The Magazine

Text Messenger

James B. Meriwether, 1928-2007.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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In every writer's secret heart, which is not without tincture of vanity, he covets the kind of letter I received out of the blue from a total stranger one day in July 1963. It suddenly lavished upon me the compliments that every writer believes he deserves and seldom hears.

It said that an editorial I had written in the regional paper for which I was then writing "has all the hallmarks your best pieces have--not only contemporary but historical knowledge, clarity of thinking, strong feeling disciplined by scholarship and perspective and independence of mind. It is a blessing to encounter such thinking and such writing." And that wasn't all, but immodesty has its limits.

The writer, I soon learned, was James B. Meriwether, devoted South Carolinian, Faulkner scholar, former Army intelligence officer, fellow idolator of Winston Churchill, champion track man and badminton player, and--not least--maker of definitive mint juleps. At the time he was also an assistant professor of English at Chapel Hill. That generous letter became the overture to a friendship of shared affinities and interests that ended, sadly, only with Meriwether's death in March in his native Columbia, S.C.

As a doctoral candidate at Princeton, Meriwether had gathered a display of Faulkner materials later published as The Literary Career of William Faulkner, the definitive treatment of the subject. In that sense he was a pioneer, since the heedless world was only a decade and a half into the Faulkner revival. The great novelist's Nobel Prize in 1950 found almost all of his novels out of print; and the few that were in print were notoriously corrupt--especially the Gothic and lugubrious Sanctuary, which Faulkner had almost entirely rewritten in galley proofs. (Only those who once coped with the vanished hazards of "hot type" know how garbled a printed text can be.)

Meriwether, on a Guggenheim grant, was collating--that is, comparing and correcting--the major Faulkner texts. Even now his specialty, textual scholarship, remains a relatively esoteric and unsung branch of literary studies. The obtuse attitude of the great critic Edmund Wilson is all too typical: When the Modern Language Association and others were contending for an NEH grant to update and preserve great American fiction, and the MLA applied for funds to clean up and authenticate the texts, Wilson took a waspish swipe at textual scholarship in the New York Review of Books. "The Fruits of the MLA," it was captioned, double entendre intentional. Wilson wondered why anyone but a silly pedant could possibly care about the quality of a text so long as a book was handsome and nice to hold in the hands and the print was legible.

If only it were that simple! Meriwether was already a master of textual scholarship that first summer afternoon in Chapel Hill when we stunned ourselves on his back porch with the mint juleps that, like his scholarship, were lingering labors of love and meticulous precision.

The homely but essential aim of Meriwether's specialty is to establish a reliable text that meets the gold standard of authenticity, "authorial intention." Textual scholars feel a nearly sacred obligation to assure that when we read, say, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, or Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, we are reading what they wrote, with their own idiosyncrasies, and not some "correction" by an officious editor or careless printer. By collating the Faulkner texts with Faulkner's manuscripts and (rarer) typescripts and publishing the discrepancies ("variants") in little journals, Meriwether shamed Random House into resetting them. That we have sound Faulkner texts we owe to him.

It is painstaking labor. Every detail, including punctuation, must be compared systematically with a so-called "copy text," that is, the best extant evidence of what the author intended. If you took Edmund Wilson's view, this was idle pedantry. But if you happened to be, say, Mark Twain or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, revenant by time machine to see how your work was faring, it might matter a great deal. Twain was a fanatic about punctuation, driven to profane fury by editors and printers who tinkered with his commas. Hawthorne's prudish sister excised references to lady's ankles from his stories. A body of New Critical speculation had grown up around an odd but colorful locution in Melville, before it was found that he had written "coiled fish of the sea," not "soiled fish." Misprints have consequences.