We often describe the topically or thematically linked books we publish as being in “conversation” with each other, as if our library turns tea party after hours. Of course, it’s the authors responsible for the works who actually animate those interactions, and late last year we invited two of them to engage one another more directly. In The Work of Revision, published last summer, Hannah Sullivan reveals iteration in literary production to be an inheritance bequeathed by modernism, with close and complicated ties to the advent of the typewriter. In his forthcoming Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, Matthew Kirschenbaum casts a roughly similar gaze on the rise of word processing software. The two were kind enough to allow us to listen in as they discussed affinities between their work in a weeks-long email exchange; what follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
Matthew Kirschenbaum: Hannah, in The Work of Revision you identify the typewriter as central to the practices (or call them poetics) of revision you read as characteristic of high literary modernism through the composition habits of figures like James, Woolf, and Eliot. For me this grounds your argument not only in the space of literary and textual criticism, but also conversations in media studies, including the technologies of writing and even what is increasingly known as media archaeology. How do you walk the line between attentiveness to the material particulars of the medium—which extend beyond the typewritten page to the ecologies and economies of inscription that surrounded it, whether James’ dictation or the stratification of the writing process into autographs, typescripts, proofs, etc.—and the slide into technological determinism?
Hannah Sullivan: Hi Matt, Yes, the typewriter is definitely a key part of my book. But I must emphasize how medially diverse the twentieth century was. The material documents I studied include many things besides typescript: notebooks, manuscripts, different stages of proof (Joyce’s proofs for the “Ithaca” episode of Ulysses are notorious), serial printings, and first and subsequent book editions. Most of the writers I study continued to draft and compose by hand, but they revised and rewrote (also usually by hand) on very different kinds of pages.
And there is quite a bit of idiosyncrasy. In the 1900s, Henry James dictated new material to his amanuensis—he had given up writing—and then corrected typescript (sometimes including aural mishearings) before seeing proof. The revision process isn’t always linear. But when he revised his earlier fiction for the New York Edition in the same decade, he was working from reproductions of his earlier published novels, pasted up with a specially wide margin for revision. Another example: in The Waste Land facsimile, we can see Eliot looping back into new composition by hand on the typescript, not a fresh sheet of paper.