Found  /  Book Review

Eternity Only Will Answer

Funny, convivial, chatty—a new edition of Emily Dickinson's letters upends the myth of her reclusive genius. 
Emily Dickinson, Cristanne Miller, Domhnall Mitchell

Along the way, Miller and Mitchell provide invaluable contextual annotations and restore material that previous transcribers omitted—“even where the omissions themselves seem innocuous,” as they write. We learn that hundreds of Dickinson’s letters were destroyed, which was customary in the 19th century after a person died. But Mabel Loomis Todd, co-editor of two volumes of Dickinson’s poems, had the foresight to begin collecting letters in the early 1890s, preventing the further loss of these precious artifacts. Among the newly included letters are two to Elizabeth Seelye, whose husband Julius was inaugurated as president of Amherst College in 1877 (the family noted having burned 75 Dickinson poems they received, an act of shocking sacrilege to modern readers) and another to Ellen Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s cousin, who reports having destroyed “a considerable number” of Dickinson’s poems. This edition expeditiously illustrates the race against the ravages of negligence and time that such scholarship requires.

The larger consequence of these efforts is to show, once and for all, that Dickinson was never isolated from the world, but rather sensitively engaged with local and national events. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a distinguished family with a wide social circle, she was an active member of her community, comfortable initiating correspondence with even famous individuals of her time—among them the Civil War colonel, abolitionist, author, and advocate of women’s rights Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she shared a lifelong friendship. Her reluctance to see visitors as she grew older—but not to bake them gingerbread or correspond with them—can be explained at least in part by the time she spent caring for ill family members or navigating her own poor health. She was socially adept and flexible, naturally modulating in her correspondences, easily and willingly engaging with people from all social classes. Her letters to family members buzz with local and personal news. An 1850 letter to Abiah Root, a close friend Dickinson met at Mount Holyoke, captures the poet's playfulness:

The circumstances under which I write you this morning are at once glorious, afflicting, and beneficial, glorious in ends, afflicting in means, and beneficial I trust in both. Twin loaves of bread have just been born into the world under my auspices, fine children, the image of their mother, and here my dear friend is the glory.

Dickinson's older brother, Austin, especially relied on her to be kept abreast of happenings at home whenever he was away. “While she may not have seen some of these correspondents, or seen them only rarely, Dickinson understood friendship and repeatedly showed herself to be a loving friend,” Miller and Mitchell write.