I'm at the end of the semester, finishing up teaching a senior seminar/capstone course on Emily Dickinson. The last thing we did was to look at some of her manuscripts that have been digitized and been made available by the Boston Public Library. The students enjoyed seeing the manuscripts and trying to understand all the words, as Dickinson's handwriting can be challenging. We had talked about the first editions of her poetry, which appeared in the 1890s, and compared the substantive changes made therein to the 1998 edition by Ralph Franklin, which is now considered the seminal edition.
The students noticed right away how the 1890s poems were quite different from Franklin's edition, noting the arbitrary removal of dashes in the early poems and what scholars have accepted as faithful renderings in 1998. When we pulled up the manuscripts, though, the students noticed that just as Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Higginson had made some quite stark, and often wrong, decisions in the 1890s, even Franklin had made some decisions a century later that the students found disconserting, such as choosing to include a dash in one place and then placing a comma later in print where a dash seems to be in the manuscript. This led us to have some interesting discussion about authorial intention and editorial decisions. We talked about the editor's righs vs author intention, what does an editor do when the author is dead, and how can an editor affect readers' interpretations. Had these manuscripts not been available, our conversation might have been very different. Really, I'm sure it would have been.
My students had been given research assignments that are due in the next couple of weeks. As we examined the manuscripts and "played" with them, they were almost unanimous in declaring that their project should have been a group transcription. I wish I'd thought of that!