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The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

There can be no serious doubt that Dickinson played with her handwriting. She adjusted it to the bizarre shapes of the scraps of envelopes and stationery on which she often drafted poems, curled around watermarks and printed headings, and employed bold strokes like “the stunning flourish” that, as Smith notes, “crosses both T’s in ‘Tonight.”’ Whether such characteristics, hardly foreign to the manuscripts of other poets, should be treated as essential to understanding the meaning of the poems is another question altogether. John Hollander and others have argued that Dickinson, had she allowed her poems to be printed, would have yielded to editorial regularizing. (She did not complain, for example, about how “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was printed, with her dashes and capitalizations eliminated, in the Springfield newspaper.)

Martha Nell Smith, in her contribution to a new collection of essays called The Emily Dickinson Handbook, takes the extreme position that Dickinson, at least in the later fascicles with their frequently unresolved word choices, was not writing “with the printed page in mind.” In Smith’s view, Dickinson was deliberately inviting her future readers to “pick and choose” among the variant wordings of her apparently unfinished manuscripts. Smith adopts a liberationist rhetoric in her effort to “free” Dickinson from editors’ attempts to “fix” and “finish” her manuscripts by “translating” them into print. She shares the view of the poet and Dickinson scholar Susan Howe that there is something typically male about these editorial practices. (“It takes a woman,” Howe has written, “to see clearly the condescending tone of these male editors when they talk about their work on the texts.”)

Smith wants a Dickinson “unbound and liberated from the fixed patternings that books cannot eschew.” In an interesting combination of pre-Gutenberg aesthetics and postmodern technology, she claims that the best manner of publishing Dickinson is to reproduce her handwriting electronically. “Computer technologies that will enable distribution of facsimiles across the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM… create even more possibilities for thorough critical interrogations of the material evidence left by the poet at work.” The Internet, according to Smith, “encourages pliant and accommodating principles of judgment” and “readers’ free play.”

Smith, Howe, and their supporters, who have now formed the Dickinson Editing Collective, deserve credit for raising questions about Dickinson’s writing practices. But their some-assembly-required procedures, where the reader is invited to “coauthor” Dickinson’s poems, are not how most readers expect to encounter poetry. (If you don’t like the opening lines of “I measure every Grief I meet/With narrow, probing, eyes—,” just click the mouse and substitute Dickinson’s alternative, “Analytic eyes.”) The end result of such technological innovations will be to make a poet already regarded as eccentric seem even more so.


Martha Nell Smith wants to undo the “fixity and finality” of the poems as printed by Johnson and others. You might think that she would be drawn to a similarly open-ended view of Dickinson’s psychology. But precisely where we could expect to find fluidity, in a passionately imaginative unmarried woman’s relations with men and women, Smith identifies a coded landscape with a single key. In a bold argument aired last fall in The New York Times Sunday magazine,3 Smith claims that Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan were lovers, hence the subtitle of her edition, jointly edited with Ellen Louise Hart, of “Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters” to Sue. The letters, Smith told the Times, are “powerful witness to a lesbian passion.” Smith and Hart argue that Dickinson’s “ongoing passion” survived “the unavoidable shift in Susan’s availability once she undertakes her wifely duties” in her marriage with Austin Dickinson in 1856.

The biographical assertions of Smith and Hart can be seen as the latest in a long history of Dickinson biography to identify Dickinson’s elusive lover. The initial impetus for this search came, oddly enough, from Susan Dickinson herself (as Marietta Messmer points out in the Handbook), followed by her daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s fingering of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. The definitive statement about all such efforts to pin down Dickinson’s affections comes from Elizabeth Bishop, in her review of Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, which appeared in The New Republic in 1952. Patterson, like Smith and Hart, thought the “riddle” of Dickinson’s life and work could be solved by attention to her love affairs with women—first, according to Patterson, with Susan, and then with another friend, Kate Anthon. “That her thesis is partially true,” wrote Bishop, “might have occurred to any reader of Emily Dickinson’s poetry—occurred on one page to be contradicted on the next, that is.”

No one has ever denied that Emily Dickinson wrote passionate letters to Susan before and after Susan’s marriage. “Oh Susie,” she writes on a stormy night in 1852, “I would nestle close to your warm heart, and never hear the wind blow, or the storm beat, again. Is there any room there for me, or shall I wander away all homeless and alone? Thank you for loving me, darling.” Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in her influential work on what she calls “the female world of love and ritual,” demonstrated how common such gushing rhetoric was among women friends in nineteenth-century America. But Smith and Hart are out to show that “Emily and Susan’s relationship surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the ‘intimate exchange’ between women friends of the period.”

Smith and Hart make much of the fact that Dickinson’s letters to Susan were selectively mutilated after her death. Susan’s name was erased from some of the poems Dickinson sent to her, and affectionate passages in the letters were crossed out or excised. In Rowing in Eden, Smith argued that “the censorship of Dickinson’s papers at the end of the century suggests that her passionate friendship with Sue was not simply innocent.” In Open Me Carefully, Smith and Hart do not claim that the mutilation of Dickinson’s letters, which they ascribe to Mabel Todd, was a nervous cover-up of a lesbian relationship. Instead, they argue that Todd was trying “to hide Susan’s central role in Dickinson’s writing process,” and to “suppress any trace of Susan as Emily’s primary audience.” For Todd and Higginson, “the most marketable image of Dickinson the poet was that of the eccentric, reclusive, asexual woman in white.” Smith and Hart want to substitute a passionate Dickinson whose literary relationship with her sister-in-law was “collaborative,” and whose correspondence with Sue alludes “to unkempt appearance, shared cups of coffee, and private interludes, which Susan’s daughter Martha described as taking place in the back hallway of the Homestead.”

The evidence for literary collaboration in those back hallways is slight and unconvincing. “Susan was the only reader at whose behest Emily changed a poem,” writes Smith in her entry on Susan in An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia.4 The wording suggests that there might have been more than one poem changed. But some unfinished drafts included in Open Me Carefully as evidence of collaboration were in fact, according to Ralph Franklin, sent to Susan after Dickinson’s death. Susan’s remarks on the one poem she is known to have discussed with Dickinson, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” were high-handed and wrong-headed, and Dickinson wisely ignored them. Susan’s obituary for Dickinson, reproduced in Open Me Carefully, strikes a condescending note, praising Dickinson’s poems for “their simplicity and homeliness” and their lack of any identifiable “creed.” Dickinson, “hardly knowing the names of dogmas,…walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints.” For Susan, Dickinson was an innocent child of nature, to be praised in a tired and sentimental sequence of comparisons as “a part of the high March sky, the summer day and bird-call.”


Dickinson’s erotic life is one of the many unknown things about her, and she evidently preferred to keep it so. We don’t know what she looked like as an adult (the lone daguerreotype shows her as a seventeen-year-old); what audience, if any, her poetry was intended for; why she gradually withdrew from society. She assiduously guarded her privacy, and spoke, to Higginson and others, in a deliberately riddling way, shrugging off his questions (“You ask of my Companions Hills—Sir—and the Sundown”). “All men say ‘What’ to me,” she told him, “but I thought it a fashion.” As a consequence of her reticence, it has been easy for her many and diverse admirers to invent their own private Emily: Emily the fierce feminist; Emily the pliant lover; Emily the “voice of war”; Emily the prophet of modernism; Emily the guardian of old New England; and so on. But it is the reticence itself that tells us most about Emily Dickinson.

The overwhelming impression conveyed in Dickinson’s letters to Susan Dickinson and to her other correspondents is of someone who couldn’t stand—who had a visceral shudder in the presence of—the flatulent rhetoric of church and state around her. I don’t believe that her feelings toward Susan were modified by Susan’s “availability” after her marriage to Austin. I think they cooled when Dickinson discovered that Susan was conventional in her language and in her religious views, and that Susan tolerated her and enjoyed her poems as one might enjoy the quirky writings of a child.

Susan was not equipped to understand that Dickinson’s genius lay in her brittleness of language, and her refusal to indulge in the dead metaphors and sentimental nature worship that studded Susan’s prose. Dickinson was out to purge her own language of deadness. This is what she meant when she asked Higginson whether her verse was “alive.” This is what she was trying to explain when she told him that she shunned men and women “because they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.” This is why people constantly disappointed her, including Higginson, who remarked after an intense visit with Dickinson in 1870 that “she often thought me tired.” With Higginson, with Susan, and others, infatuation yielded to a friendly formality, as Dickinson increasingly preferred the company of children, animals, and people of her father’s more restrained generation.

Already in her teenage year at Mount Holyoke Dickinson had shown her intellectual honesty in her refusal to count herself among the “saved.” Hollow religious language disgusted her: “He preached upon ‘Breadth’ till it argued him narrow…The Truth never flaunted a Sign—/Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence/As Gold the Pyrites would shun.” Dickinson was immune to the war fever around her as well. Scholars have combed her verse and prose for mention of the Civil War, which coincided with her greatest outpouring of verse. But her inspiration during those years seems to have been resistance to high rhetoric. A reference to bells tolling here and to bullets there have been adduced to show her awareness of the war. (As though she could have been oblivious to it!) But Edmund Wilson may well be right in claiming that she never referred to the Civil War in her poetry. Her father’s commitment to the Whig values of compromise—he had served a term in Congress and campaigned for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay—may have tempered her response. While Julia Ward Howe was writing her saber-rattling “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Whitman his “Drum-Taps,” Dickinson was quietly demolishing myths of heroic pomposity:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
Jason, sham, too—

Dickinson’s language, oblique and sharply objective, can be seen as one response to the degraded verbiage of the Civil War era, and the Gilded Age pieties that followed. This is one explanation for her special appeal to such poets and translators of her work as Paul Celan (discussed in an essay in The Emily Dickinson Handbook by Kerstin Behnke) and Eugenio Montale.5 In these poets we find a kindred prosody of obliquity and harsh specificity in the face of the degradation of the Italian language under Mussolini and the German language under the Nazis. That the leading German-language poet of the post-Nazi era and the leading Italian poet of this century looked to Emily Dickinson should invite us to read her in this way, as a voice raised against the pompous posturing of both sides. She once mentioned to Higginson her adamant resolution to “never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.” She never did. In its modesty and majesty, it could serve as her epitaph.


The Poet Position’ October 21, 1999

  1. 3

    November 29, 1998.

  2. 4

    See Eberwein, editor, An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, p. 78.

  3. 5

    Montale’s versions of Dickinson are included in the recently published volume (based on Thomas Johnson’s edition) of Dickinson’s complete poems in Italian: Emily Dickinson: Tutte le Poesie, edited by Marisa Bulgheroni (Milan: Mondadori, 1997). Celan’s eight translations date from 1961.

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