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Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters

Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays

Jane Donahue Eberwein
Cindy MacKenzie
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters
    Book Description:

    Emily Dickinson, who regarded a letter as “a joy of Earth,” was herself a gifted epistolary artist—cryptic and allusive in style, dazzling in verbal effects, and sensitively attuned to the recipients of her many letters. In this volume, distinguished literary scholars focus intensively on Dickinson’s letterwriting and what her letters reveal about her poetics, her personal associations, and her selfawareness as a writer. Although Dickinson’s letters have provided invaluable perspective for biographers and lovers of poetry since Mabel Loomis Todd published the first selection in 1894, today’s scholarly climate opens potential for fresh insights drawn from new theoretical approaches, informed cultural contextualizations, and rigorous examination of manuscript evidence. Essays in this collection explore ways that Emily Dickinson adapted nineteenthcentury epistolary conventions of women’s culture, as well as how she directed her writing to particular readers, providing subtly tactful guidance to ways of approaching her poetics. Close examination of her letters reveals the conscious artistry of Dickinson’s writing, from her auditory effects to her experiments with form and tone. Her wellknown correspondences with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Susan Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Otis Phillips Lord are examined here, but so too are previously neglected family communications with her aunt Kate Sweetser and cousin Eugenia Montague. Contributors find in these various letters evidence of Dickinson’s enthusiastic participation in a sort of epistolary book club involving multiple friends, as well as her loving attentiveness to individuals in times of both suffering and joy. These inquiries highlight her thoughts on love, marriage, gender roles, art, and death, while unraveling mysteries ranging from legal discourse to Etruscan smiles. In addition to a foreword by Marietta Messmer, the volume includes essays by Paul Crumbley, Karen Dandurand, Jane Donahue Eberwein, Judith Farr, James Guthrie, Ellen Louise Hart, Eleanor Heginbotham, Cindy MacKenzie, Martha Nell Smith, and Stephanie Tingley.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-019-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)

    When the first edition of Emily Dickinson’sPoemswas published in 1890, their enigmatic quality immediately stirred her readers’ interest in this hitherto completely unknown author whom reviewers depicted as a somber recluse. Intrigued by various rumors about the “myth of Amherst,” readers hoped, in particular, that Dickinson’s voluminous correspondence would shed some biographical light on the poet behind the poems. As a note in the February 1892 edition of theConcord [N.H.] People and Patriotstates: “the world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as literature, has been published” (Buckingham 295, item...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Editors’ Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Emily Dickinson, preeminent American poet, distinguished herself also as a writer of letters. It has been estimated that the three volumes of her printed letters in the edition compiled by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward and the letters to Joseph Lyman later edited by Richard Sewall represent only about one-tenth of the letters Dickinson actually wrote. Others have yet to be recovered or were probably destroyed, according to the custom of her time, upon their recipients’ deaths. Of the more than a thousand letters now available to the poet’s admirers, some exist only in draft form and (as is...

  6. “This is my letter to the World”: Emily Dickinson’s Epistolary Poetics
    (pp. 11-27)

    When Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled retrieving his mail at the Worcester Post Office on the morning of April 16, 1862, he noted his bewilderment at finding an unusual letter containing four poems from an unknown poet written in a peculiar handwriting, what he described as “fossil bird-tracks” (Higginson,Magnificent544). Mystified, he commented further that the “most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature” explaining that the signature of the unknown poet was “written . . . on a card, and put . . . under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the...

  7. Dickinson’s Correspondence and the Politics of Gift-Based Circulation
    (pp. 28-55)

    In a February 24, 2003 commentary on a cancelled White House literary symposium that was to have focused on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson, Katha Pollitt noted that though Dickinson may at first “seem the least political” (2) and therefore the least likely of the three poets to appear in a literary event deemed too politically volatile to stage, she may in the final analysis be the most political. Pollitt concludes, “every line [Dickinson] wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought.” I want to provide historical reinforcement for this understanding...

  8. “Blossom[s] of the Brain”: Women’s Culture and the Poetics of Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence
    (pp. 56-79)

    In her obituary for Emily Dickinson published three days after the poet’s death in the May 18, 1886, edition of theSpringfield Republican, Susan Gilbert Dickinson praises her sister-in-law’s steadfast attention to her domestic duties and her generous lifelong ministry to others: “[T]here are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those evidences of her unselfish consideration” (Leyda II, 472–73). Susan writes, in part, then, to reassure readers that, despite her sister-in-law’s well-known eccentricities and reclusion, Emily Dickinson...

  9. “Saying nothing . . . sometimes says the Most”: Dickinson’s Letters to Catherine Dickinson Sweetser
    (pp. 80-99)

    The occasion that confronted Emily Dickinson as a writer of consolation letters in January 1874 was the most challenging she had ever faced. The books and magazine articles that advised letter-writers on the correct way to deal with various situations certainly did not cover this circumstance. What does one say to a woman whose husband has disappeared, with his disappearance being prominently featured as a news item in the major New York City newspapers? Among the possibilities advanced were that he had been murdered, that he had suffered amnesia following a head injury resulting from a fall a few days...

  10. Messages of Condolence: “more Peace than Pang”
    (pp. 100-125)

    “What shall I tell these darlings,” Emily Dickinson wondered at the start of her January 1863 letter to Louisa and Frances Norcross shortly after their father’s death left her cousins orphaned at ages 20 and 15 (L278). This had to be an earnest question, not just a rhetorical one; though her foregrounding the challenge she faced in conveying solace on paper to loved ones so overwhelmingly bereaved suggests that she approached this delicate task with artistic sensibility. Within Dickinson’s social culture, to write a prompt letter of condolence was obligatory. Nineteenth-century guides to etiquette left no doubt that “all who...

  11. “What are you reading now?”: Emily Dickinson’s Epistolary Book Club
    (pp. 126-160)

    When eighteen-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote to Abiah Root, “What are you reading now?” and then reported on her own list (L23, May 16, 1848), she engaged in what was to be her lifelong activity: reporting on her own reading and eliciting suggestions from her network of friends. As do book enthusiasts today who, in increasing numbers, gather to cheer each other on in the pursuit of the latest award-winning book or of the classic title missed or well remembered, Dickinson and her epistolary comrades formed their version of a book club. Yes, there wereactualbook clubs in Amherst, about...

  12. Emily Dickinson and Marriage: “The Etruscan Experiment”
    (pp. 161-188)

    What would it be like to receive a letter from Emily Dickinson? Thomas Wentworth Higginson always remembered where he was standing when he took one from a mailbox on April 16, 1862. The letter Dickinson sent (he would receive many more) was direct and determined but made an effort to be suppliant and polite to the literary figure whose advice she desired. Beginning without blandishments or even a classic salutation, she asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” (L260). Higginson’s was to become one of the earliest published accounts of being startled by a...

  13. Heritable Heaven: Erotic Properties in the Dickinson-Lord Correspondence
    (pp. 189-212)

    The drafts of letters Emily Dickinson apparently wrote during her correspondence with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, employ a wide range of legal terms and references. Elsewhere I have discussed the extent to which the drafts dwell upon matters related to property law, notably the areas of bankruptcy and trespass, as part of a larger campaign Dickinson conducted to negotiate the conditions of their romantic relationship.¹ I wish to expand upon that subject now by considering how her correspondence with Judge Lord makes similar use of concepts drawn from the practice of estate law. Although...

  14. Alliteration, Emphasis, and Spatial Prosody in Dickinson’s Manuscript Letters
    (pp. 213-238)

    Emily Dickinson’s letters in manuscript offer readers more information about prosody than the standard print editions can provide. Although “prosody” generally refers to the technical aspects of versification, prose also has a prosody. A study of the prosody of Dickinson’s prose focuses on the way sound is organized in individual sentences. Here, for example, is the first page of a five-and-a-half-page letter she wrote in the early 1870s to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, her beloved friend, sister-in-law, and neighbor, who lived next door.¹

    To miss you, Sue,

    is power.

    The stimulus

    of Loss makes

    most Possession


    To live lasts...

  15. A Hazard of a Letter’s Fortunes: Epistolarity and the Technology of Audience in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences
    (pp. 239-256)

    Why not call them “pletters” or “loems”? That is how my witty partner articulated the “problem” Thomas H. Johnson describes in his introduction toThe Letters of Emily Dickinson: “Indeed, early in the 1860’s, when Emily Dickinson seems to have first gained assurance of her destiny as a poet, the letters both in style and rhythm begin to take on qualities that are so nearly the quality of her poems as on occasion to leave the reader in doubt where the letter leaves off and the poem begins” (xv). Indeed, when determining how to report and arrange Dickinson’s own commentary...

  16. Works Cited
    (pp. 257-270)
  17. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 271-274)
  18. Index of Letters
    (pp. 275-280)
  19. Index of Poems
    (pp. 281-282)
  20. General Index
    (pp. 283-293)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 294-294)