Robert Frost is hardly the first to give editors trouble

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Robert Frost has been having a hard winter. First the remote Vermont farmhouse where he summered from 1939 to 1963 was vandalized by partying teenagers. Windows were smashed, dishes broken, a chair split up for firewood, precious artwork and antiques splattered with beer and bodily fluids. Then last month, charges were raised against a scholarly edition of Frost's private notebooks. The work, first published in early 2007, had been heralded as offering a rare glimpse into the reclusive poet's creative process. But now the notebook transcriptions appear to be riddled with errors that made Frost look like "a dyslexic and deranged speller," who often "made no sense," according to poet William Logan, a professor at the University of Florida who compared sections of the published version with manuscript originals from the archives at Dartmouth College.
Where was the greatest damage done? In the minds of documentary editors—the people who prepare historical and literary documents for the press, not documentary film editors—probably on the page, not in the summer cottage. Current editorial standards require print versions of authors' journals to reproduce as faithfully as possible every stroke of the pen, every cross-out or insertion, even sometimes the look of the handwritten page, with ragged margins and random gaps. For dead writers, diary pages are the best evidence scholars have of the ways their minds worked—their first thoughts on a poem or story, their innermost ambitions and fears as human beings. No one wants to get that wrong.

The five years that Claremont-McKenna literature professor Robert Faggen spent transcribing, editing, and proofreading Frost's 48 notebooks for publication by Harvard University Press may seem like a long time. But it pales in comparison with the number of years many scholars—and teams of scholars—have devoted to making sense of the hard-to-decipher handwriting of authors from Thoreau to Henry James to the less-well-known but no less prolific 19th-century American diarist Caroline Healey Dall. The mistakes that have come to light in The Notebooks of Robert Frost speak to the challenges that all such toilers after the truth encounter in learning to read and represent in print a difficult or archaic "hand." And Frost's, cramped and crabbed like the man himself, is certainly one of them....

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