Hannah Sullivan. The Work of Revision

Hannah Sullivan. The Work of Revision. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. 349p., ill. ISBN 9780674073128. £25.95 / US $35.00 (hardback).

This is a work of intelligence and originality. In some ways a synthesis of recent theories of textual editing, especially genetic criticism, it sets out to test theories against practice, and itself revise ideas of authorial intention, periodicity and the material text. Sullivan’s thesis is that modernist practices of revision, from Henry James to Virginia Woolf via Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, reflect two opposing principles: substitution, excision or reduction on the one hand, and accretion, expansion and addition on the other. Following these through a huge amount of learning and research provides a nuanced account of the use of early drafts and late corrections.

The reasons for revision, as well as the much greater scope afforded by such things as the greater availability of paper, the technology of the typewriter, and the developments in printing that allowed more sets of proofs, varied considerably. Pound’s radical cuts to The Waste Land sprang from his experiments in Imagism, and his desire to make poetry spare and economical: but Sullivan’s reading of the manuscripts enables her to develop a counterpoint between the two writers, which itself revises received wisdom about the poem’s teleology. Her focus on Eliot’s “extrinsic remaindering” (123) provides us with a Cubist undertow to the poem as it attempts “to find conformity between old and new” (144), and the Eliot who emerges is a writer whose “style of composition fits with [his] fundamentally conservative disposition” (144).

Her reading of Joyce and the sometimes very extensive additions he made to the text of Ulysses at different stages of its production is equally illuminating of his compositional strategies, and the way in which they change in the course of writing, and in turn change the nature of the novel. Adding more and more detail, often in implicit free indirect discourse, extended the realism of the early chapters into a new kind of realism “too informed, too fulsome, to seem any longer quite true” (192).

Henry James provides case studies for two different but related investigations. In the second chapter, Sullivan thinks about substitution in the 1893 tale, “The Middle Years,” revised twice after its first publication, in 1895 and in 1909, and more broadly about the dubious “re-manipulation,” as James called it, of his earlier work for the New York edition. She suggests that one way of defining James’s late style is to focus on “its higher genetic complexity” (85) and by comparing the story with James’s late unfinished autobiographical volume of the same name, she succeeds in making a number of suggestive connections between revision and autobiography. These are amplified in the book’s penultimate chapter, on the relation between writing and memory (or “re-living” or “redreaming” [194]) in life-writing, which she argues is structurally similar to textual revision. She quotes Martin Löschnigg, “autobiography is necessarily incomplete and (theoretically) open to constant rewriting” (195), and adds the rider that “this ‘revisability’ is sharpened when writers find themselves describing traumatic material” (199). Leslie Stephen, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf furnish persuasive case studies.

Her final chapter (drawing in W. H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and David Foster Wallace) brings the story of revision into the digital era, where revision often disappears into the seamless cannibalism of composition on the computer. In fact the whole modernist practice of revision, it turns out, may just have been an “exploration of the limit point of print culture, the final flowering of composition through documented paper stages” (269) and its teleology as exercise in nostalgia.

The book itself does have a few errors and misprints that call out for revision, though: Lyrical Ballads is dated to 1878, and Buxton Forman’s edition of John Keats to 1817, for example. And a couple of times, Sullivan mistranscribes words from the manuscript she reproduces (as in Pound’s “dam per’apsez,” where her mistranscription is different again from Valerie Eliot’s). But these are tiny lapses in a most impressive book. Sullivan convincingly demonstrates and historicises the many ways in which the documented processes of revision can help readers to see texts in a new light.

Ian Patterson
Queens’ College, Cambridge

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