- Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World eds. by Jessica De Spain etal.
I remember the graduate seminar that first really shook me up. The Blake scholar Stephen Carr was taking us through a series of editions of Songs of [End Page 388] Innocence and Experience, focusing on “The Lamb.” It is a poem in which punctuation really matters (what poem claims otherwise?) and it soon became clear to all of us in the seminar what a difference a comma made. But which version of the poem was the right one—which of Blake’s color illustrations was the definitive one? It is one measuring stick I have of the difference my education made that I now feel excitement and not insecurity when encountering the possible problem of unstable or fluid texts. Thus it was with great delight that I explored Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World via the digital edition created by Jessica DeSpain, Jennifer Brady, Melissa White, and Jill Anderson.
The Digital Edition is a website that will eventually be the place for Warner scholars to start their searches, although at this point it is very much a work in progress, as the editors themselves acknowledge. The goal of the Digital Edition, according to the home page, is to provide a high-quality digital archive of “textual and visual variants” from 174 different reprints of Warner’s novel between 1850 and 1950. When the project is finished, readers will be able to read 141 versions of the novel on the site, comparing editions electronically using Juxta, and to view fifty-three sets of printers’ plates. The sheer number of variants offered here ensures that future graduate and undergraduate students will find plenty of reasons to feel unsure, surprised, and exhilarated. In fact, I already plan to use the Digital Edition in my junior seminar about archival research as a way to introduce students to the history of the book. The editors of this edition invite us to experience how reprints and adaptations are “multivocal revision sites [that] actively resist a stable meaning” (Editorial Rationale tab).
The Digital Edition specifically seeks to represent how the novel “shaped and was shaped by transatlantic literary culture” (Editorial Rationale tab); with this goal in mind, the editors have identified a significant gap in existing scholarship about this text. When the edition is completed and the transatlantic context for the novel is as visible and accessible as it promises to be, I suspect it will change the paradigm through which we understand the text: no longer will we so easily think of The Wide, Wide World as an American novel in isolation from the enthusiastic British readership that responded to it for decades. The Digital Edition complements and extends the reframing that Jessica DeSpain so ably offers in Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book. DeSpain, an associate professor of American literature at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, is the project director for the Digital Edition.
Readers are encouraged to check out the Editorial Rationale tab, which is nested beneath “About the Edition” on the home page, for an illuminating description of the technical processes for rendering the high-resolution images and searchable text in the Digital Edition. The images are beautiful: they are as close to actually being in a rare-book room as you can get from a screen. You [End Page 389] can almost feel your finger tracing the embossing on some of the covers and smell that old book scent when clicking through images of the book edges. I was honestly surprised at how well the materiality of the books came through this medium, and anyone looking for a resource for teaching students about how to look at books in their materiality will find the content in the Digital Edition helpful.
The editors offer or are planning to offer a range of supplementary materials, including fan letters to Warner, which will make this an indispensable stop for research on the author. One notable example...