A literary student’s responsibility

This week’s readings and their focus on editing and editions took me back to a problem I experienced last semester.  While researching and writing an essay on the Romantic femme fatale, I had every intention of referring to John Keat’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” yet was surprised to learn that there are actually two very different versions of this poem:  one taken from manuscript and one that was published.  In terms of my paper on the femme fatale, the first, manuscript version was a much better fit.  Furthermore, there seemed to be more credibility (this is perhaps not the correct word) given to the manuscript “knight” version as this was the one published in the Norton anthology.  For my final paper, I choose to only concentrate on the manuscript poem and to simply make mention in a footnote that while I was aware there was another version of this poem, I had chosen to focus only on the manuscript poem in my literary analysis.  However, this still kind of bothers me, and brings me to my main questions:  As literary (rather than bibiliographical) students, how much responsibility do we have to acknowledge and/or analyze the various versions of texts?

This questions seems almost silly to me, yet significant at the same time.  Obviously, it would be almost impossible to acknowledge every different edition of a text, given that some might differ only in terms of punctuation or a word here and there.  Yet, as in the case of the femme fatale in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” changing a word here and there does make a dramatic difference.  The same could be said of punctuation, as I’ve read arguments that at times hinged on the use of a comma rather than a semi-colon.  If this particular comma is so significant, does the literary student have a responsibility to figure out where exactly that comma came from, whether from the author’s manuscript, the first published copy, or an editing decision?  And if, say, the comma came from the printer or editor rather than the author, does the argument then lose some of its value?  This comma example is admittedly rather extreme but I find it useful in making my point, which is to ask how much responsibility do we have to question the origin of textual elements.

McGann seems to offer an answer when he writes, “Of course, each of these versions may be usefully studied as a singular example of a creative process, as may the two texts of King Lear, or the multiple versions of Stoppard’s plays” (69).  However, I find I’m not quite satisfied with this response . . .


6 thoughts on “A literary student’s responsibility

  1. I ran into this problem last semester also in a paper that I wrote for a rhetorical theory course. I ended up using the Norton anthology’s version of Joanna Baillie’s “A Winter’s Day”, but had come across a different version of it during the research process and wondered which one was “the real one”. In my case, the difference between the two did not adversely affect my argument in the paper, but if it had, the option of examining each as an “example of creative process” would have been somewhat unsatisfactory for me too—not to mention off topic for the paper that I was writing on techne and enclosure. Thinking about it now, it might be more responsible to make a footnote about which version of a literary piece I am using, so the reader knows I am aware of a different version and the implications of using one version rather than the other(s). Though I might only feel a necessity to do that if the paper I was writing had some specific correlation to the notion of competing versions of a text.
    Hmm. Ever have that feeling where the longer you think about a conclusion you’ve come to, the less certain you feel about it?

    • Haha Yes, I seem to make uncertain conclusions all the time. But I’m happy I’m not the only one who experiences those or the dilemma of how to justify choosing a specific version of a text.

  2. My basic response to this question would be that, when we wear our literary critic cap, we’re allowed to chose the version of a text we find most useful for what we’re doing. I’d think of acknowledging variants as a way of sort of covering the bases, but not as a terribly important part of our practice. But that’s my own bias.

    This actually points to something I’ve been thinking about w/r/t the Greetham and the other textual scholarship stuff we’ve read, which is that they seem in some ways to treat every possible variation as being of equal importance, as the goal is to become aware of every bit of information there is to find and then to make the same note of every new discovery. But I would argue that every variation, even wholly different versions, cannot have the same importance. At some point, we have to acknowledge that the importance of some facts, outside the specific practice of textual scholarship, doesn’t really go beyond the level of trivia.

  3. I would tend to agree with Marcus’s answer to this question, that we may choose the version best suited to our purpose. However, as the variations in a text become more complex and greater in number or if there are versions that are generally accepted (whatever that means) as more accurate versions and we choose one outside of this realm, I would think that the need to justify the choices made would demand more time.

  4. If I may weigh in, I think the answer is–it depends. 1) If you are making an historical argument about cultural influence or readership than the version you choose should be the one that was in the widest circulation at the time. 2) If you are making a biographical point, then the change between versions might itself be significant. 3) If you are working with/through some major theories on an author or movement, then choose the version most quoted in the theory or criticism. 4) Finally, if you are just creating the garden variety analysis/close reading (ie, Images of X in Works Y &Z), then it really does not matter.

    By the way, your writing of seminar papers is supposed to practice for someday writing published articles, so its good to start these professionalizing practices now. I would say most of what gets published nowadays tends to be type 1 or 3, don’t you think?

    • I do agree, although I would say that type 1 is more prevalent than type 3 even. This was an odd paper, because I really struggled to find a topic I was interested in writing about, and in fact I didn’t truly choose this topic but gave in to a repeated suggestion from the professor. The final product was both too ambitious for a seminar paper (I was comparing six texts in fifteen pages) and lacking (it didn’t go far enough or have enough theory).

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