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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 150-173

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"They Shut Me Up In Prose":
A Cautionary Tale of Two Emilys

Judy Nolte Temple



"They shut me up in Prose"-- Emily Dickinson,
Poem 613, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Young Emily Dickinson, born in 1830 to a prestigious Amherst family, played with her dog Carlo and wrote letters and verses. Young Emily Hawley, born in 1838 to a subsistence-level Michigan farm family, played with her dog Carlo and wrote letters, verses, and a diary. Emily Dickinson grew increasingly reclusive and was considered eccentric. Emily Hawley Gillespie grew increasingly isolated as an Iowa farm wife and was considered eccentric due to her interests in women's rights and free love. Emily Dickinson died in 1886, whereupon almost two thousand poems were discovered by her sister. Upon the publication of some edited verses in 1890, Dickinson was pronounced an extraordinary--albeit irregular--poet. Emily Gillespie died in 1888, whereupon her 2,500-page journal was read, copied, and eventually archived by her daughter Sarah Huftalen. Upon its edited publication in 1989, Gillespie was pronounced an extraordinary diarist whose text, covering over thirty years, revealed a complex story of youthful promise thwarted in a troubled marriage that produced an emerging feminist voice. 1

In the 1950s, Thomas H. Johnson published a detailed study of Dickinson's variorum poetry that demonstrated her painstaking editing and craft. 2 In 1997, as Gillespie diary editor, I read a newly available earlier version of that diary that revealed Gillespie's craft in creating at least two editions of her journal. Dickinson was praised by one critic in American Literature for her "translation of quite ordinary everyday experiences into moments of startling beauty." 3 Emily Gillespie, it is now apparent, "translated" her diary of quite ordinary everyday experiences into a later diary containing moments of startling seeming authenticity. Could a scribbling rural diarist be a literary artist? I am now convinced it is possible, as it was for the protagonist in playwright Susan Glaspell's 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Alison's House. 4 Intrigued by the Dickinson story but thwarted in her use [End Page 150] of family papers by Dickinson heirs, Glaspell wrote her play about the tensions between an artist and her kin, set in Iowa, where an eccentric farm woman's poems are discovered and posthumously published by her siblings. What Glaspell imagined for a writer shut up in Iowa, I am convinced diarist Emily Gillespie lived.

My comparison between the two Emilys is intended to challenge the polite divide in diary scholarship between the attention given to journals written by "literary" women and those by "ordinary" women. This tiered system is underpinned by the academic training of most diary researchers who are trained in English departments where anything written by a woman who was first known as literary author--Burney, Woolf, Plath--has the higher currency. (The fact that these same women authors were until recently themselves mere footnotes in the literary canon demonstrates that classifications of writers as major, serious, or worthy of a scholarly monograph are mutable though slow to change.) This preference for the previously published literary author is also understandable because it is easier to grasp Burney's diaries, for example, in the context of her larger oeuvre and the plethora of information we have about the privileged society of British letters than it is to construct the world of an "unnotable" woman based on information from the complex, muted documents that inform social history. And, frankly, even for a scholar like myself, committed to ordinary women's journals, it is more delightful to follow the narrative of Virginia Woolf conceiving To the Lighthouse than it is to read the choppy entries of a seamstress constructing a sofa cover. Emily Gillespie's "Done usual work" can hardly compete with "I am blown like an old flag by my novel." 5 The literary devotee will find beautifully crafted language rare in prosaic journals that "mumble" and use quantity...


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