- The Dickinson Variorum and the Question of Home
Ralph W. Franklin’s 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson may be the best Dickinson variorum possible. But because a scholarly edition of this kind must take a stand on issues that scholars continue to debate, editorial decisions involving such matters as providing multiple texts for poems, changing punctuation typography, and creating titles for poems will, almost by necessity, be controversial. As Shakespeare variorum editor Richard Knowles has observed, a variorum must negotiate “difference in textual variants, spectrum of meanings, critical approaches, historical and cultural changes of taste” (40), all with the aim of providing readers “the whole range of interpretation that has ever been thought by serious scholars to be possible” (38). Achieving such an ambitious scholarly objective may be particularly fraught at century’s end when, in Vivian Pollak’s words, “as Franklin reads Dickinson in the wake of . . . deconstructive criticism, he engages in compromises that serve as subtle reminders of an inescapable fact: to edit is to alter”(3). With Dickinson, the editorial compromises to which Pollak alludes may be even more subject to critical scrutiny than they would be with writers who actively published in their own lifetimes, as the absence of authorial precedent has led scholars to propose that the multiple visual, structural and semantic features of her holograph composition process were designed to resist containment within the relative stasis of any print home. Knowledge of these editorial complexities makes altogether reasonable Knowles’ conclusion that the “ideal of the variorum . . . is probably impossible to achieve”(45).
Thinking of the new variorum as a print house that seeks to provide a home for poetic meaning helps to illuminate the special challenges that Franklin has faced as an editor of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Not only did Dickinson consistently unsettle the relation of house and home in her life and work, but perhaps as an outgrowth of the ambivalence with which she regarded the possibility of a literal home, she also maintained a distinct sensitivity to [End Page 10] form and content that has challenged editors from the beginning. 1 Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have been the first to detect her reluctance to allow any easy match of “house” with “home” when, upon his arrival in 1870 at the Amherst house that Dickinson refused to leave, she confronted him with the unanticipated question, “‘Could you tell me what home is [?]’” (L342b). In asking this question Dickinson gives personal voice to sentiments frequently expressed in poems. Among the most obvious are the speakers of “I learned -at least - what Home could be” (Fr891) who stated, “This seems a Home - And Home is not”; the speaker of “Up Life’s Hill with my little Bundle”(Fr1018) who “accepted / Homelessness, for Home”; and the speaker of “In many and reportless places” (Fr1404) whose inhalation of a “Joy” that “ha[d] no home” left her to “thereafter roam.” 2 I want to suggest that in posing the question about home from within her own house — a question that strikingly reverses the roles of interrogator and interrogated, or reader and text — Dickinson enacts a refusal to stabilize the material conveyance of meaning that consistently surfaces in her writing and that ought to influence the way editors present her poetry on the printed page. As Marta L. Werner has concluded through her own work as a Dickinson editor, “Emily Dickinson is not a domestic poet; she is not ‘At Home’”(27).
Considered in light of Dickinson’s many challenges to the idea of material containment, the new variorum, I believe, succeeds most where it expresses the uncertain relation of house to home that Dickinson voiced in her question to Higginson; it is least successful when it appears to answer that question. At its best, this edition is a monumental scholarly achievement that may go as far as any variorum can to institutionalize and perpetuate the unsettled house that Dickinson made her poetic home. It does this primarily by providing texts that refuse to erase the visual challenges to textual stability that Dickinson built into her holograph manuscripts. The clearest evidence of this edition’s introduction of instability lies in the decision to...