Friday, February 20, 2009

John Updike and the Problem of the Original Text

Perhaps we ought to admit that sometimes 'the original text' is a slippery notion. In the aftermath of John Updike's recent death the Times re-published his foreword to the latest edition of his Rabbit, Run. In this foreword Updike discloses some of the complicated history of the publication of this great American novel. (For an entertaining guide to his theology try here). The following texts can be discerned:

a) The handwritten draft completed on 11 September 1959.
b) The typescript sent to his publisher
c) The American Knopf edition of 1960 (minus various excisions from the typescript)
d) A UK reprint of the Knopf text in 1962
e) A Penguin edition of 1962 with excisions restored and improvements to the prose throughout
f) Various reprints of that edition
g) Another edition in 1995 with " few further corrections and improvements for this printing".

These are all authorial texts (although variously constrained by lawyers and editors), but I'm not sure which one is the original text. In reflecting on this situation he says: "Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine." In other words somehow there is a coherence between the nature of the story and its characters, and the complications of its text.


  1. Well, lets consider this :)

    a) Paul "writes" a draft by dictation to his assistants, and under Inspiration.
    b) His assistants make grammatical improvements.
    c) The "final" version is read to Paul, who approves it under Inspiration. This is send to some particular church.
    d) His assistants make further improvements, approved by Paul under Inspiration, and this "better" edition is send to another church (cp. Jer 36:32 principle).
    e) Both "copies" get copied for private use. Somebody "improves" on the texts, and they are circulated beyond Paul's control.
    f) Paul's draft is copied for a private use.
    g) This private copy of the draft is improved and circulated.

    and so on...

    So what's the original text?-)

    Sometimes I wonder if the B-text and the D-text streams are a result of such activity :)

  2. In Cicero's letters "Ad familiares" he refers to dictating and sending multiple copies of letters to friends by different couriers. No doubt copyist errors occurred in making these. Which is the 'original'?

    In truth we are much too accustomed to the model of the age of printing, where the "autograph" is the text used for the first edition. It's meaningless in the age of manuscripts.

    Not that this means that we do not have the texts! Merely that we are asking questions with the wrong preconceptions.

  3. Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series. Perhaps I should say Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, or, to be a bit more accurate, Updike’s descriptions of Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, rather than the signs themselves.