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.