- Editing Emily Dickinson: The Production of an Author
This book is a revised PhD dissertation on the twentieth-century history of the editing of Emily Dickinson and will be of interest mainly to specialized academics and research libraries. Author Lena Christensen is a promising new scholar and demonstrates an impressive and wide-ranging theoretical arsenal. We can expect to hear much more from her.
Most readers will find this book’s main arguments uncontroversial: different editorial practices represent poems and poets differently, so we should avoid totalizing and monologizing perspectives. We should think of “Emily Dickinson” not as a stable biographical subject, but as the product of many voices, an “intertextual constellation of editorial and critical narratives” (2). Christensen historicizes these sorts of propositions by recounting and commenting on some key episodes in Dickinsonian edition: various versions from the 1890s through the 1940s; the 1955 Johnson variorum; the 1981 Franklin Manuscript Books; the 1998 Franklin variorum; and the current, ever-evolving Dickinson Electronic Archives (DEA).
Although the title might suggest a goal of synthesizing this history and proposing new ways to edit Dickinson, the book is mostly destructive. Christensen seeks to unedit Dickinson by challenging “received editorial constructs” and by critiquing “the way in which authorship is produced, the way in which the academic institution canonizes its authors” (16). For Dickinsonians, much of her analysis will be a familiar rehearsal that does not advance very far beyond the promanuscript, pro-digital, open-form sorts of positions on editing pioneered by such scholars as Martha Nell Smith, Jerome McGann, Ellen Hart, Lara Vetter, and Marta Werner. Christensen, however, is an able expositor, fully acknowledges her debts to her precursors, and has some new things to say toward the end of the book.
Despite providing a sophisticated and welcome overview of how Dickinson has been edited, Christensen misses an opportunity to diminish the suspicions held by skeptics of editorial theory per se. To what extent, some wonder, is arguing about manuscript, print, or digital interfacing actually distracting us from the difficult work of interpreting her poems? Is it ever true that fine-grained analyses [End Page 99] of protocols of presentation are not a necessary propaedeutic to interpretation but a strategy of deferral: we’ll talk about the poems later, first let’s thoroughly discuss the limitations of the print medium? The time available for humanistic studies is finite: how much should be spent on editing and how much on poetry?
Of course, one might argue that we do, or should, always think about editing when we think about poems. I will not pause to discuss this, but note instead that the opposite cannot be true, for Christensen’s book stands as proof that one can think quite a lot about editing without discussing the objects being edited. In fact, readers unsympathetic to meta-discussions of editorial theory will not be pleased to see that Christensen focuses so narrowly on the editors of Dickinson that she ignores the opinions of the poet they all edit. (Nor will they understand why she has omitted from her bibliography the best and most measured recent study in the field of manuscript-based editorial theory of Dickinson: Domhnall Mitchell’s 2005 Measures of Possibilities.) When Dickinson asked Higginson if her poetry “breathed,” did she introduce an organic view of writing, one that would invite certain kinds of editorial practice and discourage others? Can editors take any cues from the way she spoke of poetry as a jingling that “cooled” her “tramp” or a therapeutic activity that helped her negotiate trauma, whistle past the graveyard, and sing off the charnel steps? Christensen attempts neither to derive a perspective on editing from the poet’s own prose and verse writings nor to square the opinions of the pantheon of editors with them. She leaves Dickinson completely out of the equation.
For the most part, Christensen is similarly content to argue in the abstract that different editorial practices produce different versions of Dickinson. In the whole book she quotes and provides sustained discussions of only two poems...