When Authors Disown Their Work, Should Readers Care?

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How to respond when a writers try to retract beloved poems, novels, and plays

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"September 1, 1939" is one of W. H. Auden's most famous and oft-quoted poems. Its images of futility and despair in the face of violence, of the inevitable destruction and sacrifice of yet another war have such a universal immediacy that they've been revived time and time again, whenever sudden bloodshed rears its head. Perhaps the most quoted line of all is the one that closes the poem's penultimate stanza: "We must love one another or die."

Only, there's one minor problem. During his life, Auden rewrote and then renounced the text in question, barring it from future anthologies and publications and distancing himself as much as possible from its creation. As the poet wrote in the 1965 preface to his Collected Poems, "Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring." And what did he mean by that? "A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained," he explains. "Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues." And that famous line? The worst offender of the lot. A line, in Auden's estimation, as false as it is falsely reassuring and self-congratulatory. (Auden first tried to alter it to "We must love one another and die" before altogether giving up on line and poem both.)

But are we bound by Auden's own evaluation of his work, and are we somehow wrong if we seek out—and even dare to enjoy—words that he doesn't believe in any longer? If he didn't want to see the poem, should we turn from it as well? The question is an old one, long predating Auden's famous revisions and recastings: The decision to unwrite, in a manner of speaking, certain moments of past work—and the subsequent split of popular opinion on the justifiability of that choice. When it comes to such arguments, who is right? Who is justified? Why does it matter—and what does it even matter, in the modern age where it's no longer an easy thing for the past to simply disappear?

For as long as writers have written, they've had second thoughts about their work. The Aeneid survives today through something of a fluke. Virgil had asked a friend, Lucius Varius, to burn the unfinished manuscript should anything befall him—and when he fell ill, did his best to burn the thing himself, asking repeatedly to have the manuscript boxes brought to his side. His demands were refused, and we have one of the greatest classics of world literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne was slightly more successful: After the 1828 publication of his first novel—which happens to also be largely considered the first "college novel" in America—Fanshawe: a tale, he had second thoughts about its merits and tried to both disown the work and suppress as many copies as possible. He asked friends to burn their copies (Horatio Bridge complied) and managed to prevent his wife from even suspecting of its existence until after his death. A few stragglers remained, however, and today the book is freely available in digital and printed form. Hawthorne should have been more thorough.

Others knew better than to play the odds by letting any copies loose. We'll never know if Thomas Hardy's The Poor Man and the Lady was worthy of his name—because after it had been rejected by three publishers, Hardy destroyed it altogether. Ditto James Joyce's play A Brilliant Career, of which only one part, the title page, survives today. It reads: "'A Brilliant Career' drama in 4 acts—To—My own soul I dedicate the first true work of my life." Maybe the play would have fared better had Joyce sent it to a publisher. Instead, it went to the drama critic William Archer, who wrote that "Taking it simply as a dramatic poem, I cannot help finding the canvas too large for the subject." Archer complained that it was difficult to follow and advised the aspiring author to narrow his canvas (advice Joyce, to his credit, clearly didn't take to heart in future work). And with those words, the first true work of the man who was to become arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century went to its death. Joyce likely destroyed it himself two years later, following in the literary footsteps of greats like Nikolai Gogol, who burned the second part of Dead Souls after undergoing a religious conversion, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, who burned his poetry after a similar religious awakening. What wouldn't literary scholars give to be able to recover the irrecoverable.

But such disappearing acts are increasingly rare. In the past, destruction was simpler. It was easier to get rid of a work without a trace and to recreate and reform and reimagine it, easier to lose and cause to be lost. Now, it's no longer quite as straightforward. Of course, authors can still burn their manuscripts—but once something is out in the world, especially if it ever saw the digital light of day, it's harder and harder to call it back. Writers can do their best to buy back books they wish they'd never published—like May Hutton with The Coeur d'Alenes or Johann Beringer with his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis and its lying stone—or, like Auden, request changes in future publications. But it's rare to succeed completely. And might you not draw more attention to yourself in the process?

The Russian author Sergei Dovlatov once quipped, in his signature tragicomic style, that he'd been exceptionally lucky: His literary début was postponed by 20 years. His writing was banned in Russia and had to be smuggled out on microfilm, and his first book, Zona (The Zone) was destroyed before its Russian publication and only published in New York after Dovlatov himself emigrated. Youth's brashness and noise, while forgivable, isn't a virtue. Auden tried to take his back; Dovlatov didn't have to. It had never been published to begin with. And in the present day, a publisher's rejection may be the only way to ensure that a work be as forgotten as its author wants it, the modern equivalent of the all-consuming fire. (But in the day of easy self-publishing, even that may not suffice, and a greater self-control is necessary; absent that, eventual regret may not be far behind.)

The onus is thus increasingly on the reader: to comply or to keep right on reading the original, authorial intentions be damned. So what do we do when we have ready access to it all? Where—and how—do we look, or look away, as the case may be?

The question brings to mind the debate surrounding the recent publication of 47 alternative endings (and several alternate titles) to Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Do we gain anything by reading them—and should we be reading them in the first place, since Hemingway clearly intended for his published manuscript to be the definitive one? In this case, we honor the final version with little debate, because we've never seen the intermediaries until now. Published today, they can be seen as a way of getting closer to the writer's craft, to the process of creation, and few would argue that they are better than the quote-unquote original.

But would we read them differently had Hem published one—and then decided, after reflection and the passing of years, that another was the superior after all? Would we read them differently if he'd died before deciding on a favorite? Would another line, perhaps, then emerge in the critical mind as the better alternative? And would we, in turn, judge Auden differently were he to have kept his original version to himself and published a later incarnation first (with the first revealed at some future time)? As Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor, argues in his preface to the Collected Poems, most of Auden's changes are eventually recognized as improvements—but what prevents us from seeing that at once is familiarity with the original, the "unsettling novelty" of change.

Before we become indignant at a favorite line falling away from a work or at a favorite poem being cast aside, consider that the same process may have unfolded in earlier times minus the paper trail. Who knows if the first performed version of Hamlet is the one that survived? If Chaucer had written earlier variations of some favorite scene in Canterbury Tales, with some lost line that we'd have seen as masterpiece but he, with time and reflection, saw as trash? Should we deprive the modern author of the chance to change something he no longer believes in, just because we happen to have fallen in love with the initial sentiment? As Mendelson puts it, he is presenting "the body of work by which Auden chose to be remembered.... The decision to print an author's last revisions should need no defense." Auden's literary and ethical standards, he writes, have become stricter over time. Shouldn't we give him the benefit of honoring his view?

But honoring the view doesn't mean eliminating the past. It's not an un-writing of history so much as its retelling. Because whether we must love one another or die, or love one another and die all the same, or do neither, the lines will always remain. We can't bring back Joyce or Gogol's burned manuscripts, and we certainly can't undo all of the unwilling destruction of literature that has wiped out entire chunks of history, whether by war or disaster or the efforts of an all-too-productive secret police, but Auden's words haven't gone anywhere. They are there for the taking, in all their multiple versions.

For, here is the crucial difference. Auden didn't pull a Nabokov or a Kafka, requesting that his originals be burned (of course, this isn't a perfect comparison. Nabokov and Kafka's works remained unfinished, while Auden's was done—and yet, Auden argued that one never actually finishes a poem; one only ever puts it aside). We should remember that Auden's instructions to Mendelson had an important caveat. "I once asked him what he wanted done with the poem, what I should do as his literary executor," Mendelson recalled on the occasion of what would have been Auden's 100th birthday. "And he thought for a moment and said, 'I don't want it reprinted during my lifetime.'" That "during my lifetime" is key. Auden didn't want anything destroyed. He just didn't want to see it, to have it haunt him, taunt him, even, in his advancing age.

Auden's distaste, however, need not be ours, should we not choose it for ourselves. Joseph Brodsky certainly didn't think "September 1, 1939" should be ignored, devoting an entire lecture (later republished in full in Less Than One) to what he considered a masterpiece, and urging his listeners on with the hope that they would "develop the same sentiment toward this poem as the one that prompted it into existence—one of love." And this, despite agreeing with Auden that that damned line was quite problematic.

Perhaps Auden, too, would come to agree were he still alive. As he wrote in a poem that was not disowned, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living." A work need not be the same for author and reader alike, especially the longer the time that passes between them. If a work doesn't feel true, it will lose its steam—and perhaps the best proof of the universality of something like "September 1, 1939" is how often it has been called upon during its lifetime, to help us understand violence and humanity, war and responsibility, love and guilt.

At the end, we can embrace and love whatever we want of an author's work. But we also can't ignore a writer's express wish just because we don't happen to agree with it. Instead, we can use that wish to enrich our understanding of the disinherited words, by doing our best to understand their history and the reason why their author chose to cast them aside as unworthy. We can, in other words, give authors the same consideration we'd want if we ourselves come to decide that something in our past no longer suits our present selves: the freedom to rethink and reconsider, to take back and reframe as we mature and as our understanding of the world changes. And we don't even have to unwrite history to do that.

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Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game.

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