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The Work of Revision
by Hannah Sullivan

Reviewed by Sookyoung Lee


Published:

Published by Harvard University Press, 2013   |   360 pages

When Richard Bentley edited Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1732, he made more than eight hundred emendations and seventy deletions. In defense of such a wild intervention, Bentley explained that he was merely compensating for Milton’s failure to catch scribal errors of early editions – poor oversight on Milton’s behalf, both literally and figuratively. “Had he [Milton] had his Eye-sight,” Bentley stated, he would have addressed the “Inconsistencies in the System and Plan of his Poem, for want of his Revisal of the Whole before its Publication.” Milton, Bentley charged, had failed to revise. We witness in Bentley’s justification one of the first, explicit claims made for revision as an authorial – as opposed to an editorial – practice, and as a necessary component of writing itself.

Textual criticism, the excavation of “correct” texts from the variously corrupted proofs and editions, has an ancient pedigree. Alexandrian editors, for example, sought to identify the “originals” of Homer’s works from the multiple and conflicting extant versions. This involved sorting out the superior manuscripts, identifying the grammatical patterns so as to emendate the text accordingly, and adding commentary. The classical methods of recension (surveying), emendation (correcting), and stemmatics – the practice of sorting surviving documents into family trees – have remained the mainstay of textual criticism, which seeks to arrive at an ideal and singular text, the lost original, through currently available variations.

The notion of revision – making changes to the text as part of the writing process – is of more recent origin. It emerged gradually, hesitantly even, throughout the era of early modern print culture. In its earliest usage, it designated the textual changes made retroactively, often by an editor. Samuel Johnson or Edmond Malone’s devotion to the task of editing Shakespeare and other masters is an archetypal example. Only throughout seventeenth- and eighteenth-century print culture did revision come to signify the changes made by the original author. This birth of the revising subject coincided with the rise of copyright and structures of intellectual ownership – structures that, as Foucault once noted, worked to solidify “author-functions.” Authors now felt a greater need to regulate their output given the increasing commodification of their works and a sense of their “ownership” over them.

In the nineteenth century, with the cost of paper and production falling, the explosion of the means to disseminate texts in periodicals and weeklies, and the dramatic rise of the reading public, writers began to think more systematically, and at times critically, about the act of revision. Around the turn of the 19th century, in reaction against the trend, the Romantics turned against revision as a constraint on the free-flow of expression. As Byron wrote in a letter, “I am like the tiger (in poesy) if I miss my first Spring—I go growling back to my Jungle.—There is no second.—I can’t correct—I can’t—and I won’t.” But the romantic proclivity for total spontaneity was short-lived, and today revision is often viewed as synonymous with writing itself. Joyce Carol Oates: “I revise all the time, everyday”; Charles Simic: “Mostly I revise endlessly”; Michael Cunningham: “I revise constantly… few of my novels contain a single sentence that closely resembles the sentence I first set down.”

In her Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan investigates this transformation in the theory and practice of revising a text, focusing primarily on the forces that led to the current ascendency of self-revision, which she locates in the writerly practice of the modernists. Traditional textual criticism developed, as noted, before the age of textual revision. Accordingly, textual critics labored, perhaps with some justification, towards the ultimate goal of revealing the “authentic” or definitive text hidden within the discrepencies that arose during the texts’ subsequent publication history. Modernist texts, however, were written in an unambiguously revisionistic age. Consider the complicated publication history of Ulysses: first published chapter by chapter in serialized form in The Little Review, censored and habitually revised by Joyce after first publication. Which, then, would be the more authoritative version: a single edition chosen from the many published, or a synoptic, “ideal” text cobbled together by later editors? Both versions are currently on the market, and when the reader buys either Oxford World Classics or Vintage, she encounters, wittingly or not, the instability of the modern, revisionist text. Modernist literature, Sullivan argues, is the first literature to situate the act of revision at its very foundation. In this sense, at least, contemporary writers are still very much indebted to the modernists.

Throughout The Work of Revision, Sullivan examines the compositional procedures of a number of major modernist writers, demarcating various strategies of revision – each producing literary effects that implied a poetics lurked behind it. Whereas Ezra Pound’s radical excision of Eliot’s The Waste Land heightened the jagged, yoking power of its verses paradigmatic of high modernist aesthetics, Marianne Moore’s commitment to minimalism evolved as she outlived modernism, revising her original works post-publication in a nuanced and complex engagement with modernism and the broader textual history. And whereas Henry James’s perfectionism and incessant, micro-tonal revisions gave his texts a forbidding density that worked against the sale of his works, when Virginia Woolf revised, it was an aesthetic “migration,” a means to mobilize the free indirect discourse of To the Lighthouse into a more elegiac form. With the modernists, revision no longer entailed improving the existing text; it meant stylizing the text, critically deepening it and “historicizing” it against its other versions.

The Work of Revision contributes, not just to the field of literary scholarship, but also to the broader field of material history. It does so with a specific, sociological emphasis on cultural institutions – derived principally from Pierre Bourdieu – that examines the relationship between artistic production, reception and the structures that maintain those fields. Sullivan’s analysis combines insights and techniques from traditional textual criticism and philology, from the social-textual criticism of the 80s, from the more recent French genetic criticism, and even from text-collation programs like Juxta. With The Work of Revision Sullivan has laid the foundation for the project of mapping out the genealogy of the study of revision, from its origins in the classical principles of textual philology, to the recent quantitative practices of the digital humanities.


Sookyoung Lee recently received her PhD from UC Berkeley and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Connecticut College. Her dissertation was about the genesis and the decline of modernist style; her research thus concerns the intellectual history of the period leading up to World War I and its relationship to postwar culture.

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