Martha Dickinson Bianchi's Editorial Theories and Practices


Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters With Notes and Reminiscences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.

--, and Alfred Leete Hampson, eds. Further Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1929.
No excerptions.

--. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

--, and Alfred Leete Hampson, eds. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1941.

--. "Selections from the Unpublished Letters of Emily Dickinson to Her Brother's Family." Atlantic Monthly XV (1915): 35-42.
No Excerptions.

--, ed. The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1914.
No Excerptions.





Martha Dickinson Bianchi's Editorial Theories and Practices



After Lavinia Dickinson's death, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Susan and Austin Dickinson's daughter, became the only remaining member of the family line and inheritor of a great many Dickinson manuscripts. She took this responsibility seriously, working to rekindle the reading public's ardor for both Dickinson's life and works. She edited and published an article in Atlantic Monthly, "Selections from the Unpublished Letters of Emily Dickinson to Her Brother's Family"; The Single Hound, a collection of Emily's correspondence to Susan (1914); Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson (1924), Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1924), Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (1929), Face to Face (1932), an expanded biography with letters and poems; Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (1935), and The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1941). She worked with Alfred Leete Hampson on some of these volumes.

It is clear from Hampson's introductions that he and Bianchi feel responsible for bringing Dickinson back into the forefront of American literature: "[B]y the dawn of the twentieth century, examination of contemporary criticism reveals that as a factor in critical consideration she had dropped from sight" (Face to Face x), but "undeterred by the apathy of public and publishers," Dickinson's small following persuaded Bianchi to publish Life and Letters, the reception of which "was an overwhelming surprise" (Poems viii). And, according to Hampson and Bianchi, their further publications ensured a permanent spot in the developing American canon.

Glimpses of the manuscript dispute between the Dickinson and Todd clans are apparent in the various introductory comments. Mabel Loomis Todd is never mentioned—Bianchi may refer to Lavinia, but not Todd—and one wonders if the comments Bianchi makes regarding other editorial productions are veiled gibes at Todd. In an indirect reference to Todd, she quotes Amy Lowell's praise of The Single Hound as being "worth the other [earlier] three volumes put together. One cannot help feeling that the editors of the first three series compiled the books with an eye to conciliating criticism. The whole of Emily Dickinson is not in them as it is in The Single Hound; in the fact the most interesting part of her genius suffers eclipse at the hands of her timorous interpreters. (Face xi)

There is a sense of proprietary territorialism in Bianchi's editions and biographies, and as the last in the Dickinson line, she positions herself as the authority —the most reliable eyewitness—on Dickinson's life.


One of Bianchi's goals in presenting Dickinson's works is to correct the "voluminous stock of quite lurid misinformation of irrelevant personalities" surrounding her aunt's life. She disputes the notions that Dickinson was a "weird recluse," a "lovelorn sentimentalist," a "fantastic eccentric." Rather, she seeks to portray Dickinson's life "simply and truthfully" (Life and Letters Foreword). These are admirable concerns, ones that continue today with Dickinson scholars, for Dickinson is still taught in terms of these stereotypes. Also admirable is Bianchi and Hampson's respect for her mother's influence on Dickinson's work: "When Emily was sixteen she met Susan Gilbert . . . who was to be her brother's wife-and to become the most comprehending and mentally stimulating influence in her own life" (Poems vii). Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart are the first modern editors to really pick up on this idea (see Open Me Carefully) and continue Bianchi's mission to establish Susan as the central figure in Emily's life.

In seeking to dispel the stereotypes of the nineteenth-century "poetess," though, Bianchi seems to undermine her project somewhat in her introduction to Life and Letters by characterizing Dickinson's day-to-day life as being "frail," almost not of this world at all. Emily lived in a "shy unreality," and Bianchi comments that clues to the "frail external incidents of her days" are difficult to come by, given the "thronging events of the Spirit which eternally preoccupied her" (Life and Letters Foreword). Bianchi's recollections of her are "deathless," immortal. She treats Emily with reverence again when she notes the additional difficulty for the biographer because of the "sacred pact observed with her chosen few" that required that all letters be burned after her death (Life and Letters Foreword).

Furthermore, she characterizes Dickinson's work as being that of an unconscious artist rather than a professional who worked hard at her craft. She terms the correspondence between Emily and Susan Dickinson "poetic flashes," sent to Susan "on every gust of impulse." This hardly seems accurate when one considers the careful exchange of drafts of "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers," in which both women read and wrote carefully, thoughtfully. Although Bianchi speaks of Dickinson only in terms of highest praise, it is different from the respect for one who strives to perfect her craft over time, one who self-consciously shaped and developed her view of her art throughout her lifetime.

Hampson seems intent on establishing Dickinson as purebred American stock. He spends several paragraphs particularly in his introduction to Poems tracing Dickinson's American ancestry, from her first "American" ancestors, who sought "'not conquest or dominion, but freedom and the right to serve, at the dictation of his own conscience, his God before his King'" (Poems vi) to her grandfather, "a 'poet' and mystic of another sort" (Poems v). In Face to Face, one of the first things he points out is that she was born "as she herself said-'New Englandly'" (ix). Bianchi, too, notes in Life and Letters that "[H]er heredity is distinctly traced for nine generations in America" (5). The editors seem intent on establishing Dickinson firmly in the national literary canon. At this time, American literature anthologies were beginning to be produced, and as Hampson alludes to in his Foreword to Face to Face, Dickinson is beginning to be studied in universities.

Editorial Theories and Assumptions

Bianchi insists that her editorial practices present Dickinson's work to her readers "without editorial embellishment" (Face xi), and that they retain the originals' "intrinsic value" (Life and Letters). Exactly which aspects of the works are intrinsically valuable are not defined. In her Atlantic Monthly article she claims to present correspondence "just as [Dickinson] sent it to my mother" (37). She does this in response to "critics already impatient of any intermediary between themselves and Emily Dickinson's own words," perhaps another veiled reference to Todd and her work (Face xi).


As her titles suggest, Bianchi classifies Dickinson's writing into traditional genres: letters and poems. This practice continues today, with a notable exception being Hart and Smith's Open Me Carefully. Several of Bianchi's publications combine biography and letters and/or poems, but even when the two genres appear in the same book, the "poems" are clearly poems and the "letters" clearly letters, despite Dickinson's original blending of the two.

Organization of the Books and the Paratext

When Bianchi is dealing with biography, she arranges the works chronologically to the best of her ability. Her Poems, however, are divided into categories of traditional themes: "Life," "Nature," "Love," "Time and Eternity," "The Single Hound," "Further Poems," "Additional Poems," and an appendix, which includes poems published previously in Life and Letters.

In Life and Letters, Face to Face and her Atlantic Monthly article, Bianchi surrounds Dickinson's texts with her own, offering interpretation and context based on the authority she assumes from having known and lived in such close proximity to Dickinson. In Poems, however, she does not supply notes except occasionally to cite where a poem had been previously published.

Editing Practices

Contrary to Bianchi's claims that she does not alter the value of Dickinson's texts, her editing practices do show quite a few changes from the manuscripts. Although she refrained from practices like Todd and Higginson's, who actually rewrote lines and words, a quick comparison of the manuscripts with the Bianchi versions shows that Bianchi also made Dickinson's verse or prose conform more nearly to the expectations of her readers.


In Face to Face, Bianchi expresses her gratitude for the help of many people: Abigail Seelye Scudder, Sara Colton Gillett, Annie and Jane Crowell, Virginia Dickinson Reynolds, Alice Cooper Tuckerman, Ruth Huntington Sessions, Ruth Bowles Baldwin Elizabeth Troope Smith, Laura Stedman Gould, Sarah Jenkins Squires, Florence Howland Smith, Gertrude Graves, Elizabeth Smith Tyler, Alfred Leete Hampson, Judge Henry P. Field, Theodore Longfellow Frothingham, MacGregor Jenkins, Dr. B. Kendall Emerson, Theodore Stebbins, and Robert N. Linscott. It is interesting to note that she lists women first, and does not address them by their marital titles. She also thanks the "old-time dwellers in Amherst who have so warmly expressed to me their vivid memory of my family as they knew it in life" (xxiii). No mention of Mabel Loomis Todd, Thomas Higginsworth, or Millicent Todd Bingham is made.


 Bianchi changes line breaks freely. In the case of Dickinson's "letters," she makes them conform to regular prose, beginning and ending paragraphs where she sees fit, regularizing dialogue. The Bianchi texts look radically different on the page from their appearance in the manuscripts (see "Memoirs of Little Boys that Live" [Link Forthcoming]). In her earlier works she uses the first line as a title, although Franklin notes that she was one of the first Dickinson editors to discontinue this practice. In Poems, the poems are simply numbered rather than titled, but Bianchi does change lineation as she sees fit.

Spelling, Punctuation and Capitalization

Bianchi normalizes punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. Franklin complains about her "maladroit" transcriptions of Dickinson's handwriting (Variorum 5), but at least she did not willfully change Dickinson's rhymes, as did Higginson. In addition, Dickinson's handwriting is difficult to decipher, as even Franklin must admit (see discussion of Franklin ). Perhaps Bianchi's and Franklin's differences are not so much a result of Bianchi's carelessness as of a different reading of the handwriting.

Dating and Attribution

Bianchi and Hampson admit to difficulties in dating Dickinson's work. Unlike other editors who have "erroneously assumed" that Dickinson's handwriting could be used as evidence for chronology, Bianchi and Hampson argue that "the poems copied by the poet and included in letters to friends often had no relation to the actual time they were first written, as the first drafts sent to her Sister Sue reveal; while in her own tied packages of manuscript, arranged by herself, the order is arbitrary, even whimsical, and the period of the handwriting displayed is not necessarily the same as that of the original setting down" (Poems x).

The editors evidently took the original draft to be the standard for their chronology. They go on to list their methods of dating: "[L]ong patient comparison of manuscript with manuscript, as well as their relation to letters and events and dates definitely noted by her family" (Poems x).

Final Thoughts

While Bianchi was subject in many ways to the conventional ideas of what a poem should look like or be, she also seemed to recognize that Dickinson herself was unconventional and did not conform to the popular stereotypes that surround her even today. Bianchi's mission to dismantle the misinformation and print Dickinson's work exactly as she had written it is admirable, even if she did not always succeed.