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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 199-201

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A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence. By Marietta Messmer. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 280 pp. $34.95.

In A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence, Marietta Messmer identifies letters as the core of Dickinson's art, challenging a configuration that places poems at the [End Page 199] center of the work. Explaining that the correspondence has almost always been read autobiographically, Messmer asks how we can go beyond "a dichotomous approach" to letters and poems and move toward "a more dialogically interactive" revisionary reading (18). Claiming that letters are a radically experimental literary form exhibiting a high degree of performativity, she encourages readers to see correspondence as an innovative poetics that critiques patriarchal discursive formations. Messmer "revisits Dickinson's epistolary acts of self-fashioning from a contemporary feminist-poststructuralist perspective" (17). Her theoretical approach to intertextual interactions between and among Dickinson's "multiple discursive voices" is further informed by Mikhail Bakhtin's understanding of dialogic polyvocality in lyric poetry (20-21).

Messmer begins with a chapter illustrating how Dickinson breaks nineteenth-century epistolary conventions for women set out in prescriptive letter writing manuals. Chapters on "The 'Female' World of Love and Duty" and "The 'Male' World of Power and Poetry" follow and assert that while Dickinson's letters to female friends reject the socially constructed ideal of true womanhood and show Dickinson's opposition to domesticity and Christian virtues, letters to male correspondents exhibit "profound ambivalence about gendered forms of status, power, and authority" (133). A final chapter, "Manipulating Multiple Voices," presents a Bakhtinian reading of the dialogic strategies Dickinson employs as she interweaves quotations from other work—the Bible and Shakespeare—into her polyvocal texts.

A participant in an ongoing movement to change the ways in which Dickinson's work is presented in the twenty-first century, Messmer provides a detailed record of discussions to date on rereading the letters, then frames key questions in a theoretical language that offers new strategies of analysis. Readers of A Vice for Voices will benefit from Messmer's thorough understanding of the issues in the growing field of Dickinson studies, her descriptions of significant moments in the history of editorial scholarship, and her careful tracing of the debates over how Dickinson's manuscripts should be displayed typographically, how line breaks should be represented, how meter functions in certain types of correspondence, and how "wit" so frequently and pleasurably dominates.

A Vice for Voices is generous in crediting other scholars in the field and generative in its range of ideas. However, its contribution to Dickinson studies is limited, since study of the letters is already too far advanced for summary discussions to be of substantial use. Much groundwork has been laid in conference papers since the mid-1980s and for at least ten years in print. In 1992 Martha Nell Smith explained in Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson that "when Dickinson sends a poem as a letter, what is most important is her transforming daily correspondence into a field for literature" (106). In an essay in The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (1993), Susan Howe asks: "Are all these works poems? Are they fragments, meditations, aphorisms, events, letters?" (148). Howe then points out, "Sometimes letters are poems with a salutation and signature. Sometimes poems are letters with a salutation and signature" (144). New studies, editions, anthology selections, and teaching strategies have proceeded from there.

Readers may find points Messmer makes about a particular correspondence arguable. Is the exchange with longtime friend Elizabeth Holland, addressed as "Sister" and "Sweet friend," best characterized as dominated by Dickinson's "docile feminine voice" (98), and did Holland become for Dickinson "a surrogate mother" (103)? But more problematic than matters of interpretation is the cursory treatment of texts. Without close readings of exemplary material, feminist or poststructuralist analysis of sociopolitical transgressions is insufficiently developed. [End Page 200]

Overall, Messmer's coverage of the questions she raises remains too diffuse. A Vice for Voices would have benefited from fewer generalizations...


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