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Bericht uit Texas

Soms slagen medewerkers of studenten erin een paar maanden de Witte Singel achter te laten om een ver buitenland te bezoeken. Onder het mom van onderzoek doen, college geven of stage lopen doen zij buitengaats bijzondere ervaringen op. Forum haalt ze over die ervaringen met de thuisblijvers te delen. Richard Todd bericht vanuit Texas:

Editing handwritten, printed and digital text from a long way away

door Richard Todd

Everything in Texas is BIG
Three and a half weeks in Central Texas in January 2006 is a pleasant prospect during the short dark November and December days of 2005. The first thing one notices is how light everything is, not least because we are on a latitude with North Africa and there are between three and four more hours of daylight at this time of year. And the temperatures-which are admittedly above average this January. Most days it is around a comfortable 20 degrees or so. One wouldn't want to be here in summer, though, with days of 35-40 and high humidity.

The last time I visited this state was with my wife in 1979, en route on an unplanned visit to Mexico from Boston. We stopped over both ways in Dallas, not just Dallas Fort Worth airport (DFW) but the city itself, infamous for the assassination of JFK, then only 16 years previously. We saw the sights, the repository and the grassy knoll, and also the graves of Bonnie and Clyde (then a film in recent memory). DFW was then the world's largest airport and seems to have grown even larger.

To get to where I needed to be, Texas A&M University, I had to stop over at DFW, and after a long cramped journey from Amsterdam-Minneapolis-Dallas I decided to pamper myself at the Grand Hyatt. It was worth it - I managed to stay alive until about 11:00 local time (6:00 CET the next day) and thus knocked a couple of days off the jet lag. People swear by melatonin, so I got some the next day, and that helps too.


Academic Building Texas A&M University

Academic Building
Texas A&M University

My final destination, Texas A&M University, sounds more distinguished than the name of the town, College Station, in which it is situated. I was struck by the oddity of the small place names that would be mentioned during the inevitable, and repetitive, weather forecasts on the various local breakfast TV channels. You've heard of Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, but how about Katy, Roundtop, and Tomball?  (To say nothing of Intercourse, Alabama.) And what about the "A&M"? This stands for "Agricultural and Mechanical", or "Aggie" for short. Don't be fooled: there is a substantial Faculty of Arts, with over 50 staff in the English Department alone. There are 40, 000 Texas A&M students. There is a free bus service from my apartment, about three miles away, and I have a 15-minute walk to the office from where it terminates. (The entire campus is about the size of the Randstad: everything in Texas is BIG. The entire state is supposed to be bigger than France and Germany combined.) My landmark orientation is an enormous water tower with "Welcome to Aggieland" painted in huge letters near the top. I settled my accommodation bill in "Aggiebucks".

Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne
I am here to play my (editorial) part in a project now about 20 years old, and consists of a team of about forty international scholars, which is to produce a Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne http://donnevariorum.tamu.edu. Four (or three-and-a-half) of the projected eight volumes have now appeared from Indiana UP, under the general editorship of Gary Stringer, my extraordinarily generous host. They can be found in the UB. I have made this trip before, carving out a few weeks between semesters. Donne wrote around 225 poems, very few of which were printed in his lifetime, and with one exception none of which (apart from a few lines) exist in his own hand or holograph. Previous editors have assumed that the first printed editions (1633, two years after Donne's death, and 1635) should serve as the basis for a modern edition. Our project takes another view, which is that we are likelier to get closer to what Donne wrote, and in some cases revised, by examining the unequalled manuscript tradition, an Index of which, compiled by Peter Beal, has been available since 1980. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 manuscript versions of the poems have survived, although probably several hundred are fragments, or manuscript annotations in printed copies. As editors we have had to get used to the idea that Donne's poetic work, and that of many of his contemporaries, is recalcitrant to today's print culture, and that Donne (at the time of taking Holy Orders in 1615) may actually have destroyed at least his erotic poems. But by then, he could not call back the many copies that had made of them (his most notorious erotic elegy still, today, exists in over 60 different manuscript versions, and this must be the tip of the iceberg). Poetry was still being disseminated in manuscript in English as late as the last quarter of the seventeenth century. One recipient was Constantijn Huygens, who made 19 translations from his manuscript collection (four in 1630, and the rest in 1633: this project has allowed me to prove beyond doubt that he did not use the 1633 print).

Difficilior lectio potior
The theoretical underpinning of the editorial part of the project is what bibliographers would term "Lachmannian". The eighteenth-century German philologist set down several principles, of which one is difficilior lectio potior, or "I prefer the more difficult reading". That is, when you collate, or set side by side, different manuscript versions of a given poem, and you find one reading "inter-assured" and another "entire, assured", you prefer the former. In this case the former is first attested in the OED from this source. The theory is that a scribe is more likely to trivialize a difficult or unknown word into something that makes sense than to make up something without apparent precedent.

The first step in establishing the text or texts we want to present is the collate all the extant versions of a given poem (usually, in the case of the poems I have been working on, between 20 and 30). These have been keyed in to a computer file program that allows us to typeset the books ourselves (a great saving on the retail price). There is also a collation program. By now we are beginning to learn which manuscripts belong to which "groups" or subgroups, and are able more quickly to construct our stemmata or family trees. On the basis of these, the version of the text or in some cases also the authorially revised text of a given poem that we will present can be deduced. Theoretically we will use one manuscript in each case-we avoid eclectic procedure-but we do reserve the right to emend obvious mistakes should we come across these.

The transcription of the manuscripts has been the most time-consuming aspect of the project. Now we have nearly reached the end of this (remember, this means up to 5,000 text files), we are beginning to be able to digitize, and used scanned versions. But our procedure is always to take a printout of every single text file to the library in which the original manuscript is held, and "proofread" the text file against the original. In my own experience, being sent to Oxford or Cambridge or London or even Aberdeen (I'm the only European textual editor), I find as many as one mistake (often very small, almost trivial ones) in each line. The handwriting ranges from old-fashioned "secretary hand" to more modern italic (one does have to develop paleographical skills to do all this), and of course early seventeenth-century spelling is not normalized. It also uses abbreviations for common words such as "with", "which", or "our"-and many others.

Lo-tech meets hi-tech
Twenty years into the project, the "lo-tech meets hi-tech" aspects of editing John Donne's poetry have never been sharper. As textual editors we increasingly ask ourselves what Donne or one of the many scribes who published his work in manuscript would think of our array of computers, microfilm readers that can make xerox copies of, and even scan, the filmed artifacts, and (most lately) computer programs that can be used to make not simply a scanned facsimile but a reset text facsimile of a seventeenth-century print. Texas A&M is a very wealthy university and recently purchased its own copies of the seven printed editions of Donne's poetry that appeared in the seventeenth century in a Sotheby's auction in London. In due course scanned versions of these, and many of the major manuscript collections, will be available on our website. I hope this knowledge will encourage our own library to purchase the (admittedly extremely expensive) Early English Books Online project (EEBO). At present one of the few publicly available scanned prints can be viewed at http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.cfm?textID=donne&PagePosition=1/. Lastly I really welcome the news (read on the University of Leiden website from 8,000 km away) that the Faculty of Arts is to appoint to a Chair in digital and media studies.

Ten-gallon hat
My visit to Texas A&M, though a research trip funded by Pallas (to whom I am very grateful), also has its pleasures, such as the parochial nature of local TV news, wrestling with aggressive kitchen apparatus, and my wish (which will probably remain unfulfilled) to bring a genuine Texan black ten-gallon hat back with me. (One wonderful TV moment: during a press conference George "Dubya" Bush was advised to "check out" the Oscar favourite Brokeback Mountain. His reply was incoherent.) These hats blend in to the landscape here, but not (I think) around the Lipsius or the WSD complex. And anyway, how would I get it back, except by wearing it on the plane? I don't think so.

Ten-gallon hat

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