The Work of Revision, by Hannah Sullivan

David Gewanter on the Modernist urge to edit

September 5, 2013

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost declared. Is he right? Do texts reveal a writer’s real emotions and experience? In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom proposes, “first kiss does the trick…First thoughts are best”; meanwhile, James Joyce was hectically revising his manuscript. After the dark night of composition, revisions show our morning-after regrets: we wake up hugging a manuscript, then cry: “What! are you here?” (T. S. Eliot).

In Hannah Sullivan’s impressively researched first book, revisions become a “figure for modernism” – particularly for London-y High Moderns: from Henry James’ embroidered sentences to Ezra Pound’s minimalist poetics and surgery to The Waste Land; from Ulysses’ volcanic additions to Virginia Woolf’s traumatised self-portraits. Hardly is a mark unremarked-upon; even Pound’s colon from In a Station of the Metro is probed.

The Work of Revision places the author’s intention at centre stage, brought back from the shadows of non-being, a mere “functional principle” whose texts “write themselves”. Still, an author’s scrawled corrections or pentimenti can, like a second Last Will, excite new controversy. Both “historicist and comparative”, Sullivan draws methods and values from several schools of revision theory. Her deft comparisons open new avenues, distinguishing structural and substitutive (word to word) editing. Yet her argument for historical pattern, for Modernists being uniquely determined to remake it new, hits some road blocks.

New technologies offered Modernists more chances to meddle with words: after manuscripts came typescripts, proofs, galleys and second editions; any writer could become an Alberto Giacometti, fiddling with clay forever. Were they more hungry to revise, or did they win a ticket to an “all-you-can-edit” banquet? Earlier writers, Sullivan acknowledges, edited and altered as they could. Along with sex, Giovanni Boccaccio’s manuscripts contain textual varianti; Thomas More complained of “fawtes escaped in the pryntynge” of his book; and the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream improvise and collaborate on their script as nimbly as Samuel Beckett.

Our irrepressible urge to alter ‘the givens’ helped to create Modernism, and remakes us right to the end

Sullivan persuasively claims that Modern revising was radical, experimental, visible and self-conscious; looming in the background are the Romantics, playing the role of feel-good editorial Luddites, jotting down their visions quickly and, like Bob Dylan, in just one take. Certainly, John Keats came to breakfast holding a full draft of Chapman’s Homer; but after his surge and “primacy of sudden inspiration”, he edited his lines, displaying an un-Romantic “mature deliberation”. Wordsworth’s many revisions of The Prelude show the friction between Romantic claims on visionary experience and individual writing practices – even if later editing by Wordsworth, Tennyson or Auden weakened their work. Strangely, although Sullivan inspects the Prelude revisions at length, the bogeyman of “Romantic antirevisionism” keeps popping up in her book.

A vivid section dramatises the oft-told tale of Pound taking his fearsome blue pencil to Eliot’s Waste Land manuscript. The poem, a sutured Frankenstein’s creature, depicts its own construction, murmuring: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Yet Sullivan concedes that Eliot, the central Modernist, did not participate much in “the transformative practice of revision”, her book’s thesis.

This prompts the question: do Sullivan’s discoveries comprise a wider, “historicist” pattern? Her central writers quickly bow out of the dance. Pound’s minimal, Imagist moment spun instantly into Vorticism, then spun out of control in the gigantic Cantos; Eliot shored his fragments into the steady sermons of Four Quartets; Joyce changed utterly between Portrait and Ulysses; the format of Allen Ginsberg’s published Howl manuscript imitates that of The Waste Land. Then there’s the question of W. B. Yeats, the “last Romantic”, who by simple changes of diction edited himself, as scholar George Bornstein noted, from a “derivative late Victorian poet to a modernist”. Sullivan’s adventuresome last chapter peeks at revision in the age of digital self-love (cf. “David Foster Wallace, logorrhea”). Will tomorrow’s copy-text be titled Tweets from the Cloud?

Writers’ tears are presumed; readers’ tears are real. Frost’s great, snuffly credo The Road Not Taken was written in gentle mockery of Edward Thomas. Frost first called it “tricky”; later, in his grandpappy warblings of the poem, you hear the sanctimony creeping in. Sullivan provides a savvy, insightful enquiry at the crossroads of new aesthetics, technology and the social world of artistic creation. Our irrepressible urge to alter “the givens” helped to create Modernism, and remakes us right to the end. As the French grammarian Dominique Bouhours declared: “I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct.”

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