The Gettysburg Address as Fluid Text

Digital Thoreau’s “fluid text edition” of Henry D. Thoreau’s Walden is so named in reference to John Bryant’s 2002 book The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen. Every text is fluid, Bryant suggests, insofar as it represents not the definitive articulation of a fixed intention but rather one entry in the record of an author’s evolving and shifting intentions. The full record of those intentions would involve, at a minimum, all of the author’s drafts, and perhaps even information about authorial decisions in flux between the moment a pen is raised and the moment it touches paper.

Some texts are more obviously fluid than others because we have more information about their genesis. Such is the case with Walden. And some are fluid not only because of their pre-publication but also their post-publication history. An example of the latter is Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

The fluidity of this famous speech briefly became a matter of lively public discussion in 2013, its sesquicentennial year, when conservative media outlets expressed outrage over a recording of it made by President Obama. The reason for the outrage? Obama’s omission of the words “under God” from the final sentence.

As it turned out, Obama had given an historically faithful reading of one of the address’ five versions: the so-called “Nicolay copy,” sometimes referred to as the “first draft” of the address because it’s the earliest surviving manuscript copy and may have been the copy from which Lincoln read at the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863. At the request of Ken Burns, Obama recorded the Nicolay copy as part of Burns’ Learn the Address project, which encourages “everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the speech” — and which might remind us that the post-publication fluidity of some texts (most obviously, perhaps, speeches and plays) is partly a consequence of their having been intended for performance.

Google Cultural Institute has a nice timeline of the address’s interesting textual history. It draws largely from the House Divided Project, a digital humanities Civil War project at Dickinson College to which Dickinson undergraduates have contributed, and where you can read all five drafts.

The Gettysburg Foundation also provides transcriptions of the five versions, highlighting the differences between them in boldface.

In ENGL 340 tomorrow, we’ll take these five versions and encode the differences between them in XML, using the critical apparatus tagset of TEI. Then we’ll display them side by side using the Versioning Machine and — if time allows, and if all goes well — Juxta in order to see how visualization tools can help us understand the fluid nature of one of our nation’s most important texts.


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