Ravished Slates: Re...

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Installation 4: Ravished Slates: Re-visioning the "Lord Letters" (Facsimiles / Diplomatic Transcripts)




Fig. 1: Thomas H. Johnson, with Theodora Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Bound in blue cloth over boards, stamped in red and gold on cover and spine….

There is nothing left to do. And yet there may be something to undo. 

From the rich and strange fields of Emily Dickinson’s late writings where I have been wandering for many years now and where I have often lost my way among her dashes, crosses, variants, and stray marks, I return to imagine her otherwise . . . What happens when, to borrow David Porter’s words, “the losing of the program for poetry”[i] coincides with the more general coming apart of the codex book and when, moreover, the standard bibliographical codes regulating the acts of writing and reading are abandoned?.

Calling as witnesses of Dickinson’s late experimental writing forty documents known since their publication in the 1950s as the “Lord letters,” I hope to offer a counter-narrative of their composition, passage from hand to hand to institution, mutilation, and many translations into print culture that calls into question the single identity/unity of these works while also revealing something of the spectacular complexity of the textual situation circa 1870 that has been all but erased by the editorial interventions of the past two centuries. To the question around which this presentation of Dickinson’s writings continually circles, What is a work?, these uncollected leaves whisper, A theory of the work does not exist. No longer marking a place in a book, the loose leaves of stationery and scraps of paper are risked to still wilder forms of circulation.

There can never be an authorized edition of Dickinson’s writings. The gold imprimatur—emblem or face of Harvard’s authority stamped across the blue binding of Johnson’s Letters (1958)—is a false witness: again and again, Dickinson’s drafts and fragments escape from the plot of “pure scholarship” to reappear always outside (beyond) the texte propre and the law of the bibliographer.

“Joy and Gravitation have their own ways –” (A 871).



Fig. 2: A 387, “The Clouds their | Backs together laid,” c. 1872

Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Dickinson steadfastly refused the limitations of a print existence. It is all the more poignant, then, to be editing Dickinson’s late manuscripts at the beginning of the twenty-first century and at the very moment when, as Gore Vidal observes, we are “going beyond writing.”[ii]

The material is becoming immaterial.

“Emily Dickinson” is being drawn up into “the cloud.”[iii]

In order to reveal something about the requirements of her aesthetics of open‑endedness—as  well as of our own—there are centrifugal forces at work here: the drafts and fragments provisionally collected on this site continue to drift: to demonstrate their insusceptibility to collection, their resistance to bibliographical determination. Presented or abandoned at the far limits of my commentary, they break free of all explanation; displayed as they have descended to us—a scattered estate, a strange excess—they participate in and affirm an economy of multiple or contingent orders.

Beyond the method of the bibliographer, idolater of the book, the “Codes of Bliss” (JP 1586; FP 1617) deliver the poet directly into the current of writing. Today editing Emily Dickinson’s late writings paradoxically requires un-editing them, constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom.

Such un-editing necessarily initiates a break with the analytical methods and claims to comprehensiveness generally associated with scholarly narratives. In place of a unified argument shored up by interlocking theses, I offer only a set of unassimilated and unassimilatable “close-ups” of drafts and fragments sans instruction for re-assembly—a portrait in pieces, a constellation of questions.[iv]

Here digital surrogates of Dickinson’s manuscripts, diplomatic transcriptions, and annotations trace an eccentric path into and then away from a poet’s work without ever solving the mystery of “original” or “final” intentions.

Here, every reader is a bibliographer-poet finding his or her own way toward the future by striking out in a different direction through the past. And here, every reading illuminates the impossibility of a perfect return to a scene of writing, circa 1870.

All editions are of unknown texts.

Ravished Slates:

Manuscript Images, Transcripts, Genealogies

Note on the Edition: You may open as many documents and transcriptions as you'd like. Resize them, drag them around your screen, and zoom in and out in order to best explore the documents.

Ms 132-133 (transcription) / 132a (transcription)

Ms 193-194 (transcription)/ Verso (transcription)

Ms 359 (transcription)

Ms 440 (transcription)/ 440a (transcription)

Ms 479 (transcription)/ Verso (transcription)

Ms 637 (transcription)/ 637a (transcription)

Ms 638 (transcription)/ 638a (transcription)

Ms 734 (transcription)/ 734a (transcription)

Ms 735 (transcription)/ 735a (transcription)

Ms. 736 (transcription)/ 736a (transcription)/ 736b (transcription)

Ms. 737 (transcription)/ 737a (transcription)/ 737b (transcription)

Ms. 738 (transcription)

Ms. 739 (transcription)       

Ms. 740 (transcription)/ 740a (transcription)/ 740b (transcription)/  740c (transcription)/ 740d (transcription)/ 740e (transcription)

Ms. 741 (transcription)/ 741a (transcription)/ 741b (transcription)

Ms. 742 (transcription)/ 742a (transcription)/ 742b (transcription)/  742c (transcription)/ 742d (transcription)/ 742e (transcription)/  742f (transcription)

Ms. 743 (transcription)/ 743a (transcription)

Ms. 744 (transcription)/ 744a (transcription)/ 744b (transcription)/  744c (transcription)/ 744d (transcription)/ 744e (transcription)/  744f (transcription)/ 744g (transcription)

Ms. 745 (transcription)/ 745a (transcription)/ 745b (transcription)/ 745c (transcription)

Ms. 746 (transcription)

Ms. 747 (transcription)

Ms. 748 (transcription)/ 748a (transcription)/ 748b (transcription)

Ms. 749 (transcription)/ 749a (transcription)/ 749b (transcription)/  749c (transcription)/ 749d (transcription)/ 749e (transcription)/  749f (transcription)

Ms. 750 (transcription)

Ms. 751 (transcription)/ Verso

Ms. 752 (transcription)/ 752a (transcription)

Ms. 753 (transcription)/ 753a (transcription)

Ms. 754 (transcription)/ Verso (transcription)

Ms. 755 (transcription)/ Verso (transcription)

Ms. 756 (transcription)/ 756a (transcription)

Ms. 757 (transcription)/ 757a (transcription)

Ms. 758 (transcription)/ 758a (transcription)

Ms. 759 (transcription)

Ms. 760 (transcription)/ 760a (transcription)

Ms. 761 (transcription)

Ms. 842 (transcription)/ Verso (transcription)

Ms. 843 (transcription)

Ms. 855 (transcription)

Ms. 871 (transcription)/ 871a (transcription)


[i] David Porter, Dickinson: The Modern Idiom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 7.

[ii] . Gore Vidal, The New Left Review; quoted in Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 95. The full quotation reads, “We live in a literate world, but we live at another great hinge in history, when we are going beyond writing.”

[iii] Dickinson’s poems are full of allusions to atmospheric conditions in general and “clouds” in particular. Such poems gain new resonance in the age of the “cloud computing.” As the Wikipedia entry of January 2, 2013 comments, “The origin of the term cloud computing is obscure, but it appears to derive from the practice of using drawings of stylized clouds to denote networks in diagrams of computing and communications systems. The word cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the standardized use of a cloud-like shape to denote a network on telephony schematics and later to depict the Internet in computer network diagrams as an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it represents. 

[iv] In One-Way Street (London, NLB, 1979), Walter Benjamin proposes a way of writing in which fragmentary quotations and material from different contexts, what he calls “close-ups” (62), replace discursive argumentation. Benjamin’s work, as J. Hillis Miller has pointed out, anticipates the technology of hypertext in fascinating ways.