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Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2012, Volume 33

The Firstling/Erstling/He Complex

by Tanya Clementby Gaby Divay

The Firstling/Erstling/He Complex:

An Introduction

Description of the Edition

"The Firstling/Erstling/He Complex" edition is our collaborative attempt to represent a complex text written by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927). The edition comprises a cluster of works that the Baroness wrote over a twenty-year period that includes thirty-three versions with multiple titles in two languages. The "Firstling/Erstling/He" "complex" includes all of the works—no matter how many versions they each include—as part of this larger "complex" or "text" (in the Barthesian sense). According to Barthes, the "text" is not one object; it is a "methodolgical field" that is "held only in language" and exists in the "movement of discourse" and in the "process of demonstration." [1] The "work," on the other hand is an actual, physical object that one might find in a library or an archive that can include multiple versions. [2] As a result of the many possibilities presented by the archive, we consider the versions included here as an open-ended complex "text" in this sense, one that is subject to dynamic expansion and the potential discovery of further related works in the Freytag-Loringhoven papers.

The manuscripts upon which these digital surrogates are based reside in the Papers of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in Special Collections at the University of Maryland (UM), College Park, Libraries. The manuscripts belong to Series III, "Manuscripts, Drafts, Notes, and Drawings, 1919-1927." Most are found in Box 2, Folder 3, titled "Firstling (Erstling, He)." Versions 13 and 14.1-4 are in Box 3, Folder 23, titled "Pfingsten," while version 10 was discovered in Box 2, Folder 67, titled "Liebe." Written over the course of twenty years, approximately one third of the poems are in German, tend to be composed in a conventional form, and were most likely written in the late 1890s before the Baroness moved from Germany to the United States. Two thirds are in English and are dated between 1923-1924 when the Baroness had returned to Germany after living in the U.S. for many years.

Our "Firstling/Erstling/He" edition includes an edited, electronic representation of the thirty-three versions we have identified as part of this complex. The underlying TEI P5 XML and the Versioning Machine interface allow for comparisons across the complex. The transcriptions are accompanied by color images that further facilitate this process. There is a help section, which describes how one might move around within the interface. In this introduction and the comments that accompany the edition, we discuss why we chose to edit this particular cluster and why the formal process of versioning helps reveal the shifting content of the Baroness's constantly revised and transformed works.

Choosing the "Firstling/Erstling/He" Complex

The Baroness's papers were found as part of Djuna Barnes's literary papers upon their acquisition by the University of Maryland Libraries in 1973. Djuna Barnes, who once wrote to a scholar interested in the Baroness's poetry that her manuscripts "are al [sic] sixes and sevens" was referring to the fact that the works within the Baroness's papers are composed out of numerous variants that are at times difficult for a reader to relate to each other. We chose to represent this particular complex of variants in an electronic environment because it allows us to show how, for the Baroness, this process of versioning was a way to express variant ideas as textual differences. For instance, some of the versions are very clean such as "Firstling" 2. Others appear as construction sites, but once we are able to see the Baroness's use of different inks in the poems themselves, in marginal variants, or in notes (as in versions 1.1-1.6 or 4.1-4.4) her intentions for the text become clearer. Without the color images, these associations could go unnoticed.

We created this edition because we believe that the Baroness has left interesting texts to explore. Considered at times a marginal figure, she has nevertheless had a significant impact on art and scholarship in three major capitals, namely Berlin, New York and Paris. [3] Between 1918 and 1929, the Baroness published approximately forty of her poems in little magazines such as Broom, Liberator, The Little Review, transatlantic review, transition, and the single issue of New York Dada. Born Else Hildegard Ploetz on July 12, 1874, in Swinemünde on the Baltic Sea, she ran away to Berlin in 1892, where she became involved in the Bohemian theatre circles. In 1913, she then moved to New York City where she met and married the penniless Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven. It was in New York, after the Baron had returned to Germany during the war and subsequently committed suicide, that Freytag-Loringhoven became entrenched in the Greenwich Village artist movement and began her brief and successful writing career as "the Baroness." Her peers, other artists and poets, consistently remarked on her influences: Ernest Hemingway was her avid proponent at the transatlantic review, Ezra Pound writes of her in his Cantos, William Carlos Williams dedicates an entire chapter of his autobiography to her, and her extant collection of poetry is due to Djuna Barnes diligently collecting what Barnes considered important in her friend's work. Despite all this attention from her contemporaries, until very recently, [4] almost all critical attention has been directed at her Dada art, including her collaborations with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, her collages, and her spontaneous performance art. This edition of her "Firstling/Erstling/He" complex is an addition to the burgeoning scholarship on her poetry.

Theoretical and Critical Approaches

With this edition, readers can see how the Baroness engaged the dialectics of time, language, and perspective as she versioned her poems. The Baroness's revisioning emphasizes a relationship between various periods of her life and the languages in which she expressed herself at those times. In 1923-1924, as the Baroness crafted some of these works, she sent them in letters to her friend Djuna Barnes in Paris, hoping that Barnes would get them published. In regard to the poems in this complex, she asked Barnes to have her German poem "Erstling" and her English version "Firstling" printed on one page. They are shown in her manuscript pages side by side as a seemingly simple translation in 3.1 and 3.2. The Baroness writes in her note to Barnes:

"The German first version always was touching pathetic naiv [sic] — finished. What is interesting about the 2 together is their vast difference of emotion — time — knowledge — pain. That is why they should / be printed together. For they are 1 + 2, the same poem — person — sentiment, life stretch between one — divided — assembled — dissembled. The German one is young — naiv — ingenious — the English one ripe — experienced — bitter" (Note 5.3 / 5.3 verso).

In describing the assembling and disassembling involved in versioning these works, the Baroness gestures towards the communicative exchange or dialectic we attempt to represent with this edition. One textual theory that has been useful for understanding the internal dialectics at play within this complex is Jerome McGann's "textual condition" in which he understands the "text" (again, in the Barthesian sense of the word) to mean a gathering of moments in which "certain communicative interchanges are being practiced." [5] In the case of this complex, the Baroness's transformations from "Erstling" into "Firstling" and "[Erste] Liebe" into "He," reflects her changing perspectives between past and present perceptions of the same event or person.

Using TEI Encoding and the Versioning Machine

"Assembling and disassembling" describes the Baroness's process as she works and reworks her poems, but it can also describe the reader's experience in reading the multiple versions compared in this edition. The reader's experience is shaped by how the versions included in the edition appear in the Versioning Machine interface as both assembled and disassembled. To "assemble" this edition, we are using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) method for encoding and the XSLT, CSS, and JavaScript styles that comprise the Versioning Machine's open-source framework for creating the user interface. Though the edition is based on versions, it is not presented as a genetic edition. That is, the genetic critic's focus on versions is one that "accepts a teleological model of textuality and constantly confronts the question of authorship" (Genetic Criticism 2). Because our immediate goal is not to represent a teleological model of this complex (though this is a possible reading), but to engage an evolving textual dialectic, we consider our approach guided by co-editor Clement's theory of textual performance. In this theory, the Barthesian text is always and only known in performance—that is, the act of reading the multiple versions in manuscript and print, the various notes and letters and comments of contemporaries or current readers is an embodied event that occurs within a time, a space, and with a collaborative audience that is contradictory to the teleological perspective. [6]

Because of these theoretical underpinnings, we are presenting this complex in a space that facilitates this notion of "textual performance"—that is, we foreground the fact that the "situated" or embodied reader engages the versions that comprise the text. Assembled in the VM interface from left to right, the versions first appear to the reader in a prescribed order. The Versioning Machine style sheets transform the TEI encoding to transform the texts into this HTML interface facilitating access to (1) all of the versions in a horizontally scrolling page; (2) the comparisons we have made between the versions; and (3) color JPEGs derived from archival quality TIFFs. The default order of the panels (each of which represent a version of a work) is based on the order in which these manuscript pages appear in their respective folders in the physical manuscript archive. Multiple versions appear on one manuscript page; as well, versions continue across multiple manuscript pages. Even so, each version appears on a separate panel and is numbered according to where it appears in the physical archival folder. In the physical archive, for example, the first six versions and the first note appear on the first manuscript page in the first folder that relates to this complex (from series 3, box 2, folder 3). Consequently, in the edition, these versions are numbered 1.1-1.6. On the image, we can see 1.1 in red ink; 1.2 is a typescript of "Firstling," 1.3 is another untitled red ink version; 1.4 is titled "Chest Apendicitis" [sic], etc. The next "Firstling" version is numbered 2, because it is the only version on the second page. On the next page, an "Erstling" version is 3.1, while the next "Firstling" version is numbered 3.2 because it appears to its right, and so on.

The edition is further "assembled" by the fact that we have encoded or marked words and phrases in the underlying XML that are related across works. As a result, the reader can click on any line to see and compare other lines in other versions that we have identified as related (see Figure 1 for an example). In order to maximize this element of readerly engagement, we are using location-referenced and parallel segmentation methods described in the TEI P5 encoding guidelines to note the relationships between the thirty-three versions. The set of tags that the TEI provides for encoding these relationships is particularly useful: the VM interface manifests the code in line-by-line comparisons (with parallel segmentation encoding) alongside comparisons of "chunks" of text (with location-referenced encoding). For example, Figure 1 shows that the two lines "BLOWN / ROSE" in version 1.1 expand to three lines (BLOWN ROSE / BLOWN BLOWN / ROSE") in version 1.2 and again to four lines ("ROSE SPRAY / WAY / CAST / BLOWN") in version 1.3. Figure 2 shows a snippet of this encoding in the underlying TEI document.

Figure 1

Figure 2

A brief explanation of this encoding will help explain how the edition is assembled. Any words inside the "app" element (in Figure 2) will be highlighted together in the HTML interface. The "rdg" element, denoting one variant reading, includes a "wit" attribute that shows which version (each given a unique ID, such as "v23a") contains which textual variation. Also, the "app" element, which correlates the variant readings, includes a "loc" attribute that will associate any of these chunks of text with any other in the entire document, so that those words will also be highlighted with the words in this "app" element. Displayed in the interface, these encoding structures can be used to show poetic changes that occur over time. Changes over time mean changes that quite often do not fit neatly in line-by-line comparisons, such as changes that cross line boundaries and elude the traditionally hierarchical structures required by other TEI-element sets. For an example, see the evolution of "ROSE" in Figure 1 in the VM interface and the same information in Figure 2 as it appears within the underlying text encoded document.

Figure 3

In this edition, we use images and mouse-over boxes to indicate points in the text that rely on non-linear space to make meaning. Figure 3, for example, shows the word "BLUFFSH" with a dashed line under it to indicate that there is more information about this point in the text. A mouseover shows a pop-up box that indicates that "LUSH BLO" also appears in this spot. Pulling up the manuscript image shows a constellation of words that is non-linear and therefore difficult to represent in text alone.

Like the Baroness, who seems to play with the versions and cluster and recluster them, a reader of this edition can disassemble and reassemble the order by which we have chosen to present the versions. The interface allows users to move version panels into any sequence within the horizontal narrative of the page, creating an environment in which the evolution of versions (and the sequential time these documents evince) is not imposed entirely by the editors. Figure 4, for instance, shows a comparison between "Firstling" 1.1 and "Erstling" 6 with Note 4.5 in the middle. As explained above, clicking on any line shows comparisons between poems that are highlighted according to the underlying encoding. In the VM interface, the reader can reorder the panels, or highlight various, multiple clusters across the versions to create and identify new relationships.

Figure 4

We have chosen to include annotations and images of the manuscript pages alongside transcriptions. Both serve to remind readers that these encoded transcriptions reflect a situated, edited instantiation that has been assembled to create a particular kind of reading experience. At the same time, the VM interface also introduces the reader to the disassembled nature of the Baroness's papers. Sometimes, the relationships between versions seem obvious. For example, five tentative versions written in red pen are surrounding the typed "Firstling" on the manuscript page comprising "Firstling" 1.1-1.6. All are toying with endings like "heart flayed," "flayed heart," "woeful," "arid," or "woe heart." The Baroness, in her note to Djuna Barnes at the bottom, seems to have worked out "flayed heart" as her preferred expression (see Figure 1).

On the other hand, some of the relationships between versions are not quite as clear. For example, in the upper right corner of the page on which we find version 1.4, there is a unique alternative title "Chest (or: Heart) Apendicitis" [sic], and all six versions on this page fluctuate between "Sun" or "Love" as the agent in the opening line. Further, while preparing this edition, we discovered related versions in unrelated folders, and seemingly related folders without relevant versions. This is partly due to the fact that Anglophone scholars are unaware of earlier German drafts, while those interested in German versions find no indication that a given poem also exists in English. Also, messy versions such as "First Love" (8.3), "[Firstling]" (9.2), or "He" (11) show that the Baroness used versioning to develop multiple works at the same time (See Figure 3 for an example).

Poetic Techniques: Reduction and Translation

Between 1910 and 1923 the Baroness moved from Germany to the United States and back to Germany again, all the while writing and living in the languages of both cultures. Upon returning to Germany in 1923, she wrote to Djuna Barnes saying she lamented her weakening skills in English:

I only move in English sounds. I am homesick for English language, my ear declines, my taste nauseated by German sound—and yet I lose my facility in English, words come not easy, sometimes meaning is doubtful, new expressions do not present themselves. As much as I read English, it is not alive—living, because I am not, hence no fluctuation, instigation—creation . . . must again dream in English . . . I am left drifting old wreck—no I cannot—I cannot—I cannot, I am too proud! I cannot stand the Germans, I cannot stand their language. I am traitor here! [7]

In particular, the works in this edition show that the Baroness used reduction and translation as techniques that express her perspectives on both German and American cultures and languages as they correspond to her changing life circumstances. The difference between a messy, early version of "Firstling" (9.2) and the neat typescript of "Firstling" (2) indicates that the Baroness started with longer German poems, which she reduced considerably as she translated them into English, a process of reduction we can follow in the edition.

Steeped in a neo-romantic movement that was popular in German-speaking countries around 1900, the Baroness's early poems in German are more like sonnets or iambic quatrains that adhere to strictly prescribed forms. The Baroness consistently "reduces" these complete lines by crossing out connective articles, pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions to achieve a simpler, more modern style. In the fourth line in version 13, for example, "Glieder — Blei / Limbs — Lead" undergoes a reduction from 14.3, "Die Glieder sind schwer wie Blei / The limbs are as heavy as lead." With these examples, we can note how the systematic elimination of the article "die," the verb "sind," the attribute "schwer," and the conjunction "wie" leave the two nouns stripped bare in the later versions. Yet, these works manage to evoke the same essential combination of "lead" and "limbs" with intensity. Reductions of this sort eventually lead to the bare Dada-like word columns in "Erstling" and "Firstling" on image 3.1. But no matter how monosyllabic these lines may have become, they still carry a faint echo of the original rhymes, as for instance in English "past — cast," and "wart — heart" in 3.2. Another example appears in 9.1 (a half-sonnet), 13 (two stanzas with crossed out words), and 3.1 (a column), which adheres to the Baroness's method of stripping older poems down into simpler word columns in English.

As she reduced, the Baroness also translated imagery and symbols into a more abstract form of expression across the later versions. On note 5.3 verso, the Baroness tells Barnes that the German "Erstling" (3.1) was "touching and naiv [sic]," and the English "Firstling" (3.2) "bitter and grim". Indeed, these two poems represent two different viewpoints: one is reflecting an 1896 viewpoint, while the other has the hindsight perspective of 1923-24. We can see this grimness in how the Baroness replaced the entire "Aderbaum" (Vein-Tree) imagery of the six German variants with a "cast-away rose" metaphor that remains constant in all "Firstling" and "He" versions. The soiled innocence of the wilted rose present in the English versions replaces the more immediate sadness or dejection of the German poems that do not use abstract expressions.

Finally, the Baroness titles the poems with puns that draw on their biographical context: the "He" of the poems refers to her once-lover Ernst Hardt (1876-1947). She makes several puns out of his first and last names that can only be understood when read bilingually. "Ernest" provides the basis for wordplay such as "Erste" (or "First" in German), "Er" (or "He" in English), "Ernste Lieb" (or "Serious Love") and "To Earny/An Erni," which evokes in English what she saw as Hardt's materialistic, money-making ambitions. [8] Likewise, his surname, Hardt, becomes "heart" and "hard." The reductions and wordplay are lost if the complex is not read as a performance over time in two languages.


Ultimately, the goal of this edition is to set the multiple dialectics we see at work in the Baroness's "Firstling/Erstling/He" complex in conversation for readers. By presenting this rigorously encoded (and thus deeply structured) and rather complicated edition with many versions of the text that were written in two languages over two decades, we are inviting scholars and readers to explore the dialectic inherent to the creative process of disassembling and assembling text. The fact that we have presented these poems in thirty-three transcribed, translated, and imaged versions means that readers are not only enabled to do their own textual assembling and disassembling, but, in this process, they are invited to consider the role of documentary editing in the digital age. Reduction and translation were some of the Baroness's poetic methods and versioning is the process by which she enacted these methods. Versioning is also the process we have used to create this edition for readers. Certainly, the texts and the relationships we make visible in this way allow readers to explore traditional-looking documents (texts and images) with the kinds of advantages that a digital edition can afford, but the fact that we can make this complex, open-source text available online engages a new kind of affordance in digital documentary editing: we are inviting all willing readers into the messy performance of the textual performance of one text, to explore, to create, and to perform their own readings.


1. Roland Barthes, Nouveaux essais critiques (Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1972,) 157.Go
2. It should be noted that in some ways this Barthesian sense of "text" and "work" is contrary to how the terms are used by some in the editorial community. Go
3. See the biographical introduction to the Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Papers at the University of Maryland. For a thorough account, see Irene Gammel's cultural biography Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity: a Cultural Biography, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.Go
4. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelaso have just published Body Sweats, an edition of the Baroness's unpublished poems (see Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelaso. Boston: MIT Press, 2011).Go
5. Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 21.Go
6. Tanya Clement, "Knowledge Representation and Digital Scholarly Editions in Theory and Practice." Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative 1.1 (2011): 2-15.Go
7. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, "Selections from the Letters of Elsa Baroness Von Freytag-Loringhoven," ed. Djuna Barnes, transition 11 (February 1928): 20.Go
8. See "To Earny/Erni," Ser. III, Box 4, Fd. 19, image 2 of 4. The Baroness also wrote a satirical poem about her affair with Ernst Hardt and his materialistic ambitions; see Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, "Es hat mal einen Ernst gegeben," ed. & tr., Gaby Divay & Jan Horner (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, Archives & Special Collections, 2000),