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My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson

by Alfred Habegger
896 pages,
ISBN: 0679449868

A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence

by Marietta Messmer
280 pages,
ISBN: 1558493069


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Emily Dickinson Alight Again
by Cindy MacKenzie

In the last few years, new life has been blown into Dickinson scholarship with the appearance of several primary reference texts and critical works. Beginning with the publication of a new variorum edition of the poetry edited by R.W. Franklin in 1998 to replace the 1951 Thomas Johnson edition as a working text, and the ongoing collaborative editing of the letters central to the work of the Dickinson Electronic Archives Project, the addition of these two major books makes an impact on Dickinson scholarship that will alter the very foundation of the way in which we think about the life and work of this complex poet. The Alfred Habegger biography, My Wars Are Laid in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, the first full-length treatment of the poet's life since Richard Sewall's magisterial 1974 biography, takes advantage of new research, new discoveries and powerful revisions rising from massive amounts of feminist criticism about the poet. Equally important in opening the door for increased critical inquiry, Marietta Messmer's A Vice for Voices: Reading Dickinson's Correspondence, is the first thoroughly researched book-length study of Dickinson's extant correspondence.

Marietta Messmer, a native of Germany who earned her doctoral degree in Canada at York University, is now assistant professor at the Research Center on the Internationality of National Literatures in Gottingen. Her reputation as a researcher was established during her graduate years and reflected in the fine papers she presented at important literary conferences such as the Emily Dickinson International Society, MLA, and the American Literature Association. Former President of EDIS and author of A Poet's Grammar, Cristanne Miller, one of the most respected contemporary scholars in Dickinson studies, recognizes and supports Messmer's research abilities as she makes this astutely phrased review on the jacket of the book which bears quoting in part here: "Messmer takes on an important topic in Dickinson studies and gives it the fullest and most sophisticated treatment to date. Her book will open up to more intense scrutiny the questions of how Dickinson's letters contribute to the poet's oeuvre generally and of how the letters can inform or illuminate studies of the poems. . . there is no question that it will make a significant mark in Dickinson studies, and it will probably spark fierce debate."

Miller's predictions for "fierce debate" will inevitably bear fruit for, although critics have regarded Dickinson's letters as "poetic", with editor Thomas Johnson himself remarking that "one does not know where the letter leaves off and the poem begins," Messmer's thesis radically positions the poet's epistolary work at the center of her canon. Arguing that because letters constitute over 60% of the writer's literary output, Messmer claims that not only do the letters deserve serious attention as literature but that "correspondence" (rather than "poetry") [should be regarded] as Dickinson's central form of public artistic expression." Such a provocative stance does succeed in dramatically changing the image of Emily Dickinson as a reclusive poet who secretly wrote nearly 1800 poems to a woman, fully engaged in a lively dialogue with others, writing more than one thousand "letters to the world" to 100 known correspondents. Moreover, Messmer asserts that while many scholars and readers have commented on the originality and brilliance in voice and style, the "significance of Dickinson's correspondence in the context of her entire oeuvre has frequently been underestimated because of our predominantly poetocentric notion of this writer." In chapter one, "Two Centuries of Critical Responses", Messmer demonstrates that the work done on the letters thus far does not adequately represent the significance of her epistolary canon as "works of art in their own right." Her strongest argument in support of the centrality of the letters lies in her statement that while the speculative question of authorial intentions for her poems¨including the hand-stitched "fascicles" prepared by the poet herself and often assumed to be intended for publication¨can be overruled as it pertains to the letters because it is the only part of her oeuvre that was systematically 'authorized' that is, prepared for an audience, by Dickinson herself." In other words, Messmer suggests that if we suspend our poetocentric notions of the poet, and privilege the letters as representative of her literary choices, we begin to see the borders of distinction blur between the writer's "poetry" and her "letters". However, it seems that because Messmer is arguing so vigorously for her perspective, the dichotomy¨simply reversed¨persists throughout her discussion. Taking a feminist-poststructuralist approach, Messmer employs the deconstructionist exercise of looking at things from the other side. The exercise could prove to be fruitful¨if not in confirming Messmer's thesis, certainly in provoking a renewed interest in Dickinson's correspondence.

There are also other problems in accepting such a radical perspective¨and admittedly, I have tremendous difficulty in "suspending" my notion of Dickinson as first and foremost a poet. We must remember that Emily's sister, Lavinia, destroyed all but a very few of the responses to these letters, a fact that leaves ample space for speculations that may not be fair to make. In addition, many of the letters are simply banal correspondence dealing with the practical concerns of a woman asking for or writing out a recipe or inquiring after a friend. Removing letters of this nature would reduce the canon considerably thereby weakening Messmer's argument of proof by degree of output. Furthermore, as Agnieszka Salska, who has also done considerable work on Dickinson's letters, has pointed out in her review of the book, "Dickinson's correspondence itself conveys her sense of urgency to establish herself as a poet. Many of her letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for example, L265, as well as a good portion of her early letters to Austin, focus on this ambition." Salska makes a very strong point against Messmer's thesis. But in the end, whether we accept Messmer's thesis or not, the work is, indeed, first rate research that will bring into focus a very comprehensive look at the poet's epistolary canon.

Alfred Habegger, best known for his award-winning biography The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr., demonstrates once again his skill in digging through archives and bringing together a carefully researched biography of another quite different icon of American literature. His approach to constructing the life of Emily Dickinson despite the enormous gaps in factual information, is new in several ways, ways that will make a difference in the way people read the poems as well as think about her life and its context. Habegger puts more emphasis on Dickinson's early life than the later stages by taking advantage of new archival information about the Dickinsons and Amherst institutions. Moreover, his knowledge of the cultural context of New England and his treatment of how it influenced Dickinson's life helps to diffuse the myth that the poet lived entirely in isolation. By capturing contemporary ideas and theories about the poet's life¨responding to persistent questions about the identity of the "Master" to whom she wrote those famously cryptic letters, questions about her sexuality¨was she a lesbian?¨and her attitude towards major historical events such as the Civil War, Habegger provides the best up-to-date answers to longstanding questions about this most mysterious and elusive poet. He even includes, perhaps prematurely, the recently discovered but unauthenticated photograph of an older Dickinson. While earlier biographies were concerned about the identity of the mysterious "Master" and the male relationships in her life, Habegger takes into account the work done by feminist scholars on the significance of the women in Dickinson's life. However, he balances the attention given to Emily's sister-in-law Susan Dickinson in a manner that is not overstated or exaggerated yet given its full due. Reviewed by the author of the recently published Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), Domnall Mitchell, in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books has succeeded in contextualizing the life of this poet by offering acute insights into the connections between the historical events of her time according to current cultural studies approaches in Dickinson scholarship. The language and tone of the narrative (and one does feel that one is reading a 'narrative') makes it accessible to academics and general "cultivated" readers alike, a goal stated by the author himself. Despite the claims of earlier critics and biographers that there is "no map, direction, or development¨that her art was static or airless," Habegger begins his biography with the premise that Dickinson "not only developed over time but that her work often reflected the stages of her life. Her poetry shows a striking and dramatic evolution." So, instead of presenting the poet's life as "an amalgam of separate relationships and correspondences," Habegger sets out the basic story of her life, an approach to structure that also lends itself to the readability of the book. While I like the idea that Habegger includes many of Dickinson's poems that often serve to reflect her thoughts and feelings on the events of her life, I am not always so pleased with his readings of them. Sometimes Habegger's zeal to make his biography "readable" results in a little too relaxed a line of discussion that fails to measure up to scholarly requirements.

Nevertheless, both of these works build on the work of former and contemporary scholars and bring an energy to Dickinson scholarship that will lead scholars and readers towards new directions in their understanding of this complex and elusive poet. ˛

Cindy MacKenzie is the editor of A Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson, published by the University of Colorado Press, 2000. She has published articles on Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson Journal, and in a forthcoming edition of essays on writing and addicition. She is currently working on a book-length study of the materiality of Dickinson's language entitled "I Dwell in Possibility": Dickinson's House of Poetry.

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