Revision: uncommon before the 20th century? I’m not so sure
Craig Fehrman reviewed in the Boston Globe Hannah Sullivan’s The Work of Revision. I have not read Sullivan’s book, so I do not know which ideas in Fehrman’s review are his own and which are Sullivan. However I do not understand the argument.
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.
Then something changed. In a new book, The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”[…]
Ben Jonson, a Renaissance playwright, once observed of Shakespeare that “whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line.” Jonson was gently mocking the cult of Shakespeare, and it’s certainly possible that an old chest somewhere contains several radically revised versions of Shakespeare’s plays. But that seems unlikely.[…]
The problem, of course, is that we do have many variants of Shakespeare plays – e.g., the First Folio, and various Quartos for many plays. These are so different that many publishers have taken to publishing different extant versions of the plays – thus, the Norton Shakespeare, a standard college level text and anthology, publishes both the 1608 quarto text and the 1623 Folio King Lear; Arden is currently publishing Hamlet in three versions (1603, 1604, and 1623). And most Shakespeare anthologies I am aware of attempt to integrate various texts.
Now, if these do not reflect “several radically revised versions of Shakespeare’s plays,” what do they reflect?
(Fehrman-Sullivan’s theory seems to be that paper used to be expensive making revisions unlikely, and that typing forced writers to slow down so that they were able to revise. The theory as expressed in Fehrman’s review sounds unlikely to me, but again I have not read Sullivan’s book.)