Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that you are the author of an unpublished work of fiction. You send it to an editor at a publishing house, who invites you to discuss it with her over luncheon. In the course of that meeting she suggests extensive changes in the manuscript, all of which you acknowledge to be improvements, and all of which you incorporate into the second version of the book--a version that is accepted by the editor and published to what we in the reviewing game call "critical and popular acclaim." You have become a Major Writer.
Years pass, and so do you. But before your death you donated your papers and manuscripts to a prominent university library, which now opens them to qualified, or allegedly qualified, scholars. One of these fellows, burrowing about in your "primary material," chances upon a cardboard box in which he discovers, to his absolute rapture--this, after all, could be the making of a reputation and a tenured career--the original manuscript of your great first novel, "Wheat Amidst the Chaff."
Reading through the yellowing pages of this astonishing discovery, the scholar is startled to find that the manuscript--which in point of fact was originally titled "Chaff Amidst the Wheat"--is in certain important respects most unlike the published version that readers throughout the world have come to love. The heroine, for example, Heather Beattie, originally was known as Torquemada Jones; she was a resident not of the Upper West Side of Manhattan but of the Lower East Side of Boaz, Ala.; and, most crucially, her tragic end came not at the hands of a crazed fettucini vendor but as a consequence of injuries suffered upon falling off a tractor.
Furrowing his brow and scratching his rapidly thinning hair, our hero reaches as deeply as he can into his lexicon of academic gobbledegook and postulates this stunner: "What was the authorial intentionality?" Or, in plainer English: Which of the two known versions of "Wheat Amidst the Chaff" did you, the now-departed author, actually want published? The original, clearly done in your own write, or the published version, soiled as it surely must have been by the cynical interests of meretricious commercialism?
Bear in mind that the scholar, whose own interests may be honest or meretricious or somewhere in between, has no record of your conversation with your editor. He has nothing to go on except two original manuscripts, the novel as finally published--and, of course, his own judgment. Exercising the latter, he determines that "Chaff Amidst the Wheat" is actually the book you wanted published, and furthermore that it is indeed the "better" of the two versions; armed with these judgments and a sheaf of textual annotations, he sets forth in search of a publisher who, by bringing out the original version, will fulfill what he fancies to have been your "authorial intentionality."
This little story is not quite as hypothetical as it may seem. A variation upon it is now being played out in the Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, in the form of an article by a professor who claims that Norman Mailer, in editing his novel "An American Dream" for book publication after its original appearance in magazine serialization, so drastically altered it that--get this--"the whole book is drained of intentionality."
It was this same person--his name is Hershel Parker and he is professor of something called "American Romanticism" at the University of Delaware--who, according to Herb Mitgang in The New York Times, "coined the phrase 'authorial intentionality,' " so presumably when he accuses Mailer of gutting the "intentionality" of his own novel, he knows whereof he speaks. "The author damaged it," he says, "by a handful of small excisions and slight verbal substitutions during his careful polishing of the version that he had serialized in Esquire." And he drops this bombshell:
". . . there may not be another man or woman of our time who has written so profound and prescient a meditation on manhood, marriage and the American Dream. It's time to give another chance to the novel Mailer wrote. I have come round to thinking that 'An American Dream' is very possibly a great novel, or that it used to be, back in 1963 and 1964, before Dial published it."
Mailer, who cooperated with Parker's inquiry, has responded to its outcome with admirable restraint. "I'm not sure he's right," he told Mitgang. "I think the Dial book is better . . . I probably made some errors in some sentences, but there is nothing wrong with making changes. Henry James rewrote all of his novels. It gives you a chance to cut out some of your darlings."
Had Mailer been in a mood to address the issue less diplomatically, he would have been wholly justified in greeting Parker's analysis and judgment with scorn. Who, precisely, is Hershel Parker to proclaim which if any version of "An American Dream" is "the novel Mailer wrote"? Are we seriously to believe that a professorial evaluation of "authorial intentionality" is superior to and more reliable than the actions and decisions of the person who actually wrote the book?
The question may seem preposterous on its face--in fact, it is preposterous on its face--but to those who specialize in tracking down real or imagined "authorial intentionality" it most certainly is not. The revising of important and not-so-important works of literature has become an industry at many English departments, and not a small one; the collating of manuscripts and texts has become a full-time occupation for many in the academic community, and considerable amounts of money--both public and private--have been spent upon the publication of the results.
In some instances those results have been consequential and valuable. Not all works of literature are published as their authors want them to be; influences ranging from the state of a publisher's bank account to prevailing standards of sexual prudery can detrimentally affect the publication of books. William Faulkner's "Sartoris," for example, the first of his monumental Yoknapatawpha novels, was sharply edited and cut before being published in a version with which he was most unhappy; the discovery by Douglas Day of the version Faulkner preferred, and its publication under his editorship as "Flags in the Dust," was a service not to academic specialization but to literature. The same was true of the publication in the past couple of years of editions of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" that restore material excised from the originals for reasons of decorum and commerce.
But it's one thing for scholars to attempt to reclaim and honor an author's original intentions, and quite another to attempt to replace the author's judgments with their own. This, no matter how honorable and selfless his motives, is what Hershel Parker appears to be up to, so it is a good thing that Norman Mailer is still around to put a check on his enthusiasms. "An American Dream," Mailer says, will remain unchanged; inasmuch as it is Mailer's book, and not Parker's, that is as it should be.