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Emily Dickinson's Reputation Totally Shifted in 1955

Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Late Thaw of a Frozen Image"

February 21, 1955

This will be a year for changing our minds about Emily Dickinson—newly estimating her poetry and adjusting to biographical upsets—if we are able. In 1937 R. P. Blackmur wrote of her: "Few poets have benefited generally, and suffered specifically, from such a handsome or fulsome set of prejudices, which, as they are expressed, seem to remove the need for any actual reading at all" . . . and we have reached 1955 without any noticeable change in our Dickinson prejudice. In the interval the suffering has grown so specific as to seem a constant mutilation of the poetry by biographically induced speculation.

Though it is consoling to imagine a future generation of readers who will view Emily Dickinson's poetry through no filter of cheap melodrama or of cheaper sentiment, it is sad that we today receive such a small part of the mind and art that were put into these poems. It al- most persuades one to surrender wholly to the New Criticism, and ignore the poet altogether, for every book that imposed a biographical formula for understanding her poetry cancelled most of (he poetry to prove its point.

Emily Dickinson is a conspicuous victim of a scholastic tendency to freeze our concepts of a writer's life, perhaps because a frozen concept is easier to grasp, and to pass on, than those more slippery and troublesome non-objects known as artists. There are music-listening courses that use the tags of "Papa Haydn" and "the charming Mozart," and courses in American literature have developed similar labels whose harm far outweighs their convenience. Our Emily is in much the same position as that “comical Mark Twain” before Van Wyck Brooks showed him, newly and darkly, to us. Our Emily, of course, unaware of community and nation, never sees anyone, never wears any color but white, never does a lick of work about the house beyond baking batches of cookies for secret delivery to favorite children and meditating majestically among her flowers—this is an Emily who remains hidden in her second-floor bedroom, jotting down little verses that help her to keep alive the great love that she renounced many, many years since. This is the image foisted on us for so long that we now accept it as fact; we not only suspect anything we hear that does not “fit,” but we criticize Miss Dickinson for being this absurd fiction.

One explanation is to be found in the fact that published materials have been so fragmentary that anyone with an active imagination could invent a version of Emily to suit his own, and his publisher’s purpose. (This year, though may mark the end of the factional warfare that has stood so long between the poet and her public, and whose worst injury was to keep the poet’s work and papers divided and mysterious.) Curiously, no matter how at variance were the biographers in their choices of villain and hero to close triangles around the martyr-heroine, all agreed on certain factors that were equally fictitious: “the poet no one knew”—the woman who renounced society for love’s sake—the princess-in-the-tower—the loveless woman who turned to poetry—“the American Elizabeth Barrett who didn’t escape”—etc. ad nauseam. For lurid example, here are program summaries of two scenes in one of the Emily-operas:

Act II: While visiting in Philadelphia, she hears a sermon by the famous minister, Charles Wadsworth, and feeling tremendously drawn to him, seeks his counsel. She tells him that she feels “lost without faith” but “loves the world too clearly to renounce it.” Wadsworth, too is attracted by her brilliant mind. During her visit to his study, she discovers that he married.

Act III, Scene 2: Emily’s family mourn her grief-stricken state and Lavinia discovers her secret, promises never to leave her. Emily begins telling her love in her poetry “Her Letter to the World.” In a moment of revelation she sees herself as the dedicated wife of Charles who tells her that great love and Eternity are one. This then becomes her refuge and “Home” on a plane not of this world.

It’s no good laughing at this; so nicely does it overlap the too, too solid bosh that we all catch ourselves believing in some part. It is so much easier to accept such a pattern than to work out for oneself the complex motives and half-visible ideals of an American woman in the nineteenth century who knew she was a good poet. The bosh had polluted some of the best writing about Emily Dickinson. Richard Chase built a valuable critical examination of her work on a wobbly base of uncritical acceptance of biographical error. Thornton Wilder went further, allowing a fancied, arch, doll-like figure of the poet to show to him only arch and doll-like qualities in her poetry, and pushing most of her writing aside in the process.

The Dickinson critics who promoted flexibility in our attitudes to her have always been in the minority. It took the perception of Allen Tate to attack the legend: "All pity for Miss Dickinson's "starved life' is misdirected. Her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent." Conrad Aiken was right to call her choice "deliberate and conscious" (but wrong to believe that she chose to become "a hermit"). In Amherst itself, where the temptation was greatest to create a peculiar figure named Emily, George Whicher's was a lonely voice of objectivity; the insights of his biography. This Was a Poet, will survive factual correction. In a following generation, Henry Wells studied Emily Dickinson's poetry without noise and with an ear for wit and sharpness, qualities often obscured by the legend; and F. O. Matthiessen examined "the private poet" and her work with a healthy skepticism.

Stefansson has a wonderful term for our reluctance to revise set patterns: "the standardization of error." We've so standardized our ways of thinking about Emily Dickinson that we tend to resent anything that disturbs the neat, cold shape handed us—our fable convenue, our fraudulent monument. For the present and future—and in spite of the welcome quantity of new material being placed at our disposal this year—we should regard Blackmur’s admonition as law: “It is imperative to allow for continous error.”

We froze our Emily-image so long ago that it's bewildering to survey all the "new" material that has done little to alter it in the past twenty years. It is not the expanded 1931 edition of her Letters that one finds on most library shelves—but the first collection of 1894. It was also that first collection that was popularly reprinted a few years ago—: the freed copyright apparently a stronger motive than public information. Today, four years after Theodora Ward published a new Dickinson correspondence containing plenty that didn't "fit," and embellished with some of the sanest comment ever made on this poet's personality, you will find few, even among Dickinson fans, who have bothered to read these new letters—for frozen concepts are also locked concepts, protected from any contaminating breeze blowing outside the freezer. And there were feverish admirers of Dickinson's poetry who refused—on grounds that do not bear dose examination—to read the 600+ new poems in Bolts of Melody. So it is not really surprising to watch the new documents that Millicent Bingham published this past fall (in Emily Dickinson—A Revelation) pass almost unnoticed. The legend-fed fans do well to ignore Mrs. Bingham's book—it requires an overhauling of everything they've wanted to believe about Emily's life and "tragedy," for here are the first love-letters from her to reach print, and they are happy love-letters,—and O Heavens, what will we do with all our old frustration theories and explanations of—of a life we know little or nothing about?!

Its modest size may have made it easy to put the Bingham Revelation out of sight and mind, but that should not be the case with the book she promises for this Spring; Emily Dickinson's Home is to be a large volume (originally intended for publication some years ago, to precede the Revelation) that will publish all the Dickinson family's correspondence in Mrs. Bingham's possession, including the complete texts of Emily's letters to her brother Austin, only a few of which were permitted print in 1894. It is impossible to imagine that our picture of the Dickinson household and of Emily as a part of that household will remain what it was before the publication of Home. (Who knows, though.'—for Revelation seems to have changed few minds about Emily Dickinson's "lone love-affair.") As for Mrs. Bingham's mission, to print all her Dickinson documents: that is to be completed this Summer with publication (in the New England Quarterly) of all remaining prose fragments, notes and letter drafts—news that should excite any one eager to learn about his poet’s craft.

Before the end of Summer we shall see a major and troubling event in American literature—for the first time all of Emily Dickinson’s manuscript poems will be printed as she left them, and for the first time a volume entitled The Poems of Emily Dickinson will have full right to the title. Thomas H. Johnson, the editor of the Harvard variorum text (a project, by the way, that was called for by Matthiessen in 1945), is the first to trust the work to appear in print as it stands, with no tinkering. And, also for the first time, the poems are to appear outside the confinement of categories (no longer will some of her best allegories be buried in the “Nature” department), arranged in a single chronology. A guarantee of his properly unemotional approach to the task was promised in the Harvard Library Bulletin:

The dating of the poems is conjectural in most instances, and will always remain so. Dates have been arrived at by all scraps of evidence, associative and direct, that can be adduced, including painstaking studies of handwriting and of stationery. A detailed account of the evidence and its use will accompany the publication of the poems.

It will no longer be possible to think of her as a casual artist, leaning on chance, hoping for the happy accident (even though it would seem that the very preservation of her poems was dangerously close to “accidental”). The variorum edition will show how deliberate an artist it was who hammered out those not-quote-strange, not-quite-familiar, and altogether individual colors and edges. But will we able to read these poems freshly, without resenting the removal of the editorial freedoms and mistakes that have become a familiar part of them? He who reads these as the work of an undiscovered poet will be rewarded with pleasure and surprise, and I pray that young poets will try the experiment.

This Autumn, shortly after the appearance of the Poems, Thomas Johnson will issue his critical or interpretative biography, drawing upon materials Harvard’s Dickinson collection; and this will be followed, as soon thereafter as possible, by Harvard’s new edition of the Letters, edited by Johnson with Mrs. Ward. The Letters should make it inescapably clear (though most of the evidence has long been before us) that Emily Dickinson composed in prose with all the care and calculation she expended on each poem, even those sent with flowers to a neighbor, and I hope that the Letters will stimulate more work on her completely individual prose style.

It is hard to throw the whole blame of Dickinson interpretation on “biographical curiosity.” That in itself should be no evil (I believe that nothing but good can come of making all facts available to all), but its single direction—in search of The Lover—has harmed Emily, and us. Anyone who has worked on Dickinson problems must have grown suck of that question, “Who was her?” To all misguided biographers (and to all the readers they have misguided) who have sought single Lover candidates to explain all Italy’s behavior and all her poetry, Mrs. Bingham addresses a warning in her Revelation: “It cannot be said too emphatically or too often that Emily Dickinson’s understanding of the human heart is not to be explained in terms of a relationship to any one person.” This is a revealing statement, and is supported by such a gallery of men who enjoyed Emily’s friendship as to make suspect all the stories we’ve bee told, not only about the Lover, but about her isolation from all society. Despite the revelations in Revelation, of what Judge Lord had really meant to Emily, he is still less tangible for her admirers than the almost entirely hypothetical relation to her of the Rev. Wadsworth. Poor Wadsworth !—as much a victim of the inventors and as deserving of our pity, therefore, as Emily. I predict cries of pain when the real relation between minister and poet is established.

Publishers, too, have, added little to the sobriety of Dickinson studies, with their never-kept promises that each new book about her would, for the first and last time, tell all about her and rend every biographical veil. It is even possible to excuse the rejection by the Emilyites of new books, and applaud their suspicion of book-jacket lures. After all, even "Revelation" is a very large word.

Is it really possible that we can be shut away from the full work or real personality of so vital a poet? Can any false structure, no matter how buttressed by "family tradition" and scholarly authority, by poetical tributes and pilgrimages, by novels, plays, even two operas and a dance, forever obscure the real person who wrote those real poems? I prefer to believe that this particular personality and its work are so powerful that there will always be enough scattered dissatisfaction (with the obvious contrast between real and unreal) to prevent a false image from finally hardening.

The worthiest aim for all Dickinson scholarship of the future is to make it easier for her poetry to speak directly and freshly to every reader. No pattern, please.