NEW YORK — Joyce Carol Oates has written a novel both very old and very new.
"A Garden of Earthly Delights" was first published in 1967 and received a National Book Award nomination. Based on Oates' own family history, it tells the three-part story of migrant worker Carleton Walpole, his determined daughter, Clara, and grandson Swan, who inadvertently commits murder.
The Modern Library, which specializes in publishing older works, has put out a new hardcover edition of "Earthly Delights." Publishing director David Ebershoff had expected Oates simply to check the text for errors, only to discover that the author had almost completely rewritten the original book.
"This is the most extensive revision I've ever seen; it was essentially a new manuscript," says Ebershoff, who has reissued novels by John Irving, William Styron and many other living writers.
Over the years, countless works have been amended, at least in the author's mind. Thomas Hardy used to pull copies of his old books off his shelves and write notes in the margins. Gore Vidal recalls seeing his friend, Tennessee Williams, revise an already published short story. When Vidal asked why he was still working on something already in print, Williams responded, "Well, obviously it's not finished."
But the leap from private regret to public action has been relatively rare. Some liken the process to doctoring an old yearbook photo while others are simply too busy to bother.
"I'm not opposed to revising books in principle, and I wouldn't tell other writers what to do, but I couldn't imagine such an enterprise until I was in my 90s, when, if I were still alive, I might not have anything new to say," says John Irving, who has had "The World According to Garp" and other novels reissued, with minimal changes.
"There are so many other things I want to write. . . . At the moment, I'm two novels ahead of myself and that's always been the case. When I'm writing a novel, I've already thought of the next one I want to write."
Oates, whose other books include "Them" and "We Were the Mulvaneys," is a famously prolific writer who averages at least a new novel per year. She says she needed just a couple of months to rework "A Garden of Earthly Delights."
While the plot is essentially unchanged, countless details have been reimagined. In the original text, she describes the wedding picture of Carleton and his wife, Pearl, noting that Pearl's "shy, toothed child's smile took away from Carleton's expression the seriousness it should have had."
But in the new edition, Oates pictures them both "gazing intently at the camera they'd been commanded by the photographer, eyes widened in the effort not to blink. They'd tried so hard they'd forgotten to smile!"
In an "afterword" for the new edition, the 65-year-old Oates explains that she wanted to present the book's characters "more clearly, unoccluded by an eager writer's young prose." She recalls that she wrote the novel in a moment of youthful "white heat," inspired but immature.
"In re-examining 'Garden,' I saw that the original narrative voice had not been adequate to suggest, still less to evoke, the complexity of the novel's principal characters," she writes.
"They (her characters) seem to me now like figures in a 'restored' film or figures seen through a lens that required polishing and sharper focusing."
Oates is the most notable recent case of a writer changing old material. But in this specialized art, no one matches Henry James, who reworked more than a dozen books.
In the early 1900s, James published the multivolume "New York" editions of earlier novels, applying his later, denser prose style to "The Portrait of a Lady" and other works. James confided in one preface that he had thought of "rewriting as so difficult, and even so absurd," but he eventually justified the process as, at worst, "an earnest invitation to the reader to dream again in my company."
Some writers devoted much of their lives revisiting a single book. Walt Whitman frequently amended "Leaves of Grass," softening or even deleting the earthy language and images of the first edition, published in 1855. William Wordsworth's classic autobiographical poem, "The Prelude," first came out in 1799. He issued an expanded edition in 1805 and continued working on it for decades, with another version out in 1850.
When writers die, publishers often decide which text works best. W.W. Norton has released an edition of "The Prelude" that includes all three versions. When the Library of America recently issued a volume of James' novels, the "New York" editions were rejected for earlier texts.
"It was a choice between presenting James as an evolving artist or presenting everything as he revised at it one time, in the same style," explains Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America. "If we're presenting the career of the artist, it makes more sense to present the original text."
Publishers, not writers, are more likely to change a book, especially one that was substantially cut in the writer's lifetime. Novels such as Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" and Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" have been released, posthumously, in much larger editions that reflect the original manuscript.
Critics have debated whether publishers have the right to alter a dead writer's text. A year ago, Harcourt Brace released an "expanded" edition of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," in which some explicit passages and other material were restored.
The editor of the new edition, Noel Polk, wrote in his afterword that the restored text was "a novel superior to, more interesting and complex" than the original published edition. But Oates disagrees, noting that the book had been reprinted in Warren's lifetime.
"At that point, if he had wanted to revise his novel he would have," she says. "It seems morally wrong for a researcher to go back into the files and put together a new edition."
Posthumous revisions sometimes prove that writers don't know their own books. In the early 1950s, Scribner issued a new edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," based on the author's unhappiness with the original novel.
Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, never stopped trying to perfect "Tender Is the Night." His story of psychiatrist Dick Diver and his unstable wife, Nicole, came out in 1934 to both disappointing sales and reviews. The author believed so strongly that the book's structure was flawed — Fitzgerald regretted using flashbacks — that he would send copies to friends urging them to read the chapters in chronological order.
"After his death, someone found this reorganized copy with a note, in his handwriting, saying that he would like to see it published in this version," explains Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli.
"So (critic) Malcolm Cowley persuaded Scribner to let him prepare an edition based on the restructured copy. But it was not in any way an improvement on what Fitzgerald first wrote. The public didn't think so, the critics didn't think so and it quietly went out of print."
Fitzgerald also fussed with his greatest work. Just as the novel was about to be released, he sent an urgent telegram to his publisher, pleading for the title to be changed: " 'CRAZY ABOUT THE TITLE "UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE." STOP. WHAT WOULD DELAY BE?' "
His request was too late, and so "The Great Gatsby" went to press.