Murdering Your Darlings: Writers’ Revisions

Johnny Damm

Edith Wharton

This week’s example comes from the last chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, as cited by William R. MacNaughton in Papers on Language & Literature.  The book follows the character of Undine, who marries three different men and has one fairly neglected child.  The book is firmly about this fascinating woman, but significantly, the last chapter begins with the child, a nine-year-old named Paul.  An old servant has met Paul for the first time in several years, and in discussion with him, the servant realizes that the boy appears not to remember his father, so she asks him about it.  In the original manuscript, Paul answers:

“He died a long long time ago, didn’t he?”

Not bad, right?  We understand that the child does not, in fact, remember his father, which carries some weight.  But in the published novel, Wharton makes a tiny change:

“That one died a long long time ago, didn’t he?”

Ouch!  This exchange—“That one” for “He”—changes the entire tone, as well as more precisely demonstrates that the child sees his actual father, his biological father, as just one in a succession of fathers, and this clearly tells us something not only about Paul, but about Undine, all delivered with the edge of satiric and slightly moralistic bite essential to making The Custom of the Country the novel that it is.

As a bonus, here’s one more example:

Version One:  “…& as Paul came in he stopped short.”

Version Two: “…and as Paul came in his heart gave a joyful bound.”

Published Version: “…and Paul’s heart gave a wondering bound.”

About the Work

Johnny Damm

Johnny Damm is the editor-in-chief of A Bad Penny Review.

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