A Comma and a Thought About Textual Transmission

When I transcribe type, I sometimes find myself lost in a morass of the details of physical reality. For example, in volume I of a copy of the 1852 Jewett edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, page 21, line 24-26, Haley explains how he manages the unpleasant parts of the slave trade, which I transcribe as follows: “You see, when I any ways can, I takes a leetle care about the onpleasant parts like selling young uns and that,_”

I transcribed that line with care (transcribed it, digitally compared to another transcription, re-checked before posting it), but my transcription provides an unfaithful representation of physical reality in numerous ways. Let me count a few ways:

  1. Digital typographic font for each character varies from typographic font inked on paper copy because the gap between analog and digital text representation makes such unavoidable.
  2. Line break in original line is no longer present because (being prose) we agree to abstract.
  3. The underscore character at line end is an abstraction for an em dash (which is transcribed thus as a convenience for collating and for conversion to typesetting and to text encoding systems).
  4. The section is abstracted from a larger sentence, a larger page of type, a chapter, a particular copy of a book, a particular work, a moment in American cultural production, and a practically limitless range of associations.

But there are also a few ways in which I have sought to preserve items that I assume to have meaning. I assume that the words “leetle,” “onpleasant,” and “uns” inform Stowe’s reader about Haley’s level of cultural attainment. His dialect marks him as poser who cannot quite pull off the act of gentleman. At another level, while my transcription is an accurate representation of a particular copy, it does not fully represent this edition and might mislead about the work. Consider the image of the page below, which is taken from the Early American Fiction site. I apologize for the small size, but EAF provides low-res images.

Uncle Tom\'s Cabin, 1852 2-vol. Jewett edition, vol. I, pg. 21 selection

Notice the comma after the word “parts”. My transcription does not have that comma. A mistake. Well, yes, but it’s not my mistake (this time, yea, but I’ve written about one of my errors here). Below is a digital image of the copy that I was using to make my transcription, a copy that is labeled on the title page as part of the 70th thousandth printing.

Uncle Tom\'s Cabin, 1852 2-vol. Jewett edition, vol. I, pg. 21 selection

Why do these two copies of the same book, one from the earliest printing and one from a printing made a month or two later (a guess, which may be revised after I check Parfait)? I imagine that the stereotype plates of the 2-volume edition were inadvertently knocked or dropped, and the comma after parts on right margin was lost. Because the line below has damage also to the letter “y”, we can surmise that the damage was accidental and not a deliberate editorial removal of the comma. I would briefly note that we presume the comma derives from Stowe’s manuscript because a comma also appears in the newspaper version (on which I believe the 2-volume edition was set, at least this part of the printing).

Uncle Tom\'s Cabin, page 89, column B

If this damage is insignificant, if this detail is simply a matter of the damage to a physical object through heavy use, why record a detail of printing history that will not affect reading. After all, most contemporary reprints claim to be set from the first edition. They are, but as we can see different copies of the first edition vary. The first printing–often used in reprints–does not include the corrections that Stowe made for the second printing. But in printing history this missing comma may have consequences. The publisher Jewett created two new settings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in late 1852, an expensive illustrated edition and a cheap edition “for the Million”. You can probably tell from the leading and length of the type line that the illustrated edition is the top image, the cheap edition the bottom.

A number of social contexts are at work here. It seems (even from these brief samples) that the illustrated edition was more carefully proofed for superficial matters of correction. Notice, for example, the spelling of “uns” now includes an apostrophe to indicate the omitted letters, though I don’t know which letters are presumed to be missing in the dialect form of “ones.” Does the apostrophe indicate that Haley has elbowed his way up in the scale of gentlemanliness since the previous printing? The illustrated edition also has over a 100 illustrations, an elegant gold-embossed cover (not my copy, though, which was rebound and thus affordable on eBay), more generous leading, and an ample margin. The cheap copy, in contrast, has two columns, minimal margins, tight leading, and no illustrations. It was issued in paper wrappers instead of hardcover.

From the perspective of literary interpretation, the difference is unlikely to shock. But let’s lean on the comma, present or absent, to guess its significance. In the illustrated edition (and later printings of the two-volume edition), Haley identifies the “onpleasant parts” of slavery primarily with selling children from mothers (because, lacking a comma, it’s a restrictive clause). In the earlier printings of the two-volume and paperback edition, selling children away from mothers seems to be intended as but one example of the unpleasant parts. A subtle difference, yes, but its overall effect in the larger text is small because Haley’s language emphasizes the challenge of selling children away from their mothers, regardless of whether he is claiming that it is the primary unpleasantness or merely one of many.

But from point of view of textual descent (determining from which examplars of the two-volume edition the cheap and illustrated were set), the missing comma in later copies suggests an hypothesis. The illustrated edition for this page was set from a later printing, from a copy that was set from the damaged stereotype plates. So the comma was omitted. The cheap edition page, in contrast, was set from an earlier printing of the first edition, from an undamaged plate.

My current hypothesis is clearly inadequate, because it is based on the slimmest of physical evidence, one comma missing or present in a text that runs to about 700,000 character. But whether the hypothesis is ultimately convincing or a blip that is being over-read will depend on evidence from individual copies painstakingly gathered as I compare multiple copies and record physical damage to each. But since the hundreds of surviving copies represent only a part of the historical record, and since the limits of human diligence limit me to carefully reviewing a generous handful of surviving copies, all of this detail still represents a significant degree of abstraction.

But this is a reason to study textual transmission, because it suggests hypotheses about how the practice of printing altered the reading of Stowe’s work. I leave out concerns of authorial intention, the possibility that Stowe intended to alter this comma multiple times. But whether intended by the author or not, it is still a part of the text’s history.

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