The Letters of Emily Dickinson Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Fiction, drama, and most poems are the fables of man pretending, living in and expressing himself through the imagination; their symbol is the persona. History and biography are the record of man reporting. Letters are the voice of man speaking and as such the most direct and accessible of all literary forms. But their value as forms of entertainment or revelation is always in direct proportion to the outgoing qualities of the people who write them. In the truly good letter the writer’s guard is down. He feels free to speak out candidly, informingly, colloquially, at times indiscreetly, and what he has to say may be passionate or painful, witty or sober, foolish or wise, according to the expression of thought, action, or mood. While we read we stand, as it were, in the presence of a personality. Even where literary skill is lacking, a personal turn of phrase, a touch of humor, some troubled musing on the state of man or flash of insight can convey a sense of life felt in all its immediacy and vigor. This is one reason why a collection of letters is sometimes more interesting and revealing than the most considered or frankest of biographies.

Unfortunately, however, literary men are not always the best letter writers. Their letters may be ponderous, as are Johnson’s, sensible but austere, as are Wordsworth’s, theatrical and often insincere like Byron’s, perversely self-conscious like Shaw’s, thin and dull like Joyce’s. Frequently, too, writers give the impression that they are addressing posterity, not their correspondents. Keats had the proper touch and tone for self-revelation illuminating more than the events of his life and his literary world, as did Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, and Emily Dickinson. Her letters, written with no thought of publication, to members of her family and to friends, display a sincerity that is sometimes touching, often painful, always revealing. In them we can trace the growth of the woman, watch the progress of the writer, and peer into the depth insights of a tremendous private sensibility, alert in its poetic responsiveness to life and art.

In 1958, the three volumes of THE LETTERS OF EMILY DICKINSON brought to completion both an extensive and an intensive program of literary scholarship and laid a solid foundation for all future studies of the poet. The overall project, one of the most important in the history of American letters, began in 1955 with the publication of Thomas H. Johnson’s definitive three-volume edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a collection derived from every available manuscript source and including all variant readings critically compared. As a companion work the same editor, with the assistance of Theodora Ward, prepared a similar edition of the Dickinson letters. Except for the not impossible but highly improbable discovery of significant new material, the canon of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and prose is now as complete as research and scrupulous editing could make it, and the six volumes with their introductions and notes, supplemented by Professor Johnson’s EMILY DICKINSON: AN INTERPRETIVE BIOGRAPHY, afford one of the most nearly rounded and informing presentations we have of any American writer.

Although Professor Johnson was aided in part by the pioneer efforts of Mabel Loomis Todd, whose 1894 edition of the LETTERS preserved in print a number now lost or destroyed, the proportions of this collection testify to his own energy and resourcefulness. It is true that of the thousand and forty-nine letters printed, only one hundred or so appear for the first time; but of the total number about three-fourths have been taken from manuscript, and many abridged or altered in previous editions have now been restored to their proper proportions. As in the case of the poems, the arrangement is chronological, each letter being accompanied by notes giving its source, describing the manuscript, identifying the addressee, and explaining the attendant circumstances of its composition whenever possible.

These matters, however, are for the literary specialist. For the general reader there is the fascination of a character portrait taking shape in brief but revealing glimpses: the high-spirited young girl conscious of close family ties and alert to the bustle of the village scene, the Mount Holyoke student disturbed by religious doubts that were to perplex her all her life, the woman of acute sensitivity withdrawing more and more from the everyday world, and finally the impassioned recluse to whom the world of flesh, spirit, and art were one and inseparable.

Emily Dickinson’s letters make clear the fact that her retreat from the familiar world was more than the eccentric deed of a cranky old maid. To her friend...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)