Text as Process
Sally Bushell. Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009. xi+302 pp. $55 (c).
Rev. by Alexandra Socarides
Sally Bushell’s new book, Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson, considers the relationship between creative process and literary product, a topic that remains astonishingly under-considered by literary critics. “This book is about the literary text before it becomes a completed work of art,” Bushell declares in the very first sentence, and she goes on to make the case that texts in this state should be rescued from the exclusive purview of editors and textual theorists in order to give them the “philosophical definition and…full critical response” (1) that they deserve. One might think that such a shift in focus would not require an entirely new methodological apparatus, but Bushell’s book proves otherwise as it lays out, sometimes in ways that aspire to scientific precision (there are several lists, many with bullet points), the terms of this “new subdiscipline” (2). While this approach may deter certain readers, Bushell’s strategy seems justified by the many competing strategies she contends with as she attempts to deprogram literary critics’ investment in teleological readings of texts, reinsert a more sophisticated understanding of intention into literary analysis, and teach us how to read Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson anew.
The book consists of two roughly equal sections. In the Introduction and first three chapters Bushell tackles the question of creative process from a theoretical position, developing and articulating a methodology that she then brings to bear on the three poets whom she considers in the next three chapters. In the final chapter she concludes by considering the effect of phenomenology on literary studies, asking how, in light of Heidegger, creative process can “exist as a distinct object in its own right” (216), and expressing the need for a “compositional hermeneutics” (238). One drawback of this approach is that we have to wait, with the exception of one minor mention of Keats’s writing of “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” almost ninety pages for the first reading of a poem. As a result, some readers may find themselves asking whether Bushell’s methodology pays off at the level of interpretation. In other words, does she produce something different enough in the second half of the book to have warranted what reads like a very long literature review and redefinition of terms in the first?
Bushell’s account of competing methodologies is nothing if not thorough. Chapter 1 gives the pros and cons of German editorial theory, French critique génetique, and the Anglo-American approach to textual process, providing an overview of these schools of thought that allows the reader to understand the complicated consideration of intention that occurs in Chapters 2 and 3. In Chapter 2 Bushell argues for a reconsideration of the concept of intention “as a complex of mental states or acts fundamental to process and embodied in the materials of composition” (38). Here she positions herself against Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” and Derrida’s denial of authorial origins, addresses the ways in which Barthes and Foucault inflect her own approach, and borrows from John Serle’s account of “intentional acts on the manuscript page” (52) and Peter Shillingsburg’s distinction between “intention to mean” and “intention to do” (53).
Subsequently, Bushell offers an equally detailed framework for her own critical apparatus. In order to destabilize the notion of spontaneous creation and to put together “the interrelations of creative intention with different kinds of undeliberate acts” (58), Chapter 3 constructs an elaborate taxonomy of different kinds of intention—from programmatic to contingent to final to unfulfilled to revised—and also distinguishes between the accidental and unconscious within the realm of unintentional meaning. (The definitions and details are so specific that one can even find a consideration of “consciously intentioned unintentionality” here!) All of this serves as the “framework” that Bushell says will then be “applied and tested” (74) in the remainder of the book.
The issues that emerge in the second half of the book are, in many ways, more engaging, as they surface in encounters with actual texts. For instance, throughout all three author-based chapters, Bushell returns again and again to the problem of responding to manuscripts and draft material as if they are final texts, arguing that in doing so we are not only “in danger of confusing two kinds of authorial meaning” (174), but that the elevation of manuscript material to published material “is more likely to distort the nature of the unpublished material than to illuminate it” (174). In response, she urges the development of “specific skills for the study of compositional material” (78), skills these chapters seek to illuminate.
Chapter 4 takes Wordsworth’s composition of The Prelude and The Excursion as its topic and Bushell arrives at several insights through looking at Wordsworth’s draft material that we might not otherwise have seen: that for Wordsworth any sense of completion is never absolute and is always contingent; that there was a “massive structure of programmatic intention” (80) at play in his composition of these texts; and that first written composition was a particularly difficult stage for the poet. In Chapter 5, Bushell looks closely at Tennyson’s sketches, prose drafts, and “trial books” as well as parses the drafting process of Enid’s song from “Geraint and Enid” and compares the original order of the various sections of The Idylls with the final published sequence. All of this produces a greater understanding of Tennyson as a writer who felt most vulnerable towards the late stages of preparing a work for publication. Chapter 6, meanwhile, moves across the Atlantic to consider Dickinson, a writer perfect for Bushell’s study since “the only state in which Emily Dickinson’s work theoretically ought to exist is one of textual process” (169). Bushell looks at Dickinson’s crosses, revisions, and variants in a variety of late poems in order to argue that Dickinson always keeps her options open on the manuscript page, that she resists making judgments and stabilizing her texts, and that there is not a teleological structure to the development of her poetry. In these chapters Bushell bears out her early statement that she is not advocating for the application of “absolute, rigid principles” (75) to her writers, as she allows each (especially Dickinson) to complicate and challenge the terms of her own methodology.
Although Bushell’s tone is rarely argumentative and she is wholly generous to the critics whose prior work, even if she disagrees with it, has made her book possible, she clearly seeks to do the kind of work that flips literary critics’ accustomed practices on their head. In the end, however, one wishes for less of a map and more of a journey. In other words, this is a book, by Bushell’s own admission, about how the creative process emerges, but she provides much more focus on laying out a new methodology for literary studies than she does attention to the creative element. One finds, practically speaking, much less poetry, even in draft form, than one might expect in a book about the composition of poems. The lesson may be that every new subdiscipline needs a foundational text, one whose methodology can be used by a variety of different critics, and that such a text can only take brief and isolated interest in the examples that it chooses, even as it leaves one longing for more of the literature itself.
One cannot help finishing Text as Process and wondering if he or she can now do something different with all that Bushell has laid out. Has Bushell succeeded in showing us how to bring the author back without collapsing everything into some flattened out version of intention? Has Bushell taught us how to read manuscripts differently than we do final texts, and to better understand their relationship to each other? My impulse is to say yes, but the real test is if her approach will be brought productively to bear on our reading practices in the future.
Alexandra Socarides is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri, where she teaches nineteenth-century American literature as well as the history of poetry and poetics. She is currently completing a book about the relationship between Dickinson’s compositional processes and nineteenth-century material culture.