Scholars and Gentlemen: Shakespearian Textual Criticism and Representations of Scholarly Labour, 1725-1765

By Simon Jarvis | Go to book overview

Introduction

WHEN EDMUND WILSON came to review 'The Fruits of the MLA' towards the end of the 1960s he found them a poor harvest.1 Wilson complained that his own plan to find a publisher willing to market a series of relatively inexpensive and uncluttered, yet reliable, texts of classic American authors, too many of whose works were at the time not in print, had been supplanted. In its place had emerged a series of 'approved texts' stamped with the seal of the Center for Editions of American Authors and prepared by what Wilson took to be a cartel of professional editors more interested in whether Mark Twain wrote 'ssst' or 'sssst', 'aunt Polly' or 'Aunt Polly', than in critical appreciation of or informative commentary on their chosen authors. Wilson conceded that textual-critical matters could on occasion be of interest to the general reader: where it was a case of rescuing a text from wholesale adulteration by publishers, censors, or revisers, detailed attention to editorial matters might be justified. In most cases, however, an excessive preoccupation with such details had led merely to the provision of grossly inflated apparatuses and textual prefaces dwarfing the contracted space given to critical assessment or biographical information. Wilson's attack was notable less for any attention to the epistemological presuppositions of its target discipline (its arguments were entirely extra-, indeed anti-philological) than for the sharpness with which it put the case against professional editors. Wilson wrote with the urbane contempt of a man of letters for what he took to be their narrow and provincial professionalism; in a characteristic aside he remarked that it 'does perhaps seem unfortunate that so many of these MLA volumes should be products of the Middle West'.2 Professional scholars were not slow to reply that Wilson had a no less vested interest in not caring about philological minutiae than they had themselves in making such minutiae their business: Wilson's dilettantism, they responded, needed to regard all such scholarly minutiae as trifling in order to defend the necessary ignorance of detail incident to a literary-critical career of the diversity and scope of his own. Gordon Ray remarked that 'this attack derives in part

____________________
1
Edmund Wilson, "The Fruits of the MLA", New York Review of Books ( 26 Sept. 1968), 7-10; ( 10 Oct. 1968), 6-16.

-1-

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