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  • Reflections on Completing the Northwestern-Newberry Edition
  • G. Thomas Tanselle

I still remember the telephone call I received from Harrison Hayford one August evening in 1964, for it was one of those moments that change one’s life from then on. He explained that he was making plans for a multi-volume edition of Melville that would establish authoritative texts of all Melville’s writings, and he invited me to be one of the primary editors, with special responsibility for dealing with the publishing history of Melville’s works and overseeing the procedures for collating the texts to uncover variants. There had been growing awareness, over the previous decade and a half, of the need for reliable texts of major American authors; and this recognition had led in 1963 to the formation by the Modern Language Association of a coordinating committee called the Center for Editions of American Authors. Harry wanted Melville to be one of the authors taken up, and I was glad to become involved in what was an exciting movement in American literary scholarship. I was also delighted to have the opportunity of working with Harry: I had taken his Melville seminar at Northwestern nine years earlier, and I admired both him and his work.

When a grant from the U.S. Office of Education came through in 1965, the project could officially begin, with the institutional sponsorship of Northwestern University and the Newberry Library and with Harry as General Editor. The third of the three primary editors was another former student of Harry’s, Hershel Parker, who was named Associate General Editor. Harry was aware of my publications up to that point and knew I had become interested in bibliography—that is, the scholarly field that examines books as physical objects and studies the history of their production and publication (not “bibliography” in the popular sense of listings of books). So my title became Bibliographical Editor. It is significant that none of these titles included the word “textual.” To the three of us, the often-used term “textual editor” was a redundancy because “editor” in our view entailed giving attention to textual accuracy. (We were rebelling against the practice of calling anyone an editor [End Page 21] who simply writes an introduction to a text, without paying any attention to the makeup of the text itself.) Thus all three of us were the “textual editors” because we were all “editors.”

As we planned the structure of the edition, we departed in several ways from the plan followed by many other editions. The first was that the three of us were to be the editors of all the volumes (or, in the case of the volumes based on manuscripts, where some other editors were to be involved, we would have the final say on textual decisions). In other words, we were not going to follow the common pattern in which a general editor appoints “volume editors” for individual volumes. Since critical judgment is involved in making textual decisions (deciding what words, punctuation, and spelling are to appear in the text), this arrangement assured a uniformity of approach. Instead of asking prominent Melville scholars to be volume editors, we asked several of them to write essays for specific volumes—but that would be their only connection with those volumes. An important part of our plan was that the essays would provide historical and biographical background but would not engage in literary criticism, which can easily come to seem dated. We also were convinced that all such commentary and textual apparatus should be placed at the end of each volume, with Melville’s work in first position, not preceded by any kind of “introduction.” The end matter would of course include lists of variants and emendations, along with an account of the relevant textual history and an explanation of what was entailed in our goal of producing an unmodernized critical text. When, a dozen or so years later, I was helping to organize the Library of America, I suggested following the same scheme: the author’s text first, no critical essay, and biographical and textual information at the end. That plan has now been followed in over three hundred...


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