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  • Woman of Letters: Narrative Episodes in the Letters of Emily Dickinson
  • Lori Lebow (bio)

Dear Emily (Fowler Ford), (Spring 1853)

I come and see you a great many times every day, though I dont bring my body with me, so perhaps you dont know I’m there. But I love to come just as dearly, for nobody sees me then, and I sit and chat away, and look up in your face, and no matter who calls, if its “my Lord the King,” he does’nt interrupt me. Let me say, dear Emily, both mean to come at a time, so you shall be very sure I am sitting by your side, and not have to trust the fancy.


Dickinson’s attitude toward herself as a letter-writer and the relationship that she wished to create with her reader are evident in this note to her Amherst Academy friend. Unwritten thoughts can travel “many times every day,” while letters textually convey ideas and allow uninterrupted “chat.” Written before Dickinson’s withdrawal from social activities, her letter to Emily Fowler Ford already indicates the importance that epistolary interaction would increasingly play in Dickinson’s life. Because she chose to conceal her self and her literary project, many readers and critics have pursued an understanding of her work by sifting confirmed and alleged historical records, seeking biographical support for their theories. Jay Leyda’s authoritative primary source collection reads like a nineteenth-century chronicle of Elvis Presley sightings. 1 These infrequent close encounters, and their often biased, deliberately misleading representations, comprise the biographical remains of Myth Dickinson. However, her surviving letters provide “the best source that we have to trace Emily Dickinson’s life” (Faderman 223). In them she has left a revealing autobiography. [End Page 73]

My essay examines Dickinson’s autobiographic self-construction, which emerges when she adopts the role of story-teller by including narratives in her letter texts. She performs as artist and artwork. The characters she assumes in her stories and the styles she employs to tell them create her textual identity as a sensitive, entertaining and original reporter whose regard for her readers is displayed in her careful linguistic treatment of the epistolary genre and the communication system it provides. Correspondence differs from other textual genres because letter readers are expected also to be letter writers, so epistolary relationships are demanding. Writers must perceive, compose, commit to paper and dispatch material, a process requiring that life be seen as a resource from which epistolary works will be produced. Dickinson’s commitment to written interactions also shaped her life’s daily activities, transforming her literally and figuratively into a woman of letters.

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Figure 1.

“Self-obsessed Oblivion,” dress designed and modeled by Liz Gardiner, in The Sydney Morning Herald. Photographer: Peter Robinson. With permission from The Fairfax Photo Library, John Fairfax Publications, Pty., Ltd.

Dickinson’s autobiographic record derived from narrative passages in her letters comprises an important textual self-portrait, which functions in a way similar to Liz Gardiner’s Polaroid dress (see Figure 1) featuring snapshots of herself, assembled to reveal and conceal the artist as model. 2 Gardiner’s photographic self-portraits are designed to form a costume assembled from pictures of the real body now invisible behind the photographs. Dickinson’s narratives that are incorporated into her letters create textual impressions of herself constructed to project an identity in place of the actual woman writer. Liz Gardiner’s photographic dress and Dickinson’s narrative self-constructions allow both creators the opportunity to project self-images by manipulating text to generate stories of their lives. The results, in each case, produce identities constructed purposefully to engage readers in particular kinds of relationships with the [End Page 74] artists. Gardiner’s dress offers a visual expression of autobiographic theory and a particularly graphic analogy to the ways in which correspondence produces records of the self over time. Put simply: the self (autos) perceives life (bio) and writes (grapho) about it. However, the difficulties inherent in this project become apparent when critics attempt to define self.

Autobiographic writing occurs wherever a writer deliberately constructs a textual self-representation...

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pp. 73-96
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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