by Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Knopf, 641 pp., $25.00
The centenary of Emily Dickinson’s death last year was filled with celebratory conferences, lectures, and poetry readings—precisely the kind of public occasions that she despised. (She avoided groups of men and women because, as she once explained, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.”) A hundred years can reclaim a poet, as Whitman has been reclaimed. Dickinson herself was merely voicing the taste of the times when she wrote of her near contemporary, in 1862: “I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.” A century can also make a once-popular poet like Fanny Fern—who probably influenced both Whitman and Dickinson—seem impossibly remote. The year 1986—in this respect no different from many other recent years—also saw the publication of several new books on Dickinson’s life and work. By far the most ambitious of these, Emily Dickinson by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, raises the question where Dickinson stands now, one hundred years after her death.
Dickinson evidently puzzled her contemporaries—as she put it, “All men say ‘What’ to me”—and she puzzles us. Like Bartleby she seems to confront her chronicler with a series of enigmatic refusals: she preferred not to travel, not to publish, not to marry. Surely no other poet has been more inventive in saying no. She once declined an invitation with the words “I must omit Boston.” Asked if her social life wasn’t rather restricted in Amherst, Massachusetts, she replied, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time,” and added, “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.” She claimed that publication was “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” But her refusals left her free for the truly puzzling thing she did do: with little encouragement from friends or family she wrote almost two thousand poems. She stowed most of them away in her bedroom bureau, where they remained until she died.
The story of how the poems were saved—and how the saviors published them piecemeal, in altered versions, then quarreled and passed on the quarrel to later generations—is a fascinating one, and we still live with the sequel. The poems were not published in a complete, undoctored edition until 1955; what other nineteenth-century poet of Dickinson’s stature is still protected by copyright? But this isn’t the story that Cynthia Wolff is concerned with. Nor is she particularly interested in what little we know of Dickinson’s daily life. Indeed, she often seems impatient with what she calls dismissively “the external life,” claiming that “the essential narrative can be told in a few sentences”—and she fits that narrative into an early paragraph as if to get it over with: “Born on December 10, 1830…the middle child of three…superb secondary-school education at the Amherst Academy…one year at the new Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley…sleigh rides, excursions …