A Private Literature

Seeing manuscripts after Susan Howe.

Robert Walser, Microscript 215, October–November 1928. Courtesy Robert Walser-Zentrum, © Keystone / Robert Walser-Stiftung Bern.

“Emerging from an Abyss, and re-entering it that is Life, is it not, Dear?”—a sentence written by Emily Dickinson, most likely in the year before her death, in a letter to her sister-in-law. The sentence also appears in Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, her ode to archives, rare-book rooms, and research libraries. It appears in a sort of wave: first it is transcribed within Howe’s text, then follows in facsimile; we read the line, then we see it as it was written by Dickinson in her late, confident, sprawling and looping penciled hand. Howe has plucked this from the abyss and put it before us. We do not simply read Howe’s book; we see something of what she has seen. It is as if Howe has sought to take the experience of working in a rare-book room or a research library and enfold that experience into the space of her slim book.


Libraries and museums collect the objects of the past so that they can be brought forward into our present, so that they can be called forth as witness to some future. Perhaps also so that the past can be made more legible. Howe begins Spontaneous Particulars with an image of a single page from William Carlos Williams’s book-length essay-poem Paterson (which remained unfinished at his death). We look upon and read this lone typescript page, heavily marked up with its deletions and emendations made in pencil. No transcription is given. It reads, in part, “To drown the roar, stopped at the library / for peace … for a clue to the resolution of the turmoil.” Further down the single stanza, it continues, “A meaning, a meaning? What do they know / and feel we do not know?” 


I read in an art magazine that the name for a large sheet of paper used for the printing of atlases or the making of oversize drawings is papier grand aigle. Thinking of this “large eagle paper,” I remember the exhibition I saw in January 2014 at the Drawing Center in New York of the late manuscripts of Robert Walser and Emily Dickinson, small works written in pencil on found and repurposed paper (Dickinson’s poem on a Chocolat Meunier Lombart wrapper; Walser’s story on the blank verso of the detached cover of a pulp novel). I want to call it pigeon paper. These lesser, more commonplace birds made an extraordinary and strange paper aviary. A few years after attending the exhibition, I’m still thinking about it. Maybe it’s this question that Howe asks, quoting Williams: “What do they know / and feel we do not know?” How does knowledge and feeling from the past activate itself again in our present?


A reliquary—a space for holding that which remains, a machine for carrying into the future a part of some entity that is no longer.

For Howe, when we encounter manuscripts, sometimes, for a moment, something opens up and can be seen. Some aspect of time lets loose, becomes unstable. A sort of transformation takes place when the relics of the past invade our present. This is the “telepathy” of her subtitle. Howe is interested in the metaphysics of encounter—the physicality of the thing before us in the library and that ineffable something else. “Words and objects come into their own and have their place again. This known world. This exact moment—a little afterwards—not quite—.” (Even here, in her use of dashes, we see an echo of Emily Dickinson’s hand, a sort of séance or conjuring at work of the poet she has been writing to for more than three decades.)


In one of her late sketches written on a Western Union Telegraph envelope, Dickinson writes to the porousness of the day, to this troubling of time:

It    is   the
Past’s     supreme
makes    the
Present   mean
makes     this   next
moment        mean

The task of the poet is to write within the mean present, to wrestle with history and literature, but also to persist through the quotidian, the daily—to write as if in italics, amid the more common words of her contemporary.


Italics were first used in the printing of Virgil’s works by the Italian scholar-printer Aldus Manutius at the dawn of the sixteenth century. The Virgil edition was the first in Manutius’s series of elegantly printed small editions of poetry and classical texts. The typographic innovation of italics allowed for more words to fit on the page while remaining both beautiful and legible even in a relatively small typeface. The typeface, designed by Francesco Griffo and soon thereafter praised by the humanist Erasmus as “the neatest type in the world,” was based on the elegant humanist cursive script of the day. The diminutive format—of type and book—though common for prayer books, was highly unusual for poetry and classical works, making these the first of what we now refer to as pocket editions.


In one of his novels, Walser’s protagonist adopts the motto “To be small and to stay small.” Walser, who receded from literary society in Berlin, who receded from the novel to shorter forms (stories, poems), finally writing his “microscripts” in a small room in a Swiss sanatorium. (The microscripts were first deciphered in 1972 and only recently translated into English; on one, an entire short story and a poem occupy the space of a postcard, with ample room to spare.)

Walser’s miniscule handwriting appeared at first to me as a further reduction of the miniscule hand of his admirer Walter Benjamin, whose writing I knew from reproductions of his meticulously kept notebooks. Benjamin, with his elaborate system of notebooks, his great care taken in selecting stationery and writing instruments, and who—despite writing voluminously throughout his lifetime—only published one full book (excluding his dissertation), a collection of fragments and aphorisms.

In a letter to a friend, Walser wrote that he developed his “pencil method” to get over his writer’s block. I wonder how this seemingly inscrutable handwriting helped protect him from writer’s block. Did it free him from doubt somehow? The manuscripts appear confident and without corrections. Was this because he knew they could not (or not without great difficulty) be read by another? That in this mode, his writing became a private writing?


Dickinson’s late manuscripts are written in a flowing, confident hand, but they are also full of doubt. This is most evident in her regular practice of placing alternate word selections above the line or, occasionally, in the margins. Dickinson is always looking for the better word. Her alternates hang above the line, awaiting their place. One particular long stack is composed of such variety and, also, contradiction:


It appears above the lines:

But vainer to adore
’tis Glory’s overtakelessness

“Overtakelessness”: this word Dickinson deploys in the last years of her life. A word the poet and classicist Anne Carson defines in her book Nox as “that which cannot be got around.” This word like a wave curling back in on itself.


At the Drawing Center, I look in a vitrine at one small sheet of Walser’s microscripts. The sharp geometries of markings, so small and delicate, clearly ordered but utterly illegible. I can’t read the German. I can’t even make out any of the letterforms. So what is it that I see? In this writing, I see something of a face and of a hand. Isn’t all handwriting, all manuscripts, this: something of the face and of the hand? We talk about facing pages, or say a bit of writing is in her hand. Also the simple recognition that this work is the work of another (we imagine a face), and seeing writing makes us think of the act that produced it.

I think of the practice of medieval and Renaissance readers of drawing pointing hands into the margins of their books, a practice akin to highlighting or underlining but also more than this—a way of gesturing with a surrogate of the body outside of time, of saying, See what I have seen (while we touch what they have touched). In the definitive essay on these pointing hands, called manicules, the scholar William Sherman writes, “The margins of Renaissance texts are littered with severed hands, frozen in gestures that cannot fail but to catch the eye … They have an uncanny power to conjure up the bodies of dead writers and readers.”

Looking upon the hatchings and cross-hatchings, microdots and dashes of Walser’s writing, I feel I see something of him, I feel perhaps I know something of him. Now, after having read much of his writing, I think something of this feeling was right. Whatever it was, exactly, I cannot say. I would prefer to just gesture to the writing, to the manuscripts.


Susan Howe describes the experience of facing a manuscript, of both looking at and touching it, as having it placed in her “looking-glass hands.”

I think of the cover of my paperback copy of Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. The famous daguerreotype of Dickinson which seems so strangely cropped in this New Directions paperback edition. Gone is the intense and confident yet at-ease stare. Remaining is a framed detail of the hands. Beside them, on a table, a closed book. In them, a small bouquet of flowers, out of focus or blurred by movement. The cover suggests what the contents of the book articulate so forcefully: these are reader’s hands.


Since the exhibition of Dickinson’s and Walser’s manuscripts, I have been seeking out their work everywhere and seeking insights from others into it. While reading Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Emily Dickinson” (an essay begun without knowledge of Susan Howe’s book of the same title), I was taken in by Ruefle’s observations, her literary collecting and braiding. She links Emily Dickinson to Anne Frank and, like Howe, to the Brontë sisters. Facts relating to these figures, brief reflections or observations on their work, fragments of their writing all brush up against one another. But the sections end enigmatically with lists, such as “a thimble, an acorn, a quarter, and many, many daffodils.” Or “an envelope, addressed but otherwise empty, a piece of gum, in silver paper, a packet of nasturtium seeds, and a button.”

As I read the essay, these lists initially perplexed me. While reading, I could easily set them aside and move on, taking greedily what I wanted from the essay to use for my own purposes. By the end, there was much in the essay but little about Emily Dickinson. Ruefle admits to this, confessing, “Emily Dickinson is nobody’s business but my own. I will not share her with anyone. I would no more tell you about my relationship with her poems than I would tell you about a love affair. If she is yours, I hope you feel the same way.” But then, quite remarkably, in what amounts to a literary magic trick, she adds, “But she has a common grave, and I like to go there and leave things, and when I do, I see that other people have done the same.” These lists: observed offerings, things left behind.

The last item of the last list: “a doorknob.”


When looking at a poem or attempting to read it, it seems to me that there are two responses a reader can have: the reader can look at the words and the way they come together in curious wonder, or the reader can look at them in critical judgment. When we read, we tend to do a little of both. Which is to say that I do a little of both. But it occurs to me that there is a tendency when reading our canonized greats to lean more toward curious wonder, and when reading contemporary literature (our tested or untested peers) to lean more toward critical judgment. The former seems generous and childlike, and the latter, humorless and bureaucratic.

I think it was this literary bureaucracy and its many institutions (the machinations of publishing) that left Robert Walser and Emily Dickinson each to their isolation and obscurity in their lifetimes. And it is something of bibliographic bureaucracy (the preserving and organizing functioning of archives and libraries) that has carried them into the future, to allow for the correction of the misleading deeds of editors, for the mysterious scripts to be decoded.

Looking at manuscripts allows us to imagine, for a moment, the impossible utopia of a literature without the bureaucratic middleman of publishing. Should this be called a private literature?


Reading Dickinson and Walser, reading what others have written about their work, I feel I know something, that I have learned or intuited something of the knowledge and feeling from which the work originates and also something of what it carries forth. But I also know that I do not know, that I cannot know. Looking at the manuscripts, however, provides different insight into the body of work of these writers. There is a level of communion, a meeting across time, that takes place when something that was once at hand, that is from the hand of the writer, is placed before us, even when placed on the other side of a glass vitrine.


William Gass’s telling of the much-repeated tale of Walser’s death is my favorite version of the story. Gass describes Walser’s final walk out of the sanatorium into the wintry Christmas day that would be his last, his body collapsing and coming to rest in the snow. Walking: so inextricably connected to Walser in life, in writing, and in death. Gass vividly creates the tableau: the expanse of white like a page, Walser’s fallen body like a word resting upon it.

Emily Dickinson’s only known drawing is of a grave.

Or it is the only drawing I could find? I saw it there at the Drawing Center. Afterward, I searched for other examples of drawings by Dickinson and came up with nothing more. Maybe there is more. Certainly there is more if we look at her manuscripts as drawings.

Though I think of Dickinson as a distinctly nineteenth-century figure and Walser as a distinctly twentieth-century one, they shared eight years.

A reliquary is not a grave. Not exactly.


In Spontaneous Particulars, Howe concludes, “The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries is intuitive. It’s a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.” The book documents the role these spaces and their cargo have played in her work. She illuminates the poetic potential, not simply the scholarly potential, they house. And we see the library anew, as a space where the voices of the dead are brought into the quiet of our present. That our present can still be made quiet, in some places, is also one of the tiny miracles the library performs.

I think of Emily Dickinson in the solitude of her room. I can remember looking at a Dickinson poem on a house-shaped envelope fragment and imagining the sound of her pencil across its surface. A something from the abyss. In the thing before me, I imagine the continuing echo of that faint scratching.

John Vincler has been a rare-book librarian for more than a decade. He is at work on a book-length project on the poetics and aesthetics of cloth as subject and medium in art.

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