I was just reading a report from NBCnews.com on how the New York Times was caught in a couple errors it made one hundred sixty-one years ago. According to the article,
More than 160 years after misspelling a now famous subject’s name, a reader’s tweet has led The New York Times [sic] to set the record straight. Anarticle first published on Jan. 20, 1853, about Solomon Northup — the free black man whose memoir isimmortalized in the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” — incorrectly referred to him as “Northrop.” The headline also identified him as “Northrup.” Author Rebecca Skloot tweeted a link to the story Monday, which caught attention online. Acorrection was then publishedin Tuesday’s Times.
While none of us is immune from error, even our small corruptions can come back to haunt us — even when we are no longer around to correct our mistakes. We might draw from this tale the lesson that a competent editor and a sharp-eyed proofreader are both invaluable, but perhaps doing so would seem crass and self-serving, so we shall let that observation pass.
(Despite the misspellings, the original article is still worth reading. And for the other editors out there, note that the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel is encased in quotation marks rather than rendered in italics. How drastically editing practice has changed!)
Emily Dickinson had a complex relationship — much of it posthumous — with her editors. Let us acknowledge so much and move on.
But let us also acknowledge that Dickinson understood the importance of editing (several of her poems exist in more than one version: see “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”), of carrying within our selves an editor whose work begins even before the ink hits the page. Dickinson reminds us of the power of language — and of the dangers of a word dropped careless on a page. The overall message of the poem above is clear:[ii]we must write with care and intent, always aware that what we commit to the page may outlast us and affect — or infect — those who read our words long after (as John Donne would have it) our scattered leaves are bound-up in “that library where every book shall lie open to one another” (Meditation XVII). Dickinson’s poem is more about self-editing than it is about hiring a proofreader, but since most of us read in our own words what we mean to convey, it often takes an unfamiliar reader to notice the nuances and connotations, the physic and the affliction in our writing.
[ii] Truth to say, though, the bit of the poem that I find the most interesting comprises the relatively obscure contortions of lines three and four. The picture of the dropped word lying on a page in a bound book or fascicle comes through well enough, but why is the word in the seam? Books are usually fashioned to avoid just that. But “seam” also means an indentation or scar and so refers back to the sense of careless marring we get in the opening line while looking forward to the “Wrinkled” in line four. The word may lie not in the seam of the volume, but in the folding mentioned three words earlier — another possible carelessness, like dog-earing a page. And who is “The Wrinkled Maker”? The author of the poem? The printer/publisher? If we remember the New Testament verse that asserts that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, how much more does that increase our responsibility to avoid careless words? Or is God the careless Wrinkled Maker who dropped the word into perpetuity? Why is the seam perpetual? Does it run on forever or will it always exist? And “lie” isn’t a word we should treat like a sleeping dog. What or who is lying? The word lies passively on the page, but particularly because we know the speaker is concerned for the deleterious effects this word might have, the word may be untrue, false, misleading. The Wrinkled Maker may be a liar, or “Wrinkled Maker” may modify “lie,” in which case the lines hint at the uncertain nature of the Maker.