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Yellow Wallpaper

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Among the literary works recovered a generation ago, in the widespread cultural feminist movement that fostered the reemergence of women's voices in society, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is undoubtedly prominent. In republishing the story, the agents of the Feminist Press, most notably the late Elaine R. Hedges in her famous afterword, foregrounded the aspect that concerned them most: its sexual politics. Gilman's story quickly evolved from a relatively obscure and subversive magazine piece of the late nineteenth century to a formative feminist classic, as college anthologies further disseminated both the text and the definitive interpretation attached to the work by the Feminist Press. In this way, a particular "Yellow Wall-Paper" has for some thirty years been on public display.

Yet even as "The Yellow Wall-Paper" has been reproduced over and over, the text itself has not always been the same. Two dozen printings already existed before the Feminist Press edition of 1973,[ 1] available for publishers to reproduce free of any copyright restraints. The dynamics of publishing, both past and present, have produced under the name of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" several different linguistic versions of the work: both from human error (as in the classic Melville example of a compositor's misreading of an author's manuscript, "soiled" for "coiled"); and from purposeful human intervention, as an editor's regularizing of an author's apparent inconsistencies. It is thus worth asking just what texts--what linguistic artifacts--constitute the frame on which the work known as "The Yellow Wall-Paper" has been hanging for nearly three decades.

Such questions did not seem particularly urgent to feminist critics in the early 1970s. At a time when mostly male scholars were toiling away on "authoritative" editions of mostly male authors with funding from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, that women's works be represented by "good" texts may have seemed less crucial than that they be represented and read at all. Now that new works by women routinely enter the literary canon (although much work remains to be done), feminists may wish to ensure that the genius, the individuality, the voices of women writers are represented and heard with integrity.

But what constitutes a "good" text, an "authoritative" text, a text with integrity, a proper frame in which to hang a work? The discipline now known to literary scholars as textual studies addresses such concerns. As with most fields that attract diverse intellects, it has by no means reached consensus even on basic issues. However, two general and competing schools of thought have emerged over time, each with a compelling conception of the authoritative text.[ 2] The first and traditionally most influential, often referred to as the "Greg-Bowers" school after its prolific founders, proposes that a good text reconstructs, as far as possible, an author's textual intentions for the work: her or his precise preferences for wording (so-called substantives) and punctuation, capitalization, spelling, word division, paragraphing, etc. (accidentals). This school, which grew steadily in the 1950s and 1960s, concerns itself solely with the "linguistic text"--that is, the words themselves and their related accidentals--and often edits eclectically in order to fulfill its goals, drawing from several existing texts to create a new one that seems best to fulfill the author's intentions for the work.

By contrast, the social constructionist school, most notably represented by Jerome McGann, does not extensively alter single preexisting texts, because it deems them worthy of historical study as the products of relationships between authors and the many publishers' agents who must cooperate in order to bring a work before the public. These collaborative processes produce not only linguistic texts but also "bibliographic codes"--unique typesetting features, illustrative and decorative devices, colors, paper, book bindings, and a host of other features--which are regarded not as ancillary but as vital components of the work. For this school, the best text is often one that already exists and was accepted by the public, preferably one produced during the author's lifetime. The study of such a text supposedly circumvents sticky questions of individual intentionality and concentrates on broadly historical circumstances. Since its heyday in the 1980s, this theoretical perspective has enjoyed consistent popularity, although far fewer editions have been produced through it than through eclectic editing.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these competing theories or schools are mutually exclusive in either their assumptions or their practices. An eclectic editor normally devotes careful attention to bibliographic codes (particularly to paper and typography), and a social constructionist often emends errors according to someone's--usually the author's--perceived intentions. Even editors trained rigorously in scholarly procedures do not always confine themselves to one set of theoretical assumptions, nor do they necessarily articulate their assumptions to their audiences or even to themselves. Some proceed from what they believe is fight or feels right, others from what is convenient, and still others from what is safe and has been done before. In the case of "The Yellow Wall-Paper," all three of these processes seem to have coincided quite frequently.

I am not suggesting, however, that scholarship is necessarily best served by the production of one "authoritative" text. As long as readers are made aware of editorial choices and contexts, a literary work can be legitimately represented by differing "versions" or linguistic texts, which form the basis of competing editions. Indeed, differing linguistic texts are created, consciously or unconsciously, by varying editorial methodologies, biases, and interpretations of evidence; and differing linguistic texts are created for varying audiences and purposes. What a teacher or student may require of a text can differ from what a formalist critic requires, and what a feminist requires may differ again, and what each requires may differ from author to author and work to work. But publishers, editors, and textual critics sometimes act, by commission or omission, as if one good text is all anyone (and everyone) needs. As different editions of Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" show, the fundamental and traditional questions editors ask--"What precise text did the author intend as a representation of this work?" and

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