Martha Nell Smith
A HYPERMEDIA ARCHIVE OF DICKINSON'S CREATIVE WORK, Part II: Musings on The Screen and The Book
The Emily Dickinson Journal V.2 (1996)

One must be an inventor to read well.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"

For more than a decade I have recommended that we, Emily Dickinson's readers, not content ourselves with studying her poetry and prose in print only but take advantage of opportunities to study her manuscripts whenever and wherever we can -- in photographic reproduction in R.W. Franklin's The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, in his The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson, on the three reels of microfilm featuring a majority of the manuscripts housed at Amherst College, and, if money and time and access allow, in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, the Frost Library of Amherst College, the Boston Public Library, the Jones Library, the Library of Congress, and other libraries with Dickinson holdings. Concomitantly I have noted that Thomas H. Johnson's instructive variorum is not infallible and is in fact problematic, as well as invaluable. Such suggestions have met with a wide variety of reader responses -- excitement, frustration, eager anticipation, even anger (at me or at Johnson).

In 1955 Johnson brought together all the writings that had been divided between the two competing editorial endeavors of the houses of Todd-Bingham (1890-1896, 1945-1955) and Dickinson Bianchi-Hampson (1914-1937) to produce a scholarly edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, "Including all variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts," and Adrienne Rich speaks for a multitude of readers when she observes that Johnson's tireless, painstaking efforts resulted in a presentation of Dickinson's poetry that foregrounded "the unquestionable power and importance of the mind revealed" (168). Thus to some, the very idea that his print translations are not identical reproductions of the Dickinson holographs is anathema. Others have asked "Why bother?" with the picayune (the physical embodiment of "accidentals" like curviform and angled "dashes" straightened out and normalized by Johnson, e.g.) when most of the substance of the poetry pushes its way through in print translation? Each and all preferences, mine and everyone else's, reflect biases of history, training, theory, biography, class privilege. What emerges from these biases are different, sometimes contradictory, viewpoints with varying questions that can serve to enrich our understanding of Dickinson's poetic project, its edifications of her readers, and our wide range of stakes in studying the poet and her works. Crucial for continuing generative critical exchange is that we each and all rigorously assume responsibility for our readerly, scholarly preferences.

Dickinson and her manuscript practices impel me to urge that her readers devote more energy to manuscript study. She emphatically declared that our standard medium of literary and intellectual exchange was not the field in which she cultivated poetic productions; in other words, our writing technology, print, was not hers -- "I had told you I did not print" (L 316), she avers to Thomas Higginson. Copyedited for final presentation, print renders the illusion of being finished. Yet Dickinson left much of her poetry in what to print-cultivated sensibilities appears to be an unfinished state: hundreds of poems in the fascicles are left with variant words and phrases among which readers (including Dickinson herself at a different time) can choose; various versions of a poem were often sent to different correspondents; and various versions are presented in different venues -- of, in, with, or as a letter, and/or in a fascicle with other poems, and/or on one and among other scraps of paper posthumously recovered from her room.

Franklin realized early on that "if we want the poems in a finished state, we must apply other principles of selection [than authorial intention] and must take responsibility for doing so" (Editing 131). Whatever the intentions of editors, inherent in all reproductive endeavors, however sophisticated, are dissolutions of fixed, stable, finished representations of the Dickinson codex. As his perplexed remark about the reader hardly being able to distinguish "where the letter leaves off and the poem begins" (L xv) shows, Johnson was not as sure of generic distinctions as his division of printings into volumes of Poems and Letters implies, and the instability in his generic identification is evident in his typographical arrangements.

For example, clear from his treatment of letters like the one that he numbered 912 is the fact that the varied margins and indentations he used to mark lines of poetry in The Letters of Emily Dickinson were not consistently applied to embody Dickinson's own technical variations. As Ellen Louise Hart argued in "The Encoding of Homoerotic Desire," in "Morning / might come / by Accident" (L 912) Johnson indents and lineates five lines that he had not counted as poetry for the variorum three years earlier, but, for his edition of the Letters, typographically marks them as a poem within a letter. Examining Dickinson's indentations and lineations, Hart concludes that the entire letter is structured as a poem, not just those five lines. Most important to consider is not whose editorial interpretation is "definitive," but that this is a poignant example of how the writings themselves elude and challenge our generic conventions and how we organize our interpretation of or identify what is visible on Dickinson's page. Apparently Johnson changed his mind about which lines count as poetry and which do not in the three years between his production of the Poems (1955) and the Letters (1958). By the time he set about translating this late missive to Susan into typography for the three-volume Letters, he had far more experience with the letters than he had while preparing the variorum. After several years of working with Dickinson's letters, he recognized as poetry lines that he had not marked as a variorum poem and so used typography to signal the genre he now discerned. More exposure to Dickinson's handwritten performances taught him to see her literature in ways that his print- oriented training had not encouraged. The variorum had been circulating for several years and, though he did not record his new ways of seeing by amending that, he indicated his fresh insights editorially -- through typographical arrangement. Scholars like Hart and myself have the advantage of having had our horizons for examining Dickinson's writings expanded by his years of toil, as well as by Franklin's work, and thus we are already prepared to see the "letter-poems" the manuscripts taught him to see.

Photographic representations like Franklin's facsimiles are more stable transmissions of the Dickinson codex but even they yield vastly different, equally credible interpretations regarding designs and purposes of her writings, both textual details like punctuation marks and whole textual bodies like whether the manuscript books are artistic groupings. Of epistles in the Dickinson canon, none have created more fictions than the "Master" letters. Franklin's facsimile edition The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson appears to stabilize them as definitely epistolary, packaged as the little book is with an envelope slipped inside the front cover with the facsimile sheets folded into leaves, easy to hold in hand just as Dickinson or their supposed addressee might have held them. The facsimiles also appear on pages of the book, with printed line-for- line transcriptions on facing pages. The packaging thus emphasizes Franklin's interpretation that "Dickinson did not write letters as a fictional genre" (ML 5) and that these are therefore autobiographical. Yet close scrutiny of the facsimile representations, which reveals extensive revision and careful construction of a heartbroken, plaintive speaker, as reasonably suggests that Dickinson was writing epistolary fiction. Thus, as Johnson's printing of the Letters contains within it new poems marked typographically, so the apparently fixed representation of the facsimile book Master Letters contains within itself and prominently displays evidence that challenges the book's attempts to reconsolidate these three writings as definitively nonfiction and as addressed to the same real person. As Johnson's variorum did not finish his finding of Dickinson poems, so Franklin's facsimile edition of the "Master" letters does not finish or settle their meanings through photographically precise representation.

Harvard University Press's conscientious and thorough practices likewise dispute any claim to "finishing" representations of just what genres constitute the Dickinson codex and to which genre any particular item of writing belongs. Franklin is now completing a new variorum, scheduled to appear in 1997. The number of poems by Emily Dickinson when he answers "What counts as a poem?" will surely differ from the 1775 determined by Johnson. Again, most significant is not which editor is more "definitive," but that the challenges posed by the handwritten documents to taxonomies of critical understanding inspire evolutions in textual theory and practice.

As I elaborated in my first article on this subject, technological advances which have made possible a hypermedia archive of the Dickinson documents could also enable editors and readers to peruse and theorize beyond the scope of the book. Such basic but crucial questions as M.L. Rosenthal's -- "What, for us, is the real bearing of Dickinson's abjuring publication even while she wrote so intensely and tried her best to organize her poems in richly interactive groupings?" -- could be more thoroughly probed. And those of scholars like Hart, Jeanne Holland, Susan Howe, Jerome McGann, Marta Werner, myself, and others -- e.g., "What for us is the real bearing of Dickinson's works having been presented (in the first century of reading her) as if they can be definitively divided into discrete genres, poems and letters, and as if the techniques of her marks are only typographic?" -- could be more extensively examined. Similarly, Franklin's observation that "if we want the poems [and other writings] in a [definitive,] finished state, we must apply other principles of selection [than authorial preference] and must take responsibility for doing so" might be fruitfully extended into the question, "if this inherent tendency toward destabilization was an important point of Dickinson's poetic project, then what are the implications for our interpretive practices?"

To imagine how the archive would work to encourage theorizing beyond the scope of the book and genre, especially when contemplating destabilization as an important part of Dickinson's artistic project, consider examining the writing and transmission of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (H B 74a, 74b, 74c, L 238, P 216; H 11c, F 6; H 203c, 203d, F 10). A reader could call this poem up onto the screen in various forms and could open several windows to compare those forms simultaneously. Of the choices to be examined would be: its appearance in two different fascicles (F 6 & 10), presented in facsimile; typographical transcriptions of these presentations; its appearance during an exchange between Emily and Sue concerning variations of the second verse, presented in facsimile (H B 74a, 74b [Sue's response], 74c); Johnson's transcriptions of this exchange in facsimile (P 216; L 238); its first printing in the Springfield Daily Republican (1 March 1862) in facsimile; its printings in Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd's Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890) as a three-stanza poem, and as part of the correspondence between Emily and Susan in Martha Dickinson Bianchi's Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and Emily Dickinson Face to Face, also in facsimile; the facsimile reproduction of the holograph to Higginson and surrounding commentary in his and H.W. Boynton's A Reader's History of American Literature, also retrievable to anyone browsing in the archive. The many print and facsimile reproductions of "Safe in their Albaster Chambers" would therefore be accessible for readers' comparative perusals. And, links such as ones to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon Project and The Emily Dickinson Journal would be set up to facilitate research for readers who might want to plumb the meanings of a particular word, for example, or examine relevant criticism.

When examining the exchange over the poem with Sue, readers would see "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" not simply as part of an individual letter but also as part of the "book" comprised of all Dickinson's correspondence to Susan. The same sort of contextualizing would be facilitated when the reader examines the fascicle presentations. In order to formulate analysis of a particular document for scholarly inquiry, readers would be invited to distinguish the contexts created by editors, including those of the electronic archives, from the contexts created by Dickinson. The bias of the archive's organization will be to present materials in the groups in which they were left at Dickinson's death -- "individual correspondences, the manuscript volumes, and ungathered poems and drafts" (Hart, "New Strategies" 45). The electronic medium encourages pliant and accommodating principles of judgment regarding manuscript characteristics and their literary significances, and "accommodation and consideration should characterize our critical exchanges as we contemplate what counts as the scene of writing, as the poetic mark on the page, as the most productive method of organizing Dickinson's writings for study" (Smith "Hypermedia" 84).

Dickinson's writings, both in content and form, encourage readers' free play, as "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" and its many embodiments make clear. Printings of the poem, as well as Dickinson's presentation of it in letters, usually identify a two-stanza lyric. Yet as this example amply shows, many, perhaps even most, of Dickinson's texts, inspire readerly play because they have an "identity problem." From some of the manuscript renditions of this poem, Higginson and Loomis Todd made a three-stanza poem. Is "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" a two-stanza poem, with one relatively stable first stanza and four different second stanzas? Or is it three stanzas? Or did it evolve into a five-stanza poem? Or into five separate one-stanza poems? Will typographical representation ever settle those questions?

The depth and breadth of this "identity problem" extend not only from Dickinson's holograph productions but also from textual and critical reproductions. Mixed and contradictory identities -- ascribed to the poet and her texts -- proliferate at the sites of reproducing Dickinson and her works for literary and general culture (King 101). What editors believe Dickinson was capable of intending dictates what is translated to the printed page. What critics believe Dickinson was capable of intending dictates what is interpreted. This may seem like stating the obvious, or, in these post-poststructural days, theoretically uninformed. But this struggle to "own an Emily of my own" (H B 4, P 1401, L 531) is at the heart of editorial, critical, and biographical endeavors that see themselves in competition with (instead of in complement to) other endeavors. For each of us to acknowledge investment in a particular Emily Dickinson and certain genera of texts is the first step toward taking critical and editorial responsibility. A crucial next step is to refuse to see different as "competing" and to cultivate an appreciation for other readers' very different investments. "Competing" is the conclusion that those with capital investment in "definitive" and "authoritative" versions are likely to draw about alternative versions. The poet who wrote "Publication is the Auction. . .of the Mind" (H 59c, F 37, P 709) knew this. Most of us do not have capital investments that would profit substantially from restricting versions of Dickinson and her texts, and much knowledge has been generated by the multitude of contradictory textual and biographical versions rendered, critical approaches adopted, and reproductions made of her creative works.

Though the Dickinson literary project will always prove impossible to contain in a book, its significant aspects can and have been -- as Susan Dickinson's remark that "'The Poems' will ever be to me marvellous whether in manuscript or type" reminds us -- successfully conveyed in a variety of printed forms, for the "spirit" of Dickinson's poetry is fiercely resilient, even when inadequately (i.e., partially) embodied. Hypermedia representations do not aim to replace books, for the mobilities of each are different and valuable. Hypermedia enables readers to consider documents in a variety of contexts, to examine contrasting representations simultaneously on the same screen, to study research materials from numerous books and special collections on the same screen without damaging the original documents via more direct handling. A wide range of scholarly information can be transported from their sources into the hypermedia archive. Books, on the other hand, can be transported from place to place, carried in hand, and are usable without an electronic support system. Happily, the editing of Dickinson's manuscripts will continue, both for book and electronic forms. The one medium will enhance appreciation of the other, not compete against and diminish the other's value. These proliferations of textual embodiments seem much more in the spirit of the poet whose variants and various presentations to audiences encourage possibilities and living texts rather than the closure and possessiveness of definitude. The material facts of later stages of Dickinson's "book"-making urge dwelling in these possibilities. Dickinson's sets, groups of poems that she gathered as if for a fascicle but refused to bind, invite each reader to make a new pattern for every reading, and in that sense anticipate hypermedia reproduction, unbound and liberated from the fixed patternings that books cannot completely eschew.

I have decided that the trouble with print is, it never changes its mind.
- Ursula K. LeGuin, Dancing at the Edge of the World





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Copyright 1994 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
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