Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet who wrote nearly 1,800 poems, most of which were published posthumously. She composed her works in short, compact phrases, using a unique writing style, particularly capitalization and dashes.
Author of The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson and All Things Dickinson, Wendy Martin is a professor of American literature and American studies at Claremont Graduate University’s English Department. She is also the founder and editor of Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
Simply Charly: Your book suggests that Emily Dickinson was an assertive, confident, and even fun-loving person. Why does the image of her as an austere, insecure “spinster” persist in some readers’ minds?
Wendy Martin: Emily Dickinson was indeed a fiercely independent, playful, humorous, life-loving person, as well as a powerfully original and fiercely independent poet. However, when I first introduced this interpretation of her life and work, creating a paradigm change in Dickinson scholarship, scholars, who were mostly men, were committed to Dickinson as a neurasthenic and agoraphobic spinster. Had these scholars bothered to read Dickinson’s letters, instead of making hasty pronouncements based on misogynistic assumptions, they would have learned about her very loving relationships with her family and friends, as well as her reservations, and ultimate refusal, to conform to the religious beliefs that prevailed in the Amherst community.
In her letters, which often included poems as well, Dickinson is very open about her emotions, and she chronicles her profound struggles for independence from patriarchal authorities ranging from her father to the Calvinist God her family and most—if not all—of her friends, believed in. Her letters are also a powerful testament to Dickinson’s profound love for her family and friends, as well as her reverence for nature and the wonders of life on earth. Because Dickinson chose not to marry and stayed mostly in her spacious home in her later years, she seemed enigmatic and mysterious. However, Dickinson’s parents and sister also lived in the “Homestead” and friends visited frequently; her brother Austin and his wife Susan, along with their children, had a home next door. Yet this is entirely disregarded by those who persist in portraying Dickinson as a neurotic recluse; it was and continues to be, all too easy to cast Dickinson as a neurasthenic spinster and a neurotic agoraphobic when indeed she had a very sociable life full of love and joy.
SC: Dickinson desired that her letters and poems be destroyed after her death. Was the act of publishing her work a violation of her intentions? Does her lack of interest in publishing change the way we should read the poems?
WM: Dickinson didn’t really want her letters and poems to be destroyed after her death. In fact, she took very special care to organize and preserve them by sewing them by hand into fascicles, which she stored in a special bureau drawer in her bedroom; her sister, Lavinia, could easily find them there. After Dickinson’s death, Lavinia made it her life’s mission to find an editor and publisher for Emily’s poems. However, arranging for publication of the poems was a far more complicated and frustrating process than Lavinia had anticipated. Austin Dickinson’s wife, Susan, resisted publication of Emily’s poems for a very long time to protect the “privacy” of the Dickinson family; finally, in desperation, Lavinia was able to enlist Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, and Thomas Higginson, editor and Emily’s friend, to arrange for publication of the poetry.
It is important to understand that Dickinson was a highly adventurous and experimental poet; in effect, she was a modernist well before her time. Her disregard for traditional meter and rhyme characterizes most of her work, and 19th-century readers simply did not know how to respond to her innovative style. Several of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime; now, her poems fascinate and intrigue contemporary readers, and Dickinson’s work is widely read and appreciated today.
SC: You write about Dickinson’s “willingness to replace God with people as a subject of devotion and praise,” yet she also seems to have maintained a reverence for the Almighty. How do you reconcile those two impulses? How should the reader?
WM: Dickinson did not accept the idea of a traditional Savior who redeems humans with promises of heaven and life everlasting. Poem #1545 satirizes passages from the Bible, which she describes as “an antique Volume/ Written by faded men”; in this same poem, she reminds readers that “‘Orpheus’ Sermon captivated/ It did not condemn.”
As a schoolgirl, Dickinson was the only student who refused to declare that she was a Christian; although she acknowledged that she was one of the “lost ones,” she declared that she could not relinquish her love of life on earth for the promise of eternal life. Of course, Dickinson’s iconoclastic and very radical position was viewed as blasphemous and heretical by traditionalists, and I think this influenced her choice to remain among family and friends rather than make herself vulnerable to the scorn and derision of the Amherst community.
Finally, Dickinson was in awe of the wonders of nature: the changing seasons; sunrises and sunsets; the waxing and waning of the moon; the beauty of birdsong, and the blossoms in her garden. As she observes in Poem # 668, “Nature is Heaven.”
SC: You discuss the Civil War as a backdrop for her poems. Would you describe Dickinson as an anti-war poet?
WM: Dickinson was not a political activist and never took a public stand regarding issues like war, women’s rights, and so forth. She was horrified by the carnage of the Civil War and devastated by the tragic loss of life caused by the war. Although she certainly honored the courage of young men like her childhood friend Fraser Stearns who was killed in battle, she mourned the sacrifice of his life and the tragedy of his death. Although Dickinson was not an anti-war poet in the sense of having a political agenda, the fact that human beings are willing to sacrifice life by engaging in war deeply saddened her.
SC: Some recent critics and biographers have found evidence to suggest Dickinson was a lesbian. Your book makes little of those assertions. Are those other critics wrong?
WM: Dickinson was a very passionate person who expressed her powerful feelings for both her female and male friends freely. These relationships were extremely intense, and some of them may have had an erotic component, but whether they involved sexual engagement is difficult to know with certainty. Some scholars have argued that Dickinson had a love affair with her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson; certainly, their relationship was of central importance to both women, and many of Emily’s letters to Susan are very intimate.
In general, female friendships in the 19th century were often emotionally intense, and the conventions of the time permitted passionate expressions of love which for us today might seem sexual but were not considered so at the time. Not that Dickinson might not have had a love affair with her sister-in-law, but this is still very speculative. She was also infatuated with Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, and she might have been sexually involved with him. Possibly, Dickinson was bi-sexual, at least psychologically; there is still considerable work to be done on this complex subject.
SC: Dickinson adapted the British Romantic view to suit her own iconoclastic perspective, but was there any particular British Romantic poet who impacted her significantly?
WM: Shakespeare, especially his use of the dramatic monologue, deeply influenced Dickinson. She also revered Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, and especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These poets were very popular in their day, both in England and the United States, and Dickinson felt an artistic kinship with them. She also loved the work of novelists George Eliot and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and read their novels as soon as possible after publication; these writers were also part of her artistic community.
SC: You write that “Whether a poem is true ‘poetry’ does not depend for Dickinson on its use of meter, rhyme, stanza, or line length but on the almost physical sensation created in the reader by the poem’s words.” Did Dickinson begin as more of a “formalist”—perhaps in her schoolgirl days? Or did she always disregard traditional poetic devices?
WM: Dickinson famously said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And from the beginning, her poetry was marked by a disregard for the poetic conventions of her time. She refused to write poetry that was overwrought and effusively sentimental; instead, she grounded her poems in her actual daily experiences, emotions, and thoughts she felt in a powerfully visceral way. Dickinson used language and form that matched her experiences and thoughts; in many respects, hers is the modernist approach of “form follows function.” For Dickinson, content prefigured form rather than the other way around, as it was for so many 19th-century poets. In other words, instead of forcing her ideas to fit a specific format, whether it be rhyme scheme or meter, Dickinson created the poetic form that best fit her thoughts and feelings. In short, she was a fiercely independent and radically innovative poet.
SC: There have been many representations of Emily Dickinson on stage and in film. In your opinion, are they accurate—and which of them comes closest to the real Emily Dickinson?
WM: Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson as an intellectual, scintillating person with powerful emotions and wicked humor in Terence Davies’ film, A Quiet Passion, is very effective in many respects; however, this performance is sadly limited by a script that is often historically inaccurate and takes blatant liberties with what Dickinson actually said and did. It is especially unfortunate that they represent this film as being historically accurate when, indeed, this is far from true.
Julie Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson in the Broadway production, The Belle of Amherst, comes much closer to capturing the poet’s intellectual precocity and emotional complexity, as well as her brilliant humor, largely because this depiction of Dickinson depends on the accurate use of actual quoted material from her poems and letters, instead of putting words in her mouth she never uttered.
SC: Has the digitizing of Dickinson’s poetry changed the way scholars approach the poems? In what ways do you expect technology to impact Dickinson studies going forward?
WM: We are so used to reading printed material that we can easily forget that Dickinson did not write for print; her poems were handwritten with deliberation and include a sophisticated notation of dashes, spaces, and lines to indicate pauses and breaths.
Dickinson’s notation is difficult, even impossible, to translate into print. Until recently, we have mostly had to make do with the print renditions of her poetry and letters, which omit Dickinson’s notations. With digital images of this work, we can finally see the poems and letters as Dickinson composed them.
Also, rather than working with pages, Dickson wrote her final versions of poems on small pieces of paper, which she sewed together into “fascicles”—that is, small bundles. Her organization of the poems into fascicles was carefully chosen but was unfortunately lost when the fascicles were taken apart during the publishing process.
Some efforts have been made to reconstruct the fascicles through an examination of the individual leaves, including the holes made when Dickinson sewed them together, but the results of this reconstruction have not yet generated a consensus. It will be very exciting to have broader attention to the original form of Dickinson’s work, which might lead to a more accurate reconstruction of her intended organization.
Even though we often think of digitization as moving us further away from the original, in this case, digitizing Dickinson’s manuscripts will bring most of us much closer to her art and her life as she actually led it, including romantic, and possibly sexual, experiences.
Finally, digitizing the Dickinson archives means they are available to scholars and general readers all over the world. It will no longer be necessary to travel to Amherst or Harvard to have access to Dickinson’s letters, poems, family memorabilia, and photographs.
The widespread availability of Dickinson’s original fascicles is an extraordinary gift to Dickinson scholars by making it much easier for us to see her original work. In general, digitization expands and enhances access to Dickinson, and the critical responses to her work.
SC: You write that Dickinson’s “poetry, letters, and life seem a code that begs to be deciphered.” Has the deciphering been done—or are there significant discoveries yet to be made?
WM: Dickinson scholarship has changed direction since I first challenged the prevailing consensus of her as a neurotic spinster with my transformative interpretation of her life, poetry, and letters. That my interpretation of Dickinson has become more or less standard is a major advance. This said, there is much more work to be done on Emily Dickinson, and I’m looking forward to learning about these newer discoveries in years to come.