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Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's…

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington…

by Martha Nell Smith, Emily Dickinson (Contributor), Susan Dickinson (Contributor), Ellen Louise Hart (Editor)

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If you want to buy a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters, you have two choices. There is no complete collection currently in print, which throws me into a blind rage every time I think about it so let's just move on quickly, shall we – but there are two major editions of selected letters. (There are also minor, cutesy, gifty-looking volumes of letters, often with some poems thrown in for good measure; but never mind those for now.)

One of the collections is the first you're shown on Amazon. It's edited by Thomas H. Johnson, the first scholar ever to publish Dickinson's poetry with its original wonky punctuation and capitalization.

This collection of letters is very good. It's annotated enough to give the reader a good sense of what's going on in Dickinson's life, so even if you haven't read a biography of her, you won't be lost. In fact, this collection could work as a bare-bones biography.

However, this collection of letters is a bit pricey -- $22.57 at the time of this writing, which is an odd number in every sense. In its listing, Amazon suggests another edition that's slightly cheaper -- $16.39. Both are paperback, so why not get the less expensive one?

The answer is: They're not the same collection.

This other edition is edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, who is described on the back of the book as "a close friend."

I find that an interesting description of a woman who never actually met Dickinson. "A close friend of whom?" seems a logical question in this case.

Which is where the story gets creepy.

Mabel Loomis Todd came to Amherst with her husband when he got a post as a professor at Amherst College. Dickinson's family was closely associated with the school – her grandfather was one of the original founders – and Dickinson's brother Austin and his wife Susan were among the first to welcome the Todds to town.

Mabel quickly learned of Emily Dickinson's existence, though at this point in her life Dickinson never left the house just next door to her brother's. Susan often read Dickinson's poetry to guests, and Mabel was intrigued by the woman the townspeople called "the myth."

Eventually, Mabel was invited over to Emily Dickinson's house to play the piano and sing. (In the days before recorded music, gifted amateur musicians were desirable social commodities, and Mabel was used to this sort of request.) Emily listened from another room. After Mabel's performance, Dickinson sent in a glass of sherry and a poem she'd written while listening.

And what was the poem about? The beauty of music? The singing of the birds that Dickinson was so fond of and mentions so often in her work?

Well, no. This poem marvels about the "fortitude" a soul must have

That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot –
The opening of a Door –

In other words, Dickinson had come to dread and detest the intrusion of visitors, and she had no qualms about saying so to this one.

Let's hope the sherry was good.

Mabel was more intrigued than ever by the woman she was already convinced was a genius. She and Dickinson exchanged some letters, but Dickinson never relented on her closed-door policy, no matter how bird-like Mabel attempted to make her music.

This was friendship, of a sort. But it didn't hold a candle to the bond between Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan. They'd known and loved each other since before Susan accepted Austin Dickinson's proposal of marriage. Dickinson wrote more letters to Sue than she did to anyone else. She also saw Sue in person long after she'd given up other social contact.

Mabel was "close" to Austin Dickinson, however. Specifically, she had a long affair with the man who had married his current wife the year Mabel was born.

In the words of the immortal bard, ew.

This was nineteenth-century New England. Divorce and remarriage wasn't an option. Mabel was passionately in love with Austin, and she wanted to be part of his life somehow. More, she wanted some sort of sign that their relationship wasn't just a fling – it was a union blessed by the God who must have been talking about other people when he made that commandment against adultery.

Mabel couldn't be Austin's wife – couldn't even be the mother of his child, though she tried. But she could be the midwife to a great poet's career, and in that way have her name forever associated with the Dickinson family.

Title divine, is mine.
The Wife without the Sign –

as Emily Dickinson wrote.

The strange, twisted story of how Mabel Loomis Todd came to be the editor of Dickinson's poetry and letters is a tale for another review. The reason I bring it up now is this: if you buy that less expensive edition of Dickinson's letters – which is also the edition you'll be purchasing if you click on the Kindle option – you won't hear a thing about Austin's wife Susan. Mabel was furious at Sue for even existing, and then for having the nerve to cut Mabel socially once news of the affair broke. She couldn't kill Sue off and marry Austin the way she desperately wanted to. But she could do her damnedest to write her out of history.

If you buy the edition of letters Mabel edited, you won't see a single reference to Susan Gilbert Huntington Dickinson. Sue was Emily Dickinson's closest friend. She's said to have prepared Dickinson's body for burial (though some biographers dispute this). Certainly she wrote an eloquent obituary of her brilliant friend. She's mentioned by name in some poems. And, as I mentioned, Dickinson wrote more letters to her than to anyone else.

But Mabel did her best to pretend she'd never existed.

Ironically, the back of Mabel's edition of the letters mentions how reclusive Dickinson grew in her later years. She "seldom saw her many friends, [but] she thought of them often and affectionately. ...The small cast of daily characters in her little world takes on vivid life in the letters."

Well, yes. As long as you understand that a large country in that little world was erased from the map.

That damage isn't localized. Robert N. Linscott's Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson, an inexpensive volume often found on bookstore shelves, doesn't contain a single letter to Susan. Neither does the Everyman Pocket edition of Dickinson's letters, a pretty hardcover just begging to be given as a gift to that Dickinson fan in your life.

Nicely done, Mabel.

Open Me Carefully seeks to undo some of that damage.

In their introduction to this collection of letters, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith make it clear that they consider these missives "romantic and erotic." I don't know if I agree that Dickinson had to have been in love with Susan in order to have written as she did. My own opinion – and I'm only an interested civilian – is that Dickinson was emotionally close to very few people; but those she loved, she adored. Certainly she was passionately fond of Susan.

I neither know nor care if that passion extended to anything physical, either in thought or in deed. I only know that it's an injustice both to Susan and to Dickinson to ignore or trivialize their relationship.

I was interested to learn that though Dickinson used conventional formal stationery with other correspondents, she wrote to Susan on whatever came to hand – "graph, scrap, and formal embossed paper of all sizes." That sort of casual intimacy is the equivalent of paying (or receiving) a visit barefoot, or in one's bathrobe. But it's not the kind of detail a reader can know unless the editor points it out.

Hart and Smith do something else I haven't seen other editors of Dickinson's letters do: they present her letters as they would have looked to the recipient. Not in her handwriting, although they do offer a few photos. But they follow the line breaks Dickinson made.

I found this artistically significant. Her early letters are in this respect perfectly conventional – they spread across the page as any letter would. But her late letters snake down the page, two or three words a line, looking like nothing so much as that "narrow fellow in the grass" she made the subject of one of her longer poems (one of the few published in her lifetime – but that's another story for another review). Seen this way, these late letters look less like correspondence and more like modern poetry. This, for instance, was written while Susan was visiting her sister in New York:

Without the
annual parting
I thought to
shun the
Loneliness that
parting ratifies.
How artfully
in vain!
Your Coffee
cooled un-
touched except
by random

Compare that to William Carlos Williams' letter-poem "This Is Just To Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Dickinson may have been more ahead of her time artistically than she's yet been given credit for.

So this collection is important in that it attempts to restore not merely a crucial relationship, but some of Dickinson's artistry. Oh, and that cooling coffee makes it clear that contrary to what's been written elsewhere about Dickinson, she was still seeing Susan face-to-face in the 1870s.

There are also sweet personal touches one won't find in any collection of her poetry. In the 1850s, Emily sent this poem as a letter to Susan:

The morns are meeker than they were –
The nuts are getting brown –
The berry's cheek is plumper –
The Rose is out of town –

The Maple wears a gayer scarf –
The field – a Scarlet gown –
Lest I sh'd seem old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on!

I've loved this poem since I found it in a children's collection and read it to my very young son – we both laughed at the line about the rose being out of town. So I enjoyed learning that, as Smith and Hart point out in their note to this letter, "A yellowed ribbon that once held a flower is woven through this letter-poem. The paper is cut so that the ribbon, precisely trimmed, does not cover the text of the poem."

Anecdotes like this also make it clearer why Susan and Lavinia, Emily's sister, disagreed so strongly on what to do with Dickinson's poetry after her death. Lavinia wanted to follow the more conventional path of publication, including "correcting" Emily's spelling and punctuation and giving titles to the poems. Susan felt that this was ripping the poetry out of context. She struggled – and failed – to find a way to bring Dickinson's "letter to the world" in a way that was more authentic and less ironed-out.

It has taken years of patient scholarship to begin to undo the damage done to Dickinson's artistic legacy by Mabel Loomis Todd. I'm not being spiteful here. I understand that this was a long time ago, long before "Antiques Roadshow." But it's cringe-inducing to learn how Mabel eagerly took apart the booklets of poetry Dickinson sewed together by hand, and didn't bother keeping track afterwards of which poems had been stitched to which. It's maddening that the woman who supposedly recognized Dickinson's genius not only forced titles on those brilliant poems, but sometimes changed words in order to force rhymes.

If you buy an inexpensive volume of Dickinson's poetry, or see some in an old textbook, odds are good you're looking at Mabel's editing. Ironically, Dickinson's poetry as she wrote it won't be in the public domain any time soon, even though she died in 1886. Copyright has to do with what was published when, and Dickinson's poetry wasn't restored to its true self until well into the 20th century.

I mention this because Open Me offers the Dickinson lover not merely some wonderful letters, but also early drafts of poems. Dickinson was always sending Susan poetry – sometimes to bounce ideas off her, and sometimes to observe an occasion, whether that was a beautiful day or a shared grief.

I'll close this review with a letter-poem Emily wrote to Susan after the death of Susan's youngest son, Gib, at the age of eight. Both women adored him, and his death is thought by many biographers to have contributed to the final fatal decline in Dickinson's health. Not all of Dickinson's poems are so intimately tied to her personal life, but this collection makes it clear that many were, and many were written "for love of her," the almost-sister, always-friend, possibly-lover of our great American poet.

Climbing to
reach the
costly Hearts
To which he
gave the worth,
He broke them,
fearing punishment
He ran away
from Earth –
( )
1 vote Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Martha Nell Smithprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dickinson, EmilyContributormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Dickinson, SusanContributormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Hart, Ellen LouiseEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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