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44: EXCAVATING EMILY

May 24, 2014

#44:  EXCAVATING EMILY.  “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her,” Emily Dickinson wrote once in a letter; “If she did not, the longest day would pass me by on the chase.”  It did escape her, of course, during her lifetime; and, as with Blake and Clare, a fairly long day did pass before we had her poems in anything but heavily distorted versions.  The justly famous 1955 edition edited by Thomas H. Johnson is now standard: anyone who’s peered even at reproductions of Dickinson’s manuscripts can get a humbling sense of the choices made and the work involved.  The myth of Emily—of the garden-tending, wounded seraph in white, who wrote those nice poems—has not yet been entirely scuttled but, as Richard B. Sewall points out (in The Life of Emily Dickinson, Harvard University Press, 1974),  the myth probably tended to preserve interest in Dickinson in the years after her death; he’s amusing and clear on how the myth had begun to billow up even during Dickinson’s lifetime.  Sewall’s biography—a brick of a book, 753 pages but every one of them to the point—was a long step forward to dispelling the cloud.  Its unusual structure—each chapter concentrating on one or two people in the very restricted Dickinson circle and working his way inward to Dickinson through them—works in a way it probably wouldn’t for any other writer; and its voluminous detail works to pack in a world framing the elusive figure at its center.  Sewall approaches Dickinson with an astoundingly consistent tact; the quotations at length from poems and letters allows Dickinson to speak for herself, and he reminds us how much cannot be definitely known.  And Sewall writes exceptionally well—this is one of the best written literary biographies.  Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s Emily Dickinson (Knopf, 1986) comes only twelve years after Sewall’s book but in terms of its style already seems to belong to the later half of an unhappy divide, the time after which a vast amount of academic writing ceases to be for the intelligent general reader and becomes a clogged sink of Latinate, overspecialized language.  (“Critics with their horrible jargon,” I hear Mr. Ryder muttering behind me.)  This is less than fair to Wolff, who writes sympathetically and intelligently throughout; but the footfalls are a good bit too definite, and Emily refuses to come downstairs.  There is a distant but infectant smell of psychology in places; and after a few too many sentences like “Her poetry is in the process of revising Transcendent implication,” I want to tell this woman to get her fingers out of Emily’s mouth.  After her analysis of “The Props Assist the House,” you want to take the poem back out behind the barn with the other dead horses.  Time then to go back to the poems, to find them—again—breathing, baffling, incontestable and alive.  Be careful—many of the paperback and remainder reprints are still often from tampered-with texts.  There’s a good pocket selection from Shambhala edited by Brenda Hillman, and Johnson’s edition is available both in hard and softcover.  In 1998 there was a new edition of the poems edited by R.W. Franklin; both Johnson’s and Franklin’s editions are reliable and to the casual reader I doubt if there’s a great deal to choose between them.   If you open at random and it looks like you’re reading a telegram—that’s Emily.

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