- A Villainous Question
In collecting the stories that had originally been printed as isolated articles in newspapers and magazines, Poe made numerous and generally meticulous revisions. (The resulting two-volume Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque bore the imprint date of 1840 but was available for purchase late in 1839.) The change of one word in “King Pest” presents an interesting example of the textual difficulties that bedevil an editor faced with the task of creating a composite, edited text from a series of historical texts, all published with the authority of the original writer. In the 1840 text, “villainous” is changed to “villanous,” dropping the second “i,” in a statement made by one of the two English sailors, in this case a main character known only as Legs. As for most authors, Poe’s texts abound in clearly unintentional errors, for which correction is generally obvious and clear of any ambiguity or contentious debate. Not all issues, however, are so easily resolved, even as they involve little more than a single word or even a single letter. In this case, the problem is somewhat complicated by the fact that the word appears in a piece of dialogue.
The strangely grim yet humorous tale “King Pest” was first printed in the Southern Literary Messenger (September 1835). In preparing the tale for republication in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe made manuscript notations in pencil on a unique copy of the 1835 text of the Southern Literary Messenger, a copy that is now usually known by the name of the early owner, William Duane, Jr. (1808–1882). The spelling of “villanous” in the text of “King Pest” first appears in the 1840 text. It was subsequently printed thus in the tale as it appears in Poe’s own Broadway Journal (October 18, 1845) and in the Griswold edition of 1850. The editions that follow Griswold (Ingram of 1874–1875, Stoddard of 1884, Woodberry and Stedman of 1895–1896, Harrison of 1902) also repeat the [End Page 204] spelling of “villanous.” For more modern editions, Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Tales and Sketches, 1978, 2:251) uses “villanous” in the text, with a note of “villainous” as a variant. Benjamin F. Fisher opted for the earlier spelling when he was editing the text for a Barnes & Noble edition in 2004 (The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe). In the same year, G. R. Thompson presented a Norton Critical Edition with the later “villanous” spelling (The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe). None of these editors specifically addresses the question of the altered spelling of the word. Only Mabbott accounts for the change. The Duane copy of the Southern Literary Messenger actually shows no change to the word, nor at all at this point in the text for “King Pest,” though other changes are marked. (The text of the Duane copy was carefully examined for me by Lawrence Fox, the current owner.)
Although “villanous” would seem to have the advantage of long-term use, many of these editions were not following formal guidelines nor benefiting from repeated scholarly attention. Griswold merely copied the Broadway Journal text, and while Ingram added some new items to the collection, his texts were not generally newly edited, mostly copying the already established Griswold texts. Although a slightly later collection has sometimes been referred to as the Stoddard edition, Stoddard himself could not really be considered an editor at all in this case. Chiefly, he provided a memoir for the edition that otherwise repeated the texts of earlier editions in the Redfield/Widdleton/Armstrong tradition (these publishers being the chain of holders of the copyright of the Griswold edition). Woodberry and Stedman also generally follow Griswold for texts, and Harrison, despite his claims otherwise, often tends to follow Griswold, sometimes even when he cites another text as being his source. (In addition, Harrison seems entirely unaware of the earlier spelling, as R. A. Stewart did not list it among the variants included in the notes of the Harrison edition.)
For Mabbott, because we do not have an argument supporting his specific choice in this case, we might assume that he adopted the spelling of “villanous...