Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Turn It, a Little": The Influence of the Daguerreotype and the Stereograph on Emily Dickinson's Use of Manuscript Variants

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Turn It, a Little": The Influence of the Daguerreotype and the Stereograph on Emily Dickinson's Use of Manuscript Variants

Article excerpt

The advents of the daguerreotype and the stereograph, with their non-self-identical physical properties and the naturalizing discourses surrounding their emergence, gave Dickinson the terms with which to think about knowledge and representation in words. Her retention of variants in the poems enacts analogously non-self-identical representational strategies.

**********

Why did Emily Dickinson write the way she did? Not only did she eschew print for her poems, but as she collected them--with increasing intensity during the years of the Civil War--into manuscript miscellanies known as fascicles. Carefully copying and arranging sheets she bound with thread, she left her poems riddled with variants. This essay demonstrates that the advents of the daguerreotype and the stereograph, and the discourses surrounding their emergence, gave Dickinson both visual examples of non-selfsame representations and terms with which to think about vivifying her own representations in words. I will demonstrate that Dickinson was aware of the new technologies and their terms (through her reading Oliver Wendell Holmes's popularizations of the new media in the Atlantic Monthly), and that she conducted her own thought experiments with those terms in several remarkable poems in which the speaker looks at daguerreotypes, thinks about the camera's agency, or visually possesses a stereoscopic landscape. Ultimately, I wish to demonstrate, by attending to the discourses of death and afterlife the daguerreotype medium evoked around portraits and the mass destruction of the Civil War, that that medium's mirror-like, unstable images allowed Dickinson to figure an undecidable representation as lively. I wish also to show that Dickinson used the duality of the stereoscopic image to figure looking or reading to be a process, a fictive construction of reality. These early technologies put representation itself into play, and Dickinson's choice to retain variants in the poems enacts analogously non-self-identical representational strategies at the most crucial level--the refusal to settle on a word.

Textual variants, in which two or more words, phrases, or stanzas are left to stand as substitutes for each other, appear in the manuscript books as early as 1859; Ralph W. Franklin, in his preface to The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, suggests that by the twelfth fascicle, their multiplicity represents for Dickinson a primary compositional practice. Susan Howe contends that the variants depict a Dickinson ungoverned by--even rebelling against--the totalizing conventions of print. Sharon Cameron's Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles reads the variants as capable of generating ambiguity, paradox, and philosophically productive confusion. Marta Werner's Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson's Fragments and Related Texts discovers in the ever more fragmented texts of the 1870s (outside of the fascicles) the poet's late efforts to express an almost untranslatable contact with the real.

My work owes a great deal to all of these approaches because they insist that Dickinson's manuscript practices are in one way or another concerned with the problem of representation. But these approaches tend to reinforce the idea that Dickinson's eschewal of print and perhaps even of legibility was predicated upon the author's self-removal from society and history. It is possible, however, to read Dickinson as a thinker deeply engaged by her milieu, one of any number in her generation concerned with the problem of representation, perhaps catalyzed as such by the burgeoning of print and the advent of the photograph, if not by the emergence of questions about political representation, in the American mid-nineteenth century.

My approach--a reading of Dickinson's poems about the new technologies--takes its cue from Alan Trachtenberg's cultural criticism, which reads contemporary accounts of the "flitting," mirror-like images of the daguerreotype for signs of strain, cultural contradiction, and, ultimately, ideological conflict over representations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.