Ralph Franklin's Editorial Theories and Practices


Franklin, Ralph W. The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration. Madison,Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.
No material excerpted.

---, ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

---, ed. The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College Press, 1986.

---, ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.




Ralph Franklin's Editorial Theories and Practices



Ralph W. Franklin's The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition was published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 1998. The edition serves as a compelling point of entry into any discussion of Franklin's editing practices and his perception of the poet. Appealing to a specifically academic audience, Franklin's Variorum explores Dickinson's experience as both a writer and an editor of her poetry. In the Introduction, he chronicles her productivity throughout her literary career and provides an exhaustive analysis of her fascicle constructions and their significance. He also provides a detailed analysis of the history of Dickinson editing, illuminating other editors' contributions with his perception of both their strengths and weaknesses. He describes the aim of his edition as "a comprehensive account, not a selection for a specific end" (29).

Franklin's The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson was published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 1981. As he states in the Introduction, "This edition makes the manuscript books of the poet available for the first time, restored as closely as possible to their original order and, through facsimile reproductions, presented much as [Dickinson] left them for Lavinia and the world" (ix).

His first book concerning Dickinson studies, The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1967. He is also the editor of The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (Amherst College Press, 1986).


In the Acknowledgments section of his Variorum, Franklin recognizes the staff of various institutions and repositories of Dickinson's manuscripts for their support. He also acknowledges several colleagues and friends – among them LaVerne Goman, Margaret A. Powell, Richard B. Sewall and G. Thomas Tanselle. He further thanks other Dickinson scholars, stating that "an editor of Dickinson's work is the beneficiary of many predecessors, in particular those who, beginning with Lavinia Dickinson, Susan Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, then continuing with Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Alfred Leete Hampson, Millicent Todd Bingham, and Thomas H. Johnson, preserved Dickinson's manuscripts, arranged them, transcribed or photostated many now lost, and, as they were able, published the poems and letters" ( [section not yet excerpted, link forthcoming[ 1594). He also mentions Thedora Van Wagenen Ward, Myra Himelhoch, Joel Myerson, Karen Dandurand, and Ellen Louise Hart for various contributions.

In Manuscript Books, Franklin acknowledges a number of friends and colleagues, among them LaVerne Goman, Dirk Straton, G. Thomas Tanselle, and Mary L. Hampson. He names Richard B. Sewall and Jay Leyda as "two distinguished Dickinson scholars." He concludes by declaring that, "like all other Dickinson studies since 1955, [his] work is indebted to the fundamental contributions of Mr. Johnson and his colleague Theodora Ward" (Acknowlegements).


In Manuscripts Books, Franklin discusses Emily's life as one of "isolation and poetic silence" (ix). He also describes a period of Dickinson's life when "her poetic drive (was) somewhat spent" (xiii). Passages such as these imply that Franklin knew the poet directly -- that he has effectively and definitively deciphered Dickinson's motives, beliefs, and opinions. Franklin furthers this image in the Variorum, where he argues that "at times Dickinson may have surprised herself to find poetry becoming verse" (34). This is just one of many examples in which he takes away Dickinson's agency as producer and editor of her own work entirely, replacing her agency with his own. This is reminiscent of Johnson, whose also portrayed Dickinson as a woman astounded at her own poetic talents (see "Johnson" discussion). Dickinson thus becomes the unconscious author of her own writings, while Franklin comparably becomes her conscious editor. Despite these examples, Franklin's discussion of Dickinson as a serious writer and his focus on her editorial methods and practices do much to revise stereotypical images of Dickinson as a virginal New England recluse who happened to scribble some verse over the course of her life.

In the Variorum, Franklin cites Henry Vaughan Emmons – a member of the class of 1854 at Amherst College – as "perhaps foremost" among those she circulated her poems to. He also acknowledges Higginson as a central figure in her life. His focus on masculine influences is furthered in the Variorum by a discussion of her "Master" letters and their intended male recipient. This argument stands in direct contrast to Hart and Smith, whose Open Me Carefully argues that Susan Huntington Dickinson was Emily's primary recipient (See "Hart and Smith" discussion for further comparison). While he does recognize Susan as an active participant in Dickinson's poetry-making, he does not directly explore the nature of their relationship. Rather than acknowledging the significance of Susan to Emily's life and writings – as other editors have done – he highlights a supposed decrease in the number of poems actually sent to Susan. Despite his silences around Susan, his choice to acknowledge her at all, especially considering her complete absence in the Manuscript Books, is a step in the right direction.

The Introductions to Franklin's Variorum, Manuscript Books, and The Editing Practices of Emily Dickinson all open with basically the same doctrine: Emily Dickinson did not "publish." In the Variorum specifically, he describes Dickinson as an unpublished poet who left her poems unprepared for public reception. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence in her various correspondences to prove that she was circulating her poems among friends. This is a form of publication, albeit for a relatively small audience. What Franklin fails to do is to make a distinction between publishing and printing. Interestingly, in the Manuscript Books Introduction, Franklin later acknowledges Emily's sending copies of her poems to friends as "a form of publication" (x). This contradiction to his earlier statement suggests that he has not made the distinction between printing and publishing for himself.

Editorial Theories and Assumptions

In Manuscript Books, Franklin acknowledges that "A facsimile edition is of particular importance to Dickinson studies, for the manuscripts of this poet resist translation into the conventions of print" (ix). This comment stands in direct contrast to many of his arguments in the Variorum. While he argues in the Introduction that his edition "seeks to intrude minimally and therefore turns again to the manuscripts, accepting them as their own standard, almost the only record we have of her intentions," other statements he makes directly refute this assertion (emphasis mine, 27). In describing the editorial assumptions on which his bases his arguments, he states, "[T]his edition is based on the assumption that a literary work is separable from its artifact, as Dickinson herself demonstrated as she moved her poems from one piece of paper to another. Even the fascicles, her most formal organization of her work, were the source for further copies" (27). Of course Dickinson transcribing one of her poems is entirely different from one of her editors choosing to do so. Franklin continues, "There can be many manifestations of a literary work. Hers was manuscript, this one is typographical . . . Although this edition is a printed codex, it has an electronic database - the poems are in bits and bytes; other outputs are possible, including other printed editions, organized or presented differently"(27). With this statement, Franklin has moved far away from Manuscript Books, presenting Dickinson's work instead as an abstraction - a Platonic ideal. And, if Dickinson's manuscripts are not important to him, why does he produce many of them as facsimiles in the Introduction?

From the stemma he includes in his Introduction to the Variorum to his "Codes for Editions," he presents his editorial theories in a seemingly logical, scientific, and professional manner. This approach to editing Dickinson, while appearing scientific, suggests that Franklin can definitively describe Emily's motives and process of fascicle making (which, of course, is impossible). He employs a similar approach in his first book, The Editing Practices of Emily Dickinson, which proves that this belief has remained largely the same throughout his career. The book is replete with tables and charts that make his editorial practices appear definitive and scientific. By describing her compositional processes as fact, he takes away her agency in this process and implements his own in its place.

Organization of Dickinson

In The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, Franklin attempts to establish an internal sequence in the fascicles. Much like Smith and Hart do in Open Me Carefully, he draws largely on the manuscripts themselves (stains, pinholes etc.) to explore Dickinson. Franklin also acknowledges that others besides Dickinson herself have written on the manuscripts and provides a detailed and convincing analysis of what editors made what markings. In particular, he acknowledges Susan as having made many of the crosses and letters on the manuscripts. Unlike Hart and Smith, however, he argues that, using evidence from the manuscripts, he can definitively recognize Emily's process of editing and organizing her correspondences. Franklin moves away from this editorial approach in his Variorum, where he talks about the physical aspects of the manuscripts as supporting Emily's fascicle making as a process rather than as arguing for her relationship with Susan. While Franklin states that he will focus on the manuscripts when comparing himself to other editors' approaches, he emphasizes Dickinson's correspondences as idealized texts that are easily transferable rather than as material artifacts.

Throughout his works, Franklin describes Emily's literary process as a "workshop," exploring the order with which she wrote poems, transcribed and edited them, often placed them into fascicles, and destroyed earlier drafts. In doing so, Franklin acknowledges periods of both immense productivity and periods of supposed obscurity throughout Dickinson's poetic career. In his Introduction to the Variorum, he presents a basic stemma "for Dickinson's workshop when fascicles were involved" (19). Dickinson's first draft he defines as a worksheet [X], which she would then transcribe with emendations onto an intermediate draft [Y]. Oftentimes she would send a copy of this intermediate draft in a correspondence (A); otherwise she would retain it (B). Dickinson then would place the poem into a fascicle or set (C). Copies of many the poems that were included in (C) would be sent as correspondences (D) or again retained (E). Other copies often were revised, thus establishing a new draft of the poem [Z]. From [Z], many copies were either sent (F) or retained (G). Franklin also asserts that Dickinson would destroy many earlier versions of a poem once it was entered into a fascicle or set. While he admits that "particular instances may vary," the stemma he establishes regarding Dickinson's process appears definitive and authoritative (19).

Franklin bases all of his editorial decisions in the Variorum on Dickinson's fascicles. Even the book itself is organized by dividing the poems into two sections: those found in fascicles and those not. In addition, Franklin describes the fascicles as "always private documents" with "no evidence that [they] . . . left her hands" (20). Nevertheless, there is no way to substantiate this claim simply because there is no evidence that they did not circulate among her intimate friends etc. Franklin argues that Dickinson's goal in preparing her earliest fascicles was "to have been a finished product" (20). He establishes this argument by citing that, before 1860, she did not revise them. Beginning in 1862, however, he argues that she did begin to revise and "the goal was no longer finished poems &ldots; her method had changed" (22). He further states that "[m]any of the variant copies that could have resulted from such revision are not extant, whether because Dickinson sent none or they are now lost, or she was revising simply for herself, turning the fascicles into worksheets with no other purpose in mind than her own interest in the poems" (20).

Organization of Franklin's Texts and Paratext

Franklin's Variorum is divided into three volumes. Volume I includes his extensive Introduction, Locational Symbols, Editorial Symbols, Short Titles for Editions, Codes for Editions, and Poems 1-526. Volume II contains Poems 527-1287, and Volume III has Poems 1288-1789, 14 Appendices (on topics ranging from "Distribution by Year" to "Recipients" to "Word Division"), a Bibliography, his Acknowledgments, an Index of Johnson's Numbers, and an Index of First Lines. He defines the aim of this edition as "a comprehensive account, not a selection for a specific end. Within individual entries, the texts are presented without priority, sequenced chronologically. When sequence is not clear, as when manuscripts are missing and the text is incomplete, convenience of presentation may be followed instead" (29). A new section is presented for every year. Each entry begins with a description of the material qualities of the "Manuscript" of that particular poem, followed by the poem itself, then the "Publication" history of the poem, and finally Franklin's notes on variations of the poem throughout its publication history.

Unlike with Johnson, Franklin does not privilege what he views as the "final" variant in a number of variants of a poem by re-producing it with a larger font, although the way he sequences them may be privileging to some extent.

The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson is organized in two volumes. Volume I contains an Introduction, Fascicles 1-29, and Notes on those particular fascicles. The Introduction ends with a bibliography that chronologically cites the principal editions of Dickinson's poems and letters and related works. Volume II includes Fascicles 30-40, Sets 1-15, Notes, 11 Appendices (on topics ranging from a "History of the Fascicle Manuscripts" to "Paper Measurements" to "Excluded Manuscripts"), and three Indexes, organized by manuscript number, by poem number, and by first lines. The Notes in each section "cite related literature, identify some of the markings on the manuscripts, and provide special explanation" (694). The first page of each Fascicle section lists the poems in that particular group by their first line and number. The following page gives the Formula (folio and number of leaves), Contents (number of poems), and Description (approximate date and paper type).


In his Variorum, Franklin makes a clear distinction between Dickinson's poems and letters. He states in the Introduction, "For inclusion in this edition, passages from the letters meet one or two conditions. They have independent verification as poetry by having other appearances confirm it, or they were incorporated as poetry in Dickinson's customary way, or both. These conditions, which rely upon her own indicators, omit passages with qualities of verse: cadence, rhyme, metaphor, apostrophe, poetic genre and heightened statement are some of them" (32). Although he argues for evidence of "Dickinson's customary way," he provides no evidence that such a way exists. He continues by using Dickinson to justify his claim: "The distinction between genres was Dickinson's own. She maintained a workshop for the production, distribution, and recording of poetry, but separated letters from it . . . [S]he recognized letters as a separate genre, basically prose, but admitting of known poems and, on occasion, impromptu verse" (34). In this argument, Franklin is making a critical (albeit many editors would argue wrong) assumption about Dickinson's genres and how to distinguish among them. He also cites the conditions in which he includes passages from letters in his Variorum as poems. In this same section of the Introduction, however, he also contradicts himself. Franklin explains that there is "no definitive boundary between prose and poetry in Dickinson's letters" (32-34) since "the distinction between boundaries was Dickinson's own," which refutes his earlier statements regarding Dickinsonian genres.





Ralph Franklin's Editorial Theories and Practices

 Editorial Practices

Franklin's Manuscript Books accomplishes much in presenting facsimiles of many of Dickinson's correspondences for the first time ever. The facsimiles are good, for the poems are readable and give you a sense of size in terms of both Emily's handwriting and the manuscripts themselves. While this display comes close to re-presenting Dickinson's texts as she wrote them, the facsimiles appear in black, white, and gray images. Thus, they lose the color of the paper, ink, and all of the unique markings found of her manuscripts -- something that a digital image such as we find today in the Dickinson Electronic Archives is able to reproduce (see "Dickinson Electronic Archives" discussion). Thus, although many of his theoretical assumptions are easily challenged, his practical application is quite lucid.

Lineation, Punctuation, Capitalization, and Spelling

Franklin states in the Variorum that "this edition follows her spelling and, within the capacity of standard type, her capitalization and punctuation" (36). One major change he makes from the manuscript to the Variorum is that he reunites words divided by end-line hyphenation," thus assuming that Dickinson intended for those words to appear as one line, but simply ran out of room - which there is no evidence that she did. Also, Franklin emends Emily Dickinson's variant spellings of certain words to conform to her usual spellings.

In terms of lineation in the Variorum, Franklin states, "There are many examples in which two or more copies of the same poem appear on papers of different shapes, yielding different line breaks for each. . . . Once the line breaks began, it is not easy to find a manuscript of any poem in Dickinson's hand that exactly matches the physical lineation of the same poem in other copies." He then uses this belief to argue that her line breaks were ordinarily determined by the "available space" on the paper that she was using (34). Nevertheless, many of Dickinson's poems dispute this claim. The poem "Title divine, is mine," for example, exists in two known variants that are not lineated according to available space, but rather appear to be lineated according to Emily's own desires and possibly her audience. In contrast, a poem like "Twice, when I had Red Flowers out" which also has two variant copies, is lineated the same in each copy, although available space on the page was not a determinant, since she left room at the end of many lines. Regarding punctuation in the Variorum, Franklin privileges Dickinson's short hyphen mark as the definitive mark in terms of dating and attribution. This is different from the punctuation that he uses in the Manuscript book, for the Variorum replaces ends dashes with hyphens. Still, the fact that he chooses to standardize Dickinson's dashes at all illuminates his apparent lack of concern with her complex use of punctuation.

Also in terms of lineation, Franklin writes concerning the editorial practices employed in his Variorum, "Unconstrained by incidental characteristics of the artifact, this edition restores the lines, though also recording the turnovers, along with passages from the letters placing the texts in context" (35-6). If Franklin really believes he is "restoring" Dickinson's lines rather than altering them, why does he feel the need to "record the turnovers"? Surprisingly, Franklin never explains and/or justifies this seemingly odd editorial practice.

Overall, Franklin does a good job of interpreting her often difficult typography. His entry on "The Soul selects her own Society" (#409), however, provides an interesting example of a challenge to his authority. Franklin criticizes Bianchi in the Variorum Introduction because "her editions are marked by maladroit misreadings or errors" (5). Nevertheless, the are instances of possible misreadings in Franklin's text as well. In the entry, he has replaced the word "Open" on line (as it appears in Dickinson's manuscript) with "Opon." Of course, this variant could be attributed to of a number of things. Either it was a simple typographical error, the result of a disagreement between editors (Johnson, for example, re-presents the word as "Upon", Hart and Smith as "Open"), or a misreading on Franklin's part.

Dating and Attribution

Franklin's Manuscript Books employs Johnson's dates with minor modification. He bases his dating on Dickinson's handwriting and paper types. The Variorum uses both paper type and dates on letters and other correspondences in which poems are enclosed to date the materials. Franklin also acknowledges that the dates he proposes are "of the documents, not necessarily of the composition of poems" (39). Nevertheless, he does not provide enough evidence to substantiate his claims about dating, for handwriting etc. is not enough to legitimate his assessment when other arguments can be made.

Final Thoughts

Franklin's Variorum is a wonderful achievement for a number of reasons, from his detailed analyses of publication history for each entry to his exhaustive presentation of multiple variants. Despite accomplishments such as these, however, Franklin seems to be struggling with a number of issues to which he does not directly give voice. The fact that he spends so much time trying to minimize Emily's relationship with Susan, for example, points to the fact that he is grappling with current, convincing scholarship on the importance of their relationship, both professionally and personally. Because he appears so authoritative, we found ourselves wondering whether or not this stance was an attempt to over-justify his claims. Furthermore, we feel that his scientific approach highlights the fact that he may not be convinced of many of the claims that he makes. Despite the fact that he makes no direct acknowledgment of his editorial contemporaries (Ellen Louse Hart, Marta Werner, and Martha Nell Smith, to name a few), it seems obvious based on the contradictions inherent to his texts that he is engaged in ongoing debates about Emily, her life, and her poetic processes. Whether he chooses not to - or simply cannot - substantiate many of his assumptive arguments with concrete evidence, we leave to you as fellow Dickinson readers to decide.