On Distorting the Greats: Punctuation and Capitalization


Emily Dickinson:
(from 1890–early publication–Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by friends Todd and Higginson)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

(from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the 1951 Harvard, Johnson ed. which reproduces the poet as she originally wrote)

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.
Uh, like, where’s the Chariot?
It only takes reading the titles and opening stanza side by-side to see the distortions, even with friends’ best intentions. The serious reading world is fortunate that Johnson resuscitated Dickinson’s unique, original voice, capitalization and punctuation use. Imagine being misrepresented for 61 years. Ironically, original published distorted versions continue to be published as much as the intended originals since the ’50s.


Walt Whitman
(common version from most modern editions of Leaves of Grass):

Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Here is what Whitman wrote and possibly finally preferred in the 1891 ‘Death-bed’ edition:

Very well, then, I contradict myself;
(I am large–I contain multitudes.)

But in the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote:

Very well then….I contradict myself;
I am large….I contain multitudes.


Today as I drive by all the misspelled advertising signs or watch the misspelled tv news captions, I think of other inaccuracies and distortions of other basic facts, information, and details, as evidenced in the above. And I recall all the people, some in my former area of English teaching who told me or said to others–Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar are not important or as important as ideas. Communication of author meaning and purpose can be changed by something as apparently ‘slight’ as those key elements.

Accuracy or correctness do matter. Details–particularly faithful detailing and attention to details do matter in reading and writing, as much as in publishing originals of authors’ works.


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