I was given the assignment to talk about how I would handle the editing of the letters of famous literary figure Eupheus MacAdder, author of the famous sonnet sequence "On the Teats of Muffy, My Catte". Here is what I turned in, after a bit of research and thinking.
Why do we publish collected letters? Almost every (dead) major literary figure has at least one edition of published letters, and likely more than one. Perhaps the motivating factor is to give us some insight on an author’s creative processes. Or perhaps editors wish to show a human face to often-mythologized poets and novelists: Grant F. Scott in his recent edition of Keats’s letters offers, “For those who have encountered Keats’s poems only in weighty anthologies, it is refreshing to come upon them in this warmer human environment. In context they seem to breathe again, to take on new life and interest” (xxiii).
Since not every letter can be included in an edition (unless one is publishing multiple volumes, or the extant letters are very few), an editor must decide on an approach and let that approach determine which letters she selects. The traditional method is to choose those letters which include details about an author’s works or in some way illuminate their texts. Humphrey Carpenter chose this approach when selecting among the massive quantity of Tolkien’s extant letters, “Naturally, priority has been given to those letters where Tolkien discusses his own books; but the selection has also been made with an eye to demonstrating the huge range of Tolkien’s mind and interests, and his idiosyncratic but always clear view of the world” (1). H.L Jackson’s purpose for Coleridge’s letters was “to display his achievement as a writer in the minor genre of the familiar letter; to reveal his complex personality in evolution; and to record his astute judgment, especially in literary matters” (xii). Leslie Marchand chooses to illuminate Byron’s personality in comparison to the tone taken in his works. Alan G. Hill chooses the letters of Dorothy Wordsworth “not only for the interest of their subject-matter but also to indicate the range of her correspondents,” i.e. her brother William Wordworth and their friend Samuel T. Coleridge: Hill seems interested in using Dorothy Wordsworth’s words to illuminate the humanity of the famous men who were her correspondents (xvii).
A more holistic approach (like that of Grant F. Scott with Keats’s letters) allows the editor to present the author as a whole person by including letters with various details not pertaining to them as an author. This second approach is the one I’d like to take with Euphues MacAdder’s letters. Working with Jack Stillinger, Scott brings a fresh approach to Keats’s letters: several definitive scholarly editions of Keats’s letters have already been published, therefore Scott’s goal was offer an edition that would allow maximum accessibility for any reader to the life and mind of John Keats, including his poetry but not excluding details of his life. Scott even chooses to end his edition with letters written by Keats’s death-bed companions, instead of Keats’s own final letter written several months before he died, commenting that they “offer valuable additional testimony concerning Keats the man” (xiv).
MacAdder’s extant letters include a mixture of his own letters, received letters from his correspondents, daily ephemera, and drafts (that may have been part of his letters) of his famous sonnet sequence, “On the Teats of Muffy, My Catte.” I favor Scott’s approach precisely because he does not include only the letters that show the influences on a writer’s works: he wants to give as full a picture of Keats-the-man as he can, which of course includes Keats-the-poet. Thus my choice would be to include some of the minutiae of MacAdder’s daily existence, where it is most charming or interesting or illuminates MacAdder’s habits and relationships with his friends. (As Scott points out, the letters that contain Keats’s most brilliant ideas often begin with a simple account of day-to-day occurrences). Also, if the letters from MacAdder’s correspondents contain some ongoing dialogue about his poetry or ideas, I think it would be worth including selections to give a reader a fuller idea of MacAdder’s composition process and how much other people contributed to his writing. If anything, I would at least summarize the letter to give a reader context for MacAdder’s reply. I agree with Stillinger that writing rarely, if ever, occurs in isolation.
Which leads to the question: what about all those drafts of his sonnet sequence? I think they are worth including, especially if there are indications they were part of his letters. After all, the reason readers are interested in the letters is to get some glimpse into the mind of a well-known author, and that includes how they came to produce their art. Thus, I would certainly include the drafts of his poetry where evidence suggests they may have been included with a letter, and refer to the other drafts in a footnote or appendix if no evidence exists to demonstrate that they were sent to MacAdder’s correspondents. Since this is an edition of letters, poetry manuscripts and other papers would be better suited in another volume. I believe, however, that to the degree the poetry was part of MacAdder’s letters, they should be included in my edition.
Another question that most of the editors brought up was how much an editor should interfere with spelling, typographical errors, and punctuation. Correcting obvious errors is generally not considered interference. The murkier situation is a particular author’s spelling and punctuation habits.
Out of all the editions of letters that I perused, I admired Scott’s edition of Keats’s the most. Scott’s approach did not attempt to focus on the possible influences on his poetry; instead, they offered up a picture of Keats through his own words, minutiae and all. I think scholars and editors enter into murky water when they attempt to determine what is could be an influence and what is not, since questions of authorship and creativity are not so easily answered. My edition of MacAdder would take a similar approach: I want to offer my readers a MacAdder that visits friends, drinks tea, and buys shirts not just a MacAdder that locks himself in his study with only his Muse (or Muffy) for company and feverishly scribbles. That image would be false. I would like readers to be able to connect to MacAdder as a real human being, not an abstract ideal of an author.