If Emily had used a word processor
Here I crouch over my home computer, haunted by Charles Dickens's inkstand. It was on display in a New York literary exhibition not long ago. So were the old Underwood typewriter used by E. E. Cummings and the Hermes portable used by a poet of a later generation, Sylvia Plath.Skip to next paragraph
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What about the writers of the computer generation? Will their Apples, IBMs, or whatever be preserved for posterity?
My first guess is no. But then I'm not so sure.
Would anyone in the handwriting generations of the past have supposed that an author's typewriter would be put on exhibition? Too impersonal. No individuality. Just a mass-produced machine for printing. Typing says nothing compared with the copperplate penmanship of Author A or the wretched, crabbed hand of Author B.
What if Emily Dickinson had used a typewriter? For one thing, there could not have been all our latter-day dating of her manuscripts by how she wrote the letter d at different periods.
Yet there has come to be something human about typewriters. At least I am rather taken with the notion that Cummings, whose strange patterns of verse fairly fizz on the page, sat down to a foursquare upright like the one I was given by an old Marine Corps buddy from Maine. And that Plath called forth her dark muse on an almost playful little Hermes like the one I carried in my luggage for years.
So far I have not happened to hear of a famous writer using a Kaypro II portable computer like the creature with the large green eye that is clicking and whirring before me now. But I am beginning to imagine that the crowds at a literary exhibition of the future might possibly be shown one author's rather formidable office Decmate and another's lightweight carry-on. They would sagely speculate on why the former chose a machine designed so that the typing is always done on the lowest line of the video screen. Or why the latter, like Sylvia Plath, chose a smaller machine, with all its pluses and minuses.
Something would be missing from the exhibition anyway. There would be no accompanying manuscripts with erasures, interlinings, and marginal notes to show the author at his craft.
No swooping lines and arrows across the page tethered to James Joyce's handwritten second thoughts.
None of Samuel Johnson's more ornate hand as he wrote and scratched out lines for the preface to his celebrated Dictionary or improved the style of other authors' prose to illustrate proper usage.
And suppose another Eugene O'Neill wrote another marathon Mourning Becomes Electra. Even if his wife had to type out six whole different versions, as Carlotta O'Neill complained that she did, there would not necessarily be any manuscript to tell the tale. Those versions could all be invisibly stored on computer disks. Or one version could have been repeatedly modified without changing the whole thing each time, and only the final version might exist on disks.
A bit of explanation in case you do not yet have your own personal computer. Picture yourself typing at a keyboard but watching what you type appear on a video screen instead of on a piece of paper. You have placed a small disk containing word-processing software into one slot of your computer. You have placed a blank disk into the other slot. Through the keyboard you give commands to the software, and it enables the words you write to appear on your screen and be recorded on your other disk. You erase, change, or rearrange your ''manuscript'' instantly on the screen, commanding that your final version be ''saved.''
Now what kind of museum display would a disk make? ''On this disk are the last three revisions of Moby Dick.'' Would anyone believe it? Would there have to be a computer continually at work so that visitors could see the disk's contents on the screen?
What if Emily Dickinson had had a word processor, leaving all her unpublished poems in it or sending an occasional printout to a friend?
Would there have been any equivalent of those penciled underlinings that have been seized as clues to her choice among variations of the same poem? What would take the place of that torn flap of an envelope on which she wrote, ''Was never Frigate like'' - a trial beginning for what became the famed ''There is no Frigate like a Book''? Would her computer ever tell us how in ''I'm Nobody! Who are You?'' she toyed with the familiar phrase ''the livelong day'' as well as the striking ''livelong June''? How would we identify her three typical stages of composition: worksheet draft, semifinal draft, fair copy?
Maybe exhibition-goers will be interested in other things anyway, by the time computers become literary memorabilia. Perhaps they will concoct theories on why an author plunged into a computer known for stern discipline instead of ''user-friendliness.'' Whether an author tried the more difficult word-processing programs, with many rote commands to remember, or stayed with the ones designed with easy mnemonic aids. Whether an author caught on quickly and sped ahead, a counterpart to the touch typists of yesteryear, or piled up the ''error messages'' caused by ignorant keyboard commands.
All that a computer requires is perfection of input to get perfection of output. For word-processing authors there could be new meaning in the alleged view of writing at The New Yorker: that it is an extremely difficult task and perhaps, for the very best writers, impossible.