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  • The Responsibility Is Ours:The Failure of Infrastructure and the Limits of Scholarship
  • Susan Belasco

For much of the past two years, I have been leading a double life, working on two archival projects—one electronic and one print. I've been splitting my time and my attention between two of the most well-known writers of U.S. literature: Walt Whitman, the self-proclaimed "poet of the woman the same as the man," and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the "little woman" whose novel undoubtedly was a cause of the Civil War. On the one hand, my project Whitman's Poems in Periodicals is part of The Walt Whitman Archive, a vast electronic collection of manuscripts, editions of Leaves of Grass, entire works of criticism, all the known photographs, biographical commentaries by contemporaries, a searchable bibliography of criticism, translations, and now, my scholarly edition of the 160 known poems that Whitman published in forty-five different magazines, journals, and newspapers during his lifetime. As editor, I collected the periodicals themselves and worked with my assistant editor, Elizabeth Lorang, and the Whitman Archive staff to prepare images of the poems in the periodicals in which they originally appeared. I also did the traditional editorial work involved in a print edition: preparing historical information and providing transcriptions of the poems with notes. But as digital humanists explain, Whitman's Poems in Periodicals was born digital—that is to say, it does not exist in a print form nor could it easily be rendered into print.

On the other hand, as the editor of Stowe in Her Own Time, I have prepared a traditional print edition—a kind of archive within itself. I have selected and edited unpublished letters as well as biographical sketches, recollections, memoirs, and articles published in a variety of contemporary books and periodicals to narrate the story of Stowe's life through the eyes of her friends, relatives, and fellow writers. My book includes a lengthy historical introduction, introductions to all of the selections I chose, notes, illustrations, a chronology of Stowe's life, and a bibliography. Both projects—one electronic and one print—involved [End Page 329] hundreds of hours of archival work—in public and private libraries, special collections, online archives, art museums, and, in the case of Stowe, at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Both are also editorial projects, the kind that do not routinely receive high rewards in our profession—but more about our professional rewards system below.

Working on these two projects was an almost daily reminder of the importance of the infrastructure of scholarship—the basic tools that enable works of analysis and criticism: letters, standard editions, bibliographies, and biographies. I want to use my Whitman and Stowe projects to make what I consider to be a crucial point about the future of research on women writers. All of us have a responsibility to press harder on creating the basic tools we need to nurture and sustain work on women writers. During the past thirty or so years, we have made huge strides in recovering the work of women writers, providing editions of their works, writing an array of books and articles, and, perhaps most important, changing the syllabi of thousands of courses in the college and university curriculum. Many of our colleagues have made significant contributions to this effort—such as Frances Smith Foster's Frances E. W. Harper Reader, Helen R. Deese's editions of the diary and journal of Caroline Healey Dall, Amelia Montes's forthcoming edition of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It?, Karen L. Kilcup's edition of the memoir of the Cherokee writer Narcissa Owen, and Carla L. Peterson's reconstructions of the lives of African American women speakers and writers. However, much work remains to be done, and it seems to me that the most important work is in what to some may seem the least glamorous—creating a sustainable infrastructure for future scholarship. Specifically, unless we are able to bring letters and other unpublished materials out of archives and make them available for broad use, we run the risk of making fundamental research available only to those...


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