The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition

edited by R.W. Franklin
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1654, Three volumes pp., $125.00

The Emily Dickinson Handbook

edited by Gudrun Grabher and Roland Hagenbüchle and Cristanne Miller
University of Massachusetts Press, 480 pp., $34.95

To prepare a new edition of a poet’s work, a scholar may spend years in the archives, weeding out the “corruptions” planted by previous editors and scribes, only to see his own decisions denounced by the next generation of editors. In his poem “The Scholars,” W. B. Yeats saw a comic contrast between the passionate poet and the painstaking editor:

Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair….

For a century now, however, the editing of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been entangled with human passions, sex, and blindered partiality, as though the editors were (and sometimes they were) the despairing lovers tossing on their beds. Despite impressive scholarly attempts, by Thomas Johnson in 1955 and now by Ralph Franklin, to resolve disputes and provide a text based on widely shared principles, there are already indications that the squabbles initiated a hundred years ago will continue, and perhaps even intensify, in the wake of Franklin’s careful work. This unsettled situation arises from several factors, including Dickinson’s own fraught relations with publishers; the strange fate of her manuscripts after her death; current critical views of her work; and, finally, the very nature of her poetry.


Audacity marked Emily Dickinson’s career from the beginning—if “career” is the right word for her improbable persistence in the face of patronizing advice and general incomprehension. She was born in 1830, the middle child of three. Her privileged childhood as a lawyer’s daughter in Amherst, Massachusetts, gave her the time and literary education, as well as the confidence, to try her hand at writing verse. Her father, she noted affectionately, was “too busy with his Briefs—to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” After a solid course of study at the private Amherst Academy, she spent a year at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary a few miles away in South Hadley. Though she found the religious rigor of the founder Mary Lyon’s regimen somewhat oppressive, she enjoyed her fellow students, who were not as “rough & uncultivated” as she snobbishly expected. In her letters home we can already see her imaginative way of making national events her own. “Wont you please tell me when you answer my letter who the candidate for President is?” she wrote her brother Austin in the fall of 1847, when she was sixteen.

I have been trying to find out ever since I came here & have not yet succeeded…. Has the Mexican war terminated yet & how? Are we beat? Do you know of any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon would furnish us all with daggers & order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.