When we read a novel or look at a painting, the chances are that we look at its surface value. We appreciate a story for the entertainment it provided us with or we might admire the beauty of the image. But when we study it, we have to go further than this. We have to think of its historical and social context and the intent of the creator. We tend to assume that the final work was the desired product from its conception but this is rarely the case. Most creative works undergo a process of evolution. But if we can understand every step of that evolutionary process, then we can attain the fullest understanding of the work. This is why we are so interested in notebooks, sketches and drafts by the artist or writer and this has led to the study of the palimpsest.

The upper text is from the 13th century and the lower text is from the 6th century.

Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 90 verso, Lc 1,6-13

The cost and rarity of parchment meant that rather than destroy any pieces, the writing was removed by scratching it off the surfaces or through chemical removal. What resulted were layers of writing or sketches building up over time producing a palimpsest. They can tell us a lot about the process of writing and creating which becoming more and more an integral area of literary study. This is a tradition carried from the manuscript tradition and into the print culture. But there is a real anxiety about how this can be preserved when the print culture is falling into decay.

But John. A Walsh sees parallels between the production of illuminated manuscripts and the digitization of classics texts which he describes as “laboriously and intricately encoded, wrapped in a metatext that in its native form is often either invisible or opaque to all but the digital specialist” (Walsh, 2008).  Like a manuscript, book or painting, we see only the finished work, while the work that lies behind it usually remains invisible.  But Walsh sees the true equivalent to the digital age in the 19th century. This was a period which like our own period, saw a huge technological advance in the industrial revolution. This led to the invention of the printing press which in turn led mass production of books culminating in the rise of the novel. This huge increase in available texts is comparable to the flood of classic texts and digital texts available through the internet. More books are available to the reader than ever before through. Digital scholars are particularly excited to expand the study of 19th century writers.

But where does this leave the palimpsest? The act of writing is rapidly being replaced by the word-processor, a practice that leaves no evidence behind. The mistakes of the author can be wiped away from existence with a few taps on a keyboard, eliminating the successive drafts until the finished product is created. One website that is concerned with the workings of the author is the Walt Whitman archive. The website offers standard features such as the published texts of Whitman which includes his books and periodicals. But it also includes manuscripts, notebooks, several editions of poems and his original notes.

Poetry manuscript of "Starry Union"

Poetry manuscript of “Starry Union”

The archive preserves numerous manuscripts like “Starry Union” along with word-processed versions of the same texts with colour-coding to explain if something was overwritten, added inline, supplied from a different source or a very long deletion. This interaction with the original text will allow scholars from around the world to engage with these original sources as though they held the entire collection themselves. Another insightful feature of the archive is that it lists every repository for the different manuscripts.

While the digital age is finding new ways to preserve the scribal culture, it faces a real difficulty in preserving the works of multi-media artists like William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rosetti. On the surface, the website should be perfect for displaying the imagery and texts of an artist whose work crosses mediums. But it depends on how creatively the website can convey this, it can’t be enough to display an image and the accompanying text separately. The mediums will need to work together across the webpage to best convey the work. The William Blake Archive strives to offer the most information on Blake’s work without clouding the visual style of his work. The archive presents the users with a wide selection of Blake’s works including his illuminated books, prints, sketches, manuscripts and letters. We can see the challenge presented by a work such as Laocoon.


Laocoon, copy B, object 1 (Bentley 1, Erdman 1, Keynes 1) “Laocoon”

A work which draws on different media will always present a challenge to a digital archivist, but the archive offers editors notes, detailed descriptions of the illustrations, textual transcription as well as copy information regarding the different copies and editions of the various pieces. Various copies of works such as “Infant Joy” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, can be compared side by side.

The search engines of the archive are ingenious, allowing the user to perform a phrase search, exact or Boolean and it allows the user to search for motifs throughout the imagery. When we look at the work of a multi-media artist, we must always be aware of how text and imagery interact and here, the website editors have avoided the temptation to divide the mediums into rigid categories.

This leaves the modern reader or academic in a curious position. We are still interested in the early drafts and discarded notes of writers and we are interested in every facet of the writers work as it borrows from different mediums. This is why we create archives such as the two I have discussed. We can find inventive ways to preserve older works, presenting digital editions of manuscripts but the modern writer can, if he chooses,  leave no trail of his own work, deleting the rough drafts until the final product is all that remains. As modern scholars we should be aware that the digital medium through which we are hoping to preserve articles of the past is also the means through which we can destroy the modern palimpsest.

Works Cited.

Blake, W.  Laocoon. 1826-1827. Engraving with hand colouring. Collection of Robert N. Essick,  California. The William Blake Archive. Web. April 8, 2013.
Dodds, L.V. “Deciphering Palimpsests with Quartz Light” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 53, No. 306 (Sep. 1928), pp. 138-139

Ed. Eaves, M. Essick, R &Viscomi, J. The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress, 1996. Web. April 8, 2013.

Ed. Folsom, E & Price, K.M. The Walt Whitman Archive. Centre for Digital Research  in the Humanities. Web.  April 8, 2013.

Walsh, J.A. ” Multimedia and multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for 19th century literary studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.


Whitman, W. Starry Union, 1876. MS. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York