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.
[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.