text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
January 16th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck


ED daguerreotype

{ daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson }
source:  wikimedia commons

I have been perusing Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems via a website called Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence:  A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry, (edited by Martha Nell Smith and Lara Vetter and published by the University of Virginia Press) and sifting through the digital archives of her handwritten letters and poems, along with reading Jeanne Holland’s “Scraps, Stamps, and Cutouts:  Emily Dickinson’s Domestic Technologies of Publication.”  Dickinson’s strong opposition to having her poems printed is well documented.  She preferred to circulate her poems in her own handwriting, with her own punctuation and embellishment and without the interference of a professional printer.  Her letters and manuscripts, some of which were hand-sewn together, are written on paper and scraps of household miscellanea – receipts, bills, fliers, and brown paper bags.  These bits of domestic detritus form the context for Dickinson’s writing, and emphasize her reclusive lifestyle and preference for remaining at home.  Holland quotes Smith (one of the editors of the EDC website), who explains Dickinson’s methodology:

“That she did not regard works as untouchably sacred is obvious from her own role as reader, for Dickinson sometimes went so far as to cut up others’ works to take an illustration or group of words to append to her own.  Unlike the mutilations to her poems and letters, this is not an angry or hostile act to excise offensive expressions, but a sign of a reader at play or engaged in dialogic drama, combining hers with others’ literary productions, remarking both in the process” (150).

Looking through her letters, I find her inclusions fascinating.  Some contain stamps and clippings from other publications – like “Alone and in a Circumstance” – while others contain pictures attached by bits of thread or pressed flowers (scroll down a bit to see examples).  (Many of Dickinson’s documents are protected by copyright, but Harvard’s Houghton Library has a few things on display that do not require a login to access.)  Dickinson’s chosen material repositories for her writing, as well as her added bits of embellishment, provide additional contextual clues about her writing.  By isolating and liberating printed quotes from their sources, as well as making use of plant material and scraps, she recontextualizes them on her own terms and for her own use.  In the case of the clipped quotes, Dickinson really is engaging with the text and adapting it for her own purposes.

I remember years ago, when I first transferred to a college on Florida’s gulf coast, I became friends with a group of girls in my dorm.  We had a vibrant epistolary exchange.  Notes, letters, and journals were often elaborately decorated. Scraps of paper, old outdated computer punch cards, and index cards were embellished with flower petals, sand, shells, magazine clippings, colored inks, and doodled artwork.  Many evenings would find one or more of us furnished with rubber cement, a stack of cards and paper, a variety of pens, and a supply of favorite magazines.  (Mine always seemed to be Victoria Magazine, Outside, Backpacker, and Coastal Living.)  The embellishments we added were more than merely decorative – they also served a communicative purpose, and frequently referenced a shared experience or inside joke.  We often repurposed words and had our own mini-dialect with layers of meaning embedded in the words and phrases we used.

Thinking about my past experiences with embellished letters fueled my fascination with Dickinson’s correspondence.  How much additional meaning did she invest in the bits that decorate her documents?  Were there layers of meaning that were evident only to those who shared experiences or conversations with her?  Is it possible to discern Dickinson’s intended meanings?


4 Responses to “Embellishments”
  1. Jessalyn says

    The mixed media aspect to some of her letters and handwritten poems becomes an enigma to us today, and all we can really do it speculate on her intentions, but they many just be things we cannot explain. While learning more about authors and their intentions can intrigue us and be helpful in understanding their work, maybe the mystery of it all is what draws us into Dickinson’s work in the first place. I do not mean to insinuate that without the mystery her work would be nothing, but it is clearly part of her persona.

  2. I cannot stress enough how much the idea of turning print work, into literal works of art gets me excited. The idea of adding things to a poem or essay to give it that extra punch is just so awesome. Even the paper you choose to write you work on, the ideas are endless and so very cool.

  3. I agree with Jessalyn’s comment that the mystery is part of what draws us in. The interesting and artistic look to the work is also intriguing, because it grabs one’s attention much more than just a plain sheet of paper with words typed on it.

  4. I think that I was thinking along similar lines, but I just couldn’t think of the word for it until I read your post. I too thought that perhaps Emily Dickinson’s choice of writing materials might be for her a sort of “scrap-booking.” As though, maybe for the most part Dickinson was scrap-booking minus the actual book, except where she sewed several poems together into, what would later be called, a fascicle.

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