- Constellating Dickinson
I come to Dickinson not as a scholar of her work or of the period in which she wrote but as a passionate reader, teacher, and writer of poetry. Engaged mainly in the colonial period, I have viewed Dickinson as if through the wrong end of a telescope: a looming, Promethean figure radiating intense light and heat but illusorily dwarfed by her Puritan forbears––Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Roger Williams, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson. The time seems propitious to turn the device right side round and bring the gorgeous constellation into proper and manageable view. For though I find Bradstreet’s poetry inexhaustibly fascinating (most recently, I am investigating the queer aspects of her transatlantic context), my next project will be a blog on Dickinson’s poetry, and I am happily beginning to immerse myself in all things Emily. This project, whose outlines are still a bit murky, will focus on one of the anni mirabilies (1862–63) in which Dickinson wrote around 365 poems––that is, though we cannot be certain of the dates or rates of her composition, she wrote what amounts to one poem a day, truly a poet’s “Soul at the White Heat” (F401).
This project represents an extension and elaboration of my recent work in digital humanities, where I used digital technology to create a scholarly digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian leader, writer, and Christian missionary.1 Engaged with eighteenth-century colonial and early republican manuscript and epistolary cultural and digital projects that archive manuscripts, I explored the Dickinson Electronic Archive, an exemplary research and pedagogical tool created by Martha Nell Smith and a collective of Dickinson scholars whose work has been revolutionized by the publication in 1981 of Ralph Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson.2 Able to work with images of Dickinson’s extensive [End Page 581] manuscripts of poems, letters, sewn fascicles, fragments, scraps, cut outs, drawings, and what Smith labels other “holographic performances,” these scholars realized the need, as Marta Werner expressed it in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), for “unediting” Dickinson’s writings and, thus, for “constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom” (5). The appearance of Dickinson’s manuscripts inspired an ongoing undoing of a century of editorial and critical work that has been abetted by their wide and free availability in digital form. It is, perhaps, ironic, but no longer surprising, given the scope of digital humanities, that cutting edge computer technology can help us to do some of the most basic work of literary studies, recovering the compositional methods, variety of manuscript texts, and unique performative poetics of early writers. This is a case of the dog wagging its own tail—that is, scholars adapting and shaping digital technology to the scholarly and pedagogical needs that arise in the course of their research. Digital technology has helped to liberate Dickinson from a print culture and technology she founded constraining and deforming.
As Alexandra Socarides points out in her study Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics (2012), one of the books under review here from which I borrowed my opening Promethean simile, “print preceded handwriting in twentieth-century readings of Dickinson” (36). While this is true about the reception of most North American poets, beginning with Bradstreet in 1650 (though not true of Taylor, who also never published his prodigious amounts of poetry, sermons, or prose), Dickinson very deliberately rejected print publication, though reviewing new evidence in Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012), Cristanne Miller argues that Dickinson refused print not for the reasons usually given (her fear of exposure, rejection, or revision; more on this later). Other scholars who study the manuscripts argue that Dickinson avidly embraced forms of scribal self-publication that circulated...