Some Sweet Nothings on The Gorgeous Nothings

Friday, April 4th, 2014 by samanthalong88

Upon finishing my perusal of The Gorgeous Nothings collection (and perusal seems to be the best way to describe my interaction with this myriad of text/textual fragments), here are some of my thoughts:

As a general statement, I enjoy the accessibility of this collection, and wish that the manuscripts and various ephemera from other notable authors would be published in a similar way. This would not only preserve their work (and would do it better than simply sealing off the decaying originals to a few privileged hands), but it is also far better than having some middleman transcribe it with his/her own intentions and impositions. (I can quickly see the injustice that would be done to Dickinson’s envelopes if they were transcribed and typeset in a standard font with no mention of their materiality.) And I say this as someone who did considerable work on the Scribner’s version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, famous for being a highly edited posthumous text based off fragments from Hemingway’s incomplete manuscripts. While it was clear that Scribner’s could never give me the full story, I was equally perturbed by how academic scholarship inherently privileged these difficult-to-access manuscripts. There was not only a complete disregard for how quickly the criticism game became an elitist enterprise under such restrictions (needing a “good enough” excuse, travel expenses, lost wages, it goes on), but also an undervaluing of the text that was readily available for the common (commoner?) reader. Of course, I realize half the battle is securing publishing rights from the estate (along with the sticky question of whether or not the writer would have wanted these things to see the light of day) while also convincing someone that it is worth publishing. (It is clear that a collection like this, with so many large images, was not at all cheap to produce.) However, the intellectual dividends from putting together something like The Gorgeous Nothings are numerous, allowing any reader to gaze at the intimate work of the writer which sometimes escapes easy categorization, and, from there, being able to draw his/her own opinions (rather than seeking some high critic which has seen the “plates”). I’d like to continue seeing such “democratization” of materials like this, but I realize–with issues of money and prestige on the line–it’ll probably continue to be a slow process.

More specifically, I enjoyed how The Gorgeous Nothings played with notions of the archive in the presentation of these envelope writings. While there was certainly method to the madness in their arrangement (I don’t believe it was chronological though, unless I overlooked something?), the indexes provided at the end offered whole new ways to (re)visualize and engage with these scraps, anything from the shape of the envelopes to how Dickinson wrote on them. Admittedly, the pictures are small, but it would not be difficult to find the original pages and read them in a new way based off the index–creating a new “flock.” The inclusion of the backs of the letters as well revealed that readers could also see how the writings engage with the materiality of the envelope they were written on. This statement from the editors especially stuck with me: “Flocked together for a few moments before dispersing again into other equally provisional constellations, they remind us that a writer’s archive is not a storehouse of easily inventoried contents– i.e., ‘poems,’ ‘letters,’ etc.–but also a reservoir of ephemeral remains, bibliographical escapes” (207). Even choosing to collect these ephemeral scraps which lack any clear sign of intent (were they a collection, was Dickinson really playing with space and materiality, were these complete works, what do we make of added words, crossed out lines) seems to be an anti-archive move.

What was additionally engaging about this collection was that one could actually see Dickinson’s handwriting. And, because I have never dealt with handwritten manuscripts (because I don’t have the money or habitus to do so), I found that it was a particularly different emotional experience. There was a sense, however silly it is to describe, that someone really wrote this–that Dickinson was real and, however I may have slighted it in the past, that there was something more bodily and physically present about handwriting. And, while I’m pretty unfamiliar with her work, that was still very moving. Of course, when I wanted to read more quickly I often found myself “cheating” by looking at the transcriptions, which, I think, is a whole discussion in itself…

This post is getting long, so I’ll just mention I’m also interested in how we even begin to deal with the fraught question of intent with a collection like this, and how we avoid reading too much into it.

I’ll close with one of the small scraps I particularly enjoyed, of course altered since I’m typing it:

“There are those
who are shallow
intentionally
and only
profound
by accident” (158)

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One comment on “Some Sweet Nothings on The Gorgeous Nothings

  1. dparker90 says:

    I share many of your concerns about the availability of manuscripts and other rare materials that have become increasingly difficult to access. While I think this exclusivity is mostly due to age and decay, I’ve found that the canonical status of a text is also an important factor in its accessibility. While on a research trip to the British Library last week, I requested access to an original edition of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s “Lyrical Ballads,” the collection of poems often said to mark the beginning of Romanticism. The item required a level-2 security clearance, meaning that I had to provide a letter of introduction from my advisor and sit in a specially surveilled section of the reading room. Yet when I handled the book, I was surprised to find that it was in excellent condition, having been carefully preserved by the library for a long time. In contrast, I also looked at “The British Album,” a much older and less well known book that was falling apart at the seams. This book, however, required no letter or special seat. It was simply because “Lyrical Ballads” occupies such an important place in the Romantic canon that it required extra security. So much for the materiality argument, I guess.

    In regards to your remark about Dickinson’s “anti-archive,” I want to question whether the editors of “The Gorgeous Nothings” are in fact attempting to create an archive where none exists. Like you, I’m grateful that these materials have been copied, assembled, and distributed at a reasonable price, but is there any detriment to reading them as collection? If I understand correctly, each letter was mailed to a different person. Each poem existed independently, and was perhaps intended for the individual recipient. Archiving them in the book gives the impression that they comprise a single body of work, and perhaps imparts a sense of cohesion which was not intended. That being said, I’m still extremely grateful to read them in their original form.

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