The Wreck of the “Standard of Living”: an unpublished novel by William Wister Haines

How does an editor convince a writer that their book isn’t worth publishing? In the case of William Wister Haines and his editor, Edward Weeks, the answer can be found in the submission draft of Haines’ second novel, Standard of Living and the recently processed William Wister Haines papers. Not that Weeks ever directly conveys this opinion to Haines, of course; instead, the conversation takes place in the margins, between Weeks’ increasingly strident comments and Haines’ weakening attempts to address his criticisms. Taken as a whole, this conversation represents a fascinating portrait of editorial persuasion, as Weeks’ initial open-mindedness gives way, and he begins to lay the groundwork for rejection.

No longer a well-known figure in American letters, in his time William Wister Haines was best known for writing two novels about working-class railway linemen, Slim and High Tension, as well as Command Decision, a book (and play) about the latter days of World War II. For all three of these books, Haines’ editor at Atlantic Monthly Books was Edward Weeks, with whom he had a working relationship for over two decades.

But their relationship was still young when Haines submitted his second novel, Standard of Living, to Atlantic Monthly Books in 1936. His first novel, Slim, had won second place in the Atlantic Monthly Press Prize Novel Contest of 1934, and had come out with the press the following year. Standard of Living was his attempt at a follow-up, and the archive I processed contained the first submission copy, with Weeks’ editorial suggestions.

A submission copy with editorial comments is always a record of a reading experience; the editor marks as he goes, and then, in the case of Weeks, adds comments with page numbers at the front of a document. In a sense, then, one can see two forms of editorial oversight: first, the reading itself (in-text comments), and then the assessment of that reading, after the fact (page citations).

Haine’s second novel was concerned with the education and disillusionment of Gavan, a rich young clubman: an entirely different social class than the one he’d described in Slim. Perhaps Weeks was nervous about this sudden change of social registers, but in his notes he seems unsure about the way Haines has his characters speak from the start, as in this exchange on p. 37.

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In his notes Weeks writes: “Albert’s beginning to talk like a stuffed agitator; to make him too much of an ass, too mouthy with his rhetoric is to lose your point.” And, as seen in this image, Haines agreed with him: the corrections are in his habitual, neat cursive.

But Weeks’ main issue was not with the minor characters but with the novel’s protagonist, who seemed to him aimless and wooden.  When Gavan attends a party on p. 81, Weeks takes issue with his dialogue.

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Weeks writes: “I wish this didn’t drag so. I don’t expect Gavan to be eloquent but he ought to put the commonplace in fewer words… Give him a little more force.”

And yet, at this point the agreement between editor and author to push forward with the manuscript still seems intact. As you can see above, Haines’ own corrections show that he was willing to make adjustments based on editorial comments, and Weeks was careful to lead Haines on with praise. “

Pretty good writing,” he writes, in his addendum to p. 46, and later, for p. 146: “One of the best pages yet.”

As the manuscript proceeds, however, it’s interesting to see Weeks’ frustration with the novel’s protagonist growing in real time. “G.’s days are so empty,” he writes, “that I have tried to think of things he would do: cards; magazines; movies; a prize fight or two; professional hockey. You make him too much of a drone.”

Later: “The truth is it is high time something happened to Gavan. The reader is getting bored watching him sit on his can.”

And later: “Your present description of [G.’s] consternation makes him appear either a fearful snob or an undersexed moron.”

But it was Gavan’s relationship with the book’s female characters that gave Weeks the most pause: most notably his on-again, off-again romance with a debutante named Margot. As the manuscript continued, and this relationship took up more and more space, Weeks clearly began to lose patience.

“She was a child, guileless, wistful and lovelier than he had remembered,” Haines writes, as his hero rejoins Margot after going away to work for a few months. “But now and always she would be incapable of understanding adult concerns. Nor would she want to. It was enough for her that Gavan would be spending his time with them and that he could speak of them with satisfaction while she listened. And so he chatted… and she listened, soothed as any child might be soothed by uncomprehended stories in a loved voice.”

When it came to scenes like these, Weeks pulled no punches. “[T]ry, for God’s sake, not to make Margot such a moron,” he wrote. “It’s incredible that any rich or traveled girl could be so empty-headed.”

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But if Week’s growing frustration is easy to chart, the change in Haines’ response is subtler: one has to look closely at the handwriting. While the early parts of the submission draft shows revision in Haines’ own hand, and even full page (or several page) substitutions – you can see the mark of the paper-clipped pages here, with the note “if the new pages… suit you, throw the old ones in this clip away”:

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But as the copy proceeds we find many fewer of Haines’ corrections and more of Weeks’; in fact, the latter half of the manuscript, which concerns itself predominately with Margot, is full of excisions and corrections in Week’s messier, more slanted cursive – as well as marginal comments that would make the most seasoned author blanch a little.

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(“this ought to be half as long and more interesting”)

Zooming out, one can see how these large-scale edits would have shown Haines just how much work the manuscript needed – and how they would have eased the transition towards ultimate rejection.

Sometimes the manuscripts of unpublished novels can be more interesting than published ones. With a published novel, the teleology is established: handwritten drafts give way to typewritten drafts give way to setting copies give way to proofs, and, in the end, the finished product – a first edition. Of course, the actual development process isn’t always so neat, but the existence of the published work at least creates a natural end point to reach for, giving the illusion of continuity to what must have seemed, during the writing itself, like a trackless thicket, easy to get lost in.

But with unpublished novels, the thicket is all there is. There’s no guidepost of a finished product to measure each draft against: only the meandering confusion of the artist’s personal whims, and – if you’re lucky – some helpful notes from an editor. In a sense, then, they are more accurate depictions of what writing is actually like for the author. The ultimate product is only an illusion, glimpsed in the imaginative distance, while the reality is a constantly shifting screen of words that refuses to remain still, day by day, hour by hour.

With the manuscript of Standard of Living, we can see an author’s boat slowly sinking, and an editor realizing that there is no use bailing him out – that it would be better, all things considered, for him to swim to shore. In the end, both editor and writer decided to let the project go — but the mystery of where, exactly, Haines realized that it would be better let the ship go down remains.

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