How to decipher authors' handwriting.

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Feb. 8 2008 7:43 AM

The Impossible Art of Deciphering Manuscripts

Robert Frost is hardly the first to give editors trouble.

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Most editors of scholarly editions have stories to tell about the one word that stumped them. For decades, the founding editor of the Thoreau Edition, Walter Harding, believed Thoreau had written the word Ecology in a letter of the 1850s, trumping the first known use of the term by eight years. The OED had even changed its entry to include Thoreau's usage on Harding's say-so. But when a botanist pressed him on the claim, Harding searched further and realized that what he'd taken for a capital E was really a G. Geology was the word Thoreau had written.

Peabody. Click image to expand.
A letter from Elizabeth Peabody

The 19th-century practice of cross-writing has left many scholars scratching their heads. Trying to fit as many words as possible onto a single sheet of paper, letter-writers filled a page, then turned it 90 degrees and wrote perpendicularly back across their own handwriting. Even with the most regular hand, confusion is inevitable. Elizabeth Peabody, the Transcendentalist philosopher and matchmaker for her two younger sisters, who married Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote about her realization that she was not in love with Horace Mann in a cross-written letter to her sister Mary—who was. Elizabeth explained her feelings for the 36-year-old, recently widowed politician, whose hair was said to have turned white in a matter of weeks as he mourned his young first wife: "his situation, his grey hair—his sorrow have ever precluded from my imagination" the possibility that she would fall in love. For Elizabeth Peabody, it was sour grapes—she'd been rebuffed. But for scholars, the question was, did Peabody write "grey hair," "grief, loss," or "grave air"?

James. Click image to expand.
A letter from Henry James
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Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias, editors of the new edition of Henry James' complete correspondence, puzzled over a word in a cross-written letter James sent to his intimate friend Grace Norton. Was James signing himself "unutterably yours" or "unalterably yours"? The problem was exacerbated by the editors' awareness that James' lowercase u's and a's often looked identical. And the master was sloppy in crossing his t's, turning back to the task only after coming to the end of a line. Ultimately, Walker and Zacharias settled on unutterably, after making a systematic search of all James' letters to Norton and finding a handful of unutterably s sprinkled through, but no unalterably s.

While the difference between unutterably and unalterably may not seem momentous, Walker and Zacharias' edition is an attempt to rectify Faggen-like errors in earlier volumes assembled by Leon Edel, James' biographer—who had the writer crossing the nonexistent "Italvia Pass" between Switzerland and Italy, rather than the Stelvio Pass, in March of 1869. And, to the documentary editor, no quirk of spelling, punctuation, or capitalization is insignificant. "These things aren't minor," says Helen Deese, who spent 20 years editing the diaries of 19th-century women's rights activist Caroline Healey Dall for the MHS' edition, expected to run to four volumes. "They are your stock in trade; you're there to get them right."

Robert Frost observed, in an early notebook transcribed in Faggen's edition, that men are ruled by four fears: "of jail, of the poor house of the insane asylum and of Hell." He might also have added a fifth—the fear of being censured by colleagues for easily avoidable errors in a scholarly edition. Certainly this fear focuses the mind of every scholar devoted to accuracy. Yet would Frost himself really have cared about the mistakes? In his poem "A Passing Glimpse," Frost writes of the ephemeral nature of perception, of beauty itself—themes that are ever-present in his fragmentary, Orphic notebook entries as reproduced by Faggen. A sideways glance yields more than a trained, fixed gaze. The crusty New England bard may be having the last laugh:

Was something brushed across my mind
That no one on earth will ever find?

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in a position to look too close.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2008: This article originally stated that partying teenagers vandalized Frost's Vermont cabin. In fact, they vandalized his farmhouse. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)