- Textual Hermeneutics and Belated Male Heroism: Edith Wharton's Revisions of The House of Mirth and the Resistance to American Literary Naturalism
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 51, Number 3, Autumn 1995
- pp. 87-116
- View Citation
- Additional Information
RICHARD A. KAYE Textual Hermeneutics and Belated Male Heroism: Edith Wharton's Revisions of The House ofMirth and the Resistance to American Literary Naturalism The call over the last decade for a literary histoty informed by an attention to textual issues has been successful chiefly in ethical revaluations of English Romanticism. With a few exceptions, howevet , such scholatship—emphasizing editions, variants, and revisions as well as their relation to a histotical mattix (what Jetóme McGann has characterized as a "matetialist textual hetmeneutics" imbued with a serious engagement with "facticity and positive knowledge")—has yet to find a firm place in studies of Ametican literature.1 While the field of American litetaty studies is one of the most advanced, theoretically speaking, of all areas of literary inquiry, it still awaits the kind of historically -informed revival of close textual inquiry which has enlivened the study of Btitish nineteenth-centuty poetry by problematizing the idea of a stable text as well as the notion of single authorship.2 The essays collected in Romantic Revisions (1992), for example, display a scholarship informed by current inquiries in textual studies.' There has been, of course, a thoroughgoing series of editing projects in Ametican studies.4 Yet, while New Criticism has bequeathed a strong Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1995 Copyright © 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 88Richard A. Kaye tradition of close reading to such enterprises and New Historicism has had its effects, they have not yet merged into the sort of scholarship that McGann is bringing to the histotically situated editing of Romantic texts. The emergence of such scholarship in Romantic studies may be due to the frequency with which Romantic wtiters, perhaps more than other authors, revised their work. Moreover, the dominance of the novel in American literature no doubt encourages what Bruce Harkness once described as the "novelistic fallacy"—the supposition that, since a novel contains so many words, a few dozen or even a few thousand cannot matter much.5 Even so, the neglect of editorial practices and their theoretical bases is striking. Neither the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) nor the Columbia History of the American Novel (1991), for example , has essays or even sections of articles devoted to issues relating to problems of textual editing, variant editions, or revisions. Most recently , the second volume of The Cambridge History ofAmerican Literature (1995), despite a detailed section describing the social conditions of literary vocation in the 1850s, does not include any exploration of textual matters.6 And with the exception of Philip Home's important study, Henry James and Revision (1990), there is scarcely any of this work on James, although James' revisions of his novels have long been published in widely-available editions.7 The debate surrounding the 1991 publication of the University of Pennsylvania version of Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), based on the novelist's original manuscript, remained largely a question for textual scholars working on Dreiser's fiction.8 Revisions can offer the critic an exceptionally valuable opportunity for understanding the creative process and provide a unique view of a writer's state of mind as he or she refines or rethinks recalcitrant problems and prickly details. The most seemingly trivial revisionary transposition in a novel can reveal new dimensions of meaning, providing the occasion for an appreciation of what might otherwise be exceedingly difficult to grasp with any degree of assurance: an author's larger intentions and motivations as he or she creates a given scene, recasts a sentence, or even chooses a particular word. Arguably such revisions are a more telling guide to an author's creative aspirations than, for example, a personal letter or an autobiographical work indicating an author's state of mind during composition (two unreliable sources of evidence for a writet's motivations given that such documents are gen- Edith Wharton's Revisions erally composed retrospectively, and often with a self-serving rationale ). A full examination of revisions allows us to grasp the movement of thought in the process by which an author conceives his or her literary conception. Although fraught with their own interpretive difficulties , such revisions can offer a palpable...