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Witness and Access: The Uses of the Fluid Text


If the study of textual culture, book history, and literary historicism is to have an impact in interpretive communities, it should expand its notion of textuality to include the dynamics of revision in its various authorial, editorial, and cultural modes. Texts in revision—that is, "fluid texts" or any work that exists in multiple versions—provide concrete evidence of writers writing and readers reading and can be of use in overcoming problems related to witnessing the otherwise unwitnessable processes of production and consumption in a culture. Because the text of revision is inherently invisible, the task for scholars, critics, and editors in giving readers access to the fluid text is to make the invisible visible. The problem is demonstrated in four sections of the essay. The first considers a London Spectator reviewer's anxiety over the authenticity of Melville's Typee (1846) and his wanting to know the "story of the book"; readers naturally want access to book history, and a comprehensive fluid-text approach to Typee, available now but not to the 1846 reviewer, responds to the problem of witnessing the writer by defining book history in terms of the processes of revision and by extending the notion of the author-function to include both production (writers, publishers, editors) and consumption (readers). The second section considers the problem of witnessing historical reader response as it is encountered in Roger Chartier's "Popular Appropriation: Readers and Their Books": we know historical consumption (reader demands) only through modes of production (differences in books produced). But more direct evidence of past readers is in the ways they force material changes in the texts they read, thus generating a fluid text, as is evident in three successive readerships of four versions of Typee. In the third section, the focus shifts from witnessing writers and readers to accessing revision and editing a fluid text, in particular Poe's poem Lenore. The problem as Meredith McGill observes in American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting (2003) is that the author-centric principles of modern scholarly editing do not permit the construction of a reading experience of a text like Poe's poem that appears in multiple and different reprints, including one problematically anonymous version. In response to the dilemma, I consider how one might "edit anonymity" through a fluid-text approach. The fourth section focuses on John Carlos Rowe's reading of Typee in Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism (2000) and how its use of a modernized edition of Melville's novel delimits access to textual fluidities that would enhance and deepen Rowe's otherwise abstract thematics. A fluid-text analysis involving Melville's manuscript revisions and editorial expurgations (derived from a fluid-text edition of Typee ) would have generated a more useful historicist reading. If scholars, critics, and editors are to explore more fully the interpretive consequences of textual culture, they need to broaden the textual field of play to include revision and a fuller understanding of the reality of the fluid text.