In which I argue that all texts about Emily Dickinson are about Emily Dickinson

Characterizing the collection of an author’s works is often more complicated than assembling a bibliography of their publications in periodicals and different editions of their books. For one thing, the context in which the author wrote the first editions (and in which subsequent editions were published) must be considered when a text is studied. Documents like letters and original manuscripts, and ephemera such as pamphlets, speeches, and cheap books all provide important information on the context of the author’s work. Narrowing the focus to digital surrogates and new editions of an author’s works, newer editions may not capture the context in which previous editions were published, since they address a different audience with different purpose.

The works of Emily Dickinson in particular are interesting case, having formed a community around them that might even be described as a fanbase, despite all texts being published posthumously. When alive, she collected her poems in fascicles – hand-made booklets intended for her personal use – which were later found, edited, and published by acquaintances Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson (Habegger 353). In addition to her poems, Dickinson’s personal letters also became popular work as people became curious about her life. Books written about Dickinson and her work attempted to understand or reconstruct the context in which her letters and poems were written. For example, the three-volume The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson, and The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph Franklin, both attempted to arrange her poems in chronological order.

I think editions of Emily Dickinson’s writings and the conversations around them can be described as constructive or transformative. It started with the editing and publication of her poetry, followed by the letters she sent. Her popularity grew as people dove into her writing the way we dove into archives in this course. Her facsimiles included different versions of poems and lists of alternate words and lines, to the extent that an attempt to publish a conventional poetry book would involve making choices based on the editor’s own understanding and personal experience with the poems. Effort was put into editing the first published collection of Dickinson’s poems by Mabel Todd, and so the end result was not Dickinson’s work alone. Johnson’s and Franklin’s versions of the poems also differ in punctuation and word choice. Arguably, a compilation of Dickinson’s poetry is not a “new edition” of her facsimiles. In this way, every edition of Dickinson’s work is unique. The study of the context of a given edition may give insight into editorial choices in that particular edition, but less likely insight into Dickinson’s own context. To someone studying Emily Dickinson, books that collect or discuss her work would be almost equally useful as digital surrogates, e-texts, physical copies, or other forms.

But to what extent do digital surrogates preserve the original manuscripts? Emily Dickinson’s Poems; As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller, presents transcriptions of her poems along with notes and information about alternate word choices, what words were scratched-out, etc. It compiles the facsimiles and loose sheets, making it easier to index, and the transcription is easier to read than Dickinson’s handwriting. The digital surrogates of these texts offer the ability to search for particular words or phrases.

[Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Edited by Cristane Miller, Harvard University Press, (April 11, 2016), 541] via Google Books

Still, the original facsimiles and letters provide information that cannot be replicated by transcriptions – specific details like the ways that different words are scratched out or the handwriting itself. Thanks to the rare position of popularity Emily Dickinson’s work holds, resources like the Emily Dickinson Archive and the Dickinson Electronic Archives exist that make digital surrogates of Dickinson’s poems and letters accessible. The images of the original poems in the Emily Dickinson Archive are labelled by their fascicle, page number in the fascicle, and their first line. Every poem and letter includes a transcription for ease of reading. The total number of items in all archives of Emily Dickinson is in the thousands. Digital archives, or digital surrogates of archives, such as these are the only way to collect, organize, and make accessible these many items.

[Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Poems: Packet XXXVII, fascicle 10. Includes 22 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1861. Houghton Library – (202b) A little Bread – a crust – a crumb -, J159, Fr135] via Emily Dickinson Archive

The fascicles, loose papers, and letters of Emily Dickinson are the source from which all subsequent publications of her work are derived. They are the “raw” data from which scholars have tried to infer her life. Present day readers continue to enjoy edited versions of her poems packaged in a way suitable for publication. Those who become intrigued with Dickinson’s life would find written contents of Dickinson scholars’ works valuable sources of insight, and digital surrogates of many of Dickinson’s original manuscripts – the sources of all publications and conversation that followed – accessible and well-organized in digital archives. They may carry physical books by personal preference or for enjoyment, and they may read digital surrogates for their quick availability and features such as word searching. Ultimately, the purpose of all forms of these works, including the digital archives which have been constructed, seems to be bringing appreciation and understanding to Emily Dickinson’s life to interested readers.

Works cited:

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. Random House, (2001), 353.

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