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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 79-82

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Book Review

A Vice For Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence

Messmer, Marietta. A Vice For Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Marietta Messmer's A Vice For Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence makes a strong and controversial contribution to the ever-growing interest in Dickinson's epistolary writing. Messmer's ambitious study joins three recent scholarly projects: Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Hart's Open Me Carefully (1998), Cindy Mackenzie's Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson (2000), and the on-going collaborative editing of the correspondence, grouped by correspondent, central to the work of the Dickinson Electronic Archives Project. Collectively these scholars, among others, are developing a strong argument for the centrality of Dickinson's letters to her artistic endeavors. Their work does much to counter decades of scholarly neglect of Dickinson's letters, or at least the tendency to rank letters below lyrics in the Dickinson canon or to label the poems as "literature" and the letters as subsidiary historical documents or sources of fact.

This is not to suggest that earlier readers and scholars have been completely insensitive to the power of these letters, their originality and brilliance in voice and style, and their importance to Dickinson's oeuvre. On the contrary, even Dickinson's mentor and pioneering editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted that it was difficult to know where the prose left off and the poetry began, while Austin Dickinson noticed early on that the boundaries between prose and poetry blurred in his sister's correspondence, for "just a line or two and she was singing." Twentieth century critics as diverse as Marianne Moore and Richard Sewall spoke eloquently and early about the power and originality of the correspondence, while in 1967 David Higgins had already contributed the first book-length critical study of the letters, Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose.

Messmer takes a more radical stand on these issues than simply insisting that Dickinson's letters deserve serious attention as literature when she argues that Dickinson's correspondence deserves to be at the epicenter of Dickinson's [End Page 79] creative project and process because letters constitute over 60% of the writer's literary output. She believes that if "'correspondence' (rather than 'poetry')" is considered "Dickinson's central form of public artistic expression" (3) new insights about Dickinson's "highly innovative poetics" (2) will emerge. Doing so, she adds, "requires that we suspend our traditional notions of this writer as primarily a 'poet'" (3). Messmer makes a strong case for stepping out of the poetic box when reading Dickinson's work; her book reminds us again of how much can be learned by looking at what is familiar from a different perspective. By moving the lyrics from the center of scholarly debate to the margins, and the correspondence from the margins to the middle, she allows us to see freshly. What Messmer accomplishes here is similar in effect to other scholars' recent arguments that the manuscripts (fascicle booklets, scraps, holographs) should be the central texts in the Dickinson canon rather than any conventionally published print versions of her work. Lurking just beneath the surface of these debates about which texts and which forms of texts to privilege, of course, is the complex and, perhaps, unanswerable question of Emily Dickinson's authorial intentions for her work. Messmer argues that the correspondence deserves priority because it "constitutes her only 'letter to the world' and "is the only part of her oeuvre that was systematically 'authorized,' that is, prepared for an audience, by Dickinson herself" (2).

The introductory chapter of A Vice for Voices offers a useful overview of how Dickinson's correspondence has been read, misread, and reread over the years. Messmer traces a gradual movement away from narrowly autobiographical or confessional readings. Scholars gradually begin to notice and celebrate Dickinson's ability to experiment with personae and voices. Some scholars highlight Dickinson's use of personae ("supposed persons") and multiple voices...


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