Dickinson in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates ed. by Jane Donahue Eberwein, Stephanie Farrar, and Cristanne Miller (review)
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Reviewed by
Dickinson in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Edited by Jane Donahue Eberwein, Stephanie Farrar, and Cristanne Miller. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015. 202pp.

On the bookshelf of any Dickinson critic, one might find several essential reference books: the Johnson and Franklin variorum editions of her poems, her letters, Sewall’s biography, Franklin’s edition of the manuscript books, and perhaps Jay Leyda’s monumental The Years of Hours of Emily Dickinson. Part of a series from the University of Iowa Press edited by Joel Myerson, Dickinson in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates might well join the ranks of these earlier works. Meticulously edited and logically structured by the editors—Jane Donahue Eberwein, Stephanie Farrar, and Cristanne Miller—the book assembles a variety of documents that add to Leyda’s project of providing a firm historical context for understanding Dickinson’s life and work. Her life story and career are told mainly through the recollections of her contemporaries and friends, memoirs of adults who knew her as children, reviews of her work, correspondence, and published literary notices, articles, and lectures. In some cases, the documents will already be familiar to the scholar, but several pieces are being published for the first time, and others are printed in full or brought together in one volume for the reader’s convenience. Separated into three sections describing the poet’s life, the life of the poems, and their “afterlife” of her work during the twentieth century, the volume brings into focus a portrait of Dickinson as a self-conscious, mature artist who not only deliberately took steps to preserve her manuscripts, but also anticipated her posthumous fame. [End Page 56]

In their introduction, the editors contend with familiar myths about Dickinson’s life and career and provide a clear discussion of their editorial principles. Based on their research, they dispute the claim that Dickinson was a gloomy, depressed person and that her writing went unrecognized during her lifetime. Rather, her wit and humor surface repeatedly in family and friends’ accounts, and her professional correspondence with editors such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Josiah Gilbert Holland, and Thomas Niles, suggests, as the editors claim, “Dickinson simultaneously sought both not to publish and to keep open possibilities of eventual publication” (xv). By drawing on evidence compiled from the personal recollections by family and friends, the editors argue that “Dickinson developed a reputation as a remarkable writer even while maintaining extreme levels of privacy” (xvi). For instance, Helen Hunt Jackson’s letters expressing her desire to solicit from Dickinson a poem for The Masque of Poets (1878), a collection that included the lyric beginning “Success is counted sweetest,” and a poem that Lavinia wrote for her sister in 1882, highlight the publishing standards for genteel literature by women. Another myth about Dickinson is the belief that her poetry was disparaged publicly when it first appeared in print. While early reviewers caviled at Dickinson’s apparent indifference to formal matters, many also recognized her originality and unique talent. As the critical standards of the 1890s had begun to change, Amy Lowell, in a lecture delivered at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1918, claimed Dickinson as a precursor of Imagism. Contradicting the earlier critical view that Dickinson’s poems were formally unrestrained, Lowell foregrounded her use of imagery over rhyme or meter: “She tried to tie her genius down to the pattern and signally failed. But she was too much of an artist to cramp herself beyond a certain point. When what she wanted to say clashed with her ability to rhyme, the rhymes went to the wall” (172). Similarly, William Dean Howells praised Dickinson’s poems for their deliberate artistry, arguing they expressed “a compassed whole, a sharply finished point” and noting that she “spared no pains in the perfect expression of her ideals” (73). In contrast, the Scottish critic Andrew Lang disputed Howells’s positive review and attacked his defense of “this farrago of illiterate and uneducated sentiment...