When Authors Disown Their Work, Should Readers Care?

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?

Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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