- Estranging Anthology Texts of American Literature: Digital Humanities Resources for Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson
As we work toward critical practices and theories appropriate for electronic literature, we may come to renewed appreciation for the specificity of print. In the tangled web of medial ecology, change anywhere in the system stimulates change everywhere in the system.—N. Katherine Hayles
I often begin Modernist poetry in a chronological survey of American literature with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Students who have read the poem before welcome the choice. They associate it with a familiar question about the future from one’s final year in high school, “What are you going to do?” As I recall from my own experience, a chosen major was judged more sensible than to reply “I don’t know,” an answer that is contemplated by many idealists who eventually choose to study English literature. In Frost’s poem, the difficult path—the one that “wanted wear” and is “less traveled by”—is offered as the more idealistic choice, but the act of choosing matters because the “first” path, the one not chosen, cannot be “kept” and returned to on “another day” (8, 19, 13). If the tenor for Frost’s metaphor is life choices, and the paths in the woods are its vehicle, the poem has an almost paradoxical tension between temporal and spatial metaphors. Paradox and metaphor are familiar concepts to students who major in English, hence their confidence when they encounter Frost’s poem again.
During an exercise in close reading one can lean on the phrase “about the same” and ask whether the “less traveled” path is really so different from the “first” one, an exercise that usually leads to lively discussion, yet my study of textual scholarship has prompted me to introduce additional complications. In August 1915, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” was published in The Atlantic Monthly. In that form, which is available on The Atlantic’s site, a telling line reads, “Oh, I marked the first for another day!” (13). Because the speaker “marked” the path in the magazine version—perhaps with a small pile of stones—the paradox of a “kept” path is less strong in that version of the poem (19, 13). Also, The Atlantic version has a comma after “and I,” not an em dash (—) like the anthology, a punctuation variant which makes the “all the difference” a bit less different (18, [End Page 169] 20). When introduced to this unfamiliar version of Frost’s poem, some students are relieved that Frost too had it more than one way. The poem oscillates between spatial and temporal metaphors—a path in woods that you can mark and to which you may return, a past decision that cannot be returned to and done over—but reading two versions causes the poem also to oscillate within itself. “The Road Not Taken” concerns not only the consequences of future choices, the way many students had read the poem in high school, but as two versions of the same poem it may offer a retrospective review of consequences for choices (personal, textual) that the poem’s persona or the poet (or an editor) had made in the past.
I introduce this anecdote as a metaphor for our own position as teachers of literature in the twilight of the print anthology era and at the dawn of a digital humanities era. Though the discussions of variant literary texts that follow will be drawn from early American literature, defined by anthologies with the period before the close of American Civil War in 1865, I hope that professors and instructors who teach surveys of later periods will consider using similar techniques to integrate digital materials into their pedagogy. My suggestions for a pedagogy that investigates textual difference are complementary to those offered by Laura L. Aull, who has proposed that students should assess the “textual anthology apparatus,” which she identifies as a “metanarrative of canon and knowledge construction” within prefaces and section introductions to The Norton Anthology of American Literature and The Heath Anthology of American Literature (498). The pedagogy of digital humanities is itself emerging as...