The Tragi-Comical History
of the Variorum Project and its Betrayal by Cambridge University Press


When preparing to leave Nigeria for Germany in 1978 – 79 it seemed reasonable to leave Yeats behind and turn myself into a Poundista. The transition was natural, given an abiding concern for the influence of Oriental culture on modernist literature in Europe and America. The publishing history and textual criticism of The Cantos were obviously in need of some attention and where else but in a country where textual criticism is held in high regard, could one expect public funding for a Variorum Edition of The Cantos. A generous Lehrstuhl budget covered immediate costs and the Zentral Bibliotek finanaced the most complete collection of Poundiana in Europe. Ultimately the working archive of present research will be added to their holdings. Donald Gallup’s bibliography had not yet been published, but he generously shared his vast and detailed knowledge of the material. The first stages of organization greatly benefited from his help.

Senior figures at the Rechnenzentrum, Universität Bayreuth, were also intrigued by the idea of a computerized, humanities project and provided a software programmer for an academic year as well as further council. Since nothing else was available at the time, a made-to-order collation scheme was written in Fortran (1981– 82) which still functions, however primitive it may be in comparison to what is now on offer.

In those heady days a full-time, personal secretary was available and two Hilfskräfte (research assistants), who put in something like fifty-seven hours a month and twenty per week, respectively – a graduate student and an undergraduate dogsbody. Obviously the encoding of textual witnesses for collation, creation of programming for editing/manipulating data, measuring line indentations comparatively against typeface and page format, as well as mounting a style sheet and typing an almost endless number of quotations from both published and unpublished correspondence attesting to the publishing history of the poem(s) became, in fact, feasible.

By the time of the 1983, MLA cattle show, the project had been pretty much set up, and I had written ahead to New Directions, making long-range intentions as well as progress to date clear. When I phoned from a dreary New York Hotel corridor to arrange a meeting, Peggy Fox coolly told me that a variorum committee, led by Carroll Terrell had already been sanctioned and the publication of its findings was expected within the next few years.

Considering the dismal history of the so-called ‘Correction Committee’ in the 1960s which loosely involved Norman Holmes Pearson, J. Laughlin, Pound himself, Hugh Kenner, and Eva Hesse (among others), and led to the textual distortions of the consolidated 1975 [76] edition (with the which we still have to live), one could only gasp. In that dark age everyone was following an individual agenda and using a different base text. There was no acknowledged methodology, and the results were startlingly random. Committees tend to confirm consensus of opinion, but do not lend themselves to detailed scholarship any more than to the creation of a great poem. Even a single editor cannot be trusted as no one could possibly make consistent decisions over a period of thirty years.

In the case of the present variorum project one mind (however wobbly) supervised the whole. Every printout of computer-determined variants was checked manually against base text and witnesses. Every quotation for the Annals was selected personally and the accuracy of transcription double-checked. Of course there must be any number of errors, but at least a rough, road map now exists which might just lead to a little light.

A lot of tummy-tickling went into winning over Faber & Faber, as well as New Directions. Pesce d’Oro was far more forthcoming. At first Faber asserted that the archives had been bombed out in the Blitz. My occasional reports of both progress and anticipated results, as well as the odd, courtesy call at Queen Sq. helped. At one point John Bodley opined that perhaps there might be a few files stored in a cellar somewhere in Gower Street, but, of course, 'no one had time to look them up'. Later I alerted him to the questionable sale at auction of purloined proof sheets. He reclaimed the lot and then announced that, actually, there were files concerning The Cantos now in his office – would I like to see them? Later that week I sat, wearing an overcoat and gloves, in the glacial directors’ room on the top floor, going through a complete set of production records for Pound publications from 1933 on. Twice a day he turned up with mugs of undrinkable coffee, eager to hear of new discoveries and in the end gleefully identified the handwriting of various marginal notes and editorial comments. His generosity even extended to intermediating with Mrs. Eliot, and on a later occasion I was allowed to read through the EP letters to TSE which she then held privately. My  letter to her of appreciation for The TSE Letters … Vol. I, 1898-1922 and a suggested correction had not done much harm.

Relations with New Directions were much the same. When I was teaching at Dartmouth and came across Dorothy Pound’s copies of N plays which had been transcribed from the Ernest Fenollosa papers and deposited at the University of Virginia, J. Laughlin not only gave permission for publication, but even bespoke an article in Paideuma (1975 ) in order to reinsure collective copyright. He was an acute publisher/editor of modern literature, talked brilliantly about the joyfulness of Callimicus, suffered from clinical depression, and relied rather overmuch on doubtful, Poundista networks when it came to scholarship. Like Pound he distrusted unknown scholars and treated me at first with reservation and diplomatic distance. The turning point came when I sent him a data base for sinographs in The Cantos. John Calley had corrected my inexpert draft and the result made it possible to locate accurately any character (even the illegible, hand-drawn horrors published in the Pisans) in four different ways – by canto:line, Matthews [dictionary] number, pinyin transcription, and English translation. Printing them digitally in the three sizes Pound came to prefer was now feasible, and the key to that was using the Matthews number as a special character code. J. was not only a discerning critic/connaisseur of literature, but also a dedicated professional who appreciated precise attention to detail. The archives both at New York and Norfolk, CT suddenly became available and a close friendship founded.