Academia

The digital-manuscript Dickinson

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The Emily Dickinson Archive is the latest digital humanities project featured in The New York Times, and the latest to offer a more intimate connection with an author through images of letters, manuscripts, and other examples of handwriting. The site performs an incredible service in breaking down the institutional barriers between archives that can stymie scholarly investigation; the Times article details some infighting among the participating libraries, but they seem to have been resolved. Dickinson is perhaps the paradigmatic example of an author whose work can only be understood in relation to the material constraints of pen and paper, some of which were imposed on her and some of which she imposed on herself. Her famous “fascicles,” small booklets she cut and sewed together, were the material counterpart to her condensed, elliptical lines; the archive shows that she also scribbled wherever possible, on envelopes, letters, books, and scraps of paper. In both form and content, her poetry was idiosyncratic and, in a way, unreproducible.

But while Dickinson was paradigmatic, she was not sui generis, at least in her creative use of manuscript for literary production. Many authors in the nineteenth century continued to rely on manuscript to create and circulate their works, and the kinds of paper to which they had access influenced their output. In the next volume of Book History I discuss the work of Elizabeth Grant, a little-known Scottish memoirist whose writings were not published during her lifetime. Grant used precut letter paper to create fascicle-like booklets, and because of this, I believe, her work took on significant epistolary qualities. While the Emily Dickinson Archive provides an invaluable scholarly resource, I worry that—by, in a sense, isolating this single author—it could make it more difficult to see such connections. And because these documents are now online, it might make it more complicated for scholars to obtain funding or even permission to see the “real” thing. These archives offer one form of access, which I’m sure will allow wonderful new work to be produced, but we should continue to think carefully about the role of the archive, and the relationship between the digital and the material, as more and more research moves online.

Image at top: Amherst Manuscript #514, “We talked with each other about each other” written on a flattened envelope.

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