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Emily Fragos on Emily Dickinson’s Letters

May 10, 2011 | by

Last month, Everyman’s Library published a pocket-size volume of Emily Dickinson’s letters, edited by poet and professor Emily Fragos. Dickinson’s missives are the only prose she ever wrote, and they make an intriguing complement to her veiled, often mysterious verse. I recently corresponded with Fragos about the portrait of Dickinson that emerges from this collection of her lifelong, ardent epistles.

Most discussions of Dickinson begin with her April 1862 letter to Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in which she famously asks, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” By this point, she was already thirty-two and an accomplished, if private, poet. What were her earlier letters like?

You find a vivacious, brilliant, very witty young woman who had a multitude of friends, both men and women, whom she adored. She traveled, entertained, played music, and was a star at school. Everyone she wrote to already knew she was a gifted and unique individual.

So the reclusive-spinster stereotype is not accurate, at least not when she was young.

Right, we don’t see a recluse wearing all white, living apart from others, and penning mysterious poetry. We meet a loving, studying, working, tired, joyful, sometimes upset person who takes part in the running of a busy household and who is the caregiver, without respite, for her bedridden mother. We glimpse the personality traits that will deepen with the years, especially the intensity of her feelings.

But the gift of the early letters are the details that demystify Dickinson, reminding us that she was a real person living in a real place at a real time in history. The poems have such an eternal and modern feel to them that it’s easy to forget that Dickinson lived in the nineteenth century, in the middle of the Civil War. In the letters, we read how it’s hotter then hell in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. People dropped like flies, and there were always tons of flies, literally, stuck to the walls in the heat. There were needy soldiers who sometimes came knocking on the door of the Dickinson homestead. When she writes so ecstatically about the oncoming spring and the flowers in bloom—which she calls the “beautiful children of Spring”—it is partly because she has survived another New England winter.

We also see that she had precociously accepted contradiction and paradox into her realm of thinking, as she wrote in 1861: “Odd, that I, who say ‘no’ so much, cannot bear it from others. Odd, that I, who run from so many, cannot brook that one turn from me.”

In her correspondence with Higginson, Dickinson is polite and demure, seeming to defer all authority to Higginson’s editorial expertise, but it is also clear that she’s adamantly making a case for her own poetic style.

Yes, she deals with him with utmost modesty and courtesy, but he responds by taking a scalpel to her poems, trying to impose his “corrections” on them. For all her submissiveness in the letters to him, she does not give in and she does not give up on the poetry. She continues to trust her instincts and to write in her own “spasmodic” gait, as she called it. She continues to write to Higginson, too, and came to love him as a friend. There’s a one-line letter she wrote to him when her beloved dog, Carlo, a shaggy, brown Newfoundland, died. This genius poet of such original voice cannot find any words in her sorrow: “Carlo died. Would you instruct me now?”

Did Higginson’s corrective responses to her poems play a role in her decision not to publish under her name during her lifetime?

Yes, I think so. She just didn’t get the support or understanding she sought from him. The authority figure of her day was not much of an authority on genius. I love what she wrote to him in her fifth letter: “All men say ‘What’ to me.” His confusion didn’t stop her, but it cost her—and us. It took years before the public read the poems in their original form. You know, Dickinson did talk about fame in her letters; she was aware of the possibilities: “It’s a great thing to be ‘great,’ Louise, and you and I might tug for a life, and never accomplish it, but no one can stop our looking on, and you know some can not sing, but the orchard is full of birds, and we all can listen. What if we learn, ourselves, someday! Who indeed knows?”

For this volume, you selected material from the first edition of Dickinson’s letters, which contains some substantial omissions. Can you describe what was left out and why?

I worked from the two 1894 volumes, because they are in the public domain. Dickinson is unusual in many ways: she’s a nineteenth-century poet, but her complete poems and letters, in their original forms, were not published until 1955 and 1958 by Harvard University Press, who hold the rights to these later editions.

The 1894 volumes omit some important letters. Perhaps the most missed are the more than three hundred letters of deep friendship and love to Sue Gilbert, who would go on to marry Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and live next door. In Sue, at least for a time, Dickinson found an adoring and good reader of her poetry. She also released Dickinson’s sexual imagination, and in many of the letters the passion is barely contained. You can sense the depth of their relationship in the one letter to Sue I was able to include in the anthology: the famous, oft-quoted letter on the subject of loneliness. Dickinson’s love letters to another friend, Kate Anthon, are included in this volume. Mabel Loomis Todd, who was Austin’s mistress, prepared the 1894 volumes and she despised Sue, who was, after all, Austin’s wife. Emily’s sister, Lavinia, also did not like Sue. Much has been written about the dynamics between Loomis Todd, Sue, Austin, and Lavinia. It was a real soap opera.

I was able to include one of the three magnificent “Master Letters,” the mysterious drafts of passionate love letters, presumably never mailed, written to an unknown recipient—perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth or Samuel Bowles. I also wish the 1894 edition had included the letters to Judge Otis Lord, a man who became a very close friend and romantic suitor to Dickinson later in life, and who, some speculate, could also have been the intended recipient for the Master letters. There are just two minor allusions to him in this 1894 edition.

Still, I love the 1894 volumes with all their excerpts, ellipses, and omissions. These were the very first books of Dickinson’s letters offered up to the world, prepared by people who knew and loved her. There are many great letters here. We get to feel very close to Dickinson in these volumes.

How do the letters relate to Dickinson’s poetry?

There are many examples, but here’s just one: When Dickinson loses her housekeeper, who quit to get married, she writes that she really misses the maid—a common enough statement—but then writes, “To all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” This merging of the minor and the vast is a key trait of Dickinson in the poems and in the letters. The leaps of imagination are stunning. One needs privacy and silence, and flourishing genius, to live in such a realm. Otherwise, one stops at, “Gee, I miss Maggie the maid so much.”

The letters are part of the poetry, launching pads for her crises, joys, and observations. Being in seclusion, everything is pitched high, allowing her to roam free and to explore states of awe. There is nothing to hold her in check. The concrete becomes the abstract. The personal becomes the universal. Her letters transcend the factual and biographical and ascend into the realm of poetry.

Every year brings new interpretations, theories, and revisions to Dickinson’s work and her mystique. What is it about Dickinson that has made her legend so alluring?

The mystique that follows her is compelling. She is, after all, a famous recluse; a nineteenth-century poet, a woman, who came from nowhere, who did not fade into oblivion or die creatively unfulfilled; and who is now universally regarded as one of the world’s greatest poets.

I also think she is an incredibly intimate poet. Each reader approaches Dickinson and hears her voice to be bold, honest, electrifying, and almost unfathomable in its depictions of numbing grief and ravishing joy, these extreme emotional states that she explored in newly minted language, descending to frightening depths and writing from those depths, surviving those depths. What that must have taken!

She offers great salvation to a reader who comes to her at times of crisis or pain. As a friend of mine once said, "She hands you a bomb and you are calmed." She even writes posthumous poems and seemingly answers the question of what is it like to die, to be dead! She said she didn’t care much about history, only eternity. The poems affirm that. Ted Kooser wrote a tiny poem that seems to speak directly to Dickinson and of her life: “If you can awaken/ inside the familiar/ and discover it strange/ you need never leave home.”

15 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Michelle in NYC | May 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Brilliant!

  2. Marie Ponsot | May 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Emily Dickinson is well and decently edited in these letters. The editor matches the brilliant writer – sensational for their nature, not just joked up by paltry biographers…

  3. Stephen Cahaly | May 10, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for an excellent interview. Just recently I began reading the letters and was very surprised to read her touring Mount Vernon. Just the thought of her walking the grounds of a founding father… what a meeting of American might.

  4. Louise | May 10, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I wish I were verbally equipped to comment on this exceptional interview. I just loved everything Emily Fragos said.

  5. Marjorie | May 10, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Imagine if Ms. Fragos could have interviewed Miss Dickinson directly. What a wonderful conversation that would have been! Thank you for bringing these two brilliant Emilys together here.

  6. Thomas Claire | May 11, 2011 at 9:06 am

    This book is a welcome one for me since apart from their beauty the meaning of some of Emily Dickinson’s poems easily eludes me. (This is true of other poets and their poetry, too, at least for me. For example, Helen Vendler’s books on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Seamus Heaney brought both of these poets’ work into greater focus.) I will very happily read Emily Fragos’s book and then reread the Belle of Amherst’s poems—with greater insight than earlier. Thanks for having published this book, and congratulations to Ms. Fragos!

  7. Laura Rodgers | May 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Fantastic Interview. This pocket book is well worth getting. I am enjoying it immensely. Bravo to Emily Fragos.

  8. Allen Wright | May 12, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Excellent work by Ms. Fragos. I have come to expect that from her in her own writings and editing.

  9. Fran A Hilario | July 5, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    “The leaps of imagination are stunning. One needs privacy and silence, and flourishing genius, to live in such a realm.” – Ms Fragos, genius that needs time, or privacy, or silence is not genius. This genius is saying Edison was wrong; genius is 10% perspiration and 90% inspiration!

  10. David A. DeBergalis | September 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    A precipice is tripped across when throwing our own template of perspective upon any author’s oeuvre. Even our own. Commentary here on Emily Dikinson, by Emily Fragos and David O’Neill, tends to skip about unheedingly near this dangerous line, with grandiose comments such as: “Did Higginson’s corrective responses to her poems play a role in her decision not to publish under her name during her lifetime?” “Yes, I think so. She just didn’t get the support or understanding she sought from him.” And: “In her correspondence with Higginson, Dickinson is polite and demure, seeming to defer all authority to Higginson’s editorial expertise, but it is also clear that she’s adamantly making a case for her own poetic style?” “Yes, she deals with him with utmost modesty and courtesy, but he responds by taking a scalpel to her poems, trying to impose his “corrections” on them.” Or: “Much has been written about the dynamics between Loomis Todd, Sue, Austin, and Lavinia. It was a real soap opera.” Also: “But the gift of the early letters are the details that demystify Dickinson, reminding us that she was a real person living in a real place at a real time in history.”

    “Scalpel” seems more a modern attack dog word from today’s common vernacular of political subterfuge. Higginson made a case for expanding the poet’s understanding of poetic conventions. It may have been a bit more of a challenge for the poet’s finely tuned instincts breaking rules, unless knowing where limits of conventions lie. Let’s not blame this creature “man” once again. After all, one thing clear in the poet’s letters is the support born of great and undying sacrifice on the part of the “General” at “Headquarters,” allusions to her father, Edward Dickinson. He died at age seventy-one, while still on the job. It was this imperfect sex which left the uninterrupted poet to the rich loam where her perspectives blossomed most elegantly. Finally, the term “soap opera” describing events of these loyal and palpable hearts, Todd, Sue, Austin, and Lavinia, beating in their own eclipses within the path of the poet’s fatalist orbiting, is outside the universe. Demystifying a Transcendentalist would be an impossible task. This was the point. “Attempted to expound What neither understood. Alas, that wisdom is so large And truth so manifold!”

    Yet, comments cited here by Emily Fragos and David O’Neill in their discussion can be categorized in the benign form of critical trajectory with the famously enigmatic poet. There is another variety, mercifully, outside this interview. In today’s sprawl of pop literature and knee-jerk comment we have the poet engaging in everything from threesomes, making a case for global markets because she bought a coconut, all the way to endorsing the Tea Party. Perhaps the poet should be left to speak herself in telling us of “the simple news that nature told”―auspicious today, since we’re all doing our best to destroy it. Let us, “On her divine majority Obtrude no more.” And judge “tenderly” of her. We all deserve this much, she strove laborious to help us with such understanding. Let us not hitch cheap rides clinging to the full sheets of her brilliant sailings. But let us inspire each other’s diviner gusts.

    Nabokov put it this way: “But careful: I like to recall what my father wrote: ‘When closely—no matter how closely—observing events in nature we must, in the very process of observation, beware of letting our reason—that garrulous dragoman who always runs ahead—prompt us with explanations which then begin imperceptibly to influence the very course of observation and distort it: thus the shadow of the instrument falls upon the truth.’ ” from THE GIFT, by Vladimir Nabokov.

    This comment by Nabokov, no doubt, in relation to Lepidoptera, his famous passion outside literature. Both Nabokov and Dickinson loved butterflies, though, it must be said, Nabokov brought the demise of many with the huge windshield of his careening 1950s Buick, while we learn, Dickinson waited until her father left to save spiders from the fate of a “housewife’s broom”. Siddartha Gautama would have appreciated her gesture, but I’m not sure what he would have thought of our heedless Buicks.
    One thing we can perceive from the poet’s letters is a longing to write a formal novel. This is something, I think, which would have been impossible for her. We learn, for example, she was reading Emily Brontë’s extraordinary, Wuthering Heights. This may have set her regretting failure of writing such prose, and certainly would have inspired her to publish her own form. But this is only speculation. A novel requires something of a standard, as were conventions of the day: a contention or crux of some sort, a rise, a roller coaster to the highest rung, and denouement. Dickinson, it seems, had a sense of the past and future only out of an ecstatic context of falling constantly through the present. Her poems, and even her letters, never seem to have a beginning or end. Her life appears to have been lived only in a minute—a minute simultaneously containing and setting free all Eternity. Poetry was her forte. Here, she could avoid any humanly invented linguistic snares, and let Nature rule within and without its own enigma. “When everything that ticked has stopped, And space stares, all around.” No, I would not necessarily call our present “modern” experience run by nuclear clocks, progress. Not of the kind of progress she had in mind.

    Still, respectful appreciation of the poet is always a pleasure to read, and certainly much of this is found here in Emily Fragos and David O’Neill’s faithful, if not, torch bearing discussion. d.

  11. David A. DeBergalis | September 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    A precipice is tripped across when throwing our own template of perspective upon any author’s oeuvre. Even our own. Commentary here on Emily Dikinson, by Emily Fragos and David O’Neill, tends to skip about unheedingly near this dangerous line, with grandiose comments such as: “Did Higginson’s corrective responses to her poems play a role in her decision not to publish under her name during her lifetime?” “Yes, I think so. She just didn’t get the support or understanding she sought from him.” And: “In her correspondence with Higginson, Dickinson is polite and demure, seeming to defer all authority to Higginson’s editorial expertise, but it is also clear that she’s adamantly making a case for her own poetic style?” “Yes, she deals with him with utmost modesty and courtesy, but he responds by taking a scalpel to her poems, trying to impose his “corrections” on them.” Or: “Much has been written about the dynamics between Loomis Todd, Sue, Austin, and Lavinia. It was a real soap opera.” Also: “But the gift of the early letters are the details that demystify Dickinson, reminding us that she was a real person living in a real place at a real time in history.”

    “Scalpel” seems more a modern attack dog word from today’s common vernacular of political subterfuge. Higginson made a case for expanding the poet’s understanding of poetic conventions. It may have been a bit more of a challenge for the poet’s finely tuned instincts breaking rules, unless knowing where limits of conventions lie. Let’s not blame this creature “man” once again. After all, one thing clear in the poet’s letters is the support born of great and undying sacrifice on the part of the “General” at “Headquarters,” allusions to her father, Edward Dickinson. He died at age seventy-one, while still on the job. It was this imperfect sex which left the uninterrupted poet to the rich loam where her perspectives blossomed most elegantly. Finally, the term “soap opera” describing events of these loyal and palpable hearts, Todd, Sue, Austin, and Lavinia, beating in their own eclipses within the path of the poet’s fatalist orbiting, is outside the universe. Demystifying a Transcendentalist would be an impossible task. This was the point. “Attempted to expound What neither understood. Alas, that wisdom is so large And truth so manifold!”

    Yet, comments cited here by Emily Fragos and David O’Neill in their discussion can be categorized in the benign form of critical trajectory with the famously enigmatic poet. There is another variety, mercifully, outside this interview. In today’s sprawl of pop literature and knee-jerk comment we have the poet engaging in everything from threesomes, making a case for global markets because she bought a coconut, all the way to endorsing the Tea Party. Perhaps the poet should be left to speak herself in telling us of “the simple news that nature told”―auspicious today, since we’re all doing our best to destroy it. Let us, “On her divine majority Obtrude no more.” And judge “tenderly” of her. We all deserve this much, she strove laborious to help us with such understanding. Let us not hitch cheap rides clinging to the full sheets of her brilliant sailings. But let us inspire each other’s diviner gusts.

    Nabokov put it this way: “But careful: I like to recall what my father wrote: ‘When closely—no matter how closely—observing events in nature we must, in the very process of observation, beware of letting our reason—that garrulous dragoman who always runs ahead—prompt us with explanations which then begin imperceptibly to influence the very course of observation and distort it: thus the shadow of the instrument falls upon the truth.’ ” from THE GIFT, by Vladimir Nabokov.

    Both Nabokov and Dickinson loved butterflies, though, it must be said, Nabokov brought the demise of many with the huge windshield of his careening 1950s Buick, while we learn, Dickinson waited until her father left to save spiders from the fate of a “housewife’s broom”. Siddartha Gautama would have appreciated her gesture, but I’m not sure what he would have thought of our heedless Buicks.

    One thing we can perceive from the poet’s letters is a longing to write a formal novel. This is something, I think, which would have been impossible for her. We learn, for example, she was reading Emily Brontë’s extraordinary, Wuthering Heights. This may have set her regretting failure of writing such prose, and certainly would have inspired her to publish her own form. But this is only speculation. A novel requires something of a standard, as were conventions of the day: a contention or crux of some sort, a rise, a roller coaster to the highest rung, and denouement. Dickinson, it seems, had a sense of the past and future only out of an ecstatic context of falling constantly through the present. Her poems, and even her letters, never seem to have a beginning or end. Her life appears to have been lived only in a minute—a minute simultaneously containing and setting free all Eternity. Poetry was her forte. Here, she could avoid any humanly invented linguistic snares, and let Nature rule within and without its own enigma. “When everything that ticked has stopped, And space stares, all around.” No, I would not necessarily call our present “modern” experience run by nuclear clocks, progress. Not of the kind of progress she had in mind.

    Still, respectful appreciation of the poet is always a pleasure to read, and certainly much of this is found here in Emily Fragos and David O’Neill’s faithful, if not, torch bearing discussion. d.

  12. David A. DeBergalis | September 21, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks. I enjoyed you erudite ideas. d.

3 Pingbacks

  1. [...] A collection of Emily Dickinson’s personal letters (the only prose she ever wrote) has been published–The Paris Review Blog takes a look at the letters. [...]

  2. [...] the Paris Review blog: an interview with Emily Fragos, who edited Everyman Edition’s pocket-sized volume of Emily Dickinson’s letters. Fragos [...]

  3. [...] Emily Fragos on Emily Dickinson’s Letters by David O’Neill, The Paris Review Daily. An interview with Emily Fragos, editor of the recently published Emily Dickinson: Letters. The letters are part of the poetry, launching pads for her crises, joys, and observations. Being in seclusion, everything is pitched high, allowing her to roam free and to explore states of awe. There is nothing to hold her in check. The concrete becomes the abstract. The personal becomes the universal. Her letters transcend the factual and biographical and ascend into the realm of poetry. [...]

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