Delbanco Featured in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle

Nicholas Delbanco wrote a feature article for the February edition of The Writer’s Chronicle, a publication of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). The article, titled “My Old Young Books,” was adapted from an “Afterword” for Sherbrookes, which Dalkey Archive Press will reprint as a single revised volume in August 2011. The trilogy was first published by William Morrow & Co. as Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980). In the article Delbanco discusses the process of revision, transforming a trilogy into one complete volume, and making previous work new.

From the article:

When John O’Brien (the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press) kindly offered to bring the trilogy back to print-life, there was a choice to make. Most authors, including this one earlier, are glad for the chance to reissue old texts and leave well enough alone. At worst, the errors of juvenilia are simply that; one fixes a comma or adds a footnote, and the book exists anew. It’s a record of a time and place, not something one should tamper with. Painters and composers often revisit their previous work and offer, as it were, variations, on a theme. Some authors—famously Henry James in the New York Edition of 1909 or, more recently, Peter Matthiessen in his rewritten trilogy—do undertake a full-fledged overhaul of what they wrote before. But the majority of writers seem content to say, Here. What’s done is done.

In my case, however, the three books were one, and I had conceived them as such. The structure of Possession, for example, mirrors that of Stillness—with Sherbrookes as a kind of second movement and pastoral interlude. The first and third books’ actions transpire in a single day; the second deals with gestation and plays out over months. The seventy-six year old Judah whom we meet on page #1 has his birth attested to by a doting father at the end of book #3. All along, I’d hoped to publish them as a single volume, or a kind of triptych, and when invited to do so it seemed the right way to proceed.

Yet certain issues, if not problems, came immediately clear. First, volumes two and three contained passages of recapitulation—in order to tell a new reader what happened in previous texts. (Judah dies in the interstices of Possession and its sequel, Sherbrookes, his sister Harriet drowns herself at the end of the second installment, and the reader of the third book, Stillness, would have to be aware of this. Secondary characters such as Samson Finney and Lucy Gregory make what seems like a debut appearance in Stillness, but have in fact been introduced some hundreds of pages before.) These repetitions felt redundant, and could be edited out. This I did. But once I began with red pencil and scissors, I found it hard to cease cutting; the entire text—sentence by sentence and paragraph by page— could be, it seemed to me, pruned. In the aggregate, I cut roughly seven percent of the whole: nearly ten percent of Possession and Jess of the subsequent two installments. The book now comprises some 200,000 words—a long novel by any reckoning but not, I hope, bloat.

The simplest way to put it is this: I changed nothing important in Sherbrookes—retaining the second book’s title as the title of all three. I added nothing of note. The characters and conflict and action and tone stay the same. The thematic matter (more of which later) is constant, as is the order of scenes. But no single page of prose escaped my editorial intervention; I’d written the sentences long ago, and could rewrite them now. Why not, I asked myself, improve what needed improving; why leave a phrase intact when it could be with profit rephrased? The good news is—or so I told myself—that I’m a better writer now than when I started Possession. The bad news is the same. The youthful exuberance of Delbanco’s prose troubled the older Delbanco, who has learned to admire restraint. Someday perhaps, some scrupulous someone may compare the trilogy with this single volume, but at the present moment I’m the “sole proprietor” of the territory of Sherbrookes and can alter its property lines.

Read the full article in the February 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle and watch out for Sherbrookes later this year.

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