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  • Suing Sue:Emily Dickinson Addressing Susan Gilbert
  • David Sullivan (bio)

I tore open your letter and licked the envelope's seal for any lingering trace of you1

Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a person of primary significance to Emily Dickinson, as testified to by the long friendship they maintained through written correspondences. Yet in Dickinson's poems, letters, and letter-poems, Sue's name begins to stand for an abstract idea of friendship rather than a particular friend. Her name is the answer to a riddle, a rhyme word, and a pun, as when she plays with the double meaning of "to sue" (either to petition for grace or to put on trial for a wrong committed), though it remains an identifiable individual's name.2 It is the disconnecting of the name from the incarnate person, the transformation of her into a figure, which makes Dickinson self-conscious.3 The most telling example of this self-consciousness comes in a late letter-poem sent to Susan Gilbert Dickinson,4 which begins "Morning / might come / by Accident—," and the related texts which cluster around it. I argue that this letter-poem simultaneously proclaims how much the addressee matters to the poet as an incarnate person and displays how much she has come to function as a figure in Dickinson's imagination. The tension between the two roles the writer assigns Susan is what animates [End Page 45] Dickinson to continue to tell her friend why she cannot see her, and why her presence, even if only imagined, means so much to her.

The poems and letters to Susan are part of an ongoing relationship; though they sometimes stress that the moments of interview5 are in the past, they cannot convince that this is necessarily the case. Dickinson often turns against her own use of Susan as a figure because she recognizes its inadequacy. Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a palpable presence in the poet's life, and she interrupted any narrative the poet constructed in her writings merely by living next door in the Evergreens and affecting the poet daily. I do not want to suggest that the literary Susan figured in the poems is the literal Susan who lived next door, but that each influenced Dickinson's perceptions of the other. In other words, Susan influenced the writing's which refer to her, and the writings, in turn, influenced Dickinson's attitude towards Susan.

The pressure that Dickinson exerted on persons increased with the closeness she felt towards them, and she attempted to establish distancing strategies which allowed her to articulate her closeness without it becoming oppressive. Cristanne Miller describes Dickinson's desire for distance as facilitating imaginative or aesthetic interviews that the poet could control.

Dickinson wants too much from people and can imagine that she gets what she wants from relationships with them only if she keeps real contact at a minimum. Through letters the poet can control relationships, meeting her correspondents only in an 'imaginative' or 'aesthetic union,' that is, a union that can only with difficulty (or by death) be taken from her because she has constructed it herself through and in language. Even more than in letters, poetry allows Dickinson both to express the urgent intimacy she feels and to establish the distance that allows her to maintain control of her actions, if not her feelings.


This is an intelligent summation of Dickinson's strategy, but I want to stress how frequently the writings subvert such solipsistic logic. She does not "imagine that she gets what she wants from relationships" through her writings but imagines that there is something she [End Page 46] does not get.6 The fiction of interview, which Miller stresses, is a fiction which repeatedly fails to satisfy Dickinson.

Writings create a certain amount of distance from the scene of interview, which Dickinson then attempts to undo through apostrophic addresses and various devices that demand a response. An example of this anxiety about the responses she will receive occurs in Letter 74. She writes to Susan: "Never mind the letter, Susie; you have so much to do; just write me every week one line, and let it be, 'Emily...


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