Below are some comments on my digital editing projects that I prepared for a Modernist Editing panel sponsored by the University of Glasgow and NYIT.
What inspired your project and what would you like to change in or add to it in the future?
I’ll start by mentioning two digital editing projects I’ve done in the early 20th-century literature space, Claude McKay’s Early Poetry and Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance, were both inspired by teaching investments – and my sense that there was a gap I could fill by creating a resource that would be useful for me and for my students. In addition to helping students access textual materials that had fallen out of print or were otherwise difficult to access, I wanted to offer them ways to navigate collections of poetry by Black authors around themes they could select and explore, whether it might be race and racism, war, Christianity, gender relations – and yes, even nature poetry. There are print editions of some of these works available, such as Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, but the short selections from many of the poets included leave readers wanting more.
My more recent project, a textual corpus of early African American literature, was designed not so much as an editing project but as a digital humanities project where the goal was to create a corpus that could be applied to quantitative analysis – distant reading of African American literature. In practice, I realized that curating and producing texts for the corpus required skills that overlapped with textual editing skills. But with more than one hundred full-length books in the corpus, the scale of the project is such that close editing of individual texts simply hasn’t been a possibility for me yet in terms of time. At present, I have simply aimed to produce the texts as minimalist plain text versions.
As I’ve been doing this work, I’ve gotten interested in the editors who worked with Black writers, specifically Black editors like William Stanley Braithwaite, Alain Locke, and Jessie Redmon Fauset. These editors helped to shape the course of Black literary expression in some important ways. Locke and Fauset, for example, were instrumental in the creation of the race-conscious aesthetic we now associate with the Harlem Renaissance. Braithwaite resisted race-consciousness – and modernism! – and often counseled writers he worked with to aspire to a more conservative, universal style. Braithwaite also worked with many white writers and could be considered a kind of bridge figure between white and Black poetry in the early 20th century.
What questions have twentieth-century literary and cultural texts presented, and how have editors addressed them?
One surprise with African American corpus project is the sheer heterogeneity of styles and genres the writers explored. In the early 20th century, there’s Black detective fiction, Black romance, Black travel, and adventure narratives, alongside serious literary fiction. Some of the writers appear to explore several genres at once – Pauline Hopkins and Oscar Micheaux are particularly quick to embrace different styles.
The question for editors that comes out of that heterogeneity is whether and how this body of work might be seen as holding together. To some extent, this is a question we could ask with quantitative analysis and predictive algorithms (along the lines of Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long's recent essay in Cultural Analytics), but we could also think of this as a problem for human editors. If we’re going to expand the early 20th century African American Canon to include popular fiction by writers like Oscar Micheaux alongside traditional literary fiction (James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer), what story are we telling about the development of Black writing as a field?
How does an editor’s work shape the reading of a text?
What do readers want to see in print and digital editions?
One of my discoveries working with digital editing with an emphasis on pedagogy is that scholarly textual editing might be less of a driving concern than accessibility and context in the digital space. If there’s a poem in the voice of a mother whose African American son has been sent to fight in World War I, or a poem expressing outrage over the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917, part of my job as an editor is to offer annotations that offer some context. In my digital projects, I’ve also aimed to help readers find other poems that might relate to the one they’re reading, so they don’t see the individual poem as an orphan.
With less well-known authors, the editor plays a key role in introducing the author to the reader and helping the reader navigate their work. The editor’s role can entail making a case for the value of that author in a way you don’t see if you’re editing an established author.
How can we engage non-academic audiences with our editorial work and its implications?
I’ve already been getting a fair amount of non-academic engagement from readers. I know that pages from my Claude McKay project have been used in K-12 high schools in various parts of the country, and periodically I get emails from readers who are simply McKay fans rather than McKay scholars. With that community constituency in mind, it’s helpful to continue thinking of ways to make sites more accessible and navigable, especially on mobile devices. Much of what we might do to make our projects accessible and useful for students would also apply to non-academic users.