I read Dennis Glover’s wonderful The Last Man in Europe during the Australian summer break [Christmas to mid-January 2018], which, if you haven’t come across go immediately to purchase. Of course, it helps to have a long-standing interest in the works of George Orwell [aka Eric Blair]. I first read 1984 as a teenager, perhaps in 1973 or thereabouts, with that frightening year a decade distant. [In the 70s there was still a fear of nuclear war between the US and USSR, so 1984 was deeply relevant. I still remember instructions being broadcast of what to do in the eventuality of conflict: crawl under a table.]
Finishing Glover I was set to re-read the classic. Fortunately, Glover has edited a new edition, also published by Black Inc, complete with an introduction.
This takes up a question he raised in his novel. Put briefly, the US editions end the famous sentence that begins, Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table, as 2+2=5
However, the British and Commonwealth editions, published by Secker & Warburg offer variants. Yes, the first edition, first impression of June 1949 also prints 2+2=5. Yet the second impression, published in March 1950, reveals, as demonstrated by Glover, an amendment: 2+2= .
In other words the 5 is missing. A crucial difference, says Glover, since the absence of the 5 illustrates that the novel’s protagonist, Winston, no longer has free thought: he has been totally subsumed by the Party. Placing the 5 as the sum subtly affirms that Winston maintains freedom of thought.
Glover asks how the 5 may have dropped out of sight, and this leads to an interesting typographic adventure. Scholars have suggested the 5 ‘fell out’ of the forme, a plausible explanation to those who know about letterpress. [I will not go into the fascinating complexities here of how a dying Orwell may have contacted his agent or copyeditor between the printing of the first and re-set second editions: for this see Glover.] Except for the fact that, writes Glover: ‘The second impression used the stereotype plates made from the original type set for the first edition…’ I’ll return to stereotype plates in a moment.
What Glover concludes, helped by expert assistance from Carolyn Fraser of the State Library of Victoria, who has the benefit of also being a letterpress printer, is that ‘…the ‘5’ [in the second impression] was intentionally bashed flat by the compositor after the standing type had been stereotyped (cast in metal), and the flattening job had been done inexpertly, slightly damaging the ‘=’. In the pre-digital age, when printing was a costly and time-consuming mechanical process, any opportunity to make corrections without having to make a new stereotype would have been gladly taken up’.
Now, I do not know enough about stereotyping to assert this is what did happen, and neither can Glover categorically assert this is true. This premise is based on knowledge of the printing industry around the 1950s, intimate knowledge now largely extinct as the practitioners have now passed. If there is a reader of this blog who might be able to throw further light on this thesis please make contact.
In the meantime, enjoy this video I discovered while trawling the web for information on stereotyping. It’s a wonderful historical document in its own right and I am much indebted to Jeff Quitney for making it publicly available. The clip shows how the Chicago Tribune was put to press in the 1930s.