Once upon a time authors were believed to improve their work in revision. Then editorial theory fell in love with first versions, stigmatising second thoughts as impositions. The old dispensation, in which rejected drafts and variants were seen as false starts happily rectified on the road to a work's final form, which was an incarnation of the author's final intention, became 'The Whig Interpretation of Literature'. This belittling tag, coined in a 1988 essay of the same name by Stephen Parrish, general editor of the monumental Cornell Wordsworth, reflected two more widespread beliefs in literary theory: that 'language is prior to thought' and that authorial intention is 'not only elusive and illusory, but irrelevant'. In the case of the Cornell Wordsworth such beliefs were used to defend the publication of early versions as reading texts (a host of 'yellow' daffodils, for example; 'golden', a second thought, is relegated to the apparatus). The first versions, Parrish proclaimed, contained 'the real Wordsworth, the early Wordsworth, generally the best Wordsworth'. Today, a third position is in ascendance. Editors, Parrish included, no longer talk of best and worst: instead, the equal validity of all versions is asserted. This third or pluralist position grows out of and reflects several recent developments: the triumph of history in the study of literature in universities, the much-heralded new dawn of hypertext, and a near universal reluctance on the part of literary academics to make judgments of value. Where exactly the publication of Trimalchio, an early version of The Great Gatsby, fits into this admittedly crude narrative, is no easy question.
LRB 21 September 2000 | PDF Download