- Proofs of Genius: Collected Editions from the American Revolution to the Digital Age by Amanda Gailey
"Editorial choices have stealthily shaped the American literary canon for centuries", Amanda Gailey reminds us, "forging authorial legacies, producing regional and national propaganda, and generally working as a determinant for what and how we consider American literature" (1). Proofs of Genius is based on a clear formal observation: collected editions reflect ideas about authorship, including a surviving emphasis on Romantic authorial genius. Out of this claim, Gailey builds a tightly constructed book that that lays deep foundations for future comparative studies of canonization.
Gailey lays out her findings thoroughly, but demonstrates her methods with elan and wry humor. She begins with comparisons to the British context, which was crucial both for modeling the genre and as a foil for those attempting to establish U.S. cultural sovereignty through writers' collected editions. From the Early Republic through the antebellum, spirit was [End Page 166] key—authorial, national, and divine. Editors did not share common principles in choosing and presenting text. "When American readers beheld an American genius—enshrined in a collected edition honoring the fruits of his creative labor", Gailey writes, "they beheld evidence of God's blessings on the new nation, evidence that the country was capable of producing minds with a divine connection and prosperous enough to develop them" (4). As the century progressed, collecting "served as a special memorializing genre for a growing belletristic middle class", with tomes distributed locally and gathered and written by amateurs (10).
For the most part this is an exercise in distant reading. When close reading happens, it's of introductions, title pages, and other paratexts. The question mark remains over Emily Dickinson's work, panned by reviewers early on, and, in the wake of Gailey's chapter re-contextualizing that first edition among other amateur female authors collected at the time, unsurprisingly so. "Only the power of the poems within", Gailey writes, "propelled them past the fate of so many similar volumes" (51). But, one wonders, why did the collection get so many reviews in the first place? Was the co-editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson's name still powerful enough to draw fire, and fire enough to draw attention, and the poetry good enough to make the volume sell?
Gailey carefully assesses a range of factors in the history of collected editions. Copyright changes matter, but so do business practices. "The shift from consumer binding to publisher binding" in the nineteenth century helped "establish certain textual genres as natural ways of organizing texts", but such technologies were no less important than the anxieties about national prowess that shaped literary debates (27). The chapter titled "Whitman's Shrines" deftly reads the poet's famous monumental tomb (based on a William Blake image) and his end-of-life collections Complete Poems and Prose and Leaves of Grass (1891-92) as "two complementary memorials" (67). A shrine and an "authorized" book would work in tandem to cement Whitman as a standard writer both in public and in the hearts of Americans.
The fourth chapter, "Cold War Editing and the Rise of the 'American Literature Industry'", is particularly compelling for textual scholars. Situating the rise of the Greg-Bowers intentionalist editorial approach— and the controversies about the texts that resulted from it—in the framework of the scientization of knowledge work during the Cold War, the chapter re-focalizes the collected works of writers that emerged during this time. "The Greg-Bowers method resonated with Cold War textual scholars", Gailey [End Page 167] writes, because "it easily cohered with dominant American political ideology" and "complemented the scientific gestalt taking hold of American academic research" (85). This drew both furor and followers, as critics like Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford derided the cumbersome editions of major writers that emerged from this new technique and as academic editors rallied around a new method.
Scholars unfamiliar with digital humanities or book...