English & The Humanities: Documentations of Change

When I first got to college, I thought English as a discipline was static. Unchanging. I had some vague notion that literary works heralded as “classic” or “canon” are worthy of these labels because scholars consider the writing to be as perfect as possible. Shakespeare’s texts have lasted centuries because, as “perfect” works, they have been deemed worthy of preservation–preservation from change. (Or, so I thought at the time.) Having always been interested in writing, I was intrigued to start learning about the secret to what makes a “classic” a “classic,” and particularly what makes it worthy of preservation as an unchanging entity. What I failed to realize then, is that even the most “perfect” work is imperfect and ever-changing.

I am now a junior, three years into the English major at SUNY Geneseo, and my views on English and the humanities have changed dramatically. I now believe that the concept of a “finished product” or “finished work” is a myth. What is more, perfection is an unattainable asymptote for which writers strive, but can never reach. Literary works are a show of a writers’ efforts toward perfection; they are not a show of the actual achievement of perfection.

Being introduced to “meta-reading” (i.e., the analysis of the drafts and revisions–both during the writing process, and post-production–that a text has undergone) is responsible for reshaping my flawed perception of English as a discipline. The concept of “fluid text,” in which a text’s meaning can be enhanced through studying the changes it went through, was a new concept to me. During my studies, I began to understand that, when a writer chooses to replace or omit certain words/phrases/passages, these edits are what make for a “fluid” text—one that does not adhere to one single “true” version.┬áBy examining drafts and revisions, we can gain insight into the writing and thinking process of writers and even their intended messages.

Learning about meta-reading has opened my eyes to the truths of literary study. My first encounter with meta-reading was during a course I took on W. B. Yeats. The class opened my eyes to the imperfect, even frantic writing process that such literary greats as Yeats underwent in order to present a supposedly “perfect” “finished work,” fit for public consumption. Yet, even after publication, I learned that it is not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their works.

In trying to understand why an author would go through the effort of revising his/her works that have already been published, I think W. B. Yeats himself summed up the possible reasons well: “Whatever changes I have made are but an attempt to express better what I thought and felt when I was a young man.” This same concept can connect to a well-known, if seemingly paradoxical, Bob Dylan lyric: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

Now, as I study the digital humanities and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, my understanding of the ever-evolving nature of literature has deepened even further. Just as Yeats underwent many drafts, revisions, and rearrangements of his writing, so too did Thoreau. I have learned that such revisions oftentimes reflect the writers’ changing views on life. In editing their writing, a writer tries to more accurately capture and represent their views. In reading different variations of authors’ texts, it becomes evident that literary choices are very important in capturing, articulating, and conveying one’s intended message.

When an author gets older and gains more life experience, it is only natural that they grow not just as a person, but as a writer, too, in their abilities to better articulate what they once thought or felt. Over time, writers (like anyone, including me and my views on English) can also change their minds about a subject and therefore feel the need to change their writing on it. The human experience itself is fluid, as anyone working towards a growth mindset knows well. It takes courage to edit and re-publish one’s work, and it similarly takes courage to admit that one’s previous opinions/writings were not as accurate as they could be, and therefore justify a need for post-production edits. In this way, fluid text versions can be treated as a way of mapping an author’s growth as an individual over the course of their lifetime experiences.

It is also worth noting that, even if a text has remained relatively unrevised for a long period of time, readers’ interpretations of that text are still ever-changing. The future affects how people perceive the documented past. New literary and/or sociocultural theories lead to new ways of interpreting early English works. And because humanity evolves in these ways, so too do the artifacts that make up the humanities.

I now know that two of the most important parts of studying English literature–and studying historical documentation of the human experience in general–are: change and imperfection. The humanities (be it English texts, artistic works, etc.) tell a story of how human experience, and interpretation of past human experience, has developed and evolved over time. It is an unfinished, imperfect, and ever-changing story that is still being written.

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