- Dickinson’s Fascicles: A Spectrum of Possibilities ed. by Paul Crumbley, Eleanor Elson Heginbotham
Between 1858 and 1864, Emily Dickinson bound together over eight hundred poems into forty booklets, which scholars usually refer to as fascicles. In 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, he offered readers a facsimile edition of the manuscripts of these poems as she had arranged and collected them, as well as of other poems written on similar sheets of paper that were never bound, which he called sets. In the years that followed, scholars attempted to discover the fascicles’ overarching or governing principle, for example, a love or conversion narrative, and explored the possible significance of features of Dickinson’s manuscripts, such as her provocative punctuation marks, lineation, and variant words. Sharon Cameron’s 1992 intervention into the fascicle debate, Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles, argued that the ordering principle that governed the fascicles was that of indeterminacy and that reading the manuscripts of Dickinson’s fascicles accentuated rather than attenuated what had long been recognized as the signature feature of her printed poems, namely, their disruptive language and style, which generated interpretive multiplicity. Developing, extending, and challenging the formalist theories of Cameron and others who have viewed Dickinson’s poems without historically locating her poetics and manuscript practices, the essays in this collection—the first to focus solely on the fascicles—present a range of perspectives and approaches that open up new ways of thinking about her poems. The contributors show the value of reading Dickinson’s work by attending to her fascicles and more importantly also provide excellent models of how to read Dickinson’s work generally by striving for what Domhnall Mitchell calls the “richest interpretations available” (87). [End Page 102]
The introduction and many of the essays themselves present readers with a helpful overview of fascicle scholarship and the editorial and publishing history of Dickinson’s work. Impressively, the authors accept as foolhardy any attempt to discover Dickinson’s intention, an all-embracing conceptual scheme, or a master narrative; instead they use historically informed speculation to demonstrate what can be accomplished when Dickinson’s decision to bind so many of her poems together during her most prolific years is taken seriously. While some disagree as to whether features of the manuscripts or the fascicles themselves represent Dickinson’s aesthetic design, the collection as a whole uncovers provocative thematic and imagistic connections within individual fascicles. Although such links may be owing to the fact most poems within a given fascicle were composed around the same time, they also show that at least some fascicles have what Heginbotham calls a unique “thumbprint” and that more attention needs to be given to the poems Dickinson placed in such close proximity to each other, particularly those copied onto each folded sheet (5).
Most exciting about this collection is that its essays show the benefit of an interpretive model that positions discussion of individual fascicles, and Dickinson’s writings in general, in the context of a range of nineteenth-century ideas, issues, debates, figures, personalities, movements, events, and discourses: rhetorical and compositional practices (Melanie Hubbard and Ellen Louise Hart); literary and nonliterary precursors and contemporaries (Mitchell); spiritualism (Heginbotham); the American Civil War (Paula Bernat Bennett and Martha Nell Smith); poetic conventions and genres (Alexandra Socarides); and copyright laws and notions of literary fame (Crumbley). As a result, even readers skeptical about the significance of the fascicles are presented with nuanced readings of Dickinson’s poems and of the nineteenth-century culture that shaped them and given a keen understanding and appreciation of Dickinson’s literary decisions and practices. For instance, Bennett’s superb reading of some of the poems in Fascicle 16 as dramatic lyrics shows the possibilities that emerge when we explore Dickinson’s own claim that she wrote from perspectives other than her own. In a similar manner, other essayists in the collection show the effects Dickinson’s background had on how and what she wrote. Both Hubbard’s and...