10 Sep 2010

Research example: Making Public - Manuscripts and Reproduction

By Mariya Ustymenko, University of Essex

I would like to thank Carrie Smith for starting this wonderful discussion on manuscript editing and add a few observations on the subject hoping to make use of this great opportunity to share thoughts in an informal environment.

“Spelling and Strikethrough” made me think of parts of the authors´ artistic production “unintended for viewing”. How much legal weight do these parts hold against the later ‘better´ versions? Is it the author or the reader who has the right nowadays in the decision making?

The origin of manuscripts is private and for this reason alone the moral issues raised by the blog essay are both numerous and complicated. We live in a reading culture that considers great authors´ and artists´ letters to be integral part of their body of work and seldom questions their publishing. Letters and diaries are valued because they display the artist´s thinking process, document their aesthetic, social and political attitudes, and provide readers with additional access to his/her mind. But should these papers be published? From a researcher´s point of view the answer “no” would sound suicidal but publication raises a number of practical and moral questions. How does an editor decide which papers should be made available to the general public and which ones are best ‘kept´ in the author´s archive? What kind of omission would later be viewed as an editorial “crime”? Should a letter addressed to a fellow ‘great mind´ be considered of higher importance and interest than a scribble addressed to the neighbour about an annoying cat? What is an important mark and what is a doodle?

How many of our yesterday´s emails would we have saved ourselves for posterity and if they have all gone public what picture of us would they present?

Emily Dickinson seems to be a perfect example of an ‘unpublished´ writer sending her “letters to the world” that for a long time had been unaware of their existence. But the distinction between ‘letter´ and ‘poem´ is often difficult to establish when we are faced with the author´s manuscripts. What knowledge do we lose while taking the role of the reader unintended?

One of the major questions posed by Dickinson scholarship has to do with the fact that the poet remained nearly completely ‘unpublished´ in her times. Sharon Cameron, the author of the critically acclaimed Choosing Not Choosing, published in 1993, has persuasively argued that “the problems of reading and the problems of choice are in this [Dickinson´s] poetry inseparable” (247) as “it is not that Dickinson couldn´t publish, or that she chose not to”, “it is rather that she couldn´t choose how to do so” (241). Another distinguished Dickinson scholar, Martha Nell Smith, has provided extensive support towards the argument that it was in reality printing that Dickinson chose not to choose, while the poet retained complete control over her work through the distribution of her artistic production among her many correspondents.

Lately, in Dickinson scholarship there seems to be a visible shift in the direction of research focusing on Dickinson´s manuscripts as its core primary materials. In 1998 Suzanne Juhasz stated that: “In the 1990s we have been struck by certain material facts about Dickinson as writer: that her writing exists almost entirely in manuscript; that she regularly suggested alternative words or phrases to her poems and produced alternative versions of her poems; that she wrote letters with poems attached to them, embedded in them; that her writing forms possess such fluidity that we cannot precisely say what is prose and what is poetry. As a consequence, the way she wrote, the materiality of her writing, has everything to do with what and how we read when we are “reading Dickinson.”” (427)

Since this article´s publication, things have changed slightly: scholarly works aimed at analysing what can be treated as prose and what constitutes a poem in Dickinson´s body of work have been substituted by explorations of issues that encompass not only text-related features of manuscripts but also include materials which are not usually associated with literary analysis. This kind of research is represented by scholarly publications that deal with the gaps between the words and pages of the fascicles, the positioning of handwritten lines, paper embossments and their relation to the written texts.

Although there would be many scholars voicing their doubts towards what may be called the ‘fetishism of the document’, the strong trend for making the manuscripts primary sources of investigation seems to attract more and more supporters each year leading to a higher demand for wider scholarly access to the manuscripts. This seems to raise the standard for editing even higher as the editors of today have to not only avoid the violation of the author’s text but forefend the silencing of the text’s material environment leading us back to the big question – what is less ‘relevant’ and who decides?

Cameron, Sharon, “Amplified Contexts: Emily Dickinson and the Fascicles”, Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458, 1996). Pp. 240-247.

Juhasz, Suzanne, “Materiality and the Poet”, The Emily Dickinson Handbook (University of Massachusetts Press, 1998). Pp. 247-440.

Smith, Martha Nell, Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (University of Texas Press, 1992).

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