Emily Fragos on Emily Dickinson’s Letters


At Work

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 than 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.”