Are the words of Thomas More’s Utopia in a modern English translation identical to the Utopia an early modern reader would have read? Is the modern edition packaged the same way it was in 1518 or 1556? If not, what has happened to the text over the years? What might we be missing?
Though the modern teaching editions may not emphasize it, all works of literature are mediated by the physical and textual forms in which they appear at different points in time. Shakespeare’s King Lear, for instance, existed in two distinct printed versions in the early seventeenth century. Rather than make those versions visible for readers and students, editors have long opted for an artificial “conflated” text, one that gathers the choice bits from each version to create a new, ideal version of King Lear, but one that never existed for its historical readers. Edited works of literature, especially mass-market editions intended for students, tend to erase the signs of such textual mediation in order to summon forth what appears to be a stable, definitive text.
But the real history of literature is messy. It is a history of versions. It is a history of different formats, media, and audiences. It is a history of authorial revisions, but also of publishers’ decisions, printers’ mistakes, and editorial interventions. It is also a history of readers—of sympathetic, hostile, inane, bored, doodling, and/or transfixed individuals reading in specific times and places. Literature does not exist outside of these historical contexts; rather, it is inextricably bound to the vicissitudes of history.
While the work of editing is crucial and necessary, by unediting we hope to make readers aware of all the choices and decisions that go into any edited version. To “unedit” a novel, a play, or a poem, then, is not merely to return to an original, uncorrupted version of a text, but rather to acknowledge that no one version of a text should be privileged. What we read in teaching anthologies tidies and conflates; it removes us from the historical moment of literary production and reception in order to create a timeless and abstracted experience of literary encounter.
Acknowledging the importance of literary history as a history of textual versions might be summarized in the following passage by Leah Marcus, author of the influential book Unediting the Renaissance (1996): “the approach and critical interests we wish to bring to a given piece of writing may be facilitated, discouraged, or even blocked altogether by the specific version in which we receive it.” Viewing works of literature in their historical versions, either in rare book rooms as physical objects or online through digital facsimiles, is necessarily to read literature in new and radically unfamiliar ways. As Randall McCleod, coiner of the term “unediting,” wrote over thirty years ago, “our editorial tradition has normalized text; facsimiles function rather to abnormalize readers.”
Unediting the Teaching Text invites students of English literature and their instructors to embark on an “abnormal” reading of familiar texts. Drawing on the expertise of four professors of English at UCLA, it curates historical versions of major literary works for use in the undergraduate classroom via annotations, assignments, and contextual materials. Its high-quality digital images are facsimiles of rare originals held at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and UCLA Special Collections, or, in two cases, images from resources available elsewhere on the internet. We have designed the site as a “guided tour” of the textual and physical versions that lay behind familiar works of English literature. Though this pilot version of Unediting the Teaching Text is intended primarily for students of English 10A, 10B, and 10C at UCLA, we encourage instructors at other institutions to make free use of our site in their teaching. In its current state, the site presents teaching modules for five texts: Beowulf, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Thomas More’s Utopia, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.