Posting has been light around here for a number of reasons, chief among them being (a) my recovery from surgery and (b) the last stages of my most recent major project: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety), to be published by Princeton University Press later this year. (I think.) I just mailed off the typescript yesterday, and am still reeling a bit. Textual editing, let me say, is really, really hard work — at least if you want to do it well.
A few years ago Edward Said — thinking of the great humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century — wrote, “This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.” Thanks be to God, I did not need the skills of Auerback and Spitzer to edit The Age of Anxiety, but I did need skills I hadn’t been taught in graduate school, and it cost me a good deal of time and energy to acquire them. If I hadn’t had the ongoing assistance and direction of Edward Mendelson I’m not sure what I would have done, but I know that the final product would have been inadequate.
And it may be inadequate still — who knows? But I have worked as hard on this project as I have ever worked on anything, and at the moment I am pleased and proud. There’s something especially rewarding about doing all this work — visiting libraries and archives, working through vast tracts of mostly useless materials, trying to decipher Auden’s terrible handwriting, comparing multiple editions of the poem, reading much of what Auden read as he wrote the poem, carefully marking up the typescript in order to preserve the poem’s intricate formatting — not for the sake of my own critical reputation, but in order to make the work of a poet I love more useful and accessible and comprehensible. I can truly call this a labor of love. But boy, am I tired.