“The sin against the spirit of a work always begins
with a sin against the letter.”

—Igor Stravinsky 

“When I hear the word ‘theory,’ I loosen the safety latch on my revolver,” remarked one disgruntled language teacher recently. He had an excuse, after all. He had just listened to an hour-long exposition of a Lacanian interpretation of a debate between Lévi-Strauss and Derrida on the meaning of a folk f:ale, an hour of literary theory and no literature. All that potatoes and no meat, to rear range Fats Waller’s complaint. Some of the most impressive work proceed ing from our English departments involves theoretical critiques of the literary criticism of the previous generation, Geoffrey Hartman on the old New Critics, for instance. Seeking the refuge of a friendly local watering hole after an afternoon lost in the reveries of theoretical critiques of other literary critics, one wants to tell Tipper Gore that Prince has no monopoly on incest in our literary culture.

Critics often are not agreed on what the debate is about Mr. Wimsatt is admiring his verbal icon, and Herr Gadamer is seeking Tradition, while M. Derrida “deconstructs” literary work, philosophical exposition, and literary critic alike. There is consensus on only one point, that there is one source from which no one can or should expect help in interpreting a text, and that is the author of the work.

People out of touch with literary scholarship never believe this. I remember three graduate students back in Chapel Hill discussing poetry. The rising academic “creative writer” had a just highly won kudos respected by showing his teacher, a highly respected scholar of his Romantic poetry, that Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” was “black humor,” i.e., a sick joke. A bright critic pointed out the internal, literary details that made such an interpretation unlikely. A dull pedant then interjected into the conversation the fact that we possess a letter of Wordsworth’s to young John Wilson in which the poet explains what he was trying to do in ‘The Idiot Boy,” and there was no intention to produce a sick joke. I do not remember how our future English scholar answered the first’s objection, but he knew a trick worth two of the second’s arguments. “Oh, that’s the Intentional Fallacy.” It is no wonder they fight so much. The one person who could settle the issue has been excluded a priori from the discussion. The reasons for not accepting this state of affairs were pointed out 20 years ago by Virginia’s E.D. Hirsch Jr., but nobody paid any attention. Typing, after all, is easier work than thinking.

In the midst of this hullaballoo, one can hardly tell that there has been for a generation, and continues to be, considerable excitement among the col leagues who devote themselves to texts in the old-fashioned sense, the task of trying to figure out what words Faulkner or Stephen Crane intended or wanted to appear before their readers’ eyes. Ultimately this revival in textual studies is due to one man, Virginia’s Fredson Bowers, “Smedley Force” in Frederick Crews’s The Pooh Perplex. Bowers’ position in America’s best English department, his many critical editions of authors from Elizabethan times to the 19th century, his powerful mockery of critical interpretations based on misprints, and the troop of important articles in his annual Studies in Bibliography have represented a countervailing force in modern language studies in America for more than a generation. The time had come for two developments, a critique of the first American generation of bibliographers, and a series of positive attempts to re late the making of critical editions to the making of literary interpretations.

Jerome J. McGann, a well-known Byron scholar, has taken on both tasks, the first in his Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago, 1983); the second in his publication of articles from his recent symposium, Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation. The essays vary in value, but all try to show that recent work in textual criticism has made much more complicated the difficulties of establishing what an author wanted us to read, and in some cases has made the question itself problematic. A good instance of the latter is a play meant to be heard and Philip applauded, Gaskell not on read Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.) This is a follow-up to McGann’s fashionable attack on authorial intent in his Critique.

The most puzzling aspect of the symposium, however, is that only Donald Pizer deals directly with the principal antagonists. He alone even mentions my two favorites among to day’s English scholars: James B. Meriwether of the University of South Carolina and Hershel Parker. Parker’s recent Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons, for instance, is not only an important contribution to contemporary debates on literature and a powerful attack on literary critical reductionism, it is also fun to read. No one who likes to read will want to miss Parker’s exposition of the evidence that most of the ambiguity and complexity that has so intrigued modem readers of Stephen Crane is due to editorial intervention by the publisher of his novels. Now, Pizer does not deny that editors and reviewers can cause an author to make a mess of what he wanted to say, but he does want us to remember that to rewrite is not always to destroy authorial intent. He is right, of course, in some in stances (e.g., Theodore Dreiser), al though he is wrong about Stephen Crane, and Hershel Parker is right.

Does this matter to the average read er, not to mention the average non reader? The answer is “yes,” and for two reasons. The Great Conversation between the writers of the Past and readers and—writers of the Present can not take place unless we know what they said or wanted to say. Pizer actually defends the old editorially induced ambiguity of The Red Badge of Courage because generations of readers and critics have come to know it, while only in the last few years have we seen the publication of the author’s version, which is clear and simple in its effect and intent. The Great Conversation is to take place between reader and publisher. 

Disregard of the author’s intentions affects the average American’s life in a second area, the area of judge-created law. Attorney General Meese put it very simply. The job of judges is to interpret the intention of the authors of our laws. If a later generation comes to dislike that intention, we get together and vote a change in the laws. (Similarly, if you dislike a work of literature, do what Fenimore Cooper did, write a better one. Do not pollute clear thinking and insult the author by pretending that he wrote what you want when he did not) For this opinion, Meese was called “arrogant” by judges, who modestly think (with the support of the Harvard Law faculty) they know more than Madison and Jefferson, much as the Yale Hermeneutical Mafia have no qualms about “strong” interpretations of poems which the poets themselves did not foresee.

That there are factors which com plicate the search for understanding what an author meant in literature and law is quite true, and we must be aware of those complications. When, however, we reject the attempt to understand the great minds of the past through their words, we cut ourselves off from the true Democracy of the Dead. 

Many, though not all of us, under stand that there can be no freedom of speech for a speaker shouted down by a howling mob. There is little freedom of speech for a speaker whose talk is misinterpreted by the moderator and is then allowed no time for response or correction. A fortiori, freedom of speech is corrupted when the author of words that have moved or shaped us is denied not orJy authority over the meaning of his words, but also any role at all in determining that meaning.

The battles over textual criticism and hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) seem distant to the practical American mind. In fact, they represent the front line on the war against our Christian literature (there are now not one, but several books “proving” that Pamela was “frigid!”) and our system of limited government. Text critics like Richard Bentley and A.E. Housman, like James Meriwether and Hershel Parker, are fighting the good fight for our way of life, whether we know it or not, whether they know it or not. There is a war going on out there. It is a war over the role of the transcendent in general and Christianity in particular on one level; over limited government and individual responsibility on another level.

Ultimately, whether or not we and future generations will be able to hear the clarion cal1 of great poetry and the sober statements of our Founding Fathers will do more to determine its outcome than many missiles. It is the one insight that Yale’s English Department and Harvard’s Law School share. We should know it, too.


[Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, edited by Jerome J. McGann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) $22.00]

[Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction, by Hershel Parker; Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press]