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  • The Importance of a Hypermedia Archive of Dickinson's Creative Work
  • Martha Nell Smith (bio)

"The Poems" will ever be to me marvellous whether in ms. or type.

Susan Dickinson to Thomas Higginson, Christmas 1890

The receptions of her writings, as well as of Emily Dickinson herself, have largely been determined by the writing technology with which the vast majority of her audiences, academic and popular, is familiar —the print medium that produces books, collections, and variorums of poetry, volumes of letters, and other prose writings of major poets. What might be called the ideology of the book has, therefore, profoundly influenced the ways in which her writings are initially perceived and ultimately judged. Since the poet's death in 1886, printing after printing of Dickinson's poems and letters has been produced, the most "authoritative" of which are now beginning to foreground photographic reproductions (see R. W. Franklin's edition of the Manuscript Books for Harvard UP [1981] and his edition of her Master Letters for Amherst College P [1986]). These photographic reproductions reveal the importance of Dickinson's handwritten experimentations in punctuation, lineation, and calligraphic orthography. Readers can [End Page 75] see for themselves that Dickinson's punctuation signs more closely resemble rhetorical notation marks that angle up and down or curve than the en- and em- typographical dashes into which they have translated; that she often broke her lines mid-syllable or in other unexpected places rather than according to the tetrameter, trimeter, dimeter conventions of the hymnal stanza and poetic quatrain (conventions shored up by the regularization of print and the concomitant presumptions of editors); and that her calligraphic orthography often featured such sportive details as eyes that look back at the reader in the "e's" in "seen" and "e's" in "feet" that look like spread toes (see second stanza of "A narrow Fellow in / the Grass" [P 986; H B 193 copy to Sue])1 Other photographic representations show that Dickinson illustrated some writings with her own drawings and also experimented with mixed media layouts by scissoring illustrations from books in the family library and attaching them to poems she presented to friends.2 Somewhat ironically then, advances in the technologies of these ever-changing material reproductions demonstrate what the poet herself avers about the limitations of the medium when explaining to Thomas Higginson that she is not publishing her work in the conventional way.

When Dickinson wrote Higginson "I had told you I did not print," she enclosed a clipping of "The Snake," the version of "A narrow Fellow in / the Grass" (Set 6c; P 986) which had appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican two months earlier, to demonstrate her reasons for choosing not to do so. She comments on the printed version: "Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me —defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one —I had told you I did not print —I feared you might think me ostensible. . . "(L 316, early 1866). She appears angry because editors, presuming to know how the poem should be punctuated, inserted a comma that she had purposely omitted. By 1866 she had seen at least ten, very probably more, of her poems in print. The Republican had printed most of them, and in most of the printings Dickinson had seen alterations of her poems. According to her description of her own response to the printing, such editorial interference "defeated" her poetic objectives and dissuaded her from conventional publication via mechanical reproduction. [End Page 76]

In Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992) I argue that Dickinson "published" herself in her correspondences and in the manuscript books of poetry (fascicles) discovered posthumously in her room and that studies of her text should take into account her method of private "book" assembly and distribution. At the first international conference in October 1992 I learned that what I had suspected is indeed true: many Dickinson scholars (e.g., Susan Howe, Ellen Louise Hart, Marta Werner, Roland Hagenbuüchle, Jerome McGann, Jeanne Holland) agree that her unusual holograph productions and "publication" of poetry are vital to any understanding of her poetic...


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