(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Emily Dickinson was perhaps the greatest poet, and certainly the greatest literary mystery, of the American nineteenth century. How did this diminutive, reclusive spinster write those terse, compact poems containing such insights into self, love, and death? How did a woman who traveled so little in the world outside Amherst, Masssachussets, gain such knowledge of what goes on inside the human heart and the human head? Alfred Habegger is the latest literary detective to take up the challenge which Dickinson’s life throws in the face of readers, and his years of research should settle the Dickinson case as far as it can be solved. He will never please all of Dickinson’s fans, for the legends surrounding the poet are now centuries deep. Using all the available resources, however—including recently published letters and the new, complete edition of Dickinson’s poetry— Habegger reconstructs the most comprehensive life of the poet to date, and reconfirms her poetic preeminence in the process.

What distinguishes Habegger’s life of Dickinson is the way he re-creates the historical milieu out of which the poet emerged. If she is a shadowy figure herself, Habegger paints her surroundings in such detail that the poet appears on the page in clear outline (if still clad all in white). Whenever new characters in her life story are introduced, Habegger sketches out their backgrounds and their particular relationships with the poet. Every nineteenth century institution that touched her—education, religion, politics—is described in great detail. Dickinson’s own poetry is examined minutely against the background of the social and literary thought of her time. Readers come to understand Dickinson as never before, and her poetry becomes more familiar in the process.

In part because of her reclusiveness, Dickinson’s life is probably one of the most intriguing stories in American letters. She published only a handful of poems in her own lifetime, but she left behind almost eighteen hundred, often enclosing them (as was the custom in her time) in letters to friends or absent family members. She copied many more in chapbooks she made herself, and hid them away in bureau drawers. Only after her death were they discovered and imperfectly published. She lived in a tight, Calvinistic family, but she often made friends—usually through the correspondences she maintained in thousands of letters—with people everywhere. She had a series of relationships, in both letter and person, with older male mentors, including two adult romances. Her best friend was her brother Austin’s wife, Sue, who lived next door to the Dickinson house, but the social fabric of their later relationship was built on concealing Austin’s affair with a woman half his age. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Vinnie (Lavinia) destroyed many of the letters the poet had received during her lifetime—thus deepening many of the mysteries of her life—and the legends began to grow almost at once. The evidence to counter the myths took longer to produce: the first complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems was not assembled until 1955, her letters (some of which were altered after her death, probably by her brother Austin to protect the Dickinson family) were not published in anything like a complete edition until 1958, the first adequate biography did not appear until 1974, and the three-volume variorum edition of her poetry (by R. W. Franklin) only appeared in 1998. Habegger’s critical study of the poet comes at the first and best possible moment.

The paradoxes of Dickinson’s life confront any reader. She was born into a strong New England family with a number of dependencies within it. The dominant figure in that family was her father Edward, who was the head of her household until the poet was forty-four, and who had clear and conventional ideas of women’s roles, their necessary subjection to men, and their unfitness as authors. In such a domestic atmosphere, “To publish her poems or proclaim her ambition would have been extremely risky acts” for Dickinson. Habegger sees the difficulty of the poet’s position in this family, a kind of dependency that at the same time somehow set her free. “For good or ill, a kind of retardation in growing up was a vital aspect of her poetic vocation.” Yet that odd family role also gave her the strength to create her poetry and to play the docile daughter who at times challenged the patriarchal order. As Habegger demonstrates again and again, her poetry was produced within a domestic situation which contained a number of such contradictions.

The problems of the Dickinson legend...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)