Types of Scholarly Editing

In these modules, we won’t attempt a comprehensive overview of the many varieties of scholarly editing. Instead, we’ll describe a few of the most common varieties, and pay closest attention to those types of scholarly editing most relevant to our example text, the manuscript of Walden.

Critical scholarly editing

A great deal of scholarly editing concerns itself with texts that exist in more than one version. Before the print era, texts were reproduced by scribes who copied them by hand. This practice of copying texts by hand led inevitably to errors of transmission and raised questions about the best way to establish an authoritative reading text from the resulting variant texts. The widespread adoption of movable type from the fifteenth century onwards made textual transmission cheaper, more convenient, and somewhat more reliable but resulted in new sources of textual variation. Compositors made mistakes in setting up type. Unauthorized and pirated editions of popular texts contained errors and deliberate alterations. In the anglophone world, British and American editions of the same work differed for a variety of reasons, including differing publishing-house policies with respect to subject matter that might offend readers’ sensibilities. The relative ease of producing a new print edition of an already published work enabled writers to revise and republish their own texts, putting new versions in circulation alongside previous ones.

Whether dealing with manuscripts or printed works, scholarly editors face the task of bringing forth, from the multiple states of a given text, an edition for readers to read or scholars to study. The task requires deep knowledge about the history of writing, books, and publishing, together with a critical understanding of the political, economic, and social contexts surrounding the production of the text in question. If the author or authors are known, it’s important to understand as much as possible about the biography, the intellectual and educational background, the other works, and the customary diction of the author or authors. Making an edition also involves choosing among alternative theoretical approaches and making critical judgments about matters such as textual authenticity and authorial intention. For these reasons, scholarly editions of this type are sometimes called critical editions, and the systematic study of texts as texts — with attention to the material and historical dimensions of their production, and informed by a consideration of differing textual and editorial theories — is sometimes referred to as textual criticism or textual scholarship.

Documentary editing

By bringing forth a single edition of a work from multiple sources, particularly a literary work, critical scholarly editing, as described above, facilitates the close study and interpretation of that work, usually with the aim of helping readers arrive at the best possible understanding of the author’s intentions in writing it. If we want to talk about the meaning of a poem by William Blake or Emily Dickinson, or a novel by Herman Melville or Richard Wright, we might well feel that we first need to establish just what words we should be interpreting — just what the text is that we’re talking about. (We might not feel that way, and there are certainly scholars who don’t. More about them below.)

But there are other kinds of text for which this just isn’t the right approach — for example, letters, journals, and other historical documents “whose unique physical characteristics and original nature give them special evidentiary value,” to quote Mary-Jo Kline and Susan Holbrook Perdue, authors of A Guide to Documentary Editing (3rd edition). To be valuable to someone studying these documents as historical evidence, a scholarly edition of them must aim to present as full and accurate a representation of the originals as possible, with only limited critical editorial intervention.

Documentary editing, “although noncritical in terms of classical textual scholarship, is hardly an uncritical endeavor,” Kline and Perdue point out. “It demands as much intelligence, insight, and hard work as its critical counterpart, combined with a passionate determination to preserve for modern readers the nuances of evidence.”

Editing for textual recovery

Some of the most important scholarly editing taking place today has as its aim the recovery of texts that have been forgotten or overlooked, often because their authors came from oppressed or marginalized groups. The increasing prominence of editing for textual recovery reflects, among other things, growing interest in the politics of authorship and publishing, and a determination to multiply and diversify the voices that count as culturally important in criticism and in the classroom. Editing for textual recovery improves our understanding of the past by re-publishing works that had a significant impact in their time but have since faded from cultural memory, and brings aesthetically undervalued texts the attention they deserve. It also reflects, of course, the fact that digital technology has lowered the barrier to accomplishing all of these aims by making past texts easier to find, edit, and distribute.

The kind of edition that scholarly editing for textual recovery brings forth may or may not be based on multiple versions of a text or require commitment to a particular theory of textuality. It is, however, typically critical in the important sense of providing scholarly context in the form of an editorial introduction and annotations, and sometimes in the form of ancillary materials, such as contemporary documents or original reviews, that provide important perspective on the work’s genesis, significance, or reception.

Genetic editing

In cases where an author’s drafts have been preserved — in manuscripts, typescripts, or digital files — it’s possible to take an editorial approach aimed at representing and illuminating how a particular text came to be. “The geneticists get their name,” writes John Bryant in The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (1988), “from their basic assumption that a literary work is equivalent to the processes of genesis that create it and that a genetic edition of a work must display that process as it progresses through its various stages of composition and revision, in manuscript and print.” Genetic editing, especially as practiced in France from the mid-1960s onward under the influence of structuralism and post-structuralism, may concern itself less with uncovering authorial meaning and more with shedding light on the creative process itself. But it offers the possibility, as well, of re-focusing our view of particular texts and the authorial intentions that inhabit them, so that, even as we retain an understanding of some text as manifesting its author’s unique, personal outlook, we appreciate that neither the text nor the outlook can be regarded as fixed, stable, or unitary.

For his 1967 PhD dissertation, “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text,” Ronald E. Clapper used the manuscript of Walden at the Huntington Library (HM 924) to produce a scholarly edition of Thoreau’s text that we can read with an eye toward understanding creativity or Thoreau or both. The dissertation prints the first edition of Walden, published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854, with a footnote at every point where the wording or the ordering of content varies from one or more of the seven extant manuscript versions Thoreau drafted between 1846, while he was still living at Walden Pond, and the published text.

An important consideration for all scholarly editions that incorporate multiple pre- or post-publication versions of a text is how to display the textual variants so that readers can easily understand them. In genetic editing, the number and complexity of variants can make the task a monumental one. The presentation options for genetic editions have been profoundly affected by the development of digital interfaces displaying text.

We’ll have more to say about digital interfaces in a subsequent module.

Fluid-text editing

Bryant’s The Fluid Text, cited above, extends the geneticists’ conception of text-as-process, challenging readers to consider the post-publication life of a text as part of its continuous development, including cultural re-mixes of published works by follow-on authors, either in words (print or digital) or other media such as film or video. In attempting to articulate a theory of textual fluidity, Bryant makes a strong case for considering authorial intention to distinguish between variants of a text and versions of a text. In exploring the possibilities of fluid-text editing opened up by digital interfaces, he emphasizes the opportunity to construct what he calls “revision narratives” tied to particular sites of textual change. In a manuscript-based scholarly edition, these sites become locations for critical editorial intervention to hypothesize about how the changes visible there might reflect a host of influences, from deliberate choices related to form and theme to interventions from a publisher to cultural pressures operating above or below the level of conscious decision-making.

Fluid-text editing isn’t a school or category of scholarly editing so much as it’s Bryant’s proposal for an alternative to genetic editing that’s a more author-focused, nuanced, interventionist, and reader-friendly approach to treating texts as works-in-process. We’ve made a point of describing it here, and we’ll have more to say about it in later modules, because Bryant’s thinking has informed our approach to editing the manuscript of Walden.