Canonization and Reprint Culture, a note on McGill

I’ve been immersed in Meredith McGill’s formidable American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853. McGill provides a compellingly readable account of antebellum reprint culture. The book’s method illuminates a disciplinary boundary and a fundamental paradox. The paradox is that the formal tools of canons (bibliographies, author logs) are a necessary precondition for modes of inquiry that unsettle the rationales that form canons. McGill’s willed blindness enables insight, as she is aware and clearly explains, but what insight can we gain from the blindness that seems present but not critically considered? To wit, that texts are not as stable as her readings suggest.

I’ll begin with McGill’s insight, which she explains clearly in her introduction: “For both rhetorical and practical reasons, I will focus in this book on the careers and writing of canonical writers. Like the reprinters themselves, I trade on the cachet of major authors, hoping to make the lineaments of reprint culture as visible as possible. But I also depend on these authors’ canonical status for the bibliographic research that undergirds this study. The undisputed importance of Dickens, Poe and Hawthorne to British and American literary history has made it possible for me to begin to recover the patterns of reprinting of their texts” (41). McGill excludes Nathaniel Parker Willis and Catharine Maria Sedgwick–though she identifies them as “more important to reprint culture” (42)–because they lack the requisite “bibliographic research” that is necessary to identify texts for study.

The discipline in which McGill positions her study, history of the book, the American branch of the tradition whose authorizing voice is Febvre’s L’apparition du livre, can engage in the most far-reaching and thoughtful assessments of reprint culture if it borrows from the canon-establishing fields of enumerative author bibliographies. What in particular must be borrowed is knowledge of reprint text forms for the authors that are the subject of McGill’s study. If no bibliography has been prepared, there’s no subject to research. Almost all bibliographies that aim to treat a topic in definitive fashion are prepared under the sign of an author’s name. Actually, there is another subject for research. One could build a bibliography of Nathaniel Parker Willis or Catherine Maria Sedgwick as reprinted authors, as a test of whether McGill’s insights drawn from “canonical” authors will pan out for the “more important” authors in reprint culture. A hard slog. One might note that books of criticism can earn tenure whereas bibliographies in preparation for the past decade litter the road.

The aspect of reprint culture that emerges in book history as seldom more than an interesting aside is textual alteration. [Note: A general principle, or “fact” in the words of John Bryant, is that texts, when converted from one form to another, are altered.] McGill routinely examines one type of textual alteration. If the title is altered, the alteration is remarked and commented on. But as for those smaller changes that demand painstaking examination, McGill shows little interest.

For example, McGill explains that Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” as published in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1839) was picked up and published anonymously by London’s Bentley’s Miscellany and then republished in the Boston Notion as a British import. McGill assumes that the Boston Notion editors are “unaware that the tale was Poe’s” with the justification that they had printed a “scathing review of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in December of 1839″ (157). The foot note for this statement refers the reader to the Poe Log, page 282. This reference is obfuscatory. Why should we assume that the Boston Notion editors do not know the story is by Poe? Because they reviewed his collection? And they would not know because Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) has Poe’s name on the title page? See Documenting the American South. This mystery is explained in a foot note to a different part of McGill’s book, number 26 on page 322, which begins “Although many readers undoubtedly knew Poe to the the author…” and eventually gets around to accumulated general evidence to the contrary. McGill cites three letters (from Poe Log) from readers who did not know of Poe’s authorship in particular cases. If some readers did not know of Poe’s authorship, then we make the large stretch that Boston Notion editors did not know of Poe’s authorship of a story from a book that they reviewed? Perhaps, but the preponderance of McGill’s evidence suggests the opposite.

McGill’s story of Poe’s reprinting, like the stories about Dickens and the history of copyright, are mostly informative and well told, but the Poe text is unlikely to have crossed the Atlantic twice without alterations. Maybe all of the alterations were insignificant. Had McGill written, “textual alterations were slight,” four words which could be written following many hours of painstaking labor (the number of hours depends on whether electronic texts of particular versions have been prepared, one’s facility with tools, etc.), then I’d know that the texts had been compared. But the 4-word phrase is not found because book history too often avoids detailed textual comparison. Book history has a broader appeal to cultural critics.

Despite my reservations, McGill’s work is important. Most scholars of American literature and culture would benefit from reading it. I did. As for another infelicity, McGill’s reference to the National Era as a magazine… oh well. If McGill had examined an actual copy, she would doubtless not have mistook it for a magazine. But since she appears to have relied on secondary scholarship, the mistake reveals that this portion of the study was not based on examination of the periodical as a physical object.

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