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  • Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root:Ten Reconstructed Letters
  • R. W. Franklin (bio)

Emily Dickinson's letters to Abiah Palmer Root, among the most important records of the poet's early years, have had a troubled textual history. The two friends met in 1844, when Emily was thirteen, Abiah fourteen, and both were students at Amherst Academy. The next year Abiah enrolled in Miss Campbell's school in Springfield, and Dickinson, seeing her infrequently thereafter, entered a correspondence that lasted until 1854, at first full and frequent, at the end muted and questioning. If youthful, these Dickinson letters are also witty and reflective. They demonstrate a growing command of language, recording interests, concerns, enthusiasms, and disappointments during important years in Dickinson's development for which we have few other such records. They constitute the ten letters extant for 1845 and 1846 and five of the twelve for 1847 and 1848, years when her only other surviving correspondence was with her brother Austin. As Dickinson's interests broadened over the next six years, her correspondences also expanded, the later letters to Abiah Root forming but a small portion of the total for the period, seven out of more than a hundred. From 1845 to 1854, from age fourteen to twenty-three, Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend twenty-two times. In Thomas H. Johnson's edition of her letters (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), the numbers are 5-15, 18, 20, 23, 26, 31, 36,39, 50, 69, 91, and 166. [End Page 1]

The textual problems began in the nineteenth century. By late 1891 when Mabel Loomis Todd met Abiah Root (Mrs. Samuel W. Strong), Abiah's letters to Emily had already been destroyed. But hers to Abiah survived, and it was Strong's offer to make them available that set Todd to preparing the edition of letters published in 1894 (Boston: Roberts Brothers). For the chapter pertaining to Root, Todd obtained the original manuscripts, from which she made transcripts, returning the holographs to Strong in early 1893 after holding them for over a year. She apparently did not receive all the letters, for she made transcripts of only nineteen of the twenty-two: Johnson numbers 10, 11, and 26 were not copied and were omitted from Letters (1894). The others were altered for publication. Passages were deleted as Strong herself wished and as the editor thought necessary to reduce length, to observe family wishes, and to avoid sections that could not be deciphered. Personal names were reduced to initials to conceal identities; spelling and usage were corrected, punctuation and capitalization regularized. In 1931, when Mabel Todd brought out a second edition (New York: Harper), she expanded some of the initials, sometimes inaccurately, and restored a few of the deleted passages, not always in the right places. The result was still an unreliable, if fuller, text.

For his 1958 edition, Thomas H. Johnson was able to locate holographs for eleven of the letters to Abiah Root, including the three Todd had not seen, and a photostat of another one. For these twelve, he made fresh transcriptions. For the other ten, forced to rely on a published text, he chose the 1931 expanded edition. Johnson also had another textual source, then only recently discovered among Todd's editorial materials, now at the Amherst College Library: the fragments which Todd had clipped out of her transcripts in the early 1890s when deleting passages and which she had used in 1931 to restore some of them. Johnson found it difficult to reconcile these two sources. Although Todd had indicated omissions with ellipses, she did not always do so, nor always in the proper places; there were, moreover, more of them than there were fragments remaining. As Johnson explained, his edition did "not incorporate the text of the remaining clippings into the body of the letters, because the position cannot be exactly determined, and [End Page 2] because the association of a clipping with a given letter is at best conjecture" (p. xxvn). Instead he appended clippings to the 1931 text of the letters to which he thought they belonged: numbers 5-6, 8-9, 12, 14, 23, 39, 69, and 91...


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