- Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays
From the reviews of the first edition of Dickinson's letters in 1894, to the introductions that launched subsequent editions, to the discrete essays that have appeared in books and journals, the epistolary Dickinson has never gone unrecognized. Yet only recently have full-length books appeared. As a companion to the first monograph on the subject, Marietta Messmer's A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence (2001), we now have Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays, with eleven contributors. In a foreword to this collection, Messmer suggests that while the letters are finally receiving their due, there will be much more critical attention to come, as they go through a re-editing process that will eventually lead to a replacement for Thomas Johnson's standard 1958 edition, and as more facsimiles become available online.
The main argument of Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters is that knowing what letters meant to Dickinson also tells us what they meant to her culture. The case made so well here that she can be seen as a representative figure, someone who helped to sustain her culture's values, invariably depends on the thousand-plus extant letters. Without them in view, she seems the misfit, and as quiet as a manuscript in a drawer. With them, however, she made "letter-visits" (Jane Donahue Eberwein 107). With letters she could pay "social calls" (Stephanie A. Tingley 64), and we read her "meetings in letters" (Eleanor Heginbotham 129).
As a letter writer, then, Dickinson fit in. Hers was a "domestic art," often made as she cooked, her words providing addressees with comfort and nourishment (Tingley), and a shared love of gardening could reconcile her to an aunt she once thought uninteresting (Karen Dandurand). She performed the work of condolence without stint, helping others survive their afflictions, in part by canceling the notion that we deserve them (Eberwein), while a shared love of books gave her constant opportunity for witty remarks (Heginbotham). She overcame a youthful antagonism to marriage, ultimately seeing potential in it for an equal relation (Judith Farr)—even though, after a complex legal-erotic exchange with Judge [End Page 113] Otis Phillips Lord in the early 1880s, one that tested the idea of marriage between peers, she still rejected the status of wife for herself (James Guthrie). And Dickinson explored the techniques of emphasis, alliteration especially, available to her in elocution textbooks, as a means to "signaling meaning to a reader" (Ellen Louise Hart 219).
The contributors referenced thus far are by no means supportive of the gender relations in Dickinson's time. Their feminist approaches simply place value on the domestic work performed by Dickinson and the other women in her circle; they want us to understand her both ways, as a misfit and participant. She did not have God nor husband nor books in print, but she did not live alone. And her genuine capacity for empathy had cause to grow over time—she had dependent readers, people whose love was important and whose lives were familiar. Judith Farr cites an 1871 letter in which Dickinson says, "to be loved is Heaven" (L361), and indeed the collection as a whole selects for its conclusions the older writer, committed to forging and maintaining the bonds of affection.
The younger writer does show herself, but often as contrast in a narrative of maturation. For instance, Eberwein observes a tactless Dickinson in her early letters of condolence: adhering to the demand for sincerity, she could not, as someone unconverted, speak to Heaven's reward. Later she was more gentle with the subject of immortality, recollecting the energy with which the deceased had lived. In a related vein, Paul Crumbley sometimes describes her as deaf to disagreement: "Even into the 1880s, Dickinson reiterates the needlessness of saying thanks or acting in any way that does not affirm mutual understanding" (41). In short, a letter affirms what we share: the act of traveling from one home to another delivers a message...