Book Review

“To be alive, is power”: Emily Dickinson’s Letters

In June 1869, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.” Although haunting, these words are, like many of her claims to Higginson, a way of telling the truth but telling it slant. In their welcome new edition of The Letters of Emily Dickinson,[1] Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell demonstrate through their concise, non-intrusive annotations how the “thought” she recorded in her correspondence does not “walk alone,” but keeps company with a multitude of authors, not only what twenty-first-century readers would call “canonical”—the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and contemporaries such as Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, George Eliot, the Brownings, and the Brontës—but also songs and ballads, poets and novelists well-known in the nineteenth century but unfamiliar now, plus a steady diet of topical material: newspaper and journal articles on current events, scientific discoveries, and travel. As she confessed to a friend in a late letter, “Should you ask me my comprehension of a starlight Night, Awe were my only reply, and so of the mighty Book.” In letter after letter, Dickinson riffs on her reading so often—whether mentioning authors by name, interweaving quotations into her sentences, or slyly twisting a source’s words—that allusion becomes a kind of shorthand. Even her last extant letter is all quotation—“Called back,” the title of a popular novel. Throughout the letters, quotation is a social gesture, a code she expects her correspondents to understand.
Such understanding—and a response in kind—was likely a criterion for whether Dickinson would commit to exchanging letters. In particular, she sent more letters and poems to her closest friend, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (who some scholars argue was the love of Dickinson’s life, even though she eventually married Dickinson’s older brother, Austin, in 1856) than to anyone else, and those letters suggest a shared sensibility cultivated by reciprocal reading. From an early age, Dickinson set a high bar for her correspondents: during her teens and twenties she routinely scolds them for not writing back immediately, or for not writing letters as long (or, she implies, as verbally dexterous) as hers. Although only one letter survives from Sue to Dickinson, it’s clear from the frequency, inventiveness, and emotional intensity of Dickinson’s missives to her that Sue not only matched, but exceeded, Dickinson’s stratospheric standards, as she confides in 1851: “dear Susie . . . we are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.” The letters to Sue (the majority sent even after Sue and Austin took up residence next door to the Dickinson Homestead) are steeped in literary references. Even a partial list of her hyperboles shows Dickinson’s range of reading: Sue is variously “Eden,” “Teneriffe,” “Gibraltar,” “Peru,” “a Siren,” “Matchless Earth,” “Sister of Ophir” (a reference to I Kings 9:26–28), the unobtainable loves of Dante, Swift, and French revolutionary Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau, and “Egypt” (one of Antony’s names for Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play). After the Bible, Dickinson quoted Shakespeare more than any other source, and thus her most striking tribute to Sue was her admission, late in life:


Dear Sue—
With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living—To say that sincerely is strange praise—


By “knowledge” Dickinson doesn’t mean just intellectual range or linguis­tic prowess, but the full scope of human experience. Along with admiration for Sue, the letter reveals how Dickinson learned equally from books and from other people. For her, these lifelines were intertwined, knit together as tightly as her poetry and her correspondence, for Dickinson not only sent poems enclosed with her letters, but just as often sent poems as letters. Letter writing was her means of “publication”: of making her work public to a select circle of readers (and, in the case of Sue, asking for feedback on poems, which she sent as penciled drafts).
Miller and Mitchell therefore aim to show Dickinson not as singular, withdrawn, and friendless, but intensely connected to her correspondents, whether family, friends, and neighbors, or literary mavens such as Higginson. After 1865, she may not have had many “corporeal friends,” but she had scores of epistolary ones. The book’s biographical appendix, “Dickinson’s Correspondents and Others,” includes 238 entries, 88 for people she wrote to, the rest for people she references in the letters—and, because many of her correspondents adhered to nineteenth-century custom and requested that letters they had kept be burned after their death, any edition of Dickinson’s collected letters necessarily represents only a fraction of the correspondence she generated.
Even so, the network documented in The Letters of Emily Dickinson is extensive enough to puncture myths of Dickinson as antisocial, fearful of other people, and oblivious to the temper of her times. As the editors argue in their introduction, Dickinson’s circle of acquaintance in Amherst alone was diverse, wide enough to include the Irish immigrants who worked for her family; neighbors and church members; shop owners and employees; colleagues and clients of her father (a lawyer); and participants in the life of Amherst College (students, faculty, alumni, visiting lecturers). Beyond the boundaries of Amherst, Dickinson corresponded with prestigious intellectuals: family friends Josiah Holland, editor of Scribner’s Monthly, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican; prominent ministers such as Charles Wadsworth, Edward Everett Hale, and Washington Gladden; and political activists far to the left of her conservative father, who served as a Whig member of Congress from 1853–1855. Although now known primarily as a “friend of Emily,” Helen Hunt Jackson, who recognized Dickinson’s genius and urged her to publish, gained fame in her time not only for her poetry and fiction, but for her support of Native American rights. And, although standard narratives of Dickinson’s life suggest that she initiated correspondence with Higginson in response to his 1862 Atlantic article “Letter to a Young Contributor,” she would have also read his Atlantic articles advocating equal education for women and been well aware of his fervent abolitionism. As a Unitarian minister, he had agitated against slavery since the 1840s, and seven months after Dickinson first wrote to him, he accepted a commission as Colonel to lead a South Carolina regiment comprised of former slaves. The connection with Higginson itself would be enough evidence that Dickinson was not unmoved by the cause and casualties of the Civil War (he was wounded in action in 1863), and Miller and Mitchell draw attention to at least thirty letters in which she references the War, and to hundreds of additional letters where she remarks on current events, such as the coming of the railroad to Amherst, the assassination of President Garfield, the financial panic of 1873, and revolutionary movements in Greece and Italy. Although Dickinson’s comments on social controversies are often mocking, they are nonetheless pointed, as in her remarks about her father’s trip to the 1852 Whig convention in Baltimore, where he supported Daniel Webster as the party’s presidential candidate; she closes a letter to Sue, who was teaching in Baltimore:


Why cant I be a Delegate to the great Whig Convention?—dont I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff, and the Law? Then, Susie, I could see you, during a pause in the session—but I dont like this country at all, and I shant stay here any longer! “Delenda est” America, Massachusetts and all!
open me carefully—


The sign-off hints at the explosiveness of her claims (and of her awareness that her father, who delivered the letter to Sue by hand, may have been tempted to read it). Miller and Mitchell note, “Cato the Elder repeatedly declared that Carthage ‘delenda est’ (must be destroyed) during debates held in the Roman Senate prior to the Third Punic War between Rome and Carthage, 149–146 BCE.” The annotation not only alerts readers to Dickinson’s command of Latin (which she studied at Amherst Academy), but also reveals the political logic of her allusion: her frustration with a country where women are second-class citizens.
This view of Dickinson as socially engaged and politically aware goes so far against popular notions of her as a recluse that one would think hundreds of new letters have been unearthed since the publication in 1958 of The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, the three-volume set that this new one-volume edition replaces. Miller and Mitchell do update Johnson and Ward’s edition with the inclusion of letters that have surfaced during the last sixty years, and with restorations of letters that had been erased or mutilated in the late nineteenth century (likely by Austin, or by his lover—and Dickinson’s first editor—Mabel Loomis Todd, to remove references to Sue and expurgate drafts of letters Dickinson wrote to a late life love interest, Judge Otis P. Lord). Using family diaries, databases of nineteenth-century newspapers, and “Ebenezer Snell’s remarkable record of weather patterns in Amherst,” Miller and Mitchell revise dates for half of the letters published by Johnson and Ward, a testament not only to astute scholarly detective work, but also to the precision of Dickinson’s references to family visits, local, national and world events, and her observations of nature, such as bird migrations or the effects of drought or frost on her garden.
Miller and Mitchell’s major achievement lies in their framing of Dickinson herself to reflect how attitudes about her—and even about what constitutes a Dickinson letter—have changed since the mid-twentieth century. As they argue in their introduction, “Dickinson was by no means an isolated, lonely, woman. She lived fully within the stream of events in her town, state, country, and times.” And her life was, in many respects, quite ordinary, abounding in common human experience: sharing secrets with a posse of intimate friends as a teenager, gossiping to her brother about Amherst goings-on, doing housework (baking, dusting, washing dishes), worrying about the health of family and friends, nursing her invalid mother, mourning deaths and sending condolences (often marking anniversaries long after the occasion of a death). The difference is that her language is so extraordinary, ranging from lyricism to incisive character portrayals worthy of Dickens or her beloved George Eliot, as in an October 1863 description of an aunt who overstays her welcome: “She hasn’t starched the geraniums yet, but will have ample time, unless she leaves before April.”
But old myths die hard—or, as Dickinson proposes in an 1871 poem, “That oblique Belief which we call Conjecture / Grapples with a Theme stubborn as sublime.” Dickinson herself contributed to the myth, taking subversive pleasure in styling herself as a figure of sublime mystery in letters to people outside her family circle, such as Jackson, who had little patience for Dickinson’s dodges and called her out on them. Likewise, Higginson voiced his frustration with her in an 1869 letter: acknowledging the “strange power of [her] letters & verses,” he accused her of “enshroud[ing][her]self in this fiery mist.” Although he eventually went on to ensure publication of Dickinson’s poetry after her death in 1886, in his preface to Poems, First Series (1890), he characterized her as “A recluse by temperament and habit,” “as unique and remote as Undine or Mignon or Thekla.”
Rather than compare Dickinson to mythical beings or tragic heroines, in the late 1950s Thomas Johnson psychologized her and pared her down to fit stereotypes of the woman poet that hearken back to the nineteenth century. In his introduction to the 1958 Letters, he characterized Dickinson as afflicted with an “acute sensitivity” so intense that he diagnosed it as “a handicap she bore as one who lives with a disability [that] left her . . . emotionally naked.” This “disability,” he proposed, necessitated Dickinson’s shunning of social life and led to what he claimed (based on the unconventionality of her poems) was a lack of organization so severe that she needed “leadership [of] a ‘master,’” such as Higginson or the person to whom she addressed three heavily reworked letters, which may never have been sent, that were found in draft form among her manuscripts after she died. First published in 1955 and reprinted in the 1958 Letters, the “Master” letters set off a tide of speculation among biographers about the identity of the mystery man, as well as assertions that Dickinson, helpless in the throes of what Johnson called “the pathos of unrequited yearning,” gushed out a “flood” of poems from the early to mid-1860s. Johnson’s focus on emotional distress as a motivator for Dickinson’s poetry also led him to characterize the letters as “self-portraits” and conclude that Dickinson lacked interest in anything beyond her immediate orbit: “the fact is that she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current.” Although Johnson did illuminate the letters through providing information about Dickinson’s correspondents and her life, he also preceded groupings of letters with page-long introductions that reinforced the view of her reclusion as pathological. His notes also aren’t as thorough as those of Miller and Mitchell: in the “open me carefully” letter, for example, he informs readers that Edward Dickinson was attending the Whig convention and would hand-deliver the letter to Sue, but he does not annotate the “delenda est” reference, a decision which bolsters his portrayal of Dickinson as apolitical.
Of course, all editing is an act of interpretation and is also inextricable from its times, and the editing of the letters, as well as perspectives on Dickinson’s life, have changed dramatically since the 1890 edition of her poems sparked enough public interest that Todd made the effort to collect, transcribe, and publish a selection of letters in 1894. Interpre­tations of Dickinson’s reclusiveness are a case in point. It is a biographical fact, documented by the letters, that Dickinson led a rich social life in her teens and twenties, and then, beginning in her thirties, gradually withdrew from what today we would call “face-to-face” interaction with friends who came to call, and, though she did travel up until her mid-thirties, including a trip to Washington while her father served in Congress, she eventually did not step beyond the house and grounds of the Dickinson Homestead. Whereas Higginson romanticized the reclusiveness and Johnson pathologized it, Adrienne Rich, at the height of the second wave feminist movement in 1975, envisioned Dickinson “as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will,” who made strategic choices for the sake of her writing: “she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. . . . Given her vocation, she was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.” In Rich’s view, Dickinson was not the victim of circumstances—handicapped by mental illness, rejected by a man, and writing as compensation for loss—but a genius who “deliberately organized [life] on her terms” and gained her primary intellectual and emotional sustenance from relationships with women.
While there is no doubt that Dickinson was an introvert, and thus there is some truth to Johnson’s perspective, there is no evidence that the introversion was pathological, or that Dickinson suffered from mental illness. But the letters do confirm Rich’s point that limiting her relationships to correspondence enabled Dickinson to assert power, whether to control the terms of a conversation or strike different poses for different people: as sisterly caretaker to Frances and Louisa, her orphaned Norcross cousins; as smitten, and later chivalric, admirer of Sue; as meek “scholar” to Higginson, to whom she just as often brazenly boasted of her ambition; and as intellectual equal to her brother and to male friends, going so far in several letters as to issue mock-challenges to a duel. In an 1850 Valentine, she writes:


Sir, I desire an interview; meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon—the place is immaterial. In gold, or in purple, or sackcloth—I look not upon the raiment. With sword, or with pen, or with plough—the weapons are less than the wielder. In coach, or in wagon, or walking, the equipage far from the man. With soul, or spirit, or body, they are all alike to me.


The duel here, of course, is verbal, and the recipient, a student at Amherst College, conceded his loss—and signaled his esteem—by seeing that the letter was published in the college literary magazine. Despite her introversion, Dickinson was quite bold in her letters, whether making radical claims (sometimes couched in metaphor) about society or religion, admitting her own fascination with power, or setting boundaries with her correspondents as a way of establishing power. She writes to Sue in 1878: “Cherish Power—dear—” “Remember that stands in the Bible between the Kingdom and the Glory, because it is wilder than either of them—”; and, two years later, in a provocative draft of a letter to Judge Lord, “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?” For Dickinson, “no” conferred power not only in her relationships with people, but also with God (or institutionalized Christianity); throughout her life, she was remarkably consistent in withholding commitment to the church, even while keeping an open mind about the afterlife, insisting to Sue in a late letter that “Faith is Doubt. / Sister—” At age 15, she confesses to a friend, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die,” and she continued throughout her life to insist that she found heaven on earth. Among her last letters—sent in the wake of being bedridden for months with kidney disease—is a note accompanying a daphne, in which she tells the recipient, “If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every Day, without the distractions of Nicodemus?” Indeed, she may have learned her own strategies of gaining power through reclusiveness from observations she made about the deity. In 1878, she jokes, “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of him as somewhat of a recluse.”
Psychology and power plays aside, Dickinson had practical reasons for limiting her social life to correspondence. Following Rich’s lead, biographers such as Cynthia Griffin Wolf have argued that Dickinson’s reclusion was indeed self-selected: not only to gain space for her poetic project, but also due to an eye affliction serious enough that she underwent treatments for it in Boston in April 1864 and continued them for seven months, while she lived in a Cambridge boarding house with the Norcross cousins; in subsequent years, her eyes were so sensitive to light that staying indoors enabled her to control the exposure, and she only ventured forth to garden just after dawn and before sunset. Miller and Mitchell provide straightforward documentation of the eye treatments in their annotations to the letters, an objective contrast to Dickinson’s own metaphors for her situation. In mid-June 1864, for example, she tells Higginson, “I was ill since September, and since April, in Boston, for a Physician’s care—He does not let me go, yet I work in my Prison, and make Guests for myself.” She returned to her home in late November and reported to her cousins in February that “The eyes are as with you, sometimes easy, sometimes sad. I think they are not worse, nor do I think them better than when I came home. . . . The snow light offends them, and the house is bright, notwithstanding, they hope some.” Needing further treatment, Dickinson went back to Boston on April 1, 1865 and stayed until October. Although Johnson provides information about the eye treatments, he downplays their significance, suggesting instead that from 1862 to 1865 “She was undergoing an emotional disturbance of such magnitude that she feared for her reason,” a claim that Dickinson herself refutes when writing to a friend, Joseph Lyman, in 1870 about the experience:


Some years ago I had a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble. It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul—BOOKS. The medical man said avaunt ye books tormentors, he also said “down, thoughts & plunge into her soul.” He might as well have said, “Eyes be blind,” “heart be still.” So I had eight weary months of Siberia.


Along with the eye affliction, caretaking was another cause of Dickinson’s reclusiveness, especially during the last decade of her life. In their introduction, Miller and Mitchell argue that “While she did refuse to see most visitors as she became older, the correspondence reveals the extent to which many of her hours, during these years, were spent nursing family members or herself suffering ill health.” In June 1875, a year after the sudden death of Dickinson’s father, her mother had a debilitating stroke, then lingered, requiring constant care, until November 1882. Dickinson shared the task with her sister Lavinia, and the late letters often reference her mother’s frailty. She tells a family friend in 1880:


The responsibility of Pathos is almost more than the responsibility of Care. Mother will never walk. She still makes her little Voyages from her Bed to her Chair in a Strong Man’s Arms—probably that will be all—
Her poor Patience loses it’s way and we lead it back—I was telling her Nieces yesterday . . . that to read to her—to fan her—to tell her “Health would come Tomorrow”, and make the Counterfeit look real . . . this is so ensuing, that I hardly have said “Good Morning Mother”, when I hear myself saying “Mother—Good Night”—
Time is short and full, like an outgrown Frock—


Due to the burden of caretaking, Dickinson wrote fewer, and usually briefer, letters during her last decade than in previous years, though, as Miller and Mitchell note, she continued her practice of maintaining “frequent contact with neighbors, friends, and family through messages and gifts,” sending flowers, fruit, bread, sweets, and even—jokingly to her nephew Gilbert—a dead bee, each accompanied by a sentence or two in poetry or prose that playfully analogize the gift.
When collected in editions of Dickinson’s poetry, such messages are often cryptic, leaving a reader guessing about their meaning. Along with their restoration, redating, and annotations of the correspondence, Miller and Mitchell’s final and perhaps most significant accomplishment is their decision to include “letter-poems” in the mix. For Dickinson’s writing, the boundary between poems and letters is thin. Aphoristic, saturated in metaphor, the letters often read like poems (though Dickinson is deft, as in the letter just quoted, at transmitting information, then switching to metaphor). Some of the letters, though not set in verse, are written in rhyme and meter, as in a stunning condolence to Sue following Gilbert’s sudden death at age eight from typhoid. Dickinson would also enclose poems, copied onto separate sheets of stationery, with letters, or break from prose format and intersperse verse in a letter. As with her poems, she often drafted letters in pencil (especially during her eye treatments), then made a final copy in ink. And, even when writing for herself, letterhead was the paper she used to preserve her poems (though she would draft poems on scraps, including the backsides of letters she had received). From 1858–1865, she made fair copies of her poems on stationery and stitched the sheets together into booklets (dubbed “fascicles” by Todd, who tore them apart to group poems by theme). Johnson accurately dated the fascicle sheets (correlating them with Dickinson’s handwriting on dated letters) but assumed that she must have written the poems in the years he assigned to them, and thus he called 1862–1864 her “flood period,” with 366 poems ascribed to 1862, 141 to 1863, and 174 to 1864. But subsequent scholars have warned that we can only be certain she transcribed the poems during these years, rather than composed them in a particular year, and that making fair copies of poems she had already written might be a logical step for a poet who feared she might go blind. Throughout her life, Dickinson kept fussing with the fascicles, crossing out lines and writing in revisions, or making lists in the margins of alternate words. But the fascicles were also portfolios she drew from when writing letters, as sources of poems she would send to, or revise for, her correspondents.
Styling poems—existing or new—as her “letters to the world” was not simply a metaphor, but common practice for Dickinson, and 214 of the “new” letters that Miller and Mitchell include in their volume are what they classify as “letter-poems”: poems that Dickinson addressed or signed to others. The inclusion of letter-poems makes the reading experience strikingly different for Miller and Mitchell’s edition than for Johnson and Ward’s edition, both as a reflection of what Dickinson actually sent to her correspondents and also giving readers a way of contextualizing some of the poems (which doesn’t preclude the option of reading them in other ways, such as part of a fascicle series), though the letter-poems nonetheless often resist biographical interpretation. For example, for 1864, Johnson and Ward include 14 letters. Adding letter-poems, Miller and Mitchell increase that number to 33. While a few of the letter-poems from 1864 reference the prospect of blindness and the difficulty of being away from home, the rest are not so limited to her immediate circumstances and vary in theme and tone, encompassing musings on self, nature, the soul, and the sheer awe of living and include poems that became among her best known: “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—,” “The Wind begun to knead the Grass,” “‘Soto’—Explore Thyself—,” and the following declaration, sent to Sue in early spring:


To be alive, is power—
Existence—in itself—
Without a further function—
To be alive, and Will—
’Tis able as a God—
The Further of Ourselves, be what—
Such being Finitude?


Even facing the prospect of blindness—or the certainty that she would have to endure painful eye treatments and restrictions on her reading and writing—Dickinson nonetheless celebrates the power of “Existence —in itself—” as equivalent to godliness. Overall, what is most striking about reading Dickinson’s correspondence, especially with the addition of the letter-poems, is her vitality: the depth of her engagement with life, whether inner or outer, and her commitment to honing and recording her thoughts, whether in poems or letters. Although Dickinson sent hundreds of gifts, each accompanied by a letter, for her the letter itself (given or received) was the true gift, a belief that this new edition amply confirms.


[1] THE LETTERS OF EMILY DICKINSON, ed. by Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell. Belknap Press. $49.95.