There is news of sorts in the publication by the New York Public Library of a volume called "Melymbrosia," but whether it is good news is another matter altogether. Those with a bottomless craving for the work of Virginia Woolf, its author, no doubt will welcome it; those whose patience with the byproducts of academic specialization is limited may regard it as the result of an excess of scholarly enterprise.
"Melymbrosia" is the title that Woolf originally gave to a novel on which she began work in 1907 or 1908 but which was not published until March 1915 under the title "The Voyage Out." The novel was her first; that it was the result of much labor is made clear in Quentin Bell's biography of Woolf, in which he describes it as "the only one of Virginia's novels in which she worked more or less in public, asking for advice, showing portions of her manuscript to others and discussing her progress with friends." The book was published to favorable reviews but is now regarded as one of Woolf's minor works.
It is upon the minor works of major writers, however, that the professoriat feeds. According to a report in The New York Times, for a decade -- a decade! -- manuscripts relating to "The Voyage Out" have been the subject of intense scrutiny by, among others, an associate professor of English literature and women's studies, which is to say that the associate professor apparently has given the book more time than the author did. From papers in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection the associate professor has produced what The Times describes as a "painstaking re-creation of the author's first attempt to write a novel"; it is this re-creation that the library has now published as "Melymbrosia."
What this new edition reveals is that the novel changed a good deal en route from "Melymbrosia" to "The Voyage Out." Passages with suggestions of homosexuality in early versions of the manuscript became more heterosexual and less passionate in later versions. "The earlier version also contains much more overt social criticism," the editor told The Times; "in the published version Woolf adds many more mythic and symbolic overtones." The editor believes that Woolf put the novel through as many as nine "phases" before arriving at the final version.
Is all of this useful, valuable or interesting? It's entirely a matter of one's point of view. To the Woolf specialists, whose numbers are legion, each new shred of information is grist for the mill that produces dissertations and offprints and papers and seminars -- the effluvia of the English departments. These specialists, as well as Woolf's most doggedly adoring admirers among the general populace, will welcome "Melymbrosia" just as they welcomed previous productions of the Woolf industry, and doubtless will agree with the editor: "Woolf herself wrote that any writer's first novel is where you catch them unguarded, and that that's the one to examine in order to understand what the process of literary creation is all about."
Perhaps so. But the point should also be made that if Woolf had wanted "Melymbrosia" to be published in its original form, she presumably would have arranged for it. Though we can only guess at her reasons for revising the manuscript so extensively -- presumably not all of them were purely literary -- it remains that she chose to publish "The Voyage Out," not "Melymbrosia." Therefore -- without for a moment impugning the motives of the editor or anyone else involved in the production of the New York Public Library edition of Woolf's first draft -- we are entitled to ask whether such editions, though they may serve the interests of a certain kind of scholarship, do not in point of fact constitute a violation of the author's own intentions.
Though the question is too infrequently raised, it is an important one in an age in which the scholarly specialists are systematically raking through the odds and ends of literature--an age of "the new ersatz specialism in the humanities," in the words of the distinguished teacher and biographer Walter Jackson Bate, writing in the September-October issue of Harvard Magazine. In this age, the author and his or her work are of less moment than the scholarship arising therefrom, and the prevailing view seems to be that this scholarship operates with absolute license; the desires and intentions of authors are given less weight than the insatiable academic appetite for "knowledge," and anything that helps appease this appetite is permissible.
It's true, of course, that an author's desires and intentions are sometimes extremely difficult to discern; since there is ample reason to believe that Woolf expected her letters and diaries to be published, perhaps we are free to conclude that she wanted "Melymbrosia" in print as well. It's further true that any author who persists in preserving his or her letters, papers and unpublished manuscripts invites, however unwittingly, the posthumous attentions of the specialists; the only sure way to prevent publication of one's fugitive writing is to destroy it, and this Virginia Woolf -- like so many others -- failed to do.
Still, when one puts aside the specialized interests of Woolf scholarship, what point is there to the publication of "Melymbrosia" -- or any other work, by any other writer, that owes its existence in published form not to the creative powers of the author but to the re-creative methods of the specialist? My quarrel is not with the specific merits of the New York Public Library's "Melymbrosia," of which I have seen only brief excerpts, but with the general notion that anything exhumed by literary scholarship is automatically important and publishable -- that it somehow enlarges and enriches our understanding of a writer's life and career.
More likely, what it enlarges and enriches is our appreciation of a particular specialist's zeal and ingenuity. There's nothing wrong with this, so long as we do not confuse the results with literature or weigh them against the published work of the author. "Melymbrosia" may spark our curiosity, even our interest and pleasure, but it is only "The Voyage Out" that matters.