English Department Faculty on Editing Classic Works for General Readers

June 6, 2008 — Chances are, if you've read a classic work of English or American literature in a paperback edition recently, you've benefited from the editorial work of a faculty member in an English department. And if in the next few years you find yourself reading a classic like Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," or H. G. Wells's "The Time Machine," you'll likely discover that you're benefiting from the work of a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Virginia.

Such work is distinct from editing scholarly editions of canonical authors like Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Abraham Cowley and Edmund Spenser, a task that many faculty members in U.Va.'s English department have also undertaken, in that it is aimed at reaching a general audience rather than the community of other scholars. Through their work editing novels, plays and anthologies, U.Va. English professors seize the chance to shape the way the general reading public can approach some of their favorite literary works. Rarely resulting in profit, and requiring immeasurable hours spent outside the classroom and office, most professors agree to these projects because of their sheer love for specific texts, and the rewarding challenges involved in deciding how the text might reach a wider audience.

"It differs immensely from writing scholarly articles which are intended for your colleagues and a small academic audience," said professor Stephen Railton, editor of three classic novels issued within the past three years: "The Last of the Mohicans," by James Fenimore Cooper (2003); "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," by Mark Twain (2006); and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," by Harriet Beecher Stowe (2006).

Although they require months, and sometimes years of researching and writing, because these texts are designed for a broad classroom audience, as well as the occasional reader, most professors find it hard to resist putting out an edition of a text that they are particularly fond of. Professor Susan Fraiman, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey," said, "Just think—people might actually buy it!"

Another benefit that adds to the appeal of working on editions is that the process results in getting to know a text very well. Professor Alison Booth, who worked on the 2008 edition of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," said she "loved getting to know all about Bronte studies in the 19th and 20th centuries."

Seeing how one can shape a text that will be useful to a large audience through personal interpretive choices, changes and improvements to the text can be extremely satisfying. Professor Stephen Arata has worked on three editions since 2002: William Morris' "News from Nowhere" (2002), George Gissing's "New Grub Street" (2008), and the Norton Critical Edition of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" (2008).

 "You become very intimate, in a virtual kind of way of course, with any writer you work on for an extended length of time," Arata said. "I tried to read everything by and about each of the writers I edited. ... I often felt I was living with these guys."

Trying not to put too much of an individual interpretation on a work challenges most professors, especially since that motivation propels much of their scholarly writing.

"Since all of my previous training and experience had been with critical analysis rather than textual editing, the challenge for me was to explicate without editorializing … to represent the range of views and approaches that are out there," Fraiman said.

But, she added, "by packaging a novel in a certain way, one inevitably makes, implicitly at least, some kind of argument about it." Therefore, most professors approach these projects with certain goals about how they might shape the text for their audience.

Generally, the process consists of editing and annotating the work, writing an introduction, selecting historical and critical background materials; it may also require choosing between multiple versions of a text, selecting the cover art, collating the text, and even deciding on punctuation.

"The intellectual challenges of highlighting the most important parts of a text were worth the time-consuming work," said professor John O'Brien, editor of Susanna Centlivre's 1714 play "The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret" (2004). For him, this included studying Centlivre's poetry, biographical accounts, early reviews of the play and supporting materials. It had been years since the rare 18th-century play had been printed outside an anthology, and O'Brien had to collate photocopies of the original pages in order to establish a text.

"This kind of work can be very tedious," he said.

Most professors agreed that the labor-intensive nature of the entire project makes one think carefully about agreeing to work on an edition. Although the use of graduate research assistants can help, meticulous attention to detail is essential. The least enjoyable aspect of the project, for Fraiman, was securing permissions, "an onerous clerical task," she said, "and not something I expected would be part of my job as editor."

Because most professors worked on these projects while teaching, or writing academic articles, the time it took them to complete their editions varied immensely. Professor Booth, who has also been involved in the 10th edition of Norton's "Introduction to Literature," due out in 2009, stated that both the Norton and Wuthering Heights editions got "woven into the many other aspects of my work" and "the short answer is, they take much more time than expected."

Most professors also agreed that working on an edition is usually not very lucrative. Most stated that they weren't sure whether or not they'd decide to work on an edition again.

Railton said he has turned away work that he could not be honestly enthusiastic about. Similarly, O'Brien said, "It's too much time to devote to something you don't love and want to share with other readers."

Professors are most commonly approached to edit a text because they are known scholars of that particular work or period.

Arata's edition of "News from Nowhere" was his own idea, stemming from the belief that "there was not a good classroom edition in print."

Similarly, while teaching "The Wonder" for an 18th-century theater course, O'Brien decided that the play deserved to be looked at more closely, "because of its unusual popularity in its own period, as well as the interesting gender politics it addresses." O'Brien approached Broadview Press, a publisher that put out a series of 17th- and 18th-century texts, as a natural home for Centlivre's play.

 Booth was approached to edit part of a series of Longman Cultural Editions, and was offered a range of possible texts to edit. Booth chose "Wuthering Heights" as a "perennially-taught novel," she said, "one that I love, and one that interests me a lot."

Although most of the professors had no previous experience in editing, most cited teaching and the use of college editions in the classroom as the most important preparation for these projects. Editing naturally complements, even enhances the teaching profession, especially when faculty members get the privilege and pleasure of teaching out of their own editions — and of imagining themselves to be teaching readers who will never enter their classrooms.

— by Georgia Chaconas