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Resources for American Literary Study 26.2 (2000) 260-267

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Corrective Vision: Franklin's Dickinson Variorum

Jane Donahue Eberwein
Oakland University

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1998. vi + 1654 pp. $120.

"What is it that instructs a hand lightly created, to impel shapes to eyes at a distance, which for them have the whole area of life or of death? Yet not a pencil in the street but has this awful power, though nobody arrests it" (letter 656). Although Emily Dickinson was thinking about the explosive impact of letters in this remark, her observation applies equally to the force of an editor's pencil. In her only recorded response to one of her poems in print, she objected that the Springfield Republican "defeated" her plan for "A narrow fellow in the grass" by shifts in punctuation and lineation (F 1096). Even now, when the corrections attempted by Dickinson's latest editor are to his predecessors' misjudgments rather than her art, R. W. Franklin faces daunting challenges in transmitting her poems' startling energy.

Franklin joins a succession of Dickinson editors whose efforts have been often and well recounted. The story of what ensued after Lavinia Dickinson discovered her late sister's treasure trove of poems in 1886 is one of confused, separated, even mutilated, manuscripts and of jealous contention among editors or would-be editors of the first generation, Susan Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd (collaborating with Thomas Wentworth Higginson), and between their daughters, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham. But it is also a story of increasingly accurate textual representation and of remarkable success in building an audience. Todd's and Higginson's Poems by Emily Dickinson, published in three volumes from 1890 to 1896, won nineteenth-century readers, while Bianchi's (1914, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1935, 1937) and Bingham's (1945) editions repositioned Dickinson to appeal to those in the first half of this century.

Yet it was not until Thomas H. Johnson brought out The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955) that the scholarly world had its rejoinder to R. P. Blackmur's charge that Dickinson's poems had "never been edited" ("Emily Dickinson's Notation," 1956). Johnson's subtitle, "Including variant [End Page 260] readings critically compared with all known manuscripts," inspired confidence in that heyday of the New Criticism that his three-volume variorum accurately represented poems as Dickinson recorded them: working drafts as well as fair copies; versions sent to friends as well as those the poet saved for herself. Eschewing topical arrangements favored by prior editors, Johnson worked from handwriting evidence and contextual clues to organize poems chronologically from an 1850 valentine to an 1886 elegy. His variorum, supplemented by the one-volume Complete Poems (1960), won justified commendation. It revolutionized Dickinson studies, igniting an explosion of critical, poetic, and other artistic responses now sustained for nearly half a century.

Since 1955, however, many forces have combined to undercut the authority of Johnson's edition, starting with R. W. Franklin's 1965 doctoral dissertation, published two years later as The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration. What Franklin demonstrated was that Johnson, given only brief access to Millicent Todd Bingham's manuscript holdings and otherwise dependent on photocopies of these essential documents, made mistakes in transcribing, dating, and sometimes even in distinguishing between poems. Working with the Bingham Collection donated to Amherst College but not catalogued by Jay Leyda until 1957, as well as with Dickinson family holdings at Harvard already closely studied by Johnson, Franklin used his unprecedented opportunity to cope with manuscript confusion by reconstructing and rethinking earlier editorial efforts--comparing handwritten and typed transcripts with Dickinson's manuscripts when available, the printer's copy for the 1896 Poems, and printed versions. In the process, he confirmed many Johnson readings while challenging others. Acknowledging finally that "Mr. Johnson has established the center," he declared his own intent "to add to the circumference" (xvii).

That circumference expanded dizzyingly with Franklin's editing of The Manuscript Books of...


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