Form, Theme, and the Challenge of Encoding Marginal Tangents

By Jonathan Cheng

Given that someone else will better handle the marginalia’s historical payload, I thought I would discuss some of my experiences involving the digital markup of Whitman’s marginalia. For myself, one of the most rewarding aspects of the project is negotiating how to prioritize the marginalia’s content in relation to that of the printed text.

In very broad terms, I encode Whitman’s annotations and the printed texts into XML (eXtensible Markup Language) documents so that we can use XSLT (eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformations) to interface the marginalia documents for online viewers. The encoding process largely entails transcribing text from photos of the original document and then wrapping the text in particular tags describing the content. As per the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) guidelines, these tags are often used to outline the formal structures of a text (eg. <p></p> denote that the text within the tags is a paragraph). However, in working with marginal content that is both connected to text’s form and simultaneously beyond it, it’s hard not to consider the incongruences between formal encoding and the marginalia documents. In particular, I find it interesting to consider the use of <div> tags with Whitman’s manuscripts and their relationship with his marginalia.

Principally, <div> tags are useful for delineating when Whitman’s own work shifts from one form to the next. After all, given the playful manner Whitman’s manuscripts transition from prose, to verse, to collage, such divisions make it possible to represent when his work shifts from one form to the next. Even while encoding his marginalia, these tags allow us to organize the variable composition of the larger texts that Whitman annotated. For example, when marking up Edward Roth’s translation of The Art of Reading, it makes sense to divide the book so that the content of each chapter is separated from paratextual elements (eg. publication information, table of contents, dedications etc.). That being said, if the goal is to produce tools that help online viewers navigate the marginalia, separating the text formally might prove to be problematic and I imagine there might be alternatives.

Whitman on Leigh Hunt

Photo courtesy Middlebury College Libraries. Whitman returned to update his first marginal annotation on Hunt’s well being at least two years later.

In order to make sense of when formal markers might be unrelated to Whitman’s annotations, we can take a look at his annotations of Leigh Hunt’s essay “What is Poetry.” I particularly enjoy this example, partly because Whitman’s notes are largely tangential to the text’s content, yet also because it captures a sense of when annotations are more thematically organized than formally so. As you can see on the first page of Hunt’s essay, the question of “What is poetry?” is somewhat secondary to Whitman’s concern of whether or not the author is currently alive. Surely Whitman was, to some extent, intellectually involved in the conceptual conversations regarding poetry, but it may be interesting, if not a bit comical, to note Whitman’s departure from Hunt’s content into thoughts about Hunt’s liveliness. I might be lingering on Whitman’s tangential annotation a bit much, but it does point to the relationship between the annotations, the text, and how we choose to represent their connection digitally. I usually find myself asking, “does it matter that these annotations occur around the essay’s foreword notes, or should we categorize / characterize these notes as biographically concerned?”

The question of digitally marking up a text from the perspective of theme versus form is not a new one, but I do find it a useful question to keep in mind when encoding the marginalia. If we consider the potential users interested in navigating Whitman’s annotations, it may be important to delineate whether the user is likely to search annotations in terms of theme or of form. More practically, we might still use <div> tags to organize the printed texts that Whitman annotates, but it might be worth discussing the creation of tags for recurring themes that are apparent in the annotations themselves. Of course, the problem one is likely to run into is that creating thematic tags (eg. <margin_authorBio>) involves constructing quite arbitrary themes. Alternatively, it might be useful to use <div> tags to broadly divide a text based on theme rather than form. Once again, this runs into the issue of having to construct more specific <div> tags (<div_ authorBio>) that are still arbitrary. With the obvious difficulties and potential users in mind, I suspect that there must exist a tagging framework that can delicately negotiate the two, and I’m interested to see how the field of digital markup tackles this question.

Jonathan Cheng is a doctoral student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 2014-15 he is an editorial assistant with the Walt Whitman Archive.

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