EDITING EMILY DICKINSON: THE PRODUCTION OF AN AUTHOR by Lena Christensen, Reviewed by Sally Bushell

By Lena Christensen
(Routledge, 2013), 200 pp.
Reviewed by Sally Bushell on 2013-04-22.

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Editor's note: This is a paperback re-issue of a book originally published in hardbound in 2007. Though we do not normally review re-issued books, we mistook this one for an original when we assigned the review, and we are happy to post this compact account of it.

This is an extremely useful, clear-sighted account of the history of editing Emily Dickinson, essential reading for all literary critics, editors, and manuscript critics of her work. Though some of its points may be questioned, Christensen's book authoritatively considers how Dickinson has been edited over the years and how historically-specific ideologies and editorial principles shape our understanding of the author -- or the "(inter)text" (2) -- that is Emily Dickinson.

Setting out to examine the critical productions of "Emily Dickinson" in the twentieth century, Christensen analyses specific periods of Dickinson studies for which the status of texts proves problematic, or in other words "particularly anxious stages of Dickinson editing-criticism of which the present time is one" (3-4). The three main chapters of the book treat three cultural practices and processes: authorizing, editing, and archiving "Emily Dickinson."

Chapter one highlights the critical debates over Johnson's edition of 1955 and the canonization of Dickinson by means of a solidly established oeuvre. In chapter two, which explores "Material Dickinson" and critiques the "current scene of reading Emily Dickinson as experimental manuscript poet" (68), Christensen contends that the editorial debate over Dickinson is bound up entirely with determining the nature of the critical debate. Yet since current emphasis creates a problematic tension between her writing and print culture, "a 'simple' return to the holographic productions of the poet," Christensen argues, "is not a satisfying response," for her handwritten manuscripts have "become a privileged site (and problematic 'source') for the formulation of Emily Dickinson's art" (71).

Christensen's account of the principles underlying the current emphasis on the materiality of texts is theoretically astute and well-informed. While confidently surveying and analyzing all of the major twentieth century editions of Dickinson (Johnson, Franklin, Werner, and Nell Smith), she articulates complex positions and critiques them. These editions, she suggests, reveal an underlying desire to "fetishize the always-absent original in a narrative of loss" (93), a tendency to privilege a unique object to which only a few have access (arguably a problem for librarians rather than manuscript critics), and the desire to uncover a " 'pure' text, pure Dickinson body, not tainted . . . by the ravages of print" (110). All this certainly provides the manuscript critic with rich food for thought.

Finally, chapter three turns its critical eye towards the digital editing of Dickinson. Invoking here a larger intellectual debate about the nature of texts, Christensen considers editing as "remediation" and asks how far the copy can replace the original. She also questions the claim that digital editions democratize the poet. Noting that the "apparently democratic medium is in fact an edited space" (138), she also contends that the would-be democratizing process of editing ultimately removes the reader even further since it involves "implicit privileging of that absent original in the first place" (146). Armed with these convictions, she then probes the hidden decisions underpinning the Dickinson Electronic Archives.

For all its virtues, this book suffers from two linked problems. First, Christensen does not clearly and consistently explain what this book is. Though she first defines it as an "editorial biography" (69) and then, towards the end, as "an 'alternative' or 'textual' biography" (158), neither phrase adequately identifies the book. Actually, it seems to me to be more interestingly understood as offering the kind of New Historicist critique that is usually directed towards a text or writer but that is here being applied to the editing process itself -- and in this way to be quite bold. Secondly, though her introduction notes the danger of "fall[ing] prey to an illusory objectification of 'Dickinson studies'" (16), and though she admits that she cannot place herself outside this discourse, one wonders just where she doesstand. In other words, it is hard not to feel irked by the critic's slightly self-righteous critique of all other positions when she has not precisely defined her own. If all modes of presenting Emily Dickinson fail, then what is the alternative? Christensen coyly sidesteps any solution: "one way of coming to terms with the Dickinson objects that have been handed down through the years," she writes, "is to analyze the tradition of archiving and editing Dickinson texts, to unread those forms through which her work has been received" (117). But this hardly helps those who will still have to sustain the tradition of archiving and editing and who do not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.

Interestingly, too, by far the least satisfactory parts of the book are the two points at which Christensen briefly turns to specific poems to support her critique of editorial methods: "In Ebon Box, when years have flown" (cited 80) and "Safe in their alabaster chambers" (cited 142). In both cases, she uses poems as analogies to advance her own arguments against the appropriation of Dickinson materials and against processes of printing and publication that misrepresent her meaning. But ironically, Christensen's way of using Dickinson's texts is far from generous and is itself highly appropriative.

In the end, however, Christensen mounts a powerful critique of editorial positions that determine critical engagement. Reading this book certainly made me re-evaluate my own practices as a "manuscript critic" (if this is what I am) and acknowledge the dangers of fetishizing or privileging the uniqueness of a manuscript: dangers to which -- yes -- I am highly susceptible.

Sally Bushell is Reader in British Romanticism in the Department of English & Creative Writing, Lancaster University, UK.

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