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What is a Fluid Text

By John Bryant

One of MEL’s signal contributions is that it also enables us to read Melville’s works as fluid texts. Virtually all written works, from Homer to Ulysses, exist in multiple versions due to authorial, editorial, and adaptive revision.  These kinds of revisions are critically significant in studying Melville’s versions and the way editors and other readers have changed his texts.

In two books—The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (2002) and Melville Unfolding (2008)—and in various editions, chapters, and essays, I have theorized on fluid-text analysis and offered protocols for editing fluid texts. (See Bibliography.) In them, I argue that our scope of literary interpretation has been limited to a reductive and static notion of the texts that constitute a written work. We typically imagine a written “work” to be a single, original, textual object. A broader perspective conceives of “work” as the energy a culture (represented by writers, editors, adaptors) puts into delivering “versions” associated with an originating title into the public sphere, over time. The study of fluid texts wants to make sense of this flow of cultural energy evident in revisions and versions.

Naturally enough, scholars, critics, and general readers alike desire a single, reliable text of, let’s say Typee, Moby-Dick, or Billy Budd, if only to have a common textual playing field for interpreting those originating works. Our assumption is that the author intended this one version—this single Book. And naturally enough, editors and publishers want to accommodate the necessary demand for single, reliable texts.  Equally fascinating, though, is how texts change over time, with or without the originating writer’s involvement.  For whatever reasons, writers re-write, editors modify or expurgate, and adaptors reshape a text to fit their own interpretation. To gain this broader perspective on how texts evolve, we need new ways of editing to supplement single-text editing practice, and digital technology facilitates fluid-text editing.

Traditionally, scholarly editing focuses on creating a text that represents the editor’s conception of a single moment of the author’s “final intentions” during the production of a written work. This moment of intentionality can vary; it might be the period of time during which a writer submits a fair copy manuscript or returns corrected page proofs, or (much later) revises a subsequent edition. Through the critical editions they produce, scholarly editors play a fundamental role in supplying abundant information about the single moment of intentionality they choose to represent in their reading text. The reliability of their editions resides in the editors’ forthright announcement of their conception of intentionality and justification for their reading text.  These explanations include their display of the textual fluidities surrounding the work and discussions of their decisions to choose one fluidity over the others. Given the limitations of print technology, these vital arguments are invariably placed in Notes on the Text and a Textual Apparatus, including footnotes or tables at the back of the edition.  In time, as publishers adopt the reading text of a scholarly edition for the books they circulate, they omit the note, footnotes, and apparatus, so that the explanation of the editorial process disappears. With that disappearance, readers are also deprived of valuable information related to the history of the work as a fluid text. 

Modern textual editors have always addressed the challenges of fluid texts like Typee, Moby-Dick, and Billy Budd. Witness the editing of the Bible, Shakespeare, Whitman, or Joyce.  But the single reading text that traditional editorial approaches promotes marginalizes variants, mixes versions, and masks revision.  The Northwestern-Newberry (NN) edition of The Writings of Herman Melville (1968-2017) is a case in point. The edition’s goal is to provide a clear reading text that represents the editors’ conception of Melville’s final intentions before he submitted his work to editors and publishers.  This “private” text is achieved by selecting one version of the work as copy text and then emending it, based on variants from other versions. By design, the NN’s mixed-version or “eclectic” editions offer an idealized Melville unconstrained by editors and audiences. 

The concern from a fluid-text perspective is that editions that mix versions also mask the reality of the authorial and non-authorial revision processes that produce the versions that give us insight into the processes of creativity, publication, and adaptation. But rather than supplant the NN edition—whose scholarship has been instrumental in identifying the versions of Melville’s works—MEL’s digital, fluid-text editions showcase Melville’s revisions, over time. We use standard protocols of transcription, collation, diplomatic display, copy-text, emendation, and annotation to edit each version of a Melville work from scratch, settling on a minimally-modified base version, which we use as a platform for linking the base version to the work’s other versions.  This kind of digital navigation enables readers to examine a range of intentionalities: Melville’s shifting intentions in manuscript, his final intentions or “private” version of a work released to publishers as well as the intentions of editors in shaping his texts, and adaptive versions that continue to reshape his texts in public.

A work like Billy Budd, which Melville never saw through the press, is particularly demonstrative.  This fluid text exists as a complete but unpolished manuscript that contains thousands of revisions, each representing the writer’s evolving or oscillating intentions. A work like Typee, which exists in manuscript, two first editions, and two revised editions, shows that Melville’s intentions shifted not only at the time of composition but also over a period of forty years.  A work like Moby-Dick, which exists in two first editions also demonstrates that editorial forces—evident in the expurgations of Britain’s The Whale—represent external forces that inflect, even censor, the writer’s words.  And when a writer like Melville or his individual works—like Typee, Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, and others—gain international recognition and capture the popular imagination of generations extending beyond Melville’s lifetime, we find additional versions of these works in adaptation and translation, which represent a culture’s need to revise the very texts they idolize.  To authorial and editorial revision, then, the scope of MEL’s fluid-text editions extends to adaptive revisions, in stage, film, opera, fine arts, music, and even the “meme.”

If we want to study the private and social processes that impel a writer like Melville, his editors, or his international adaptors to revise Melville’s fluid text, we need fuller access to a fuller scope of versions of a work (in manuscript, print, and adaptation) and a fuller embracing of revision as an authorial, editorial, and adaptive process. The access and embrace cannot happen without archiving the versions and editing them. Digital editing offers approaches to editing that facilitate our understanding of fluid texts.

Digitization allows us to archive the versions, but a data dump of texts and images is useless without providing users the means of navigating the textual fluidities. One problem, for instance, is that revision is an invisible phenomenon, and a revision only becomes visible when we edit it into visibility. For example, in his 1845 working-draft of Typee, Melville typically revised the inflammatory word “savage” to the culturally neutral “native” or “islander.” He and perhaps his brother Gansevoort made further, similar cultural and stylistic revisions as Typee was going into press in England in 1846, and, later that year, he expurgated the book for American readers.  This range of revision in Typee represents the private and social forces that shaped Melville’s politics and creativity. But to “read” Melville’s savage -> native revisions, not to mention all of the rest of them, requires us to transcribe the manuscript, collate it with the print versions, identify revision sites, determine revision sequences, and compose explanatory revision narratives.

MEL designed its editing tool TextLab to meet these editorial challenges and, along with Juxta Editions, to provide readers with features that give them unprecedented access to Melville’s creative process. For editors, TextLab reduces the toil of coding by automating tedious labor.  It enables editors to mark-up revision sites on images of manuscript leaves and automatically apply codes in the TEI transcription; it automatically generates a diplomatic transcription and base version, and it enables the creation of revision sequences and narratives.  In Juxta Editions, editors can OCR print texts, correct transcriptions, create textual and contextual notes, collate versions, and create further revision annotations.  Both tools along with the archive cataloguer MELCat work together in an integrated platform to display the versions of a fluid text in a reliable format. 

For further explanation of these and other MEL tools, visit our MEL Toolkit.