In addition to her prolific poetic career, Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of letters throughout the course of her life. The majority of her correspondences are standard, informing friends and family of the trivialities of her day-to-day life. The exceptions to this pattern are three letters known as the Master Letters, written to an unknown correspondent referred to only as “Master” (Dickinson 140). It is widely accepted that the letters were intended for Emily’s lover because of their passionate, effusive, and heartbroken language, although this conclusion has never been proven. My procedural generation rewrites Dickinson’s Master Letters in a digital environment, challenging scholarly definitions of authorship and literary convention.
Roland Barthes, in his 1968 essay “The Death of the Author,” disputes the traditional practice of attempting to derive the meaning of a text based on both the author’s intention and his history, “his person, his life, his tastes, his passions” (143). Instead, Barthes claims that once the words are physically written, they become independent of the author (142). Each word has a distinct set of meanings and connotations to each reader, a “tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture” that the author cannot anticipate (146). Further, the author does not actually create something new, but because he relies on a lexicon of pre-defined, pre-created words, he is simply “[imitating] a gesture that is always anterior, never original” (146). The words and sentences are brought into existence when they are processed and interpreted by the reader, whose previous experiences conjure feelings, musings, and images that give the text meaning (148).
According to Barthes’s essay, I, as the reader of the original Master Letters, define their meaning, not Dickinson. The “Master Letter” Generator visually demonstrates the process that Barthes describes. First, I read through the three Master Letters and chose the sections that I would like to combine to create the project’s skeleton, the parts of the sentence that do not change between generations. Peter Rabinowitz’s essay “Narrative Conventions” outlines the rules, or procedures, by which a reader gives a text meaning. They include rules for how to “draw significance from the elements that are brought to our attention,” rules for making patterns emerge, and rules for making a text cohere (Rabinowitz 44-45). In making the aforementioned choice for the skeleton, I demonstrated my ability as a reader to determine which sections of a text are important and vital to remember, a process that Rabinowitz calls the rule of notice (43).
Next, I chose the words from the text that would be replaced randomly upon each generation. The original word conjured a string of words in my mind that were related to the original word, based on things like what I have read in the past, where I have traveled, or any number of experiences I have had. For example, I replaced the original “Daisy” from the line, “Oh, did I offend it – . . . Daisy – Daisy offend it” with a list of thirteen alternatives (Dickinson 167). I did not consciously realize it, but all of the alternatives I chose were related to nature (pansy, violet, cat, horse, river, lake, stream, etc.). Barthes would say that this is because the word “Daisy” conjured thoughts of nature in me, and Rabinowitz would call this the rule of signification. This follows for every list of alternatives that I produced. Each list demonstrates the complex, individual web of connections that is evoked in each reader, the web that gives the text meaning.
Although I enjoy the way that my project visually demonstrates Roland Barthes’s theory in action, it further complicates assigning authorship; in creating a project that demonstrates the death of the author, I have created a new text. In demonstrating my own authorship, my ability as a reader to decide a text’s meaning, I have simultaneously forfeited my right to assign meaning. The one who gets to decide the meaning of my procedural generation is its future reader. If my ability to determine the future reader’s interpretation of the text were not impossible enough already, the 9^59 possible combinations for an original letter make predicting the meaning for not only one, but all of those combinations, unfathomable. Therefore, my project reveals how, at least in some circumstances, authorship is a cycle. A reader interprets meaning from a text, gaining authorship, and then, if he or she writes it down, forfeits that authorship to a new reader. Barthes does not acknowledge the existence of this cycle, but I find it valuable to the comprehension of my project.
The physical form of my generator, as mentioned in respect to its ability to visually demonstrate Barthes’s and Rabinowitz’s theories, is vital to its significance. This particular digital environment is spatial because it “represents navigable space” (79). That is, the background of the page represents the paper on which Emily Dickinson would have written her letters. However, the generator is also encyclopedic in its “range of possibilities offered us as interactors in the seemingly limitless worlds of digital narrative” (90). The user would have to refresh the page 9^59 times in order to get even one repeated letter. The ability to create a number of combinations for this letter that seems never-ending to the human user is a characteristic found only in digital environments. I chose the spatial background of yellowed paper in order to evoke the original letter’s author, Emily Dickinson. The encyclopedic regeneration of new letter after letter continuously reminds the user that what they are seeing is a century and an environment removed from the original text. These two characteristics in combination urge the reader to question, like Barthes, who really writes the “Master Letter” Generator.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text, selected and translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, 1968, p. 142-148.
Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 140, 141, 159, 167, 168.
Murray, Janet H. “Chapter 3.” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The MIT Press, 1997, p. 65-94.
Rabinowitz, Peter. “Part 1: Narrative Conventions.” Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Ohio State University Press, 1987, p. 15-46.