Dickinson Electronic Archive: Editorial Theories and Practices



The Dickinson Electronic Archives is an online, on-going project that seeks to facilitate closer scholarly attention to Dickinson's works as physical artifacts. To this end, its editorial board, consisting of Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart, and Marta Werner, have coordinated the creation of a large website that makes Dickinson's writings available in searchable digital reproductions of the manuscripts, transcriptions, and notes. The archive offers numerous digital representations of Dickinson's and others' manuscripts, teaching tools, and responses to Dickinson's work.


Because the choices an editor makes about a poet's work will derive from her notion of the poet's biography, it is important to consider the editor's biographical assumptions. The editors of the Dickinson Electronic Archives see Dickinson as vastly different from how she has been portrayed in most other scholarly work. Rather than an eccentric recluse, frail and "surprised" by the intensity of her own work, the archive portrays Emily as a woman who nurtured intimate personal relationships, who collaborated on her carefully crafted poems, and who displayed a lively sense of humor in her works. The editors actively seek to dispel some of the more popular Dickinson stereotypes, bringing their readers a fuller, more humane picture of the poet.

Editorial Theories

The archives follow some of the same basic editorial principles as Smith and Hart's Open Me Carefully. The editorial board stresses the importance of the manuscript as a physical artifact and seeks to dismantle some of the ways in which Dickinson is commonly seen: that her writing was the product of a solitary process, that she did not have much of a sense of humor, and that her notion of a poem was a "small" lyric that is almost swallowed by the white space on the page.

The "Detailed Description of the Archives Project" makes the argument —in opposition to other Dickinson editors — that Dickinson's works are not as transferable from one medium to another; on the contrary, they are not separable from their artifacts. One of the editorial board's chief concerns is how we "see" poems, and they contend that seeing Dickinson's texts as "scribal objects [rather than printed ones] profoundly alters one's experience of her literary presentations." According to them, for Dickinson, "editorial interference 'defeated' her poetic objectives and dissuaded her from conventional publication via mechanical reproduction." The possibility of seeing the works as Dickinson wrote them (although in digital form) opens up vast new interpretive possibilities.

The project rests on the assumption that Dickinson is the best authority on her work: like the archive, the other online projects the collective is producing will represent Dickinson's writings by taking "Dickinson's manuscript [corpus] . . . in all its authority." She was a graphocentric poet, and to fully appreciate her work it is important to see how her audiences would have actually seen her poetry. That said, the editors do not discount other printed editions of Dickinson's works; on the contrary, they argue that the electronic medium will only enhance the printed editions, and that scholars, in their desire for completeness, will continue to consult everything available about Dickinson. They are careful to acknowledge that their work is a product of years of scholarly work. Nor do they ignore the fact that the manuscript reproductions on the archive are just that; the graphics are another "production performance" of Dickinson, and not the thing itself. However, for their purposes, the electronic medium comes closest to allowing a huge audience to see how Dickinson intended her work to be seen.


Another chief goal of the project is to allow readers to envision Dickinson's entire oeuvre and the complex relations within it. While previous editions of her work have classified her texts as traditional genres — poems or letters or something else — the Dickinson Archives seek to portray Dickinson's collapse of these categories and how she presented her work to her readers. They introduce a new genre, the "letter poem"—a blending of the two genres—which seems closer to many of Dickinson's original presentations than an artificial division into letters and poems.

Organization of Site and Poems and Paratext

The editors plan to organize the archive as a set of correspondences between Dickinson and various readers, chief among them Susan Dickinson, who figures prominently in their minds as Emily's main audience and intellectual inspiration. The archives, they hope, will also facilitate research into Susan's work and the connections she had to Emily. By highlighting Susan's work, they hope to facilitate study of Dickinson's writing practices and to dispel the notion of her as an isolated writer. This organizational strategy also reflects another assumption of Dickinson's writing: that, for her, the circulation of her poetry to friends and family was publication. However, at this stage in the site's development even the basic intended organizational structure is not apparent; the table of contents on the main page does not consist of Dickinson's addressees, except for the entry of Higginson's "Letter to a Young Contributor," which at this point is offered without any context (at least on the main page). Indeed, the opening page seems to give no indication where the real heart of the archive is, and its ambiguity can be a bit overwhelming for the first time user. The "Work in Progress" is perhaps the most extensive part of the archive, though its entry in the table of contents belies this. Under "Works in Progress" is "Working Image Repository"; click on this, and you get "Emily Dickinson's Correspondence," but even from this screen it is not clear that the window contains more than correspondence with Susan. The user must scroll down past an introductory note to find other correspondences. Moreover, "Work in Progress" is restricted to users who know the password, which cuts out a great number of potential users. It should be noted, though, that this is not the editors' choice, but is a result of Harvard University Press's unwillingness to make the site free to all Web users.

The manuscript archives themselves are listed by their Harvard manuscript numbers. The Johnson numbers are given only in the notes with the hope that "as we work through each correspondence, Johnson's representations will disappear." As the archives are not indexed by titles or first lines, the archive search engine is invaluable in locating specific texts.

The editors have chosen to supply a typewritten transcription alongside each poem in the Dickinson archive (except with Susan's manuscripts, which require the user to press a button to view the manuscript with a transcript), which draws the attention of the reader away from the sometimes practically illegible handwriting of Dickinson to the more familiar printed form of her verse. While it is important to have the transcript somewhere on the site, it may be a better choice to allow the user to explore the manuscript first without the "crutch" of a transcription. To the editors' credit, they have written the transcript in a courier font, which makes it seem less authoritative than a more printerly font like Times Roman. In an effort to be lighthanded, they have put the notes to the poems in a separate window, which allows the reader to choose whether to view them. Perhaps this would be a better choice for the transcriptions as well. One very valuable feature of the manuscript images is their ability to be enlarged, which makes reading them much easier.

Editorial Practices

Because the archive project is still a work in progress, it is difficult to judge how completely the editors will achieve their objectives. The "Work in Progress" site does go a long way toward achieving the goals of the project, however. In helping to dispel the stereotypical notions of Dickinson, the editors have put together sets of three poems under the titles "Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem," "Emily Dickinson, Cartoonist," and "The Letter Poem." These are edited with introductions, notes, and questions for discussion and collaboration, making them an excellent teaching tool.


The editorial collective is generous in their acknowledgements of those who have supported the project and the scholarship that has led up to it. Their "Detailed Description" is peppered with references to earlier scholarly work on Dickinson; they mention Johnson's Variorum, Franklin's Manuscript Books, Marta Werner's Open Folios, among others. They also thank the individuals and institutions from whom they have received technical support and the institutions that have provided funding.


Unlike editors who must decide whether to represent Dickinson's original lineation, working with the manuscripts themselves does not require such a decision; the line breaks are Dickinson's. The transcriptions the editors provide also reflect her original lineation.

Spelling, Punctuation and Capitalization

While early editors like Bianchi and Todd regularized Dickinson's non-standard mechanics, again, by choosing to reproduce the manuscripts, the archive retains the Dickinson's original mechanics. The manuscript images show the ambiguity of some of Dickinson's marks without offering an interpretation. The transcriptions, however, must make some decisions about these mechanics, and they attempt to represent the manuscript as closely as possible in type.

Dating and Attribution

The editors have dated the archives using similar methodologies to those found in Open Me Carefully. Rather than using Johnson's dates, they look at handwriting, the type of paper, and references within the texts. They acknowledge that the dating is approximate, and unlike Johnson, refrain from giving specific years unless they have clear evidence. Instead, they give approximate dates, such as "late 1860s" or "early 1850s."

Online Considerations

The electronic format allows for things impossible or difficult to do in print: it gives access to a much greater range of Dickinson manuscripts than is easily available in print; it allows for detailed analysis of the manuscripts, including complex searches of the images and typescript; it invites collaboration at almost every point, as the archive is constantly being revised; and its location on the Web invites a much wider audience than might be found for a printed "scholarly" publication.

The archive repositories—both Susan's writings and Emily's—are the most fascinating sections of the site. Unlike traditional scholarly sites, which use a light colored background with black text, the editors have chosen a black background for the manuscript reproductions and cream-colored text. The dark background focuses the eye immediately on the manuscripts, setting them off beautifully, although for long periods of viewing the color reversal is hard on the eye.

While the archives' editors celebrate the capability of the computer to release readers from "the constraints of the book, the machine that has made the object," they face a new set of constraints — those of the machine. In one readily apparent example, the quality of the user's monitor greatly affects the quality of her experience at the site. Depending on the monitor's resolution and the speed of the connection, the quality of the images can range from excellent to mediocre, to even illegible. As well, if the viewer has a smaller screen, constant scrolling up and down the screen to view the whole poem affects the way the user sees the poem in a way that viewing the entire poem at once (in a book) does not; and, a slow modem may make the huge site virtually inaccessible. In many cases, the quality of the viewer's experience online reflects how much money she has to spend on her computer equipment, while the purchase of a book enables ensures that everyone who owns it will have equal quality of access to its materials.

Another benefit of a printed book is the reader's ability to always know exactly her location in it. If she turns to the back for a note, she can easily flip back to the text when she is finished. Likewise, she always knows how much longer the book or chapter is. On such a large site, though, the user's place is not always clear. The Dickinson archive's navigation system is a bit sparse, and having a stationary navigational frame would possibly aid in keeping a frame of reference for the user.

Final Thoughts

The Dickinson Archives site is already a powerful production of Dickinson's work, allowing many of its readers to get a feeling for her actual manuscripts for the first time. It does much to realize its editors' wish for a democratization of scholarship: "[T]his redistribution and wider circulation of information that helps constitute expertise will profoundly reinflect scholarship as a multitude of critical intelligences can be brought to bear on questions previously the province of an exclusively informed few." While the archive still has some organizational problems at this point, it is an indispensable edition of Dickinson's work, and as it develops promises to become even more valuable.