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Text Genetics in Literary Modernism and Other Essays

Hans Walter Gabler

16. Cultural versus Editorial Canonising: The Cases of Shakespeare, of Joyce

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1‘Textual Scholarship and the Canon’. This was to textual scholars and critics a challenging conference title. Does textual scholarship respond to the canon? Musically speaking: does it echo and take up — always a few beats and bars behind — a tune already resounding? Or, the other way round: does it strike up the lead part — does textual scholarship itself define and shape (or contribute to defining and shaping) the canon? I remember George Watson, editor of the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, many years ago in a seminar drawing attention to the circumstance that scholarly work on author bibliographies would often contribute to fine-tuning the literary canon: unravel ambiguities of authorship; resolve anonymities; substantiate attributions; or shift titles (and thus works) from one author’s oeuvre to another’s. Is it in the power — is it indeed among the duties — of textual scholarship to perform likewise? Editors can, for sure, put works and texts, or indeed authors (of the past or the present), on the literary map, and within the ken of a general cultural awareness. Is such an effect of central importance, emanating as it does from a discipline curiously compartmented within, or wedged between, the fields of literature, history, law, philosophy, or music; or is it, if it occurs, at most a peripheral phenomenon? My case studies — diverse as they are, though both rooted in self-gained experience — should serve to shed some light on the question and help us gauge whether what we do, as textual critics and editors, carries weight and is important, not only to ourselves, but, in some larger contexts, to the societies in which we live, from which we take our bearings, and to whose cultural awareness we just might be able to contribute.


2What was William Shakespeare’s status as an author, what was the status of his works around the year 1600, and what were both at the time of his death in 1616? In his lifetime, Shakespeare wrote plays for the stage. As playwright, he did not engage in literature. In his generation, still, drama stood outside the genres considered as literary. True enough, William Shakespeare contributed to recognised literary genres, too. He wrote two brief epics, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and saw them duly published, as befitted the genre. Equally, he engaged in the time’s practice of writing short poems, foremost sonnets, that according to contemporary custom were held private, though concomitantly circulated in manuscript. Eventually Shakespeare saw his Sonnets published in 1609, but the precise nature of his own role in the publication remains obscure.

3The publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets in book form may at bottom have constituted an act of affirming public recognition, and thus a bid for the canonisation of Shakespeare as lyric poet. For in truth, he had ten years earlier already received respectful, even admiring mention in Francis Meres’ Palladis Thamia, Wit’s Treasury of 1598, specifically as ‘mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends’. This was a pronouncement from the public forum of the day. Palladis Thamia was an end-of-the-century survey of the literary state of the nation, set up against the foil of the achievements of classical antiquity and Renaissance Italy. It assessed the authors of the day, or ‘of the age’, in other words, by comparison to the Greek, Latin, and indeed Italian, authors ‘for all time’ (I pre-echo here Ben Jonson’s encomium on Shakespeare, to which I shall return). With the inclusion of William Shakespeare among the English contemporaries worthy of mention in Palladis Thamia began his cultural canonizing — to the extent, that is, that contemporary recognition constitutes a first step, and if a first step, then also a dependable step, towards canonisation.

4As regards the playwright, Frances Meres lists the titles of plays that Shakespeare by 1598 had to his name and prefaces the list by stating that, in comedy as well as tragedy, ‘Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage’. How vividly he was recognised as a contemporary presence on the stage, may be gauged from other plays of the day. Allusions are plentiful in contemporary plays; and I am not even thinking (bookishly) so much of quotes and echoes in words and phrases. Attending to stage gestures and poses is in fact just as rewarding for recognising responses. Staging a character in the gesture, say, of closely observing something (imaginary, or really present) on his outstretched right hand: this is Hamlet conversing with Yorick’s skull; or, similarly, having a character enter ‘reading on a book’ would recall Hamlet — or Richard III between two clerics, for that matter — in the same pose. Such are tokens of an awareness beyond the individual and the private sphere of an author — Shakespeare — and his texts. Because of the public acclaim they were by such tokens receiving, Shakespeare’s stage plays became the objects of a public claim on the texts and their author as canonically belonging to the contemporary public’s culture, and world. They began thus to enter the public domain. But, as we also very well know, particularly with regard to show business, public acclaim may prove transient, and a fad. The cultural profile and awareness of an age may prove to be by no means for all time. The potential for canonisation, for becoming a recognised strand and element of the cultural heritage: this potential may be realized — or it may not.

  • 1 I.e., Ulysses, episode 3, line 503; cited from James Joyce, Ulysses. A Critical and Synoptic Editi (...)

5Closer to our present day — by the early twentieth century, say — it is amply evident that Shakespeare’s plays have established themselves in the cultural canon. Glancing forward to James Joyce and Ulysses, we find in the opening chapters of that text Stephen Dedalus all dressed in black and wearing his ‘Hamlet hat’ — traits of character portrayal that only make sense to readers familiar and at ease with — again — Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The familiarity is more deeply relied upon, or challenged, at the end of the novel’s third episode, where Stephen Dedalus moves onward into an unknown and uncertain future: ‘He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant’. (U 3, 503)1 It is the pose, as we may recognise, of Hamlet parting from Ophelia,

And, with his head over his shoulder turn’d,
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes;
For out o’doors he went without their help,
And to the last bended their light on me.
(Hamlet, II.1, 97–100)

6In the play, moreover, this is a scene not even acted before our eyes. It is merely reported by Ophelia, though with such anguish that it has imprinted itself on the imagination of audiences and readers as vividly as Ophelia professes it to be engraved on her heart.

7Such, in exemplary detail, is the stuff cultural heritage is made of, and, with the acceptance of the heritage, the canonisation of the texts from which it grows, and the authors who create it. A canon of literature is not a given, but a line of orientation, or a field of force, laid out by authors, societies, readers, editors and publishers together. The transfer of creation from the private into the public sphere sparks cultural awareness and recognition that establishes the potential for canonisation. It is however only the public and (again) cultural acceptance of individually time-bound creation as heritage — in other words, an acceptance historicized — that will turn the potential into actuality. This means that canonisation is intimately — is, indeed, functionally bound up with transmission. Consequently, too, this is where editing comes in, and does so specifically from our vantage point as textual critics and editors.

8The stage was prepared and set, as one might say, with care and foresight for Shakespeare. 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, saw a historical turn in the fate of play texts for the theatre. They were, as of that year, claimed, and thus became claimable, as literature; and it was Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, who did the initial claiming. He saw an edition of his dramatic oeuvre into print and performed the editing himself. He collected plays he had written over more than a decade and a half, some of which had indeed already been individually pre-published during that period. He added further the texts for masques at court, a prestigious Gesamtkunstwerk genre he took especial pride in. All this he encased within one representative volume in folio. This was a book format hitherto reserved for the Bible, prestigious epics, or bulky prose texts, such as chronicles, or travelogues. The plays he republished he edited, too, in terms of their texts, touching them up with revisions throughout, and rewriting some of them into new versions.

  • 2 The quotes from the Shakespeare First Folio are all excerpted from the ‘Preface’ section of the ‘G (...)

9Ben Jonson opened a door to survival for the transient art of theatrical writing. Within seven years, his folio edition was followed by the Shakespeare First Folio, the book, as we all know, that holds the canon of Shakespeare’s work and ensures in permanence its author’s, William Shakespeare’s, canonicity. Again, this is an edition. A cooperative took it in hand, consisting of Shakespeare’s theatre company together with a consortium of publishers and booksellers. Two fellow actors in particular, John Heminge and Henry Condell, signed their names to the undertaking. They did so as editors. In their address to the reader, they underscore editorial tasks and duties. Deploring that the author could not have seen to these himself, ‘by death departed from that right’, the claim they are making for themselves is that they have ‘collected and publish’d’ Shakespeare’s writings, offering those that had already before been published, ‘cur’d, and perfect of their limbs’; and those they were presenting in print for the first time, ‘absolute in their numbers, as he [Shakespeare] conceived them’. Shakespeare’s texts in manuscript, moreover, seem according to Heminge’s and Condell’s praise to have been any editor’s pure joy: for, as they assure us to our sceptical surprise, they ‘scarce received from him a blot in his papers’.2 Through the efforts of the First Folio’s editorial cooperative of fellow actors and publishers, Shakespeare, the playwright, became a writer containable in a book. He thereby also became an author under a literary rather than a theatrical dispensation.

10According to the custom of the times, the Folio editors added several puffs to the edition. Outstanding among these is of course Ben Jonson’s encomium. Interestingly, Jonson places Shakespeare in line with the ancient Greek and Latin dramatists. Thus situating him and English literature of the day in both an international and an historical context, he trades on an argument that — for example — Sir Philip Sidney and Francis Meres had adopted before him. In their common view, the ancient dramatists laid the foundations for the canon of world drama that Jonson sees Shakespeare in the present age to have perpetuated. With cultural continuity thus secured, the line is conceived of as extending into the future. It is thus that Jonson’s encomium epitomises Shakespeare in the words I have already alluded to: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ the most succinct formula imaginable, perhaps, for conferring canonical status on an author and his work. Surely (by the way), Ben Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare, for all its honest sentiment of high estimation, admiration and genuine friendship, should also be seen in conjunction with his determined effort of seven years earlier to secure his own literary status. Fighting for himself, as he did then, he could hardly at the same time have written into his folio edition the public acclaim. All the more happily could he do this now for Shakespeare and his works. The point of the two folio editions taken together, then, is that canonicity is conferred, and it is so conferred by public cultural acclaim in conjunction with an editorial enterprise.

11Though in truth canonising Shakespeare and his oeuvre, there are two things the First Folio could not, or did not, do. One, understandably, was to augur the future. The First Folio’s editors could not forecast the fate of that canonicity for which they laid the foundations. However imposing its bid, as an edition, in its day, Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies might have remained without resonance, or perpetuation, might have been neglected and forgotten, and the volume’s contents, even the very name of the author, cast into oblivion.

12If the First Folio’s editors could not and did not predict the future, what they also did not do was to reflect on their own conception and design. The volume assembling what they collected never mentions that potentially eligible contents were left out of it. It does not, for example, discuss whether there might be Shakespearean plays yet floating around, in manuscript or in print, that (for whatever reason) were not included in the edition. Moreover, as we know — and as his contemporaries clearly knew, too — Shakespeare, besides writing plays, also wrote verse; yet the First Folio editors excluded his epic and lyric poetry, and give no reason for doing so.

  • 3 William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (The Oxford Shake (...)

13Above all, however, they do not comment on their rationale for ordering the volume. The generic arrangement of the plays they decided on, it is true, would likely enough have seemed so self-evident to them that not a word needed to be spent thereon. Yet it is, as a matter of fact, in its ordering of Shakespeare’s plays that the First Folio has had the strongest and most persistent effect on posterity’s understanding of the shape of the canon of his dramatic writings. The First Folio’s ordering of the plays, as it turned out, became the most inviolable, and thus indeed canonical, feature of the edition. For over 360 years, it was never actively (that is, editorially) called into question that Shakespeare wrote Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies to be grouped together just as the First Folio grouped them. The systematising of the edition in terms of genre has carried, from the outset, such seeming conviction and, with time, gained such authority from tradition, that no-one before the editors of the Oxford one-volume Shakespeare of 1986 dared realise an alternative arrangement.3 Their new ordering is chronological — an ordering that, for all its uncertainties, and for whatever else its effects are, answers to a present-day critical as well as editorial understanding that Shakespeare did not (say, like the classical French dramatists) write his plays to pure rules of dramatic genre. In other words, we today seem prepared — prepared, that is, if in turn prepared to follow the present-day editors’ suggestions — to recanonise Shakespeare’s oeuvre within the canonical confines of its overall body as transmitted. It is, as we should also note, from modified cultural premises that we are prepared to alter our conception of the shape of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: in our own times we no longer hold to strict normativities — say, normativities of genre — in our perceptions of literature and drama.

14Are we — and this is a genuine follow-up question — also prepared to widen our conception, or even just perception, of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and of Shakespeare as a writer? The one-volume Oxford Shakespeare of 1986 staged a most intriguing test situation for gauging the interdependence of cultural and editorial canonising. Following on from their plan to make the Oxford edition an edition of the Complete Works, they incorporated, with the plays, the brief epics and the sonnets. Over and above the sonnets, they also included assorted lyrics commonly accepted as poems by Shakespeare. This was uncontroversial, since there had long been cultural as well as critical agreement on a canon of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic writing outside the body of plays that has come down to us in the line of descent from the First Folio edition. But the Oxford editors, as historically aware critical editors reassessing the entirety of the oeuvre and its transmission, went one step further. They localised in a collective manuscript of Elizabethan lyrics a poem under the incipit of ‘Let me die, let me fly’ and, following the author assignation given in the collective manuscript, assigned it (afresh, as it were) to William Shakespeare. Honestly unable to identify any reason for doubting the attribution, they felt in duty bound to include the poem, according to their editorial premises, as a poem by William Shakespeare in the edition of the Complete Works they were offering. There was a great outcry. The poem could not be by Shakespeare, because nobody knew it, and certainly nobody knew it as belonging to the canon of his writings. Were we, the cultural community, going to allow editors to fool us into believing something that we knew better: that we knew better because earlier critics, scholars and editors told us a different story — or, rather, failed to tell us about, or show us ‘Let me die, let me fly’ altogether? The interdependence of cultural acclaim and editorial confirmation, as we see, is with us undiminished, even (and perhaps especially) with a public cultural good whose canonical standing is secure and, at least seemingly, permanent.


15The dramatic works of Shakespeare have had a continuous publication history from the First Folio of 1623 to the Complete Works of 1986. This, if we agree to take the notion of editing broadly, has also been a continuous editing history. Beginning with the second to fourth Folio editions in the seventeenth century, publishing and republishing Shakespeare has mostly involved some measure of editing. Of this, the bottom line has been, and remains even to this day, a progressive contemporising of Shakespeare — by the simple expedient of always modernising his language, if not in its idiomatic, grammatical and syntactical usages, then at least in spellings, punctuation, and even at times versification and metre. This raises the question whether to persist in securing a work and an author against oblivion by contemporising and modernising, or, more generally, by editing, amounts to canonisation.

16The answer is not easy or straightforward. Yet the contrast may prove instructive between the relatively (I stress: relatively) low-key awareness of Shakespeare in England through the seventeenth and up to around the middle of the eighteenth century, as against his upsurge in the consciousness of the times from about the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. For a century and a half after his death, broadly speaking, Shakespeare never vanished from the horizon of the national literary and theatrical heritage — though it is true that, due to the adverse fate of the theatre through most of this period, he survived over these years more as a literary than as a theatrical author: it had, as it turns out, not been untimely, on the part of the First Folio editors, to institute him under a literary rather than a theatrical dispensation. Despite this, his early posthumous status was less than ‘canonical’ if we posit that canonicity involves qualities of the exemplary and normative. Consequently, it might almost be said that the eighteenth century recanonised Shakespeare.

  • 4 Paula Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity. Editing as Canonising in Swedish Romanticism’, Variants, 7 (...)

17In terms of genre, during the period of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the epic, the lyric, and the narrative (under the guises of the ‘romantic’ or the confessionally biographic) were generally in ascendancy over the theatrical. Specifically within the dramatic genre itself, as resurrected after 1660, it was less Shakespeare than his somewhat younger fellow dramatists (for example Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher) who, through the social and societal models of their plots, were the playwrights from the past that still appealed with immediacy to Restoration Britain. With them, Shakespeare simply coexisted within the continuous strands of the English-language cultural text. ‘Up to the eighteenth century’, as Paula Henrikson remarks, ‘literature [formed] primarily […] an eternally present repertoire. The writer was practising on a general commons, where he belonged to a team of eternally contemporary colleagues’.4 So to practise could also mean freely to adapt. The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England saw a proliferation of Shakespeare adaptations. At least one of these, Lewis Theobald’s ‘Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers’, remains, apparently, the only trace we have of a late Shakespearean (probably collaboratively Shakespearean) play, ‘Cardenio’. Or again, in a work of glory for the late seventeenth century stage, The Fairy Queen, Henry Purcell’s genius magically transfigured ‘A Midsummer Night’ s Dream’ into a series of masques. Against the crude abridgement of Shakespeare’s original text with which it was interwoven, it is Purcell’s masque sequence (itself without a single verbal quote from Shakespeare) that represents the valid adaptation by generic transformation of Shakespeare’s play. Clearly, though, presence in adaptation is not textually inviolate canonical presence.

18As regards conferring canonical status finally and irreversibly on Shakespeare and his dramatic works, the situation changed drastically from just before the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. It did so on the strength of factors of tradition and transmission; though ultimately, and above all, on account of that fundamental shift in cultural consciousness by which the ‘writer as co-practitioner in a team of colleagues’ was succeeded in universal cultural awareness by the absolutely individualised original genius, and the erstwhile sense of an ‘eternal contemporaneity on a general commons’ gave way to differentiations of perception under the depth perspectives of the age of historicism.

  • 5 In the preceding essay, ‘Argument into Design’, I touch upon Alexander Pope’s aesthetic qualms ove (...)
  • 6 Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity’, p. 38.
  • 7 Quoted from Margareta De Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 115. — J (...)

19The factors of tradition and transmission were operative both in editions, and in the theatre. They were bookish and learned, as well as popular; it would seem that only in combination did they inescapably secure canonical status for Shakespeare. The eighteenth century saw a proliferation of Shakespeare editions by the gentlemen editors of the day. Those of Lewis Theobald, William Warburton, Thomas Hanmer, Alexander Pope5 or Samuel Johnson were clustered around mid-century. Some of these gentlemen edited other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists besides, but their editorial efforts were most insistently focused on Shakespeare. With their learning, they transferred a culture of editing acquired in academic training on ancient texts to transmissions in the vernacular. If what Paula Henrikson also maintains can be upheld, namely that ‘[t]he national canons emerged in constant interplay with the canon of Classical Antiquity’, as well as (with modifications of her wording for my present purpose) ‘a concept of national classicity […] was introduced […] not least through […] editorial scholarship’,6 then the learned endeavour of the eighteenth-century gentlemen editors may be seen as an important factor in the canonising of Shakespeare and his dramatic works. By their own sense of what they were doing, the gentlemen editors may, at the level of the materiality of transmissions, have felt they were restating Sidney’s, or Meres’s, or Ben Jonson’s claims for Shakespeare as the British peer to the dramatists of Antiquity: for Sidney, Meres, or Jonson did indeed, as we have seen, class Shakespeare and the ancients together in a common group. But what the eighteenth-century editors in fact did — without all of them perhaps being fully aware of the implications of transferring the traditions of editing the Ancients to works of vernacular literature of the recent past — was no less than initiate an historicising of Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson, though, had that perspective lucidly before him. In the Preface to his edition of 1765, he emphasised that Shakespeare’s work could ‘begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration’.7

  • 8 See Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity’, p. 37.
  • 9 Michael Stolz, ‘Medieval Canonicity and Rewriting: A Case Study of the Sigunefigure in Wolfram’s P (...)

20‘Classicity’ and ‘national classicity’ appear to be concepts that became necessary precisely because an historical depth perspective was setting in. Then to take the next conceptual step, namely to introduce the notion of the canonical in relation to the classical, amounts to an attempted rescue of the timeless against an increasing awareness of mutability concealed in the abysses of time and the past. Again, it is Paula Henrikson who reminds us of the twentieth-century debate, in Germany, over a hermeneutic versus a receptional approach to the notion of classicity. The dictum of Hans Georg Gadamer’s that she quotes, ‘The “classical” is something raised above the vicissitudes of changing times and changing tastes,’ 8would serve admirably, with the simple replacement of ‘classical’ by ‘canonical’, to define how canonicity is most generally understood. It appears — though I will admit I have not verified my hunch — that the necessity and urge to introduce the notion of canons and the canonical in literature and the arts is concomitant with the rise of historicism. If this is so, it becomes explicable, too, from that other reminder I draw from the canon debate that took place at the ESTS conference in Vilnius. Michael Stolz articulated the point of departure: ‘The concept of canonicity was developed in bible studies; it derives from the question which books should represent authoritative writings of God’s revelation’.9 The authoritative writings of God’s revelation are divine and holy texts, and so they are by definition timeless. In defining literary canons, the urge, then, is to establish a body of secular texts of timeless validity. Canonisation, from this point of view, amounts to an act of secularisation by which the cultural text, in its manifestations as literature, or music, or art, replaces the Holy or Divine Text.

  • 10 A suggestive parallel for a ‘grand popularising’, amounting very much to a ‘popmusicalisation’, to (...)

21In terms of drama and the theatre, the cultural text even becomes enactable (dare one say: culturally ritualisable?). The canonisation of Shakespeare in the second half of the eighteenth century would never have become so overwhelming, even absolute, as it was, without the grand popularising (the most volatile, perhaps, or incendiary form of contemporising) through the revival of his plays on the stage to audiences in high numbers, or indeed without the mass events of the Shakespeare festivals in London and Stratford around the bicentenary of his birth in 1764.10 The editorial and the theatrical bids for canonisation went hand in hand and, regardless of the fact that the texts used in the theatre were often very distant from the transmitted and learnedly edited ones, they reinforced one another. It was Shakespeare and his works that were canonized — not thereby necessarily his authentic texts: a point I shall, from another angle, have occasion to come back to at the conclusion of this essay.

  • 11 Margareta De Grazia’s monograph, Shakespeare Verbatim (see above, n. 7), subtitled ‘The Reproducti (...)

22Over and above everything else, the editing, staging, and popularising that progressed through the latter half of the eighteenth century had the ultimate effect of converting the playwright from a figure with a present and contemporary appeal, even though beckoning from a somewhat receding past, into the timelessly contemporary National Bard: a paradoxical, though thoroughly real, act of historicising by monumentalising William Shakespeare once and for all, and for good. In turn, and paradoxically yet again, it was this conversion of Shakespeare the playwright into Shakespeare the Bard, and Author, that created the conditions for subjecting his works, as well as the scholarly construction ‘Shakespeare’, to the processes of historically aware editing for which, in the history of scholarship, the foundations were laid precisely at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century. Edward Malone was the key figure in historicising Shakespeare as the bard and author figure, and he attained his complex objective by means of the multi-discoursed scholarly edition he developed as his instrument.11 In other words: scholarly editing played a significant part in canonising Shakespeare into the timelessness of his own historicity around 1800, which no subsequent editing of course has undone, or could be imagined to wish (or have the power) to undo. To us today, invalidating Shakespeare’s canonicity seems imaginable only under the dystopian horror scenarios of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or George Orwell’s 1984.


  • 12 George Russell was an Irish mystic, poet, and painter, close friend also of William Butler Yeats. (...)

23James Joyce began to write prose narratives at the age of twenty-two, since he was asked to do so. George Russell12 suggested to him to submit a short story to the weekly ‘Organ of Agricultural and Industrial Development in Ireland’, called officially The Irish Homestead (Joyce dubbed it ‘the pig’s paper’). Published on 2 July 1904, the story was an early version of ‘The Sisters’, which was in due course to become the initial story of the collection Dubliners. Two more stories were to follow in The Irish Homestead within months, so that one may say that Joyce in 1904 was becoming a contemporary Irish writer. His status as a canonical writer of European modernism, let alone of twentieth-century world literature in the English language, was thereby however not conferred. What was lacking, and long lacking for Joyce, was general public recognition and acclaim. Friends discerned his writing skill, indeed his art, and admired it, but such private and, as it were, coterie recognition was no help against the blight of censorship which prevented Joyce’s writing from reaching the general public — it was largely prevented from doing so, as it turned out, for almost two decades.

24Interestingly, the censorship was in many cases not official, not exercised by any agency state-appointed for the purpose. It was preemptive on the part of publishers and printers who exercised caution under a general threat of legal prosecution. A London publisher in 1906 refused to publish Dubliners because his printer would not print certain purportedly vulgar or obscene turns of phrase (printers could be brought to court, as could publishers) and a Dublin publisher in 1912, though having had Dubliners in proof for almost three years, finally refused to publish for fear of indictments for libel. Prudent British printers complicated the case for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so that Joyce’s London publisher in 1916 had to import the sheets for her first edition for the British market from the United States. The New York publisher could risk the novel as a book, and did so. But when, from 1918 to 1920, it came to the pre-publication of Ulysses in a North American literary journal (The Little Review), prosecution hit the US Post Office: a self-appointed society, the ‘Society for Prevention of Vice’, brought the Post Office and The Little Review to court for distributing the instalments of that obscene text, Ulysses. This stopped the pre-publication. As a book, Ulysses came out in 1922 in Paris. Simultaneous publication in the United States was, after the New York court case, impossible; in Britain, it was unthinkable anyhow. Hence, in the English-speaking world, the book was for a long time known largely by hearsay only. Individuals imported it as contraband, at considerable personal risk. Whole shipments, too, of edition part-lots printed in France were confiscated by customs. The transfer of the publishing from Paris to Hamburg in 1932 did little to improve the accessibility of the book for the English-speaking world. In its turn, the US court’s verdict of 1920 against Ulysses eventually necessitated the famous court case of December 1933 by which Ulysses was declared ‘not pornographic’, or ‘[not] obscene within the legal definition of that word’. On the strength of this verdict, the firm of Random House was free to publish and distribute the novel in the open market. Britain, and the firm of Bodley Head in London, followed suit in 1936–1937. Ulysses was at last a publicly accessible book worldwide.

25For the international cultural community of the 1920s and 1930s, James Joyce was one of the foremost among their contemporary authors. That sense of contemporaneity persisted for another two decades or more beyond James Joyce’s death in 1941 — so much so that Richard Ellmann in 1959 opened his epochal biography with the words: ‘We are still learning to be Joyce’ s contemporaries.’ This was a paradoxical sentence because, under the passage of time, it signalled that contingent contemporaneity (whether an illusion or not, in the first place) was inexorably receding; and that, on a level of understanding contemporaneity conceptually, it was precisely the historical distancing through writing a biographical history that was now, in 1959, required. It was therefore only a question of time until an historicising of Joyce would follow, by the collateral means of scholarly editions.

26What happened after James Joyce’s death was no more than was to be expected. In 1944, only three years after Joyce died in Zurich, the surviving fragment of his first unfinished novel Stephen Hero, unpublished in Joyce’s lifetime, was edited from manuscript and published in the United States. His so-called ‘Critical Writings’ soon followed suit, as did a selection of his letters (in two instalments: one volume in 1957, two more in 1966). Then, in 1964 and 1967, we were given study editions for school and college use of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and of Dubliners. As editions of these works regularly published by the author himself in his lifetime, they were the first, over twenty years after Joyce’s death, both to mediate the edited works through commentary, and to result as well from attention to early documents of transmission, that is: to surviving authorial manuscripts. In these editions, and in terms of the commentary they provided, the editorial contribution to the canonisation grew on pedagogical soil — or, from the still more elementary need of readopting the author and the work into contemporaneity. Irreverently inverting Richard Ellmann’s opening gambit, one might thus see editing, especially in its function of elucidation and commentary, as an effort of teaching the author — James Joyce — to be our contemporary.

  • 13 Jerome J. McGann, ‘Ulysses as a Postmodern Text: The Gabler Edition’, Criticism, 27 (1985), 283–30 (...)

27The culmination, hitherto, of canonising James Joyce by means of scholarly editing, and therefore of reinforcing a cultural awareness of his canonicity, was reached with the 1984 critical and synoptic edition of Ulysses, a project I am proud of having accomplished, at the head of a dedicated team of collaborators, between 1977 and 1983. The editorial task I had set us was both elementary and complex: firstly, to verify and, where necessary, to amend the current textual state of Ulysses (as it had been on the market since the first edition of 1922) on the strength of all documents of composition and transmission still available; and, secondly, to provide a synopsis of the textual development from a fair-copy (or immediately pre-fair-copy) state to a state authentically corresponding to the text actually published in 1922. The edited text was designed to prevent — that is: to intercede before — the transmissional errors that occurred in the pre-publication documents and permeated the first edition. Its objective was to establish a stable ‘final’ text of Ulysses of the highest attainable authenticity. On the other hand: the goal of the edition’s concurrent synopsis of the textual development from a fair-copy (or immediately pre-fair-copy) state onwards was an editorial display of the text’s non-closure over a significant stretch of composition and revision. What the synopsis achieves is to provide an experience not so much of the ‘stability’ of a (truly, or purportedly) final text, but rather of a text’s demonstrable progression and ‘determinate indeterminacies’, to adopt Jerome J. McGann’s sharp-sighted observation on the synopsis dimension of the edition.13

28Editorially speaking, then, we went for Ulysses with really heavy guns — exploiting, as we did, two complex systems of scholarly editing in conjunction: the Anglo-American one geared towards the attainment, in an edition, of a stable textual closure for a work and text edited; and the German one, genetically aware and therefore process-oriented, which stands at the back of the synoptic text presentation in the edition. This latter, dynamic and processual, dimension, however, is of very little, or no concern in relation to my present argument. For it simply does not touch on questions of canonicity and the canon. What matters, and has mattered, in relation to the canonical status of James Joyce, the author, and Ulysses, the work, is the reading text for Ulysses that the edition has established, and offered to the public.

29From contemporary cultural consensus, both author and work had attained canonical status by the time of the scholarly edition. The shock that the edition administered was that the canonical status of author and work did not extend unquestionably as well to the text of Ulysses. The edition’s text of the novel differed from the text(s) available in all editions on the market since its first publication in 1922. The cultural community was jolted out of an assumption silently and unreflectively held: namely that the canonicity conferred by cultural consent upon James Joyce, the author, and Ulysses, the work, implied automatically, too, a canonical inviolability of the text of Ulysses as codified in, and by means of, the first edition. In the light of such an assumption, the edition in fact committed, as one might say, a deed of decanonising. Some reactions against the edition, consequently, were radically condemning; others at least tinged with personal regret: ‘This is not the Ulysses we know, not the Ulysses we have always read, and are used to.’


30This, fascinatingly, confronts us with a time warp in the construction of cultural awareness in relation to cultural traditions, transmissions, authorities, and texts. Considering texts, and understanding their nature in terms of present-day theory and experience, we could hardly avoid agreeing that texts simply are not static, inert, or fixed once and for all, either in themselves, or in their progress through writing and rewriting, or through copying and recopying. Texts simply are, in their very nature (which in turn is a nature rooted in the nature of language), in themselves non-stable, processual, and dynamic, as well as, under conditions of transmission, always threatened with damage, disintegration, and dissolution. But if this is so, texts as texts can neither be canonical, nor canonised. The notions of text, on the one hand, and of canonisation and the canon, on the other hand, are incommensurate, and incompatible. The conception of canonical texts, rather, belongs to ages constructing their cultural awareness otherwise than we do today.

31Significantly, the notion of the canonical text is rooted in the realms of religion (as remarked above) and of the law — where, however, its validity has been gradually eroded, too, over centuries. In our Hebraico-Christian tradition, the absolute ur-text engraved in tablets of stone is that of the Mosaic law. By extension, Holy Scripture as a whole becomes the canonical text — assumed to have been infused into the minds and dictated into the pens of holy men, its recorders and transmitters, by God Himself. Interestingly though, what precisely it is that God has dictated as His Word has been determined from within the Church. It is the Church that has decreed the valid canon of Biblical books and established their inviolably stable texts. Canonisation, therefore, is — has always been — by cultural (or cult!) decree, assent and consent. In terms of the canon of Biblical books, this has allowed a coherent construction of canonicity, fusing all three constituent elements: author, book, and text.

  • 14 In the history of scholarly editing may be discerned a hierarchical rivalry between ‘document’ and (...)

32Over the ages of a progressive secularisation, however, this fusion has not held; and we may presume that editing played its part in the process. The three constituent elements have proved to be neither equally immutable, nor even equal in rank. The element breaking out of the erstwhile transcendent trinity has been the text. None-transcendently, text is always subject to transmission. Hence, where (even in this world) author and book may (perhaps) be thought of as immutable, the text is always mutable. Under the conditions of transmission, moreover, the text stands revealed as doubly derivative. In cultural terms, it is seen as deriving from its author; transmissionally, and thus in ultimately editorial terms, it is taken as derivative of its documents of transmission, the heritage of manuscripts and books. Under such a construction, author, book, and text cease to be coequal partners. The text becomes instead a function of author and book; and author and book, conversely, become the preconditions for transmission, and for editing.14

33The need as well as the urge to transmit, and by transmission to preserve, must always have sparked an editing impulse. This, even at the most elementary level, has also always been an amending and a corrective impulse. Realising that texts in transmission, even if only by copying, always needed fixing, led to the realisation that, if this was true for every text else preserved in copyable shape, it was equally true for the Biblical text. This in turn eroded the validity of textual canonicity, assumed to have been effected by an inviolable Divine fiat, long before historically oriented study of the Bible and its texts entered upon the cultural stage with the age of reason. Significantly, it was already at the time of the Renaissance, at the latest, that a notion of the ‘received text’ — textus receptus — came in alongside that of the ‘canonical text’; the textus receptus was always already the result of editorial intervention — or, shall we say, of a devoted editorial adjustment aimed at reinforcing, by purifying, a canonicity secure in cultural acclaim and consent. But the need to edit canonical texts into received texts already bore the seeds within it of abandoning the notion and very concept of the ‘canonical text’ altogether.

34In sum: my conclusion from my examples and these final reflections is that, while in our present-day cultural context it would seem still possible to adhere to notions of canonical authors and canonical works, the concept of a ‘canonical text’ has become an impossibility in intellectual and cultural, as well as in theoretical and methodological terms. If today we still adhere to the concept of a canon of authors and their works — if we do: if it is thus we lay out coordinates for our culture and find our bearings by them — and if we find, furthermore, around us (or within us!) a silent or confessed dedication to the given and inviolable text: then, I suppose, what we are discerning is an enactment of a stance in our cultural world equivalent to idioms in language such as: ‘the sun rises and sets.’ It does not, and we know it; similarly, texts cannot claim canonicity, or be declared canonical: for mutability, to which humanity’s texts are subject as is humanity itself, denies them such transcendence.

35Which does not render editing meaningless, or futile. On the contrary. Editing is a culture’s indispensable tool to confirm and to historicise its canonisings, initiated in the first instance by acclaim and consent. Consequently, of course, editing will always, too, sing or play the second part in the intoning of the cultural canon — and, in terms of this musical pun on my theme, it should always rest content with the role of supplying curtailments or foreshortenings (however carefully considered and executed) of the cultural matter; for it should, as it must, abide by the rule for canons sung or played that the second part, entering as it did a few bars late, needs also always to be correspondingly foreshortened at the conclusion, so as to reach a simultaneous consonance with the primary part in the harmony cord of the end fermata.


1 I.e., Ulysses, episode 3, line 503; cited from James Joyce, Ulysses. A Critical and Synoptic Edition, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, 3 vols. (New York: Garland, 1984); or, with identical lineation, the editions of the critically edited reading text only, available since 1986 from Random House in New York as well as Random House/The Bodley Head in London.

2 The quotes from the Shakespeare First Folio are all excerpted from the ‘Preface’ section of the ‘General Introduction’ in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Reprinted From the First Folio, ed. by Charlotte Porter and H. A. Clarke; with an introduction by John Churton Collins (London: T. Fisher Unwin, [1906]), p. iv–v,

3 William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (The Oxford Shakespeare) (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1986), together with which should be consulted: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare. A Textual Companion (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1987 [1988]).

4 Paula Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity. Editing as Canonising in Swedish Romanticism’, Variants, 7 (2008 [2010]), 37–55 (p. 52).

5 In the preceding essay, ‘Argument into Design’, I touch upon Alexander Pope’s aesthetic qualms over Shakespeare’s texts as transmitted (see above, p. 339).

6 Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity’, p. 38.

7 Quoted from Margareta De Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 115. — Johnson’s wording calls up the battle of the ancients and the moderns, essential seed-bed of the century’s move towards historicism. It is in this connection that Roger Lüdeke (in a private communication) draws my attention to the importance of the quarrel between Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald over Shakespearean editing. It turned on Pope’s sense of a distance in time from Shakespeare, requiring to be bridged by radically contemporising him, as against Theobald’s concern for Shakespeare’s text and its historically scrutinisable meanings — the concern of a member of the tribe of editors that, I would consequently suggest, would come fully to the fore only from the early nineteenth century onwards. In Theobald versus Pope, in other words, may be discerned one springhead of the move towards historicism through the eighteenth century which, as such, it is not my purpose here to delineate. It conditioned, however, as I will argue, not only the recanonisation of Shakespeare, but a sense of the need for canons altogether.

8 See Henrikson, ‘Canon and Classicity’, p. 37.

9 Michael Stolz, ‘Medieval Canonicity and Rewriting: A Case Study of the Sigunefigure in Wolfram’s Parzival’, Variants, 7 (2008 [2010]), 75–94 (p. 75).

10 A suggestive parallel for a ‘grand popularising’, amounting very much to a ‘popmusicalisation’, to secure the foundations for permanent cultural canonisation are the mass performances of George Frederic Handel’s oratorios that became a regular institution in London during the final decades of the eighteenth century. It is to the ‘Handel craze’ matching the ‘Shakespeare craze’ of the day that we may attribute that Handel, in contrast to (say) Johann Sebastian Bach, enjoyed an uninterrupted performance tradition in Britain and Europe at least up until the onset of the period-instrument (and-choral) revisionism of the late twentieth century. This is tantamount to a sustained cultural canonization — though, significantly, not of Handel’s operas, only of his oratorios to Biblical texts. For it is they that help to secure the permanence of the ‘Holy or Divine Text’ in an increasingly secularised cultural environment. From the grand London Handel concerts, indeed, we may even discern a line of succession to, say, Joseph Haydn’s Die Schöpfung [The Creation] and beyond into nineteenth-century oratorio. Haydn’s Creation was composed to a text condensed out of a libretto based largely on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book VII, and originally written for Handel. See my analysis, ‘Haydn’s Miltonian Patrimony’, Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal, 26 (2007), 2–11.

11 Margareta De Grazia’s monograph, Shakespeare Verbatim (see above, n. 7), subtitled ‘The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus’ is pivoted on this historical achievement.

12 George Russell was an Irish mystic, poet, and painter, close friend also of William Butler Yeats. In Ulysses, he figures as ‘A. E.’ in the library episode (chapter nine, Scylla and Charybdis) and editor of the weekly ‘Organ of Agricultural and Industrial Development in Ireland’. His editorship of The Irish Homestead shows just how closely connected were literature and the arts with everyday life a hundred years ago in Dublin.

13 Jerome J. McGann, ‘Ulysses as a Postmodern Text: The Gabler Edition’, Criticism, 27 (1985), 283–305.

14 In the history of scholarly editing may be discerned a hierarchical rivalry between ‘document’ and ‘text’ with even ontological implications. I discuss this in ‘Das wissenschaftliche Edieren als Funktion der Dokumente’,; and in Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie, 8 (2007), 55–62. The expanded version of this in English is ‘The Primacy of the Document in Editing’, in Ecdotica, 4 (2007), 197–207. A version in French is available as: ‘La prééminence du document dans l’édition’, in De l’hypertexte au manuscrit. L’apport et les limites du numérique pour l’édition et la valorisation de manuscrits littéraires modernes (Recherches & Travaux, n. 72), ed. by Françoise Leriche et Cécile Maynard (Grenoble: ELLUG, 2008), pp. 39–51.


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