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Reviewed by:
  • Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson
  • Lillian Faderman (bio)
Martha Nell Smith , Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. University of Texas Press, 1993, 286 pp.

Martha Nell Smith's goals in Rowing in Eden are twofold: to examine Dickinson's unconventional response to the publishing industry and to examine her equally unconventional regard for Sue Gilbert Dickinson. Smith argues persuasively that Dickinson's forty fascicles, so carefully prepared in "book form," were really "self-publications," as were the numerous poems she embedded in her letters. Through such self-publication, Smith says, Dickinson could keep intact her daring experimentations with punctuation and line breaks, which she could not do when she permitted editors to get their hands on her verse.

Rowing in Eden presents convincing arguments for the importance of scholars' examination of Dickinson material in the original. Smith points out that a perusal of the manuscripts indicates that the dashes in Dickinson's poems are not a "capricious" accident of emotional "stress" as others have argued but an appropriation of rhetorical notation. The dash after "I dwell in Possibility" dances up; the one after "There interposed a Fly" drags down. In reproducing the manuscript for "The Sea Said," Smith shows that Dickinson attempted to form letters that look like waves, thereby "mocking exclusively mimetic goals for language." Smith shows that even in Franklin's Manuscript Books much is missing that is important: e.g., in Franklin's photos, erasures can't be seen, such as Todd's cancellations of Dickinson's variants on "'tis true—They shut me / in the Cold." Through her own careful examination of Dickinson manuscripts, Smith reveals much that has been overlooked or misunderstood by editors and scholars. [End Page 105]

However, she is less persuasive in her focus on Dickinson's "lesbian" relationship with Sue. Smith hints at her own ambivalence in presenting the argument. She assures the reader that while she may seem partial in her depiction of Sue as crucial to Dickinson, "let me say at the outset that to underscore the literary importance of Sue and other women to Dickinson in no way denies the significance of men whom she held in high regard." But despite that disclaimer, Smith does go on to deny the significance of men in Dickinson's life. She virtually ignores Dickinson's letters to Otis Lord which clearly betray her "heterosexual" erotic self-image as a little girl vis à vis his role of daddy / lover. Denying that psychosexual complexity in Dickinson, Smith presents her as unambivalently and committedly lesbian.

She postulates that even the Master letters may have been written to a woman. Smith discovered that in the holograph the line, "but if I had a Beard on my cheek," was written in ink and "like you" was pencilled in. She speculates that the addition may have been added by another hand to the finished letter. Thus, she suggests, Dickinson could have been saying to a woman, "If I had a beard on my cheek"—i.e., if I were a man—"and you had Daisy's petals"—i.e., "and you were a woman," in other words, "If ours were a conventional heterosexual romance, then would it be acceptable to speak of our love?" But that reading is more than a little strained, since if the recipient were in fact female, the subjunctive form of Dickinson's phrase—"if you [were a woman]" is inexplicable. Alternately, Smith postulates that Dickinson may have been disguising the homosexual nature of her love by dressing a woman up in masculine pronouns and names. If that is the case, how does one explain the many extant love letters not only to Sue but also to Emily Ford and Kate Anthon in which she feels no need for such disguises?

Most troubling, however, is Smith's insistence on seeing Dickinson's relationship with Sue as unequivocally "lesbian." By reiterating the theory that Sue was the most important person in Dickinson's life, Smith adds to the scholarship that presents a welcome antidote to the Wadsworth, et al., theories that long dominated Dickinson biography. But Smith goes on to insist that Dickinson was aware of her love for Sue as...


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pp. 105-107
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