Tenth of December, in addition to being a stellar collection of George Saunders stories, is also Emily Dickinson’s birthday. She was born on this day in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town from which she only rarely strayed. When thinking of the poet’s life, it’s hard not to recall that it was only posthumously that her work was recognized, and even then it was mediated. Poems themselves were notoriously altered for publication, but even the truest transcription removes the poems from their material conditions, about which Dickinson so clearly cared. Two recent projects—one newly announced, the other newly honored—are intended to rectify that disconnect.
The newer project, slated for publication in April, is both the first annotated reading edition of Dickinson’s poetry and the first to draw a distinction between the poems that she herself preserved and those she did not. While her major modern editors have employed a strict chronology in their collections of the poems, editor Cristanne Miller instead presents the poet at work, beginning with her early copying of the poems she wanted to keep onto folded sheets of stationery and progressing through her late poems that were left in a state of chaotic draft, or perhaps experimental fluidity, sometimes on scraps of paper or envelopes.
Through its focus on Dickinson’s own use and retention of poems, Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them proposes a radical shift in the center of gravity of Dickinson studies—away from the letters and the late poems, back to the poet’s most productive years and her fascicle-booklets and unbound sheet poems. In doing so, the book both presents Dickinson’s poems in the order she copied them, and renders visible at a glance the poems she retained in pristine condition and those that include possible substitutions for a concept or thought—a distinction disguised in other reading editions by editorial choices that present hypothesized clean versions of the poems.
The other recent project intended to bring readers closer to Dickinson’s own vision for her work—the open access Emily Dickinson Archive—was awarded first place last month at the New England Publishing Collaboration Awards ceremony. The project, which offers high resolution scans of Dickinson’s manuscripts alongside their best-known transcriptions, was produced by HUP in collaboration with Harvard’s Houghton Library, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Amherst College, Boston Public Library, and nearly a dozen other partners. In General Editor Leslie Morris’s description of the archive, below, one gets a sense of the significance of a volume like Miller’s to longstanding debates over how to represent the variations in Dickinson’s poems and how to meaningfully reflect her unique creative process.