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The Boston Phoenix The Belle's Letters

Newly published correspondence reveals the beloved friend who nourished Emily Dickinson's art.

By Graham Christian

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

OPEN ME CAREFULLY: EMILY DICKINSON'S INTIMATE LETTERS TO SUSAN HUNTINGTON DICKINSON, Compiled by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart. Paris Press, 316 pages, $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

There is an extraordinary photograph from the 1860s by Clementina, Lady Hawarden, that shows two women on a stone balcony, their huge hemispherical dresses dominating the air around them. One of them looks out over what might be a residential square in London, and her face is almost completely concealed from us; her companion, however, clutching her friend's waist, looks at the photographer, and us, full face, with astonishing balefulness and hatred, willing us to be gone. The privacy, the interiority, of their friendship is inviolable, as were the truths that defined the friendships of Alice James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Ann Willson; they would have seen all our efforts toward the reconstruction of their lives, however sympathetic, as intrusion and even violation. It has been whispered for some time in academic circles that Emily Dickinson's emotional life belonged to the history of women's intimate friendships, and now the case has been made most forcefully by this new gathering of Dickinson's writings to her sister-in-law and lifelong friend, Susan Huntington Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert met in their later teens, and by 1850, the date of the first letter, their friendship was already in full flower; Susan was her correspondent's "darling one," her letters to Emily read to pieces. After Susan's marriage to Austin Dickinson, and despite the differences in their religious views, Emily's expressions altered but scarcely diminished -- "I held her hand the tighter." Susan, herself a writer, became a first reader for many of Dickinson's poems, often replying only to praise -- "I was all ear" -- but also at times to emend. "Sue" was Dickinson's "Lily" and "Rose" and "Dollie"; they met in a back passage of Emily's house to exchange gifts, writings, and books. Susan is now seen to have been the addressee of many of Dickinson's most impassioned lines, including "Your -- Riches --/taught me -- poverty!" long read as though addressed to God. As they aged, Emily's apparent ardor found more-vivid expression: Sue was "Only Woman/in the World" and "Siren": "I would have come out of Eden to open the Door for you. . . ." Susan nursed her friend in her final illness, arranged her body for burial, and wrote her obituary for the Springfield Republican. Her letters to Emily were destroyed, as Emily had asked.

To say that Emily loved Susan is to say no more than she said herself, but to get at the meaning of that love may be beyond us. Wishful thinking will not turn Emily Dickinson, whose life was circumscribed by the rhythms and needs of two families, into Gertrude Stein; but the substantial record of this constant, deep, and mutually affectionate relationship makes speculation about Dickinson's putative love for Samuel Bowles or Otis Lord or the possibly fictive "Master" to whom she wrote unsent letters seem no more than vapor. What we know is that Susan Gilbert Huntington Dickinson gave one of our greatest poets the nourishment her gifts required; as Dickinson herself said, "With the Exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living -- To say that sincerely is strange praise." Beyond that certainty, the sisters-in-law, like Lady Hawarden's subjects, do not encourage us to pass.

For more than a century, since the first book-length appearance of Dickinson's poems in 1890, four years after her death, the heart-rending and digestible image of Emily has prevailed: the recluse, the Protestant nun, the lonely and misunderstood poetess; in the last generation, a sugary-sweet coating was brushed over this figure by William Luce's play The Belle of Amherst. As a result, we think that we know her life: utter seclusion in a white dress, an asexual dedication to poetry, rejection by the ignorant editors of her day. As her enormous mass of manuscripts now comes to light in forms more closely resembling their originals (not only in this book, but also in the majestic saint's-tomb of the new, complete Poems of Emily Dickinson just issued by Harvard University Press), it becomes more and more clear how far from the truth we have come.

Here was a woman born to a prominent and wealthy family, about whom there was nothing extraordinary except that she herself was a genius; whose famous withdrawal from society seems not to have been complete until her last years, when illness may have aggravated a latent agoraphobia but still did not prevent her from entertaining visits from her beloved sister-in-law. Far from being the secret treasures of a hypersensitive soul, Dickinson's wit and her writing were well known in Amherst. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to whom she sent a few of her poems, hesitated over their quality -- but his fatheadedness is now seen to have been a minority opinion. It seems to have been not so much fear as diffidence that made her refuse help from the likes of novelist Helen Hunt Jackson. Print is so final, but what's more, it's vulgar. The energy with which she broadcast her poems and lyrical letters to friends and relations, Susan Dickinson most of all, do not suggest a woman coy about her mind and its efforts, but a serious poet who, disdaining the title and burdens of a professional writer, guaranteed her work's survival in the hands of her friends.

Even before her death, the struggle for control over Dickinson's work had begun -- "love turned to larceny," as Susan Dickinson called it -- and the result has been a profusion of competing editions, beginning with the conventionalized typography and heavy-handed editing of Mabel Loomis Todd and culminating now in presentations such as this, which honors not only Dickinson's idiosyncratic punctuation but also the long two- and three-word columns in which she wrote most of her later letters and poems. To look long at this, or at the Harvard University Press edition of her poems, is to get a queasy sensation of the un-fixity of Dickinson's texts: letters that bubble into compressed poems, or half-verses, or sibyl-like sayings; not two but perhaps as many as five versions of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," none of them final. Her words, like her life, have come to seem ever more fluid, immediate, and personal.

If it is true, as many now assert, that every publication of Dickinson's work that departs from the forms she chose for herself -- her impetuous handwriting, the hand-stitched bundles of poems -- is a kind of violation, we confront a paradox. One of the most poignant differences between the last century and our own is the gradual inversion of the relationship between ambition and fame. In the 19th century, ambition shaped one's destiny in the public realm, leaving private life obscured; in our century, it seems more desirable to first attain fame -- or, better yet, celebrity -- by discarding privacy. We don't like to be seen to sweat -- but we always want to be seen. Emily Dickinson, whose retirement -- and hunger for greatness -- well exceeded the expectations of 19th-century New England, rarely wished to be seen, but she longed to be known -- on her own terms. She asked Thomas Higginson once if her poems "breathed," and Open Me Carefully, for all the questions it cannot and should not answer, reminds us how incandescently brilliant almost all her writing was. He ought to have said, "Yes."

Graham Christian is a writer and independent scholar living in Somerville.

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