Introduction: Textual Histories[Notice]

  • Yuri Cowan

Our understanding of texts is shaped by the material forms in which they come down to us; multiple factors influence the transmission of texts across time, and readers therefore experience past texts in diverse forms that often share little resemblance with the forms in which past generations received them. The process which Randall McLeod calls “transformission” occurs every time a text is printed, reprinted, repurposed, or remediated, and the material form taken by a text at any given time has important consequences for the ways in which that text is understood by contemporary and future readers. Every text has a material history—in many cases a long and rich one—dictated by the cultural, aesthetic, and economic choices of authors, publishers, printers, editors, and illustrators. This history calls into question many things that general readers might take for granted about texts: the idea of the “original version” for instance, or the importance of the first edition of a book. Indeed, even the integrity of literary narratives may also be called into question by an awareness of textual history, as happened for instance with the British and American editions of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, when the American publisher, W. W. Norton, thought the redemptive ending to be inconsistent with the tenor of the rest of the book and cut out the last chapter entirely from every American printing up until 1986. The reader’s encounter with the book is influenced and readerly opinions are shaped by just such incidental circumstances like these; textual histories thus speak to the history of reception as they reveal the ways in which typographical decisions, editorial choices, and the pressures of publishing combine to produce the various apparently finished forms of a text as it appears on the press, in the marketplace, and then later in the reading environment at diverse points in time. When I first considered this special issue I had in mind the changes made by later generations to much older texts. Informed by my own work on the textual recovery projects of the nineteenth century—Victorian projects as diverse as the Bannatyne Club, the Early English Text Society, and the private presses of the 1890s,—and on the reprinting of Victorian fantasy in the 1970s (in an article published in Mémoires du Livre / Studies in Book Culture 1.2) I envisioned the current special issue as a place to discuss how texts have been recovered and materially reinterpreted as new technological and editorial processes and/or changes in taste influenced the material forms in which those texts manifested at moments far removed from their first appearance. It is certainly the case that those Victorian editors of medieval texts exerted a potent influence on our mental image of those remote texts today. To give only one important example, in the unique manuscript and in the 1839 Bannatyne Club edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the so-called “bob” is placed directly to the right of the line preceding the four-line “wheel,” while in Richard Morris’s 1864 Early English Text Society edition of the poem he placed the bob on a line of its own preceding the wheel. Later editions have uniformly followed Morris, affecting the reception of the poem in a subtle way for subsequent generations of undergraduates. And yet a text can also mutate under much more immediate pressures, and can take radically different forms from just one printing to the next, like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which was published simultaneously in weekly and monthly serials and then in one-volume format, all within the course of the first year of …

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