Retouched photograph of Emily Dickinson, ca. 1897
Emily Dickinson’s legendary silence has produced a discordant chorus of speculation and mythmaking. As Alfred Habegger, her best biographer, has written, Dickinson’s “reclusiveness, originality of mind, and unwillingness to print her work [have] left just the sort of informational gaps that legend thrives on.” Readers and scholars alike have endlessly revised this legend, struck by the conviction that Dickinson speaks directly to them. Adding to the noise is the decades-long effort by the poet’s heirs to control her legacy, engendering incomplete and distorted editions of her work. This tendency is exemplified by the photo of Dickinson featuring fluffy hair and comely bangs grafted onto her gaunt portrait by a family-hired retoucher (who also managed to conjure a a clownlike collar). The following list is a partial portrait of my Emily Dickinson, the raw materials from which I’ve made my myth.
Fortunately, contemporary readers have Franklin's definitive edition of Dickinson’s verse, a complete one-volume collection of her 1,789 poems.
Those who feel slighted by the slab that is the above edition will find comfort in this, Franklin’s colossal three-volume set, containing alternate versions of many poems.
Readers intimidated by the door-stopping heft of the above editions may prefer this volume, edited by Johnson, the great Dickinson scholar who, in 1955, finally restored her poems to something close to their intended state.
The remainder of Dickinson’s literary output is found in her letters, also edited by Johnson, which contain some of the most exceptional lines in Dickinson’s oeuvre. The one-volume, “selected” edition is recommended.
A selection of the “passionate and playful” letters from Emily to her sister-in-law, Susan. Taken together, these letters suggest a romance: Hart and Smith (and a school of Dickinson scholars) have posited Sue as Emily’s muse and primary intellectual influence. The book promises a “dramatic new understanding” of Emily Dickinson and claims to overcome “a century of censorship and misinterpretation.”
Howe’s book, first published in 1985 (and recently reissued by New Directions), is a fervent study of Dickinson’s verse and an influential work of art in its own right. Howe’s volume teases out intriguing allusions, suggests provocative possible influences and comparisons (to Gertrude Stein, for example), and provides a poet’s-eye view of the mechanics of Dickinson’s verse. Howe sees Dickinson not as a lonely spinster, but rather a rebellious explorer, decades ahead of her time.
This volume is perhaps the only bit of Dickinson’s work that has not been overly edited or interpreted. Her passion for nature was second only to that for poetry; this volume is a lush reproduction of her carefully collected album of over four hundred plants, representing many happy days in Amherst’s woods and the seed of much of her writing.
In the crowded field of Dickinson scholarship, Habegger’s 2001 chronicle is the exemplary account of the poet’s life, placing Habegger alongside Jay Leyda and Richard Sewall in the pantheon of Dickinson biographers. This scrupulously researched account is astute and balanced, and a vivid portrait of Dickinson emerges despite the gaps in the record.
Finally, this volume makes an elegant companion to Habegger’s biography. The photographs, drawings, and maps provide a visual record of Dickinson’s favorite faces and places, allowing the reader to picture her world in vivid detail.
David O’Neill is Bookforum's editorial assistant.