The Unbinding of Emily Dickinson

The elusive Emily Dickinson, who lived from 1830 until 1886, is now a canonical figure. Work after work has been published about her, but she rarely published herself, and when she did, it was not under her own name. This is something to question. Why didn’t she publish much of her work, and why didn’t she use her own name when she did? These fuel the question: how would she have felt about the way in which her works were eventually compiled and bound in editions published in 1890, 1891, and 1896?

A binding portrays a part of the story. The cover can convey as much meaning as the title, and Dickinson did not get to choose how her work was displayed to the public. Dickinson created fascicles of bound poems, which she “took pains to copy carefully onto folded sheets and gather with string into booklets” (Harvard University Press). The fascicles represented Dickinson’s voice because the order in which she fastened her poems together told a story that was untouched by publishers or editors. Dickinson published a few pieces, but her role in publication was minimal. Her work was “sent to publishers by friends, and she did not have an opportunity to review them before they were printed” (Emily Dickinson Archive). At this time, a man would have more agency in the publication of his work, but as a woman, Dickinson would not have been included in as much of the publication process as she probably would have preferred. Being unable to provide her opinions on the publication of her work was an issue for Dickinson. Her fascicles were of her own invention. She had complete control of the order and sequence in which she organized the poems and how she punctuated them. By binding her own poems, she found freedom because she made her own literary decisions.

Sample of Emily Dickinson’s Handwriting. Emily Dickinson. Poems: Third Series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photographed by Addy Perlman.

After her death, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia came across a “cache of almost 1,800 poems,” and she decided to publish them (Dobrow). Mabel Loomis Todd was the one selected to gather Dickinson’s poetry, and while her affair with Austin Dickinson complicated matters, Todd worked tirelessly to publish with the help of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, also one of Dickinson’s correspondents (Dobrow). Todd noted that Dickinson’s handwriting was difficult to understand and that she would mark her poems where she thought she could substitute words from a list she compiled (Dobrow). Higginson was reluctant to publish at first, so he asked Todd to separate the poems into sections that had the potential to be published; once he started reading, he discovered Dickinson had left behind a world of literary genius that was unlike other poetry at the time (Dobrow). Todd and Higginson, mostly Higginson, took steps that distanced Dickinson from her poetry.

As Todd and Higginson arranged her poems, they “sometimes changed her words and regularized her grammar, syntax, and rhyme, as well as punctuation and capitalization” according to the editorial provided by the Emily Dickinson Archive (Emily Dickinson Archive). While at the time they thought this would make her work more accessible to the public, they compromised the integrity of her work. Dickinson may have veered from publication during her lifetime because she did not want to alter her work in order to appease the public and make it more accessible, and this is exactly what Todd and Higginson did. If her poems were altered, it would warp her voice and her intentions. Higginson took it a step further and decided to give Dickinson’s poems titles even though “Mable [Todd] had reservations” about this (Dobrow). Adding a title is like giving someone a nickname; once it’s started, there is no going back, and it becomes a part of a person’s identity. Dickinson did not give her poems titles. Higginson forced his own interpretations onto her poetry by creating titles (Dobrow). Another aspect of the job was selecting the binding, and they chose a cover with Indian Pipes for the 1890 edition because of her love of nature, but there was an underlying message: her poems were in fascicles therefore “like poetry torn up by the roots” as Higginson wrote in the Preface. (Poems 1890).

Cover. Emily Dickinson, Poems: Third Series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896). From Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photographed by Addy Perlman.

This cover, which was reused for the 1891 and 1896 editions, is a wordless poem that is trying to tell the story of Dickinson’s life. The cover resembles “a painting Mabel Todd sent to Emily,” and in a letter, which was reproduced by Mallonee, to Todd, Dickinson said, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none” (Mallonee). The Indian Pipe, which is also known as the “ghost plant” and the “corpse plant,” was of interest to Dickinson (Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica). What others have named the “ghost plant” she called the “flower of life;” this expresses the interactions between nature, life, and death Dickinson pondered. In dissecting the meaning behind this choice of cover, Dickinson’s reception of both the painting and the plant serve as one layer.

Peeling that layer back reveals the next: nature in Dickinson’s writing. Dickinson treasured nature, and she “studied botany at Amherst Academy” and even “pressed 399 flowers” (Mallonee). At her home, she maintained a garden, and the role that nature played in her life was reflected in her poetry; she was “attuned to the weather, the changing seasons…populations of bees, flies, and birds” (Emily Dickinson Museum). Her poetry expresses her contemplation of nature and its ephemeral beauty. A third layer is that Dickinson was a woman. At the time, thoughts of women writing were synonymous with thoughts of the home and nature. A plant on the cover of her book could show that she was a soft and gentle woman. The three series were sold with the depiction of Indian Pipes, and third series offered two options: green cloth and then white cloth with a green spine. Using the cover multiple times created a sense of familiarity. The reader could feel as if they knew Dickinson with this singular image because it told a version of her story: a woman who cherished nature and who wrote its unexplainable beauty into existence. After seeing the cover, the reader approaches Dickinson’s poetry with this crafted story, and this can alter one’s reading and interpretation of the words between the covers chosen by someone other than Dickinson.

Since her death, Dickinson’s poetry has been altered and interpreted and then unaltered and reinterpreted. Even as recently as 2019, a show called Dickinson was released. It puts a modern spin on Dickinson in order to explore this illustrious being while examining gender during her lifetime. Projections onto Dickinson’s poetry will always be a part of its history and its future. We continue to unbind the fascicles she made and create our own versions of her poetry.


Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. et al. Poem. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890.

Dickinson, Emily, et al. Poems. Second Series. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891.

Dickinson, Emily, et al. Poems. Third Series. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896.

 Dobrow, Julie. “How Much Editing Was Done to Emily Dickinson’s Poems After She    Died?” Literary Hub, 1 Apr. 2019, lithub.com/how-much-editing-was-done-to-emilydickinsons-poems-after-she-died/.

 “Emily Dickinson and Gardening.” Emily Dickinson Museum, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily dickinson-and-gardening/.

“Emily Dickinson Archive.” Emily Dickinson Archive, http://www.edickinson.org/.

“Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open Access.” Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open

Access | Harvard University Press, www.hup.harvard.edu/features/dickinson/.

“Emily Dickinson Poems Book Cover 1890.” Wikimedia Commons, Archive.org, 6 Nov. 2008 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emily_Dickinson_Poems.jpg.

Mallonee, Barbara C. “Leaving Latitude: Emily Dickinson and Indian Pipes.” The Georgia

Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1999, pp. 223–244. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41401686.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Indian Pipe.” Encyclopædia Britannica,

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/plant/Indian-pipe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s