The term ‘cancel’ (or ‘cancellans’) refers to the leaf which is put in during the printing process to replace an initially unsatisfactory leaf (referred to as the ‘canceland’ or ‘cancelandum’). The practice was a last resort for corrections and only applied to any errors or mistakes that managed to slip through the proofreading process. The term has fallen largely out of use in contemporary literary criticism as printing methods have improved and no longer need to correct a text in such a crude way, it being much cheaper to just reprint a gathering than a specific leaf. This has lead to a decrease in the study of ‘cancel’ as an important contemporary literary term (see list below for contemporary literary glossaries not featuring the entry ‘cancel’). Cancels are of great interest, writes Carter, because of the nature of the meaning that’s being changed. The mistake can often be verbal or grammatical, but if it represents a change of opinion on the author’s part it can be very telling of the politics or opinions of the time.
John Edwin Wells writes about the cancels found in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads from 1800. Wells points out many cancels, including the changing of the word position in some stanzas, to changes of complete words further along (219). Wells concludes that “the imperfectness of the erasing seems more likely to be due to the hand of a subordinate in the publishers’ office than to a later hand.” (229). There is one exception however, and that is on page 137 of Volume 2 of Lyrical Ballads which is recorded as “For, “A beauty that shall mould her form,” Read, “Grace that shall mould the maiden’s form.”” In this case it is clearly possible that the author had misgivings about the line and could have asked for it to be changed. This poses the idea that cancels, for the most part, are necessary due to the flaws and mistakes created some of the middlemen in the transcribing or printing process, but that from time to time cancels can be caused by a last-minute change by the author. Finkelstein and McCleery write that when printing began to be taken up as a business, some businessmen “combined the roles of printer, publisher, and bookseller” (47) showing that perhaps it was the high amount of work with only a little time that caused many of these errors at the outset.
Thus we can see that cancels represent a relic of the early literary age. They show that the printing process, whilst skillfully performed, is not without flaws. The concept of having an author decide to make a last minute change to a text is also extremely important as it opens up a door through which we can ponder upon the reasons behind a cancel becoming necessary.
Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1995. Print.
Chapman, R. W. “Notes On Cancel Leaves.” The Library S4-V.3 (1924): 249-58. Print.
Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery. An Introduction to Book History. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Tanselle, G. Thomas. Introduction to Bibliography: Seminar Syllabus. Charlottesville: Book Arts, University of Virginia, 2002. Print.
Tanselle, G. Thomas. “VirginiaThe Treatment of Typesetting and Presswork in Bibliographical Description.” Studies in Bibliography 52 (1999): 1-57. Print.
Wells, John Edwin. “Lyrical Ballads, 1800: Cancel Leaves.” PMLA 31.1 (1938): 207-29. Print.
Contributed by Eoin Butler Thornton.