Emily Dickinson, an American Great

Black and White Photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North via Wikimedia / public domain. Original daguerreotype from Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.

If you’ve ever felt like nobody, don’t worry—you’re in good company, says poet Emily Dickinson, according to one of her best known poems, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” To be known is to be public, to be public is to be someone—how terribly commonplace. But although Dickinson would have been considered a “nobody” poet at the time of her death, she is now regarded as one of the most influential American poets. Highly inventive and experimental, her works have fascinated scholars for years and been the subject of much critical discourse.1

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, the middle child of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, was originally born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst would prove to be a home base of sorts for Dickinson—the longest time she spent away from Amherst was the year she spent at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.2 Later in life, she also began to withdraw from society, instead opting to spend her time inside her family’s homestead in Amherst and gaining a reputation as a recluse. Despite her public reticence, she maintained correspondence with several good friends and confidants, often sending them poems for feedback.3 In particular, the years 1858-1865 mark a period of intense creative productivity for Dickinson’s poetry. During this time, she would write almost 1100 poems, as well as her famous “Master” letters. 4

Today, Dickinson’s legacy consists of close to 1800 poems. But she was unknown as a poet during her life because her poems were rarely published. Of her entire writing portfolio, maybe ten of her poems were published in various newspapers including the Springfield Daily Republican, and it seems the ones that were published were done so without her knowledge or consent.5

Emily Dickinson’s I taste a liquor never brewed published in the Springfield Daily Republican via Wikimedia / public domain

After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered hundreds of her poems, all hand-written and many hand-bound into forty volumes, called “fascicles.”1 This discovery would lead to the posthumous publication of Dickinson’s work, as well as a lot of controversy regarding the publication of the poems. In fact, Dickinson had asked her sister to promise to destroy her poems after her death.6 Clearly, this did not happen, and Lavinia instead turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, a close family friend, for the task of editing Dickinson’s poems and preparing them for publishing.

Todd, with the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published the first collection of Dickinson’s poems in 1890, called the Poems of Emily Dickinson. The editors significantly changed a lot of the irregular punctuation and capitalization, and even added titles to poems that previously did not have them. Most notably, they took Dickinson’s hand sewn fascicles and deconstructed them. The first collection was so successful that they published Poems of Emily Dickinson, Second Series in 1891, and then later Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series in 1896.6

Covers of Emily Dickinson, Poems, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson (Boston: Robert Brothers, 1890) and Poems: Second Series , edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson (Boston: Robert Brothers, 1891). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by your Samantha Fu.

Dickinson’s niece Martha Dicksinon Bianchi also published a significant number of her poems, including an article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Selections from the Unpublished Letters of Emily Dickinson to Her Brother’s Family”; The Single Hound, a collection of Emily’s correspondence to Susan (1914); Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson (1924), Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1924), Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (1929), Face to Face (1932), an expanded biography with letters and poems; Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (1935), and The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1941).”7

Bianchi made significantly fewer edits than Todd had done, leaving Dickinson’s rhyme schemes and lack of titles intact. Part of her mission in publishing her aunt’s work was to counteract her aunt’s reputation as an eccentric and recluse.

Other notable publications of Dickinson’s work includes The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955), edited by Thomas H. Johnson, and The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981), edited by Ralph W. Franklin. Johnson’s publication was the first time Dickinson’s poems had been published chronologically, allowing for study of her development as a writer, while Franklin’s edition sought to preserve the order and presentation of Dickinson’s original fascicles.8 In 1998, Franklin published The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Varorium Edition, which sought to build on and correct the work of Johnson. It was the largest collection of Dickinson’s poems ever published, arranged chronologically and containing transcriptions of nearly 2500 sources, including different versions of single poems.9

Detail of Fascicle 6 from Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by your Samantha Fu.

In addition to publications of Dickinson’s works, there exists a large amount of Dickinson scholarship and critical discourse. Some of that work includes Reading Emily Dickinson’s Letters: Critical Essays (2009), edited Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1970) edited by Jey Leyda, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004) edited by Vivian Pollack, and The Value of Emily Dickinson (2016) by Mary Loeffelholz. In addition to scholarly works, writing about Dickinson has been featured online and in several prominent magazines and publications, including “Emily Dickinson’s Letters” in the Atlantic, “Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson had Epilepsy” on NPR, and “Her Own Society” in The New Yorker.

Most of her manuscripts are split between Harvard University and Amherst College, but online, open access archival holdings of her work exist. Hosted by Harvard University, the Emily Dickinson Archive is an open access website for a number of Dickinson’s manuscripts, providing high resolution images of her works. Similarly, Amherst also has an online collection of Dickinson Manuscripts available for perusal. The Dickinson Electronic Archives and The Dickinson Electronic Archives 2 are both collections of critical and theoretical scholarship surrounding Dickinson’s life and works.

And if you’re looking for something a little more casual, both A Quiet Passion (2016) and Wild Nights with Emily (2018) are movie adaptations of Dickinson’s life, albeit with rather differing perspectives. More recently, her life has also been turned into a TV show called Dickinson (2019). Such adaptations are always received rather controversially, but regardless, one thing is still clear: we remain fascinated by Emily Dickinson.

Works Cited:

[1] “Emily Dickinson.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poet/emily-dickinson.

[2] “1830-1855: Childhood and Youth.” Emily Dickinson Museum, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/emily-dickinson-her-childhood-and-youth-1830-1855/.

[3] “Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson.

[4] “1855-1865: The Writing Years.” Emily Dickinson Museum, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/emily-dickinson-the-writing-years-1855-1865/.

[5] “The Publication Question.” Emily Dickinson Museum, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/poetry/the-poet-at-work/the-publication-question/.

[6] Dobrow, Julie. “How Much Editing Was Done to Emily Dickinson’s Poems After She Died?” Literary Hub, 2018, lithub.com/how-much-editing-was-done-to-emily-dickinsons-poems-after-she-died/.

[7] “Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Editorial Theories and Practices.” Dickinson Electronic Archives, archive.emilydickinson.org/classroom/spring99/edition/bianchi/b-frame.htm.

[8] “The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poems.” Emily Dickinson Museum, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/poetry/the-poet-at-work/the-posthumous-discovery-of-dickinsons-poems/.

[9] “Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open Access.” Harvard University Press, www.hup.harvard.edu/features/dickinson/.

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