A Textual Editor’s (Potential) Limits


Erick Kelemen persuasively makes the case for textual editors and critics in the opening chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. He contests the “wrong notion” that “interpretation is not a part of textual criticism, that textual criticism is a branch of study essential to but separate from literary criticism,” and he likens the textual critic’s process to an archaeological study.[i] Textual editors and critics must dig through and uncover a work’s historical conditions and editorial manifestations in order to teach readers that “the documents we hold in our hands—have affected our understanding of the work without our necessarily being aware of it.”[ii] Revealing a text’s “history” can enhance the text’s “meaning” for the reader, but the textual editor’s tedious task of uncovering this historical data appears to be an archaeological dig that has no end.[iii] Scholars might conclude that this endless archaeological study offers them a seemingly endless number of interpretive possibilities for a text.  But how does the textual editor determine for the reader which historical clump of literary dirt contains gold and which clump of dirt is simply just a clump of dirt? Are there any aspects of a text’s history that might be, or maybe should be, ignored?

The textual editor’s goal to reconstruct a text based on the “imperfect versions” certainly allows readers to recognize how editorial changes might impact the text’s meaning. Kelemen highlights the numerous versions of Shakespeare’s King Lear to convincingly illustrate the need for textual critics. The two earliest printings of the play, the First Quarto (1608) and the First Folio (1623), are fraught with textual differences that have prompted editors of The Norton Shakespeare edition to conflate the two texts, resulting in a third version of King Lear.[iv]  Acknowledging and understanding these historical versions of the play and how they might work in relationship invites the reader to participate in “creating (or recovering)” the text’s idealized form.[v]

But can a textual critic’s historical study and presentation of a text become excessive? Potentially to the detriment of the work in question? The recent direction that Emily Dickinson scholarship has taken might be helpful for us to consider as we explore the role of the textual critic and editor. There are a number of different obstacles that textual editors must face if they decide to compile an anthology of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What is known about the mysterious poet herself is only known through a limited number of letters, letters written by Dickinson and letters that feature Dickinson (most often) as a figure who confuses the letter writer. While the majority of Dickinson’s poems were discovered after her death, many of her poems were included within these letters that she wrote to friends and family. For example, Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was sent to her sister-in-law Susan in a letter that asked for editorial advice.[vi] Other poems were sent as gifts or in response to the news of someone’s death. For the textual editor researching Dickinson, certainly the contexts of these letters would be important for Dickinson readers to understand as they try to make meaning of her poetry.

Dickinson’s poems themselves offer another obstacle for the textual editor: variants. A large number of Dickinson’s nearly 1800 poems include handwritten variants for particular words or entire stanzas without offering the editor a clear answer to which variant the poet favored (words were often marked with a “+” sign to indicate a variant to a particular word, as is the case here). These variants force the textual editor to decide which word should be published within the poem’s text and which word (or stanza) should be published in a footnote. While textual editors sift through Dickinson’s poetic variants, they must also consider the controversy surrounding the first published volumes of her poetry in 1890. The affair between Dickinson’s brother Austin and his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd affected not only who had publishing control over Dickinson’s poems but also how her poems were organized within the first manuscript.[vii] Scholars today have expressed their frustration regarding how Mabel Loomis Todd edited Dickinson’s fascicles for publication. Martha Nell Smith, in her essay “Editorial History I: Beginnings to 1955,” writes “Because Todd received few letters from Dickinson, her editorial work was primarily with the poems in the manuscript books, textual bodies that Dickinson assembled and that Todd completely dismembered. In spite of the painstaking work of R. W. Franklin, those manuscript bodies will never be reliably restored exactly as Dickinson left them.”[viii] Dickinson’s poems were grouped by theme (Love, Death, Nature, etc.) rather than the order in which they were discovered. Again, the textual editor must grapple with this editorial history as he or she decides how to compile and anthologize Dickinson’s work.

But recent Dickinson scholarship, while continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, has shifted towards the materiality of her poems and fascicles. While many of Dickinson’s poems were incorporated into her letters, others were scribbled on what the scholarly community has named “scraps:” old bills for milk deliveries, advertising flyers, concert programs, envelope pieces, torn magazine corners, etc (see example here).[ix] These scrap poems have prompted Dickinson scholars to create anthologies dedicated to the physicality of these poems, arguing that these scraps reveal Dickinson’s “affinity for ephemera.”[x] The Gorgeous Nothings is an anthology of Dickinson’s “envelope poems” and includes scanned images of the phrases and poems Dickinson had scribbled onto torn envelope pieces.[xi] In 1981, Ralph Franklin published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which attempted to “reassemble” Dickinson’s fascicles in order to emphasize the importance of their material form.[xii] Dickinson scholars can now investigate the poet’s copying and binding technique, how she recycled paper, and other physical aspects of her work that might offer a new understanding of her poetry. The physical appearance of the text, some Dickinson scholars would argue, impacts the substance of Dickinson’s “ideal text.” Emily Dickinson herself did not have the opportunity to oversee how her manuscripts were circulated into print, but have these scholars overstated the importance of materiality in Dickinson studies?  Should the textual editor of Dickinson’s poetry include footnotes that detail the titles of the old magazines on which certain poems were scribbled, or an image of the scrap on which the poem appeared? The job of the textual editor, as Kelemen argues, is to reveal the “specific manifestations” of a text to the reader.[xiii] Should these manifestations include the physical, material manifestation of the work as well as the evolving editorial manifestations?

The answer to this question might be found in the textual editor’s reading audience. Casual readers might not concern themselves with Dickinson’s materiality. Their ideal Dickinson text consists of her poems, however organized, and to include pages upon pages of secondary material might detract from their enjoyment of Dickinson’s language. But because Dickinson is such a mysterious figure in the literary world, scholars might find these scrap descriptions and blueprint images of her work (which are offered in The Gorgeous Nothings) helpful as they try to situate themselves within the context of Dickinson’s writing. The textual editor must remind themselves that their editorial work is meant for readers, and considering the audience for which he or she recreates the text might help the textual editor decide which histories are important to include and which histories might be excessive.

As Kelemen notes, textual editors disrupt a reader’s “usual (or, at any rate, desired) linear path through a text” by encouraging them to “pay closer attention to the text’s surface features.”[xiv] For some Dickinson scholars, these “surface features” include the literal surfaces on which her poems were written. The textual editor is placed in a position of power as he or she attempts to “reconstruct the ideal text from the imperfect versions in the various documents.”[xv] The difficulty lies in determining which historical building blocks are necessary and unnecessary for readers also attempting to recreate this ideal text.


[i] Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009), 8.

[ii] Ibid., 8-9.

[iii] Ibid., 12.

[iv] Ibid., 11.

[v] Ibid., 9.

[vi] Martha Nell Smith, “Editorial History I: Beginnings to 1955,” in Emily Dickinson in Context, ed. Eliza Richards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 274.

[vii] Ibid., 271.

[viii] Ibid., 276.

[ix] Gabrielle Dean, “On Materiality (and Virtuality),” in Emily Dickinson in Context, ed. Eliza Richards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 296.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, eds., The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, by Emily Dickinson (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[xii] Gabrielle Dean, “On Materiality (and Virtuality),” 292.

[xiii] Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, 8.

[xiv] Ibid., 21.

[xv] Ibid., 11.



Add yours →

  1. Grace, I’m really interested in the issue that your post brings up regarding the job of textual editors. You point out “[a]s Kelemen notes, textual editors disrupt a reader’s ‘usual (or, at any rate, desired) linear path through a text’ by encouraging them to ‘pay closer attention to the text’s surface features.’” This is really the crux of the debate between an editor choosing to present a “clear text” to readers or not. A clear text allows readers to proceed along the conventional literary path, often without stopping to truly analyze or consider what they are reading. The reader is too involved in the story to stop and try to practice any sort of literary criticism. Even if the textual editor provides an introduction, endnotes, or an appendix, they rely on the initiative and curiosity of the reader in order for them to actually be read. However, if an editor has footnotes on each page, or possibly even at the end of a chapter, a reader is forced to confront that critical analysis portion of a text. This really points to the idea that form, or “surface features” can be just as important as the actual words in a text, and the choices that textual editors make must be so purposeful and clearly thought out, because they will affect the experience of the reader. In the world of academia, where readers are trained to look for the notes, and who read introductions and appendices, a clear text may have value in providing an uninterrupted, sensory- and emotion-based reading experience to a scholar. But after that experience is done, a scholar will still turn the critical side of their brain back on, and analyze what they’ve just read. But on the whole I would argue that a clear text allows the average reader to experience the story, identify with the characters and their emotions, and then move on and forget to engage further once the text is over.


  2. Grace, your question of whether textual editors and critics can go too far in their “archeological study” is an intriguing one. Looking at your example of Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” modern textual critics can learn much about how that poem was developed by poring over the letters that Emily and her sister-in-law Susan wrote to each other. According to the website Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem (http://archive.emilydickinson.org/safe/introduction.html), Susan “critiqued the text while Dickinson was in the process of writing . . . the effects of [Susan’s] responses to reading the poem are evident in its various incarnations. In other words, [Susan] was a vital participant in the composition and transmission of the poem.” Does this mean Susan should be recognized as the poem’s co-author? Probably not; it’s hardly unusual for writers to be encouraged, influenced and guided by others. But the story of Emily and Susan’s relationship and collaboration makes for interesting background fodder, and it is a story that readers would not know about if they simply read the poem and stopped there. If nothing else, it is interesting to learn about Emily’s creative process and how she sought out—and accepted—feedback from a trusted friend and relative.

    I have to wonder how textual editors and critics living hundreds of years from now will gather information about books being written today. Perhaps an author’s social media activity will be scrutinized. I can imagine future scholars sifting through an author’s Facebook posts and inferring all sorts of things about how it influenced the author’s writing: “Look at this! Stephen King ate Wonder Bread on March 5, 2015. A character in the book King was working on at that time also mentioned Wonder Bread. I’ll bet King wrote that passage on March 5, 2015!!” https://twitter.com/StephenKing/status/573315726066368512


  3. Grace, I think your use of Emily Dickinson as an example of complicated textual histories is a perfect one. You’ve pointed out here that Dickinson used all kinds of materials on which to write her poems, and that many scholars, in their efforts to really understand Dickinson’s work, find that studying these materials gives insight into her poetic inspiration. I’m particularly interested in your question of the extent to which these kinds of material histories should work their way into printed editions of her work: “Should the textual editor of Dickinson’s poetry include footnotes that detail the titles of the old magazines on which certain poems were scribbled, or an image of the scrap on which the poem appeared?” I, for one, would be in support of more scholarly editions utilizing images of original manuscripts. A manuscript shows us many things that a printed or clear text version of a poem cannot: the author’s own editorial revisions, the speed at which they wrote, any mistakes or erasures—all of these help elucidate the historical moment in which an author wrote. Bringing these textual histories to light seems to bring clarity and insight, especially in the case of Dickinson.

    It also seems that the materiality of her poems is significant to how they are understood, and the idea of placing these Gorgeous Nothings poems together in an edition seems just as cogent as collecting them by time period, theme, length, form, etc. It has made me consider the enormous role that the textual editor plays in how an author’s work is received. The editor’s placement of the poem within an edition of her poetry alone reveals an editorial decision – an important one it seems.


  4. Mark Van Dusseldorp March 18, 2015 — 4:16 pm

    I think this edition of Dickinson’s poems on the materials they were originally composed on is splendid. Readers and editors need not be interpretive fiends. We shouldn’t approach every ‘literary’ text as if our first mission is to work out its meaning. The best readers and editors are those who are first attentive and receptive to brilliance. The beautiful thing about Dickinson’s poems, and the reason we still read her work, is that these pieces are so resonant, somnolent, and introspective while still mysteriously uttered by these kind of silhouettes of narrators. Being able to see these original compositions, as they first entered time and space, is to me, like seeing sacred relics. The materiality is not the thing in and of itself of course, but it certainly carries an inexplicable power. For me, the writer’s personal hand makes the work more human and real; after all, very real people composed these pieces for many reasons we will never know, but certainly not for scholars to interpret–especially in the case of Dickinson. This is not to say that these envelopes and pieces of paper should be ignored as artifacts–I think they could be worked in to Dickinson scholarship in really wonderful ways. But the initial reaction should not be to jump on the opportunity to reinterpret her work simply because we have easy access to these pieces.


  5. Linda Wetherall March 19, 2015 — 1:10 am


    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, it was truly wonderfully written and a fantastic examination of this subject.

    I have to say that I completely agree with the point that you made that some people can go too far with textual criticism, especially when examining subjects or authors that we know little about. To make up for the fact that we have little knowledge on the author or work, textual critics seem to be even more inclined to analyze the smallest of details of their work to draw big conclusions, or just generally making a bigger deal out of the small details than what seems to be appropriate. Therefore, I certainly agree that textual critics overanalyzing some aspects about the position of Emily Dickinson’s poetry on envelopes, or what scraps of paper she used, to be rather silly to say the least. Maybe it is rather simplistic of me, but I think that she used whatever paper she had lying around and wrote whatever she wished upon them. She was certainly a genius at poetry, but I do not think that she thought much about the paper she used, especially since she never strove to get published.

    I do think that textual criticism can add so much to literature, especially if editors choose to include pictures of the author, scans of their handwriting, some critical essays on the literature, and contemporary reviews of the literature. These additions can add a deeper understanding of the written work than if it was just the work itself. I also believe such additions add a deeper appreciation of the work as well; and that is something that is truly priceless in my opinion.


  6. Arianne Peterson March 19, 2015 — 6:38 pm

    Hi, Grace,

    I, too, am glad you brought up the editing of Emily Dickinson’s poems, because I keep returning to those as I consider these textual editing questions. I think her case is especially interesting because the vast majority of her work was not published during her lifetime—thus, we don’t know if she considered most of the fascicles and other personal copies she made to be “final.” The idea that her work was unfinished and needed to be finished by an editor takes us back to that question of “authorship.” Can we draw a line between the input friends and relatives, like her sister-in-law Susan, gave Dickinson during her lifetime and the changes made by Mabel Loomis Todd after her death? It seems as if we can, because Dickinson was involved in the former and not in the latter. But what about authors whose work is heavily edited during their lifetime by editors, with changes made that may or may not have been beyond their control?

    When I read the variants of Dickinson’s work, I am struck not by the difference one word choice or the other makes to the meaning of the poem, but by the meaning of her considering both options. Dickinson is famous for “choosing not choosing,” and I think this part of her writing style definitely gets left out when an editor, likes Franklin, chooses one variant over another.

    I also think it is significant to note that Dickinson painstakingly bound her poems into homemade “fascicles.” I think reading the poems the way she grouped them opens new possibilities for interpretation, and this is usually lost in the editing process. This reminds me of the concern we have seen from scholarly journal editors who feel their issues are pulled apart by the process of the online academic search, as well as the fact that the “album” has been preserved within a music industry that has come to embrace individual song purchases. In all of these examples, I think it is necessary to understand the role of the piece within the larger whole to glimpse the creator’s intent.


  7. I loved your focus on Emily Dickenson. I actually have not read too much of her poetry and I know almost nothing of her background, especially the stories behind how some of her work was published, so I really appreciated learning more about her. As we discussed in class last week, it would be extremely difficult for an editor to decide on a certain way in which to lay out an authors collected works in such a way where everyone is happy. We live in a world with very nit-picky people and regardless of what decision an editor makes, chances are they will hear from a few people who do not approve. As a student, reading most of my literature for classes in the hopes of writing fascinating research papers that my professors will love, I believe that the best format that an editor can create for a text is one with the historical context made clear. Most of the novels that I have read for school contain articles and historical information that contextualizes the text and really helps me to understand it. Although I absolutely understand that, from the point of view of an individual who is trying to read for pleasure, the historical context would make the book too bulky and I probably wouldn’t want to read it anyway. But that right there is the reason why there is such a wide range of publications for the most popular texts. There is a publication to fit the needs of every individual who wants to read the text and I think that, more than anything, is the most important thing.


  8. Grace, you have brought up many potential roles for a textual critic and question the difficulty in making certain distinctions and decisions in regards to the material they “excavate.” I assume that all of these potential difficulties really comprise the majority of the textual editor’s work. I imagine if you are not interested in the history of a work, or interested, but not enough to go through the trouble of making all these editorial decisions. As you mention, the critic can choose a form of literary criticism to help find meaning in the text versus the completely different role of a textual editor and critic. As you wrote, the” architectual dig” could theoretically last forever, as this does show the endless possible ideal texts that can be created. Since a work can be subject to literary criticism multiple times with every critic different responses, so too are the potential works that can be created within textual criticism. Perhaps, this shows that a work could in theory be reconstructed historically many multiple times to create many multiple ideal texts.


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