- Consuming Dickinson
In August 2014, I visited Dickinson’s grave for the very first time. Although I had done years of research at the Frost Library and the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, and although I had logged endless hours at the Dickinson homestead, I had never walked the few blocks to the cemetery in which she was buried. This is, in part, because I’ve never been particularly sentimental about Dickinson. I don’t go in for theatrical reenactments—I’ve never even seen The Belle of Amherst!—nor do I enjoy sing-a-longs of Dickinson lyrics or channelings of Dickinson’s spirit. In short, my cold, academic heart cared very little about the spot where Dickinson’s body was laid to rest in 1886. Or so I thought.
On this particular summer day, a friend and I decided to peel away from the group of Dickinson scholars who had descended on Amherst for the weekend and go shopping. When we ended up in a store less than two hundred yards from the cemetery in question—it is, oddly, just behind a gas station on the town’s main drag—my friend said she wanted to go see the grave, and I agreed to accompany her. A grave is a grave, in my opinion, and I expected to have no greater reaction to Dickinson’s than I would to any other. Because I have been to the gravesites of other famous people over the years—once, when my husband was writing a book about Proust, we spent many rainy hours in Père Lachaise trying to locate his grave—I am used to the notes and candles and trinkets that people tend to place on these spots. What I had never seen, until that day, was something growing out of a gravesite.
As it turns out, sometime the previous winter someone had placed squash seeds in the grass that now covers Dickinson’s plot, and by midsummer the green and yellow squash were just about ripe. Let me be clear, in case it’s hard [End Page 377] for you to imagine: there was a tangle of root vegetables growing out of Emily Dickinson’s grave. What at first seemed fascinating—this is Walt Whitman’s “beautiful uncut hair of graves” (line 101), I thought—quickly took a dark turn, as I realized that even if the initial seed spreader hadn’t intended it, somebody was probably going to eat these squash. Somebody—maybe multiple people—were going to consume Dickinson.
The history of Emily Dickinson is a history of reproduction. It’s hard not to see the irony in this, since Dickinson produced neither children nor printed texts. She was a woman and a writer, but she defied the expectations for reproduction that were associated with both identities. And yet into what has long been perceived as an absence—a feature that critics endlessly read back into her poems—editors and publishers have heaped new edition upon new edition of Dickinson’s poems. At first this was a project of collection: Between 1890 and 1955 there were many poems to find and to print, and this resulted in the publication of over a dozen collections of Dickinson’s poems. Since 1955, though, most of what has been published are old poems in new form—poems reordered; poems re-lineated; poems re-punctuated; poems re-grouped by theme or topic; poems returned to the context in which they were first written, be that in a letter or on a candy wrapper. While the declared motivation for each edition of Dickinson’s poems is both to provide something new about these poems and to allow readers to encounter Dickinson anew, this cycle of reproduction begs the question, To what end? This is the question I ask myself in 2017—one hundred and thirty-one years after Dickinson’s death and seventy-two years after almost all of her poems were finally published together in one volume, for we seem to be at the very height of Dickinson’s reproduction and its necessary counterpart, consumption.
In 2016, two new yet very different editions of Dickinson’s poems...