empirical features, but fundamentally it relies on intuition and imagination much more heavily than it does on analysis of evidence. At its very center, I believe, scholarly editing is an exercise in biography - one of the most famously slippery and difficult-to-define varieties of writing. What scholarly editors do as they analyze their variants is in fact to practice biography. They construct in their minds a conception of the author's creative personality that will undergird all that they, as editors, wish to do to the texts.

Scholarly editing, like biography, is an attempt to recapture and describe moments of behavior from the past. The two pursuits employ many of the same techniques and much of the same data, and both can be hobbled by too little (or sometimes too much) information. The biographer and the editor ask essentially the same questions: Why did my subject behave in this way? Did he really do what he appears to have done, or is the evidence incomplete - or misleading? Did her decisions spring naturally from her personality and prejudices, or was she under heavy influence from others? Was he prevented from taking action or speaking out by social or legal constraints? Did she want matters to turn out as they did, or did she acquiesce from inertia or weariness or a sense of helplessness?

Biographers ask these questions about a great range of behaviors involving childhood, upbringing, education, marriage, finances, sexual preference, political allegiance, and public success. Scholarly editors focus more selectively on the composition and publication of literary works, but their investigations still impinge heavily on the areas just mentioned. This is natural: editors must have in their minds fully fleshed-out portraits of their authors as they attempt to reconstruct what the authors did or how they felt about the works that were passing into print.

I would like to suggest further that what scholarly editors do is more inductive than deductive. Ideally editors begin by examining the evidence dispassionately and developing sets of conclusions about authors' composing methods and their attitudes toward collaboration and interference from others. But in fact few editors begin with a blank slate: most of them already have preconceptions about their authors, notions taken from biographers and critics who have come before. Such notions cause editors to view the evidence, from the beginning, in a slanted way. Or perhaps editors want to strike out in new directions, reassessing their authors' views on the compositional process and the publishing industry. In these cases editors act as revisionist biographers, arguing (from new facts, if available) that their authors were not the people that previous biographers and critics thought them to be.

Sometimes the process is almost entirely inductive because editors decide ahead of time how they wish to edit a given text. …

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