Skip to main content

Inventing Emily Dickinson

ISSUE:  Spring 1984

With a name like Hero, the heroine of Much Ado about Nothing could hardly escape the villain’s slander: “Leonato’s Hero, your Hero, every man’s Hero.” Our image of Emily Dickinson seems to have succumbed to a similar confusion: reading about her creates the bewildering impression that she is “his Emily, her Emily, everyone’s Emily.” The widely varying portraits of her could well be collected in a comparative volume such as Samuel Schoenbaum produced in Shakespeare’s Lives.

Like Shakespeare whom she read and quoted and passionately admired all her life, Dickinson had a provincial background and a relatively scanty formal education. The difficulty in understanding her development is compounded by the fact that, as with Shakespeare’s “lost years” (between his departure from Stratford and his appearance as a successful London playwright), the beginning of her poetic productivity coincides with the period during which least is known about her. The poetry of both has encouraged speculation about the identities of their love objects. In both cases, too, the poet’s apparent lack of will to publish—the posthumous publication of half of Shakespeare’s work and virtually all of Dickinson’s—has added textual uncertainties and questions of intention to the whole boggy swamp of speculation. But Shakespeare wrote for a public medium, and his artistic development after he emerged as a London playwright is evident. And he was not a woman.

Biography, which Lytton Strachey called “the most delicate and humane of all the branches of writing,” must take an interest in the elementary fact of sex. And in Dickinson’s case it has taken an interest, but of the wrong kind. Attention has focused intently on her personal relationships, and her poetry has frequently been seen as the consequence not of genius, dedication, practice, and revision but as the eruption of a more or less unhappy emotional life. Dickinson is still being described as an artistic ingenue with little intellectual control over her work, the funnel for a poetic production which was a byproduct of her personal circumstances rather than the deliberate exercise and fulfillment of extraordinary ability. David Porter recently wrote, “The seclusion chose the art, rather than the artist the seclusion.”

Of Emily Dickinson, it is usually said that she did not develop. Her apparent constancy in her art and in her life makes her especially susceptible to mythologizing. At about the time she began to write steadily, she retired from an already modest social life to live in seclusion, producing nearly 1,800 short poems which demonstrate little alteration of scope, subject, or style. How did Dickinson become a poet? How did she sustain a secret life of writing? How can we understand her achievement?

Lush theories have grown up around the figure of Emily Dickinson, and they tend to obscure the poet herself from view. The most luxuriant growths concern the identity of the man Dickinson loved, a passion inferred from her poetry and three draft letters found among her papers. There have been at least eight candidates, beginning with the nominees of the poet’s sister Lavinia (George Gould) and her niece (Charles Wadsworth). All of the candidates are implausible for different reasons; the one thing they have in common is that the evidence is sparse.

Near the bottom of the plausibility scale is the theory of Josephine Pollitt in Emily Dickinson: The Human Background of Her Poetry (1930, republished 1970). Pollitt believes that the lover was Edward Hunt, the first husband of Dickinson’s friend, Helen Hunt Jackson. She shows us the lovers tête-à-tête discussing some of Hunt’s favorite scientific theories, in a scene which incorporates a remark Hunt actually made about the poet’s dog, Carlo:

As they were talking together, Carlo lay on the floor near by, his sober eyes filled with infinite wisdom. The dog showed a particular liking for the young scientist. The lieutenant [Hunt] turned from Emily, who was fascinated with his ideas and was eagerly trying to understand, and he smilingly remarked, “Your dog understands gravitation.” Indeed, Carlo was a better logician than was his mistress.

(Silly as this may seem, Pollitt’s Emily is not so different from Allen Tate’s: “Her very ignorance, her lack of formal intellectual training, preserved her from the risk that imperiled Hawthorne. She cannot reason at all. She can only see.”)


Rebecca Patterson wrote a book to prove that the man Dickinson loved was a woman, Kate Scott Anthon. But until recently, the most popular candidate for Dickinson’s beloved was the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a Philadelphia minister whom she met in 1855.George Frisbie Whicher, whose respected critical biography This Was a Poet appeared in 1938, believed that Dickinson loved Wadsworth, although her love was “never outwardly expressed, save in poetry. Had it been otherwise, we should not have had the poems.” And Thomas Johnson, the editor of Dickinson’s poems and (with Theodora Ward) the letters, largely agrees in his biography of the poet (1955, republished 1980). Despite the dearth of evidence for a Dickinson-Wadsworth romance, Johnson gives it a crucial position in his account of the poet. He asserts—with a vagueness that is dismaying given the dimness of the relationship, the brilliance of Dickinson’s writings, and his long and deep familiarity with them—that Wadsworth “stirred her talents into creative activity and in fact made her a poet. Her love for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth may well have been the single most important event in her life, and its force continued to give direction to her productive capabilities for the rest of her life.” (He also surmises that the death some years earlier of a man she called her “tutor,” Benjamin Newton, was a shock which “delayed her development as a poet, even to the point of drying up the springs of her inspiration, for five years.”)

Other claims for decisive influences on Dickinson’s poetic achievement—for intellectual rather than romantic creators— have been made. Karl Keller’s The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson in America (1979) aims to move eccentric Emily Dickinson into the center of American letters by showing her affinities with American writers over four centuries. Like many before him, he gives special weight to Emerson’s importance as a contemporary influence (Whicher devotes a chapter to the subject). Dickinson knew Emerson’s poems, and at least some of his essays. She wrote to a friend: “I had a letter—and Ralph Emerson’s Poems—a beautiful copy—from Newton the other day. I should love to read you them both—they are very pleasant to me.” That is her warmest general remark on Emerson’s work. She never indicated, as she did with other admired writers, deep interest, or indebtedness, or even antagonism: in fact, she rarely referred to Emerson. She made a present of his Representative Men to T.W. Higginson’s wife, calling it “a little Granite Book you can lean upon.” She did not seize an opportunity to meet Emerson when he stayed next door with her brother’s family. Nonetheless, Keller argues, Dickinson, like Whitman, must have been “brought to the boil” by her contact with Emerson:

I am suggesting that it was not Emerson’s ideas, certainly not his ideology, that Emily Dickinson experienced, so much as it was Emerson as push, as stimulus, as prophet-motivator, as prime mover, as provocateur—his intended service to any devotee. Even as she answers him, she is, thanks to Emerson, standing up to do so. He made her even without her having to know him very well. . . .

Emerson moved in a mysterious way, apparently. Unfortunately, Keller’s American theme requires him to notice only briefly in a last chapter some non-American writers’ whose influence—especially in terms of “push” or “stimulus”—is much more clearly provable: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and the Brontës.


Emily Dickinson has been overshadowed by real or imagined influential others, and sometimes entirely blotted out by superimposed archetypes. “Perhaps the most satisfying image of her” to a modern sensibility, wrote John Crowe Ransom, is a variant of the fairy-tale maiden:

Our own Cinderella could do without the Prince; she preferred her clergyman [Wadsworth] and he did not take her anywhere. She proceeded to take her own self upstairs, where she lived, happy ever after with her memories, her images, and her metaphysics.

She busied herself with writing, revising, and sometimes fabulously perfecting those slight but intense pieces; for the eye of the future. When there were enough of them she would stitch them down the sides together into a packet, like a little book, and put it into the cherry bureau drawer.

The preciousness and sentimentality of this image, the transformation of the writer’s work into some handicraft like Mimi’s production of artificial flowers in La Bohème, still cling almost 30 years later to our conception of Emily Dickinson.


Changing attitudes have now made it incumbent on biographers and critics to avoid the grosser sentimental and romantic effusions and to take Dickinson’s sex seriously. It is now necessary to refer to the poet as Dickinson, although for many years and even into the 1970’s she was simply Emily. Her tendency to adopt a childlike attitude in some poems and letters made it even easier to patronize her. Richard Chase, for example, remarks in Emily Dickinson (1951): “Our poet was always enough of a “little girl” to fear hunger and privation and inferiority and to regard with wide-eyed wonder such fantasies of wealth and regal splendor as she found in Revelation.” (Who would not so fear and so wonder?) In 1960 Archibald Macleish was willing to confess that “most of us are half in love with this girl we call by her first name, and read with scorn Colonel Higginson’s description of her as a “plain, shy little person . . .without a single good feature.”

But gallantry doesn’t alter Dickinson’s appearance or the fact that it mattered more than, say, Blake’s unprepossessing appearance did. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to whom she had written for an opinion of her poems in 1862, requested a photograph of her. She said she didn’t have one and sent instead a remarkable verbal sketch which illustrates Chekhov’s observation in Uncle Vanya that “When a woman is plain, they always say, “You have beautiful eyes, you have beautiful hair. . . .”” Dickinson wrote: “[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” But Higginson, who had a special interest in sponsoring writing women, was obviously disappointed when he met her. Had she been a beautiful woman rather than a little “person,” would he have been a champion of her work?


Dickinson’s new status as a grown-up woman and a conscious artist is in many ways superficial. But since the late 1970’s there have been an increasing number of studies of the relationship between Dickinson’s femininity and her writing. The first extensive exploration of her situation as a woman and a poet was John Cody’s psychoanalytic biography, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (1971). His attention to Dickinson’s childhood and his refutation of the popular 1950’s and 60’s view that (as Ransom put it) “all her disabilities worked to her advantage” help to destabilize and complicate the static image of the poet. But while Cody dissolves the sentimental stereotypes, he reconfirms the assumptions of sexual inadequacy which underlay them. Dickinson-the-poet was not made by Wadsworth or another lover (Cody regards the lover as a fantasy), or by Emerson, or by the Connecticut Valley and Edwardian Puritanism. No, her poetic achievement was due her mother’s “failure as a sufficiently loving and admirable developmental model,” which led to a fruitful psychotic breakdown for the poet. Dickinson’s writing was a compensatory activity, her substitute for the life of a wife and mother.(“Having a baby of her own was desperately important to Emily Dickinson.”) Mrs. Dickinson’s failure made it impossible for her daughter to mature into a wife and mother, but the misfortunes for “the woman” were “blessings in disguise” for “the artist.

An assumption that intellectual creativity is masculine undergirds this view that “woman” and “poet” are incompatible quantities. But if woman and poet are a suspect combination, virgin and poet are even more so. The closed door which faces investigators of Dickinson’s life is commonly eroticized; there is sexual irritation as well as intellectual puzzlement when the curators of her reputation find her impenetrable. Karl Keller (The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty) cheerfully declares that Dickinson is “a great tease. Her life, like her poetry, seduces without offering complete satisfaction.” With her “flamboyance” and “wildness,” her cardinal virtue “the Temptation to Excess,” Keller finds it “not hard to imagine her . . .as a hooker.”

David Porter, whose second book of Dickinson criticism is Dickinson: The Modern Idiom (1981), seems more aggravated than teased. He employs negatives with striking frequency to define the poetry. Porter celebrates Dickinson as a poet who anticipated the modernists, but hers is “the destructive strain in American modernism” (Emerson and Hawthorne were constructive). Her idiom is one of “subjectlessness,” or—to put it another way, and he often does—she “had no subject, least of all reality.” Three times Porter sums up in itemized form Dickinson’s defects. One list includes these non-qualities: “The poems are rarely narrative,” “The poems make no natural ranking,” “Dickinson, unlike every other major American poet, wrote no ars poetica.” Porter explicitly distances himself from biographical Emily Dickinson hunting, but his critical vocabulary continually points to the poet’s sexual status at the same time that it specifies what is negative or insufficient in her work. Her language is “narcissistic,” “coy,” “autosuggestive,” “hermetic,” and “defective.” The garment of style can’t conceal the figure of the frustrated woman:

it is a language, one begins to sense, covering hysteria [a word Porter uses repeatedly]. With its outlandish character, cramped syntax, semantic grandiosities, and lexical violations, it is a language ready to collapse into chaos. Trembling with nervousness and need, it performs manically on the brink of the final modernity, silence.

(No one would guess from Porter’s account that Dickinson is to this day a popular poet despite the many obscurities of her poems.) Conrad Aiken also recognized a stylistic defect: he called it “the spinsterly angularity of the mode.”


Feminist criticism, then, has a good deal to offer in the case of Emily Dickinson, in an unembarrassed recognition of the physical facts of her life, in directing light away from the vague presumptive (usually male) influences on her work which do little to clarify our understanding of it, in recognizing influences that have been unexamined or trivialized, and most importantly in making the assumption that the roles Dickinson was expected to play were inadequate to her rather than the reverse. It is disappointing, to say the least, that Emily Dickinson so often seems to be a great writer who is just not quite good enough.

Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg’s Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter (1982) examines openly the situation not only of a woman writer but of one who remained a daughter at home all her life. Mossberg’s book is not a biography (she is more concerned with mother-father-daughter roles than with the specific biographical data), but it situates Dickinson’s poetry in her relations with her parents. For the poet, Mossberg argues, daughterhood was both a trap and a poetic resource. Her poems display her striving to perform her role as a “dutiful daughter” even as her powerful, rebellious, ironic sensibility keeps subverting that role and urging her to claim poetic glory. This Dickinson is no Emily but a committed poet who is highly self-conscious about her status as a woman writer (an attitude for which there is abundant evidence in the poems and letters).

Mossberg’s generalizations are, however, more interesting than her often maladroit handling of particular texts. Part of the problem is that absolutely everything in Dickinson’s experience, thought, upbringing, and writing is referred to the fact that she is a Daughter. The body, for example, is always specifically female (in a poem about committing suicide, “What if I say I shall not wait!,” she is interested in “ridding herself of her female sexuality”). Lines and whole poems are misconstrued to fit the daughter theme: “When [Dickinson] says “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies” (1129) she is reciting society’s advice to her on “how to grow,” or more precisely, how to live without antagonizing anyone.” But these lines are anything but advice on behaving expediently, as the poem in full shows:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson followed her own advice, not only in her poems but in the slanting rays of truth about her life which she released into her letters. To a certain extent, one might say that Richard Sewall’s biography of the poet operates on the same principle (though not for heuristic reasons but for lack of opportunity for the full dazzling view). Sewall’s massive Life of Emily Dickinson (1974, recently reissued in a one-volume edition) is in many respects the most impressive portrait of Emily Dickinson so far constructed. But, oddly, Dickinson seems as hard to grasp as ever. In fact, this is one of the ceaseless themes of Sewall’s biography, beginning with the first chapter on “The Problem of the Biographer.” As he says near the end of the book in one of the theme’s many restatements: “The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always; she seems almost willfully to have seen to that.” She has frustrated “the prying eye of the biographer,” and the words Sewall regularly uses to refer to his subject’s elusiveness—mists, veils, enigmas, clues, hints— remind us of the modesty and tentativeness of his enterprise.

Rather than attempt a falsifyingly “definitive” biography, Sewall has provided “the richest possible profusion of detail.” The rich profusion is granted to many persons and subjects in addition to the poet and her life: in fact, Dickinson doesn’t even get born until the beginning of volume 2. This biography is the consummate “Everyone’s Emily Dickinson,” with analyses, one by one, of Dickinson’s relationships with friends, advisers, real and putative lovers. In explaining his methodology, Sewall writes:

[Emily Dickinson is] a figure upon whose biography no narrative structure can be imposed that is not to a degree arbitrary or fictitious. It is true that Emily Dickinson’s life had a beginning, a middle, and an end. . . . But the beginning, middle, and end are not articulated by any dramatic external events; her life can be divided only very roughly into periods. She can be known as a person not through what she did (excluding for the moment her poems and letters as forms of doing) so much as through her relationships with people, events, books, ideas—but mostly, being an intensely personal person, with people. Like Jamesian “reflectors,” each relationship gives back a phase, or facet, of her character, her personality, and her literary purpose.

But there are a number of problems with this approach, despite its apparent tailoring to the particular case. In seeking to avoid the fictional plot of biographical narrative, Sewall resorts to another admittedly fictional model. Clearly there is something arbitrary and fictitious in the choice of “Jamesian reflectors.” What will these reflectors include or exclude, emphasize or deemphasize, in the poet’s life? In fact, Sewall’s organization seems modeled less on James’ fictional technique than on the preceding mainstream critical biographies by Whicher and Johnson. Both are more slender and narrative than Sewall’s biography, but the biographical heart of each book is a series of analyses of Dickinson’s relationships with her great love and muse (assumed by both Whicher and Johnson to have been the Reverend Charles Wadsworth), with T.W. Higginson, and with Helen Hunt Jackson, among others. In both of the earlier biographies, extensive discussion of the poet’s reading and writing is crystallized out from the life and deposited at the end of the book. Likewise, in Sewall’s biography “Books and Reading” is the penultimate chapter (though Dickinson called books “the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul”), and the last chapter, “The Poet,” is an evaluation of Dickinson’s status and achievement. There is no chapter called, for example, “Writing.” But after the essential work of Johnson in estimating (by handwriting, chiefly) the dates of the poems, and after the publication of the letters and of resources like Millicent Todd Bingham’s Emily Dickinson’s Home (1955) and Jay Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960), this distillation of life from work should not be inevitable. Emily Dickinson’s life, with its relative scarcity of external events and its severe dedication to the pursuit of writing, offers few of the expected obstacles to a narrative integration of “life” and “work.” There are, plainly, serious difficulties of interpretation and large uncertainties which anyone attempting to construct a narrative of her life as a writer would have to face. But so far, no one has made the attempt. Instead, her biographers have relied heavily on the chancy—and less interesting—investigation of Dickinson’s actual and possible relations with significant others.

To sacrifice narrative to a rotation from personal relationship to personal relationship at best trades one set of risks for another. Our attention is diverted from what Dickinson actually did (and why should her poems and letters be excluded even for a moment as “forms of doing”?), and from the contexts which might help us better understand her actions. Moreover, since her relationships with most people were conducted by letter during the time she was writing most productively, and since Dickinson’s letters are often as riddling, oblique, and highly wrought as her poems, it’s a tricky business to extrapolate even those relationships which were most important to her.(And the 1,049 surviving letters are only a fraction of her correspondence.)

One of those important relationships was with Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican in which five of Dickinson’s poems were published. Bowles was a deeply loved family friend; Sewall believes he was also the decisive romantic love of Dickinson’s life and the object of the so-called Master letters, the three distressingly naked, pleading, and desperate letters which survive in Dickinson’s papers (there is no evidence they were sent).

Although Sewall admits there is no proof that Dickinson was in love with Bowles, he is willing to take the risk in this case of imposing some narrative structure on his materials. He feels the “temptation” to piece out

a continuous narrative of her love for Samuel Bowles . . . a pattern of the relationship, logically satisfying but chronologically (and otherwise) impossible to verify, replete with meetings, confrontations, and sad partings. The story can take Emily Dickinson all the way from the tentative beginnings, through moments of wholehearted affirmation, . . .through the agony of frustration and the reassessment her failure demanded, and finally to the consequent rededication of her life. Every one of these major phases and many minor ones, can be documented persuasively by its own cluster of poems, the only caveats being in the order of occurrence and the degree of uncertainty as to the whereabouts of Bowles.

Here, it would seem, are some of the dramatic events so embarrassingly absent from Emily Dickinson’s life; here is a “logical” narrative, worth tentative shaping even at some risk of imposing a fiction on the truth.


When we ask why this story ought to be told, however uncertainly, when other stories go unattempted (such as Dickinson’s resistance to the religious revival during her adolescence and twenties which succeeded in drawing all her friends and family into the church), the answer would appear to be that personal relations are not only the way we can best know Dickinson; they are also the mainspring of her poetic development. As Sewall says in his chapter on Otis Lord, the man Dickinson loved in her later years (a love that was requited and also documented), “Perhaps it was the woman in her, perhaps it was simply a basic human need, but all her life Emily Dickinson needed an object, a person, on whom she could focus her creative powers.” William Wordsworth, W.B. Yeats, and many other men, women, poets, and nonpoets could be explained in the same way.


What stories could be told about Emily Dickinson which would pull her into the foreground, resolve the splintered images into a plausible whole, and dispense with apologies that we lack the whole truth? To begin with, it would help if she were presented as leading a flesh-and-blood existence, if her daily life, physical actions, and physical complaints were animated for us by her biographers. Such matters are largely left out of account (although a recent article by Sewall and Martin Wand on the eye problem which twice drove Dickinson from seclusion to Cambridgeport for months of treatment is a good example of what could be done).

One of the undeniable “events” of Dickinson’s life was her death, from a kidney disorder (Bright’s disease) on May 15, 1886.The death of a biographical subject is always interesting, of course. But in Dickinson’s case, the interest is sharpened by her own keen attention to deathbed scenes and to the attrition of the dying person’s senses and consciousness in poems like “The last night that she lived” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Another poem begins, “I like a look of Agony/Because I know it’s true,” and concludes:

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

But the extraordinary gift for expressing finality can also preserve mystery:

I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room—
In search of Something—as it seemed—
Then Cloudier become—
And then—obscure with Fog
And then—be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen.

She could be a passionate respondent to the deaths of those she knew only by repute or through correspondence as well as to the deaths of personal acquaintances. And she was deeply moved by the deaths of such women writers as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. When Helen Hunt Jackson, the only absolute supporter of Dickinson’s poetry in her lifetime, died unexpectedly, Dickinson, yearning for a report of her last words, wrote: “Oh, had that Keats a Severn!”


Dickinson had no Severn either. No last words are recorded; her death came during a coma. But the odd thing is that her biographers pay so little attention to her death. Sewall doesn’t narrate the event at all. There are about a half dozen brief passages concerning Dickinson’s death, funeral, and obituary, scattered throughout his 821 pages. Two references in the text describe Higginson reading an Emily Brontë poem at the funeral; but Dickinson’s own instructions for her funeral, which specified that her body be carried out the back door of the house by men who had worked on the Dickinson grounds, are mentioned in a footnote. In Johnson’s biography, the poet’s death wraps up the end of the friendship between Dickinson and Higginson, who is left to muse on how many of the people who have interested him have passed away. The person who most interests us takes second place. But Austin recorded her “terrible breathing” at the end, and we know who was present in the house; there is enough material to construct a fitting account of her death.

In addition to giving Dickinson’s life physical weight and presence, the ideal biographer would reveal Dickinson’s early effort to establish a style, a voice, a vocation. For this she was certainly doing, before any lover (or all of the above) appeared upon the scene. Her ostensible profession was the “prickly art” of housekeeping, and (less ostensibly) genteel lingering on the threshold of marriage. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that in their late teens and early twenties, both Emily and Lavinia Dickinson thought at least in general terms about marrying. But in her early twenties, Emily was also beginning to think of herself as a poet. During this period, 1851—54, her brother Austin was in Boston, teaching school and studying law, seeking his own professional definition. And Dickinson’s weekly letters to the only member of the family who shared something of her temperament show her practicing and testing her style and her claims as a poet.

Reading and writing were valued in the Dickinson family: Edward Dickinson had an impressive library, he bought books for Emily, the daughters belonged to a reading club and attended literary lectures. But the potent admiration of the family was directed at Austin’s intellectual endeavors. In an early letter, Dickinson wrote that “there was always such a Hurrah wherever [Austin] was,” and when she was 19 it was still true: “Austin was reading Hume’s History . . .and his getting it through was the signal for general uproar” in the family social life, which had abated while he was working. In her letters to friends at this time, Dickinson complains of wearying household and social obligations from which she “selfishly” steals time to write letters.

The father’s admiration for Austin was deep, and the more powerful because his was the only responsive intellect (Dickinson said that her mother didn’t “care for thought”). He admired the wit and perspicacity in the son which perhaps he never saw in the daughter. Austin’s absence was sorely felt by everyone in the household, but Dickinson emphasized her father’s discomfiture: “Father is as uneasy when you are gone away as if you catch a trout, and put him in Sahara.” He read all of Austin’s letters, opening them at the post office no matter to whom addressed, and then made Emily read them aloud at the table. After supper, she wrote to Austin, he “cracks a few walnuts, puts his spectacles on, and with your last in his hand, sits down to enjoy the evening.” Dickinson repeatedly describes her father rejoicing in Austin’s “delineations of men, women and things”: “Father says your letters are altogether before Shakespeare and he will have them published to put in our library.” This is a poignant remark now, though it may have been less so to the apprentice poet who did not know her greatness-to-be. But when she wrote it she had seen her first piece in print—a comic valentine, published anonymously in an Amherst magazine the year before; and her mockery of her father’s admiration and Austin’s impact as a writer is often exaggerated until it seems a challenge and a defense:

Father perused the letter and verily for joy the poor man could hardly contain himself—he read and read again, and each time seemed to relish the story more than at first. Fearing the consequences on a mind so formed as his, I seized the exciting sheet, and bore it away to my folio to amuse nations to come. . . . So soon as he was calm he began to proclaim your opinion—the effect cannot be described— encomium followed encomium—applause deafened applause—the whole town reeled and staggered as it were a drunken man . . . the sun went down in clouds—the moon rose in glory—Alpha Delta, All Hail!

It may have been this giddy performance which prompted a protest from Austin. In her next letter, after complimenting Austin for his success in making the family laugh, she joked about her own inferiority:

I feel quite like retiring, in presence of one so grand, and casting my small lot among small birds, and fishes—you say you don’t comprehend me, you want a simpler style. Gratitude indeed for all my fine philosophy! I strove to be exalted thinking I might reach you and while I pant and struggle and climb the nearest cloud, you walk out very leisurely in your slippers from Empyrean, and without the slightest notice request me to get down!

Two years later she was ready to skirmish more openly. Austin had sent her a letter enclosing a poem, and she replied: “And Austin is a Poet, Austin writes a psalm. Out of the way, Pegasus . . . Now Brother Pegasus, I’ll tell you what it is—I’ve been in the habit myself of writing some few things, and it rather appears to me that you’re getting away my patent, so you’d better be somewhat careful or I’ll call the police!” The “patent” couldn’t be shared in the family, and certainly not with the only son, the inheritor, and the father’s favorite.

The ideal biographer would also take a serious sustained interest in Dickinson’s attitude toward publication, her ventures into it, and retreats from it. The most substantial consideration of the matter occurs not in any of the biographies but in Ruth Miller’s The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1968), a history of Dickinson’s attempts to publish, culminating in her production of small hand-sewn volumes of her poems in fair copy. These books, of approximately 20 poems each, are not arranged by subject matter or chronology, the usual organizing schemes in modern editions of the poetry. Miller describes their organization as “dramatic” and argues that Dickinson’s poetry ought to be read in the format in which she produced it. Only very recently has this become possible, with the publication in 1981 of The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, a facsimile edition by R.W. Franklin which reproduces the 40 bound books as well as unbound sets and a variety of loose sheets.

Ruth Miller’s suggestion in a subsequent article that Dickinson’s interest in publication persisted into the last years of her life receives footnote status (once again) in Sewall’s biography. This last apparent bid for publication was made to Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers in Boston. Roberts Bros, had published A Masque of Poets (1878), an anonymous collection of poems by many hands which included Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest.” Repeated urgings of Helen Hunt Jackson had finally persuaded Dickinson to yield the poem up. It was attributed to Emerson by the critics; so her first poem to be published in a book had achieved an estimable tribute. Four years later in 1882 Dickinson wrote to Niles to inquire about a forthcoming biography of George Eliot, and in his reply the publisher asked if she would consider publishing a volume of her poems. Avoiding a direct answer, she sent him one poem, then two, and then her own copy of the Brontë sisters’ poems. This was the same book she had tried to give to Samuel Bowles years before; Bowles returned it, as did Niles. That she sent the book to two men who had published her poems is suggestive, and perhaps the gift was meant to elicit some response that neither man was able to make. Perhaps she wanted a response to the Brontës’ poetry which would signal that her own would receive a like welcome.(Dickinson often seems to have used books, as well as pictures, to triangulate her relationship with other writers and publishers: after Higginson requested her picture, she sent him one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) Niles seems to have reponded positively: he returned the Bronte book with another request for Dickinson’s poems. Again she didn’t answer, but sent him five additional poems. Within a year of his request for a manuscript, then, Niles had accumulated a total of nine poems by Dickinson (including the previously published “Success”). Six of these poems had also been sent to T.W. Higginson; three of the six had gone to H.H. Jackson as well, and one to Bowles.

The evidence of the Letters suggests that Dickinson rarely sent the same poem to more than one person. Apart from the poems in question, I calculate that she did so about a dozen times (out of nearly 300 poems enclosed in or woven into letters). The poems she repeats are usually short, about four to six lines; she also occasionally repeats one stanza from a longer poem. That so many of the poems sent to Niles had not only been tried out but tried out on other literary critics suggests that Dickinson regarded these poems as among her best or at least as ones likely to please a publisher’s taste. Current anthologies often include the six poems sent to both Higginson and Niles: “Further in summer than the birds,” “How happy is the little stone,” “Ample make this bed,” “A route of evanescence,” “The wind begun to rock the grass,” “Success is counted sweetest,”—as well as the two sent only to Niles: “Her losses make our gains ashamed,” and “It sifts from leaden sieves.”

If Niles had not been given the volume he requested, he had accumulated a sizable number of conceivably publishable poems. But he apparently stopped pressing Dickinson after the second request. Perhaps he changed his mind about her work; certainly he was not eager to publish it when, after her death, the once-sought ms was brought to him, edited by Mabel Todd. The poems Dickinson sent to Niles certainly seem to be a subtle invitation to publish her. But why should she be so subtle when he had declared his interest outright? The obvious guess is that she feared he would reject her work as unpublishable on more extensive examination, as Bowles and Higginson had done. His silence and inactivity suggest that such a fear would have been well grounded. In any event, in a year she had suffered a nervous collapse following the deaths of Otis Lord and her young nephew; and two years after that she was dead.

One wonders, finally, to what degree a reservation about the quality of Dickinson’s poetry still keeps her biographers—and many of her critics—at more than arm’s length. Many who pronounce her work to be great don’t like it very much. Even Sewall’s appreciative biography concludes with a surprisingly ambivalent final chapter on Dickinson’s achievement and stature. It’s set up as an argument between the apologetic biographer and “my skeptical friend” (shades of T.W. Higginson), “a man of learning and culture, a college president.” The Skeptic gets the first challenging word— “Just how good is she?”—and his reservations hold up throughout the chapter. Sewall’s attempt to show that Dickinson “shaped, at her best, something new” makes but faint-hearted praise.

Lavinia Dickinson once said that her sister was always waiting for “the rewarding person” to come, The rewarding persons of the future will have to consider the relations of biography, sex, and form and devise an appropriate plot for the life of a woman-recluse-poet; that plot is one which Dickinson’s life shares in many respects with those of other women poets. The absences of information and the enigmatic quality of much of Dickinson’s own documentation, of her life mean that her life needs more invention, not less. She must be invented as a presence, not as the negative space that appears when other figures crowd the canvas.

Such arguments seem superfluous when one opens Dickinson’s poems, because their presence is so strong and their range extraordinarily wide. They share the moral intelligence of George Eliot’s work, the sensual and spiritual ferocity of Emily Bronte’s and Christina Rossetti’s, the daring and self-assertion of Charlotte Bronte’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s—to take only some of her dearest “friends of the soul.” For her power to send a charge through a single word, it’s hard to think of a better comparison than Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare (and Milton, whom she called “the great florist”) she can write superbly about flowers but also about the devastation of tragedy, and she knows as well the less dramatic daily hungers of existence:

The Mind lives on the Heart
Like any Parasite—
If that is full of Meat
The Mind is fat.

But if the Heart omit
Emaciate the Wit—
The Aliment of it
So absolute.

Emily Dickinson invented an extraordinary body of work out of materials that may seem to us insufficient and puzzling. We need a biography that can do the same for her.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading