The Work of Revision
Harvard University Press, 2013
360 pp., 43.0
"A Weird from Sturk to Finnic"
Once upon a time, so the village elders tell us, there reigned a gentle though rather dull king called Literary Criticism, who always wore tweed and spoke in a low voice. But then, on either a very dark or very brilliant day, depending on who's telling the story, this unassuming monarch was toppled by a brash outsider named Theory, who dressed all in black, wore stylish spectacles, and spoke with a French accent. For a time it seemed that Theory would rule forever. But no king rules forever.
One can be neither definitive nor uncontroversial about such matters, given the chaotic condition of the palace records, but if I were in the mood to be sweeping, I would suggest that the Reign of Theory in Anglo-American literary study extended from approximately 1960 (Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization) to approximately 1997 (Judith Butler's Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative). Its period of absolute dominance was rather shorter, from 1976 (Gayatri Spivak's English translation of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology) to 1989 (Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England). Those were heady days.
The ascendance of Theory brought about the occlusion of a set of humanistic disciplines that had for a long time been central to literary study, especially the various forms of textual scholarship, from textual editing proper to analytical bibliography. To take but one institutional example: at one time the English department of the University of Virginia, under the leadership of the great textual scholar Fredson Bowers, had been dominant in these fields, but Bowers retired in 1975, and by the time I arrived at UVA as a new graduate student in 1980, almost no one on the faculty was doing textual scholarship, and I knew no students who were interested in it. This situation would begin to be rectified in 1986 with the hiring of Jerome McGann, who renewed departmental interest in these fields and played a role in bringing Terry Belanger's Rare Book School from Columbia to Virginia (in 1992). Now Virginia is once more seen as a major player in textual scholarship, bibliography, the history of the book, and what was once called "humanities computing"—a field in which McGann was a pioneer—but is now more likely to be called "digital humanities."
Theory is still around; but its skeptical, endlessly ramifying speculations can now seem little more than airy fabrications in comparison to the scrupulous study of material texts and the very different kind of scrupulosity required to write computer programs that data-mine texts. The European theorist in black has had to give way to new icons of (scholarly) cool. Literary textual scholarship is back: more epistemologically careful, aware of the lessons of theory, but intimately connected to traditions of humanistic learning that go back at least to Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century—and maybe even Eusebius of Caesarea in the 4th.
All this is necessary background to a truly remarkable new book, The Work of Revision by Hannah Sullivan, a young scholar at New College, Oxford. Her subtle, nuanced argument begins with a question: If the literary culture of Romanticism prized spontaneity of inspired composition, while 21st-century writers place great emphasis on the necessity of painstaking revision to writerly excellence, how did we get from the one value to the other? John Milton, the great model for the Romantics, said in Paradise Lost that the Muse "inspires / Easie my unpremeditated Verse"; Keats, his faithful if secularized disciple, asserted that "if Poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." But contemporary writers—Sullivan quotes a host of them—tell a different story. "I revise all the time, every day." "I revise constantly." "Mostly I revise endlessly." Here is a massive rhetorical shift that begs to be accounted for.
Sullivan: "I argue that the association of revision and literary value is the legacy of high modernism and the print culture that nourished it." And this modernist "print culture" was entangled with and enabled by "technological improvements in the publishing process, including cheaper typesetting and storing and the invention of the personal typewriter"; further, these technological changes were accompanied by "a culture of patronage that allowed for multiple sendings of proof and a relative lack of concern for economic profit." Sullivan illustrates these claims with careful and imaginative readings of most of the great Anglo-American modernists and their heirs—Henry James, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden—but the central figure, as in so many stories of modernism, is James Joyce.
Before describing Sullivan's treatment of Joyce, I'd like to point out that Joyce's practices of revision have a noteworthy Romantic-era predecessor not mentioned by Sullivan: the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac. Balzac's method of writing a novel began with the writing of a short story. This he would send to the printers with instructions that it be typeset on a large page with vast margins. Then, apparently seeing his purposes and possibilities more clearly in the cold print, he would expand the story in tiny handwriting in the margins, occasionally gluing additional scraps of paper with further narration to the sides of the sheets. The process was repeated as necessary until the short story—which could now be seen as what Hollywood scriptwriters call a "treatment"—had become a 400-page novel. It's unlikely that Joyce knew any of this, but it might be fair to say that, just as Milton is the patron of Romantic inspirationism, Balzac is the patron of modernist revisionism.
I will use Joyce as the primary illustration of Sullivan's approach, though she writes incisively about her whole cast of characters. Like all of those characters, or at least the ones from the pre-World-War-II generations, Joyce in revising Ulysses followed a fixed sequence of technologies and media. First drafts were always in longhand (which means that none of these writers followed the example set by Nietzsche and Mark Twain, who were the first major writers to compose on typewriters). Only at some later point of amplitude and firmness was this handwritten draft converted to typescript. Once further corrections, excisions, and additions had been made, the typescript went off to the printer for first proofs. The author made further edits on these and returned them to the printer, after which came second proofs. Once these were edited, the work finally went to print.
I mentioned "corrections, excisions, and additions," and Sullivan is attentive to the practices of different authors: some typically made substitutions, others excisions—Marianne Moore, for instance, eventually cut her poem "Poetry" down from its original 35 lines to three. But Joyce, like Balzac before him, followed what Sullivan calls an "illogic of addition": at every stage he piled on new words and phrases and whole passages. (Because he altered and added so compulsively at every stage, and got the stages confused, his edits often contradict one another, which has led to one of the more complicated textual situations this side of the New Testament.) Unlike many writers, Joyce was never warned against over-revising or given fixed deadlines while working on Ulysses, because the publication of his great book was bankrolled and overseen by Sylvia Beach, the American owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Beach let Joyce do what he wanted, though she had little money herself and was almost bankrupted by her patronage.
Sullivan is not content merely to tell this story, which has been told before; rather, she explores in detail the kinds of revisions Joyce made: his tendency to add and then to elaborate metaphors, for instance, and his ongoing expansion of the range of Leopold Bloom's interior monologue. Sullivan's exploration of Joyce's changes sheds new and welcome light on the text of Ulysses we have before us today.
Again, Joyce was merely typical in the thoroughness of his revisions: Eliot's drafts went through multiple wringers, and Ezra Pound worked over his Cantos so relentlessly and over so long a period that scholars cannot even imagine what an authoritative edition of that great poetic sequence would look like. In light of these practices, as Sullivan rightly points out, the revisions of W. H. Auden, though famous, are relatively minor, and mainly noteworthy because of the poems that he declined to include in collections of his verse. (After some wrangling with editors over the most famous line in "September 1, 1939"—Auden changed "We must love one another or die" to "We must love one another and die"—he finally repudiated the poem altogether.) The oddity of Auden's case is that many readers prefer the earlier versions of his poems to his later edits, creating a situation that Sullivan says Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor, has addressed simply by following Auden's wishes: Auden's Collected Poems are the ones the poet wanted in the form he wanted them in. This is true but incomplete: Mendelson has also published multiple volumes of Auden's poetry that preserve the original texts—which means that teachers of Auden (among whom I am one) often struggle to decide which versions to ask students to study. After reading Sullivan's book, though, I am wondering how many opportunities I have missed by not teaching them all.
In her concluding chapter Sullivan explores the changes—technological, cultural, aesthetic—to practices of revision introduced by the digitization of texts. Here she is somewhat less assured than in her treatment of the modernists, and defers (rightly, I think) to the ongoing work of Matthew Kirschenbaum on the literary and cultural work done by what we now call "word processing." Reading the concluding pages of the book, one gets the sense that Sullivan is missing the information-rich world of manuscripts and typescripts. A poet deleting a stanza from a typescript might slash diagonally through it with a red pen; or cross it out line by line, perhaps in different colors of ink, suggesting revisitations; or cut it out with scissors and put it in a folder; or bracket it and add a tentative question mark. The materiality of such revisions is rich in suggestion.
By contrast, digital alterations—as marked, say, by Microsoft Word's "Track Changes" function (Track Changes is the title of Kirschenbaum's current work in progress)—are uniform in character. To your computer, a change is a change is a change. There is less here for the scholar to read, less interpretative work to be done. Moreover, recovering the revisions of today's writers may not be easy—in some cases may be impossible. Librarians and archivists are hurrying to extract writing from old floppy disks while we still have hardware that can read those disks and software that can interpret its data. And when the disks are damaged or corrupted this can be absolutely impossible (whereas even seriously damaged works on paper or parchment or papyrus are usually partially decipherable).
On the other hand, Sullivan points out, as writing moves increasingly online, where the costs of revision are near zero, writers are less likely to think of publication as marking the end of the revision process. They can make changes indefinitely, and need no longer even think of a "final version." If I may extend Sullivan's argument: in such an environment, with snapshots of the web constantly being taken by the crawlers of Google and the Internet Archive, we may soon find that the history of a work's revision is to be found only in public (textual) space, the private dimensions of revision being wholly lost. This is just the reverse of the world of modernist revision that Sullivan explores so resourcefully.
Hannah Sullivan is, I think, representative of a recent generation of scholars who demonstrate that it is possible to be faithful subjects of two monarchs. Their work pays proper deference to Theory, but perhaps demonstrates even greater loyalty to the traditional ways of Literary Criticism. They shift easily between close reading and the attentive study of material objects: manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, books. I have met a number of these young scholars in my encounters with the world of digital humanities, and I have regularly been impressed by the intellectually flexible ways they engage the readerly, the theoretical, the empirical, and the computational. It is a source of particular sadness to me that this generation of scholars is arising at a time when there are scarcely any academic positions available for them.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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