The twenty-six collages that make up Janet Malcolm’s arresting and faintly melancholy “Emily Dickinson Series,” the artist’s fifth solo exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea, look on first view like leaves from some late Victorian archive, though the field of science or art to which they belong remains unclear. Certain motifs recur: vintage photographs of the 1874 transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event when the planet Venus passes directly between the sun and the earth, resembling a beauty spot traversing the face of the sun; a photograph of a bearded astronomer identified as David Todd (“the depressed astronomer,” as Malcolm came to think of him), who photographed the transit of 1882; gnomic passages by Emily Dickinson in typewritten transcriptions; and, finally, sheets of brownish transparent paper, of the kind once used to protect art books, variously folded and draped like veils across portions of the works.
Malcolm’s collages, an art form she adopted when writing a profile of the artist David Salle, are parsimonious with color—an exception is a Dickinson passage superimposed over a red study, cut from an illustration in The New York Times, from Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series. They also eschew the Surrealist temptation—exploited by Max Ernst and Hannah Höch, and later by the West Coast collagist Jess—to elide disparate images in ways that create the illusion that they are linked in dreamlike ways. Again, there are exceptions: a telescope beside a parfait cup exudes a Surrealist frisson, like Lautréamont’s chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.
Malcolm prefers an art of juxtaposition, documents and photographs placed side by side as though for inspection. The collage titled Common Sense (see illustration on this page) combines, from left to right, an image of the 1874 transit, a Dickinson fragment that reads “Common Sense/is almost as om-/niscient as God—,” and an early-twentieth-century photograph of a woman wearing a flamboyant party dress designed for the Wiener Werkstätte. To the left of the dress, like an explanatory caption, is a tagline reading “Alfred Dreyfus” and the name of a photographer. No hint is provided of how we are meant to interpret these disparate materials, which convey, perhaps, a mild fin-de-siècle aura of Venus and Vienna, the planet of love intersecting with the city of Klimt, Freud, and anti-Semitism. (What is psychoanalysis, one might ask, if not a way of monitoring emotional transits of Venus?)
One collage perfectly expresses the aesthetic renunciation (that “piercing Virtue,” as Dickinson called it) on which Malcolm’s austere art is partly based. Entirely covered with a brown veil, it is titled, simply, “No.” It contains a portrait of David Todd, the astronomer whose wife Mabel edited Dickinson’s poems after she died. The portrait is placed over a well-known passage from a letter Dickinson is thought to have written to Judge Otis P. Lord, with whom she is presumed to have had a romantic relationship, around 1878:
Dont you know you
are happiest while
I withhold and
you know that
“No” is the wildest
word we consign
You do, for you
know all things—
The letter is thought to be Dickinson’s response to an invitation from Lord, though whether for marriage or sex (with “wildest No’s” substituted for the “Wild Nights” imagined in one of Dickinson’s love poems), or for some other thing, remains unclear. Malcolm says she came to associate Judge Lord with David Todd, whose melancholy might seem to stem from Dickinson’s “No.” This composite male figure, subjected to various transits of Venus, might be thought of as the protagonist of Malcolm’s series.
“The Emily Dickinson Series” would seem to intersect with at least five of Malcolm’s concerns as a writer: photography (as in her 1980 book Diana and Nikon and in many subsequent essays in this magazine), psychoanalytic practice (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981), biography (The Silent Woman, 1994, about Sylvia Plath and her biographers), and the sometimes contentious nature of archives (In the Freud Archives, 1984). But it would be a mistake to conflate Malcolm the writer with Malcolm the artist. She seems to have approached the Dickinson materials visually, with little interest in Dickinson’s poetry (which, she confessed at the opening reception, she didn’t much care for in her youth) or her life. Most extraordinary of all, in a text in the recent winter issue of Granta (and reproduced on the Lori Bookstein website), she claims to have been unaware, until after her Dickinson series was complete, that there was a biographical connection between Dickinson and David Todd, even though Mabel not only coedited Dickinson’s poems and letters after her death but had a prolonged affair with Dickinson’s brother, Austin.
The Todds themselves, whose sexual practices were anything but “Victorian,” have proved of considerable psychoanalytic interest. They are the subject of the first case study in the historian (and biographer of Freud) Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Vol. 1: Education of the Senses (1984). Mabel Todd charted her own erotic life—each sexual encounter, orgasm, and menstrual cycle—with the same meticulous care that her husband accorded to the motions of planets. David Todd, returning from his nights in the Amherst College Observatory, would whistle a tune from the opera Martha to warn his wife and her lover of his arrival. Todd, for his part, was not, Mabel noted, “what might be called a monogamous animal.” According to Gay, he displayed a “suspect fondness for pubescent girls.” Late in life, when he was committed to an asylum for the insane, he forced himself on his horrified daughter “and thrust his tongue into my mouth with all the accompaniments”—a grotesque scene that recalls Freud’s “Seduction Theory,” the bone of contention in Malcolm’s book In the Freud Archives.
Peter Gay had first learned of the Todds from his wife, who assisted his Yale colleague Richard Sewall with the Todd family papers in the Sterling Library archives while Sewall was preparing his important biography of Emily Dickinson. Gay dismissively referred to Sewall’s book as “scholarly and exhaustive but genteel…he has omitted practically all the erotic material.” Malcolm had read Gay’s book when it first appeared, “years ago,” but had not made the connection between David Todd the randy husband of Mabel and David Todd the depressed astronomer.
Malcolm had first encountered the Dickinson fragments she used in her collages in a book by Marta Werner, Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), which a friend of Malcolm’s, the Dickinson scholar Sharon Cameron, had shown her. What caught Malcolm’s eye was the typed transcripts of forty late Dickinson drafts, known as the “Lord letters,” laid out in such a way as to demonstrate the line breaks in the original manuscripts. Werner argued that previous scholars had ignored these expressive breaks in Dickinson’s prose, so vivid in manuscript, such as the rather Plath-like “Dont you know you” and “You do, for you/know all things—” in the passage quoted above.
Marta Werner, a scholar who combines expertise in textual editing with a lyrical flare, also had doubts about the presumed provenance of these draft fragments, mutilated by an unknown hand, as though to protect Dickinson’s or someone else’s privacy. The claim, first advanced by Millicent Todd Bingham, that they were connected in some way with Judge Lord seemed suspect to Werner, who noted that “no evidence exists to confirm that these manuscripts were ever posted” to Lord or to anyone else. Bingham’s book, though subtitled “A Revelation,” seemed more like a smokescreen to Werner, a deliberate effort to draw attention away from the drafts as radical experiments in poetic prose, oracular and open-ended, and label them instead as conventional love letters.
Werner’s assertions were congruent with the claims of other scholars, such as Martha Nell Smith and the poet Susan Howe, that Dickinson’s editors had systematically “regularized” her poems, and ignored the ways in which, for example, the difference between what constitutes a letter and a poem is often elusive in Dickinson’s manuscripts. The transcriptions in Werner’s book were meant, she informed Malcolm in an e-mail message of September 27, 2012 (a transcript of their exchange is part of the Granta text), to “show and partly enact the conflict between the regularity of type (or typesetting) and the singularity of the hand; and break down distinctions between prose and verse by insisting on following Dickinson’s physical line breaks.”
Ironically, Malcolm seized on the visual interest of Werner’s typewritten transcriptions rather than Dickinson’s manuscripts, and immediately decided that she wanted to make use of them—cut directly from Werner’s book, a cut-up copy of which is on display at the Bookstein gallery—in collages. “I am curious about the transcriptions,” Malcolm wrote to Werner. “They look as if they were done on various old typewriters.” This turned out to be the case—“My grandfather had an amazing (if worthless!) collection of typewriters, which I commandeered for the occasion.” It was this typeface—meant to look nondescript in 1996 so as not to distract from Dickinson’s manuscripts, but already so antiquated twenty years later as to be redolent of archival records—that made its way into Malcolm’s collages. (There are other examples of transcriptions in the collages, including a record in Czech of a psychiatric session, a reminder that Malcolm was born in pre-war Prague into an assimilated Jewish family and that her father, perhaps not irrelevantly to the collage and to the Dickinson series generally, was a psychiatrist.)
Almost from the start of her Dickinson series, completed during the summer of 2013, Malcolm had another instinctive prompting, to juxtapose her cuttings from Werner’s book with astronomical charts. She wrote in a statement to accompany the series:
I had used astronomical images in previous collages—they have great graphic clout—but something in Dickinson’s words evoked the night sky. It seemed almost obligatory that images of stars and planets and moons accompany her gnomic utterances.
One book in which she found the graphic clout she wanted was about the transit of Venus. Then came the discovery, astonishing for Malcolm (and also, to some degree, for Werner, who wasn’t aware that David Todd had investigated the transits of Venus), that the association of Dickinson and the night sky had a biographical basis, a discovery that struck both of them as “uncanny” in Freud’s sense of the word. “That the pictures I cut out of The Transit of Venus could in any way be connected to Emily Dickinson’s biography never crossed my mind,” Malcolm remarks. “There does seem to be something occult going on here,” she wrote Werner, “and I don’t think I believe in the occult.”
Another art exhibition inspired by the “graphic clout” of Emily Dickinson happened to be closing in lower Manhattan just as Malcolm’s show opened. “Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches,” at the Drawing Center in SoHo, paired some of Dickinson’s most visually striking manuscripts with “microscripts” by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. (Written in a miniature hand on cast-off telegrams, envelopes, and other repurposed scraps, the microscripts, only recently deciphered as drafts of stories and poems, were long thought to be nonsense jottings, symptoms of Walser’s escalating insanity.) In order better to make the case that Dickinson and Walser were creating visual works of some kind, “pencil sketches” with an expressive power apart from their verbal content, the Drawing Center offered no transcriptions of these “hybrid works.”
Some of the fifty Dickinson manuscripts on display at the Drawing Center had obvious collage elements, for example a pencil pinned onto a letter, encouraging a reply. Others were more dramatic. In one extraordinary sheet, Dickinson attached a postage stamp of a locomotive, with two tiny “wings” cut from Harper’s magazine, one with the name George Sand and the other with the title of one of her novels, Mauprat, surrounded with the draft of Dickinson’s poem “Alone and in a Circumstance/Reluctant to be told,” thought by some scholars to describe a visit to an outhouse.
Such inventive constructions called to mind the collages and boxes of Joseph Cornell, a Dickinson enthusiast who, like Janet Malcolm, associated her work with the night sky. “Scintillant with stardust” was how the painter Marsden Hartley had described Dickinson’s poetry in 1921, in an essay from his Adventures in the Arts that appears to have first sparked Cornell’s interest in Dickinson. Cornell associated Dickinson with the nineteenth-century ballerinas that enchanted him, their lonely yet passionate lives, as he imagined them, lived out in hotel rooms. In Toward the “Blue Peninsula” (1951–1952), Cornell, alluding to a Dickinson poem about loneliness and hope that includes an image of Italy, constructed an empty, white-walled birdcage with a window looking out, symbolizing her imaginative longing, on the bluish night sky.
But Dickinson’s working methods also intrigued Cornell, reminding him of his own art of assemblage. Cornell was delighted to find, in the introduction to Bolts of Melody (1945) by Millicent Todd Bingham, that some of the poems collected in the volume were
written on the backs of brown-paper bags or of discarded bills, programs, and invitations…. There are pink scraps, blue and yellow scraps, one of them a wrapper of Chocolat Meunier.
The yellow chocolate wrapper itself was on display at the Drawing Center, with a caption mentioning Cornell. When Cornell, in one of his collecting forays among antique stores, came across wrappers for Chocolat Menier, it seemed an occult message, and a spur for further art. One of his boxes pairs a chocolate wrapper with an Ecuadoran stamp bearing a hummingbird, as though to enact Dickinson’s riddle-poem about a hummingbird, “A Route of Evanescence.”
Another facet of Marta Werner’s work had helped prompt the exhibition at the Drawing Center. Werner had collaborated with the artist Jen Bervin on The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection, with facsimiles and transcriptions, of what the authors called Dickinson’s “envelope poems,” written on sections of discarded envelopes.* The shape of the envelope sometimes seems to mimic the message of the poem, as when a poem about a house (“The way/Hope builds his/House/It is not with a sill…”) is draped down from the roof-like peak of the opened envelope flap.
Perhaps the most extreme example—in Werner’s book and at the Drawing Center—is what Werner describes as “a sudden collage made of two sections of envelope,” which resemble “the hinged wings” of a bird (see illustration on this page). On one section Dickinson has written, “Clogged/only with/Music, like/the Wheels of/Birds.” Another flap, written at an oblique angle to the first, reads: “Afternoon and/the West and/the gorgeous/nothings/which/compose/the/sunset/keep.” An additional small triangle, torn from the envelope and then pinned to the hinged sections, has the words “their high/Appoint/ment.” To give this odd concoction its full effect, Werner proposes an unfamiliar mode of reading and viewing:
To access the text(s), and to answer the question of where we have arrived, we must enter into a volitional relationship with the fragment, turning it point by point, like a compass or a pinwheel—like the wheels of thought. 360 degrees. As we rotate A 821 [the archival number from the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections], orienting and disorienting it at once, day and night—each a whir of words—almost collide in the missing spaces just beyond the light seams showing the bifurcation in the envelope, and then fly apart in a synesthesia of sight and sound.
Such an invitation will not appeal to skeptics, who are likely to insist that Dickinson was merely being a thrifty Yankee in her use of scraps for drafting poems, and that, like any poet scrawling the inspirations of a moment on whatever lies to hand, she intended eventually to resolve such seemingly bizarre verbal tangles in the familiar strictures of printed stanzas, familiar meters, and conventional line breaks.
Such questions and uncertainties are part of a larger controversy playing out in what might be called the Dickinson Archive, a story that awaits its Janet Malcolm. It is a conflict reaching back to what has come to be called “The War Between the Houses,” when Dickinson’s manuscripts were divided into two main collections. One consisted of the poems Dickinson had sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. The other was the pile of manuscripts discovered in a drawer after Dickinson’s death in 1886 by her sister, Lavinia. Susan had first volunteered to find a publisher for Dickinson’s poetry. When in Lavinia’s view she showed insufficient zeal in pursuing this goal, Lavinia turned—in what seems a deliberate act of hostility—to Susan’s rival for her husband’s affections, Mabel Todd. Todd, more comfortable in the literary world, secured the cooperation of Dickinson’s literary adviser Thomas Wentworth Higginson as coeditor for the project.
The manuscripts sent to Susan were sold to Harvard in 1950. The others, in Mabel’s hands, were donated to Amherst in 1956. The spoils of Dickinson are also divided, with her bedroom furniture at Harvard instead of in the Homestead, which was deeded to Amherst. (As the Amherst archivist Michael Kelly recently told Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times: “They have the furniture, we have the daguerreotype; they have the herbarium, we have the hair.”) With the resources of the Internet, it was hoped that the two collections might finally be united, at least “virtually.” And so Harvard (which has published successive versions of Dickinson’s collected poems and thereby retained the copyright) launched its “digital Dickinson” project. When the archive was about to go “live,” however, a spat broke out, reported in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.
It was learned that representatives of Amherst and Harvard—two historically men’s schools where Dickinson could never have enrolled—had differing ideas of what the archive should consist of and how it should be presented. Should it be free to all comers (the preference of Amherst, which had already made its manuscripts available online in 2012) or pay-per-view (Harvard’s preference)? Should it be identified with Harvard or should Amherst have equal billing? Should it be restricted, as Harvard preferred, to manuscripts identifiable with specific poems (namely, the 1,789 poems in Ralph Franklin’s three-volume variorum edition of 1998) or should it include all Dickinson’s manuscripts, incorporating those seemingly radical drafts and gnomic fragments (from the Amherst archive) that Marta Werner and Janet Malcolm had been drawn to?
Most of these issues have been resolved, and the archive is now up at www.edickinson.org. It is by any measure an extraordinary resource, free to all, and allows readers to make up their own minds about how Dickinson’s manuscripts, with their alternative words, visual flourishes, enigmatic dashes, and indeterminate line breaks should be read or viewed. But for those convinced that Dickinson has been the victim, across several generations of scholars and “patriarchal” institutions, of a systematic effort to render her a conventional poet—morally restrained, heterosexual, a keeper of poetic as well as societal norms—the revolutionary work continues.
Meanwhile, those readers who wish to supplement the Harvard archive with more adventurous approaches can consult Werner’s own Radical Scatters website (jetson.unl.edu:8080 /cocoon/radicalscatters/default-login .html), or the extensive Dickinson Electronic Archives long maintained by the energetic scholar Martha Nell Smith (www.emilydickinson.org), which include Werner’s updated analysis of the Lord fragments (“Ravished Slates”), discussions of a recently discovered 1859 daguerreotype that might possibly be the only known image of Dickinson as an adult, in the company of a woman who may have been her lover, and manuscripts of Dickinson family members, notably including poems and letters by Susan Dickinson, believed by Smith and other scholars to be the main love of Dickinson’s life.
One might think of these two scholarly tendencies, borrowing a distinction from anthropology, as embracing a “raw” versus a “cooked” Dickinson. Was she a radical poet of the avant-garde, challenging the regularized notions of predominantly male poets and editors regarding stanza shape, typographical publication and distribution, spelling and punctuation, visual and verbal presentation, erotic love, and so on? Or was she a poet of restraint, who restricted herself to a few traditional patterns of meter and stanza, referred to the wayward Whitman as “disgraceful,” and wore her prim white dress as a sign of those renunciations best expressed in that wildest word “No”?
What is clear is that Dickinson’s gnomic utterances continue to speak to artists and readers, perhaps with renewed urgency as our own relation to language shifts under the onslaught of the digital revolution. As we traffic increasingly in tweets and other abbreviated verbal messages, Dickinson’s own telegraphic art seems to issue from some other realm of authority, from the virtual “cloud,” perhaps, or from the night sky, scintillant with stardust.