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.


Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age, Spring 2014 Edition

“Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age” is in its third incarnation at SUNY Geneseo as ENGL 340 – a brand new course with its own place in the line-up of offerings under Geneseo’s new English major. The course began as HONR 206, Digital Humanities in Spring 2011, and was offered twice as ENGL 390, first as Studies in Literature: Literature in the Digital Age and then as Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age.

The latest iteration of the course has its home in this space, a group blog for all students and faculty at Geneseo interested in digital humanities. The blog is part of a larger community organized as English @ SUNY Geneseo, a community powered by the open-source blogging platform WordPress and the open-source plugin Commons In A Box.

If you’re a student in the course, this is where you’ll be blogging this semester, following guidelines you’ll find on the page How to Blog Here. If you’re not a student in the course but you’ve joined the group, please join the conversation and follow the same guidelines.

This year the course coincides with the rollout of two projects at Digital Thoreau, a collaboration among SUNY Geneseo, the Thoreau Society, and The Thoreau Institute at the Walden Woods Project. The two projects are Walden: A Fluid Text Edition and The Readers’ Thoreau. Students in previous iterations of the course have contributed to both projects, and this year’s group will use the projects as resources and carry them further, while also continuing work at Digital Thoreau’s third project, The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.

I’m posting here from San Marino, California, where I’ve just spent the past two days in the Huntington Library with two Thoreau scholars who’ve been instrumental to Digital Thoreau and to the development of this course: Ron Clapper and Beth Witherell. We’ve been looking together at the HM 924, the manuscript of Walden. More on that to come.