Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate
Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson


Hart, Ellen Louise, and Martha Nell Smith, eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1998.





Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith's
Editorial Theories and Practices



Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith's Open Me Carefully was published by Paris Press in 1998. Both Hart for her numerous, influential articles and Smith primarily for Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (U of Texas P, 1992) have contributed greatly to recent scholarship on Dickinson. Open Me Carefully represents the first book-length edition of Emily Dickinson's correspondences with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, since Martha Dickinson Bianchi's The Single Hound (Little, Brown, 1914). Appealing to both the academic and the general reader, their book explores Emily Dickinson's exchange of letters, poems, and letter-poems with Susan. As Hart and Smith assert in their Introduction, Open Me Carefully "presents a selection of this extensive body of correspondence, inviting a dramatic new understanding of Emily Dickinson's life, creative process, and poetry. These intimate letters tell the story of a passionate and sustained attachment between Dickinson and the beloved friend who was her central source of inspiration, love, and intellectual and poetic discourse"(xi).


The Acknowledgements section of any work provides great insight into the attitudes of the editors and/or the types of conversations — scholarly or otherwise — that they are engaged in. Hart and Smith choose to recognize a number of people. They begin by thanking their "perspicacious and deft" editor, Jan Freeman, and a list of curators and librarians who helped them gather and organize the correspondences (297). Hart individually is indebted to Houghton Library for a Stanley J. Kahrl Fellowship; and Smith gratefully acknowledges the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment of the Humanities, and the General Research Board of the University of Maryland. Together they recognize the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities for a generous grant.

The Acknowledgements section also speaks to a number of other Dickinson scholars and editors, with Ralph Franklin and Thomas H. Johnson deserving "special mention" (298). They also name Marta Werner "for her enthusiastic support and editorial insights" (298). Additionally, they thank numerous friends, colleagues, and family members.


Hart and Smith argue that, historically, the most marketable image for Dickinson editors — and for Mabel Loomis Todd specifically — had been "that of the eccentric, reclusive, asexual woman in white . . . There was simply no place for the revelation of an immediate confidante and audience for her poetry" (xv). One of their primary goals in Open Me Carefully is to challenge this inaccurate Dickinson representation. Thus, in contesting prior assumptions about Susan and Emily's relationship, Hart and Smith also refute conventional views of Dickinson as an "inaccessible, ethereal hermit, too rare for this earthly plane, and probably undone by unrequited love for any or all of several male suitors whose identities have been the stuff of speculation for countless readers" (xiii). Instead, they present Dickinson as a dedicated writer and editor of her own work who infused her poems with a range of human emotions and experiences. As Hart and Smith describe Emily in their Introduction, she was "devoted to her craft," "dedicated to integrating poetry into every aspect of her day-to-day life," "engaged in philosophical and spiritual issues," and "knew love, rejection, forgiveness, jealousy, despair, and electric passion" (xvii).

Editing Theories and Assumptions

Posing Susan as the primary audience for Dickinson's poetry, Hart and Smith argue that the magnitude of Emily and Susan's correspondence illuminates the importance of their both personal and professional relationship. They place much emphasis on their union not only as romantic and/or spiritual, but as extremely intellectual. In doing so, Hart and Smith dispute patriarchal traditions that historically have negated the possibility of a woman-centered intellectual life. Their book also explores Emily's process of writing and revising, presenting Susan — as her primary reader — as an integral part of this process. Thus, Hart and Smith's work challenges a "neglected, distorted, and obscured" vision of Emily and Susan's relationship, infusing it with passion and intelligence. It also challenges a tradition of editors, from Mabel Loomis Todd to Ralph W. Franklin, who have described Susan's position with respect to Dickinson's life and poetry as one of unimportance and irrelevance (see "the discussion of Franklin for further information about his editorial theories and assumptions in relation to Hart and Smith's).

Hart and Smith place much emphasis on Emily's manuscripts and on the physical aspects of her work — "the textual body of the correspondence" — to explore both her relationship with Susan and her role as a writer/editor (xxi). They argue that the different types of paper, the casual script, and the less formal stationary that Emily employed in her many correspondences with Susan illustrate the intimacy of their relationship and the importance Emily placed on Susan's involvement in her work. Thus, Hart and Smith distinguish Dickinson's correspondences as material artifacts rather than as idealized texts that can accurately be transcribed, as Johnson and Franklin have done. The Notes section at the back of Open Me Carefully greatly substantiates this argument that the materials Dickinson employed in her manuscripts are intrinsic to any study of her work. Within this section, there is a note detailing each of Dickinson's correspondences as a material artifact. Their notes detail the paper type, number of pages and/or sheets, number of folds, marks on the verso, embossings, pinholes, and other unique markings. Thus, the Notes section serves to illuminate the core of Hart and Smith's editorial theories.

Hart and Smith also consider folds, paste marks, and pinholes in Dickinson's manuscripts as evidence of Susan's editorial influence on Emily's work, posing that "these salient material facts all argue for embodying Dickinson's most important correspondence, her writings to Susan, in a book all its own" (xxix). Thankfully, they also acknowledge the one-sidedness of this correspondence, noting in their Introduction that all but a few of Susan's letters to Emily were destroyed, which makes examining the reciprocity of their relationship more difficult.

Organization of Hart and Smith's Text and Paratext

Open Me Carefully begins with the Contents, a Publisher's Note, an Introduction, A Note on the Text, and a Chronology. The chronology is an integral piece of the book, for it situates Emily's correspondences to Susan as part of the story of their lives. One criticism we have of the book is that we found ourselves wanting to know more about Susan, her life, and her own writings. While Hart and Smith acknowledge that "nearly all of Susan's letters to Emily were destroyed at the time of the poet's death," the chronology gives substance to Susan's life and her relationship with Emily (xiii). In terms of the correspondences themselves, they are organized into four sections: "Early Writings: 1850 to mid-1850s," "Early Middle Writings, mid-1850s to mid-1860s," "Late Middle Writings, mid-1860s to mid-1870s," and "Late Writings, mid-1870s to May 1886." Open Me Carefully ends with a Coda, Key to Materials, Notes, Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Index of First Lines, and Index of Names and Subjects.

In terms of the chapters themselves, each section opens with a brief introduction to the period it covers. Hart and Smith assign their own numbering system to the correspondences they have chosen, which — like Franklin's 1998 variorum — topples the authority of Johnson's numbers system. They have made their selections "with an eye toward presenting a wide range of textual form, and in arranging [the] documents [they] have emphasized chronology" (xxiii). A note that places it in the narrative of Emily's relationship with Susan follows each correspondence. The fact that they privilege the correspondences over their own commentary lends weight to their assertion of the necessity of Emily's words preceding their own. Nevertheless, we must also mention that in placing their notes in the same space as the Dickinson correspondence that it addresses, the reader is thus compelled to acknowledge it. When compared to the Dickinson archive, in which the notes do not appear in the same space as the correspondence, Hart and Smith are privileging their notes to some extent. This, of course, also points to the variances between electronic and print mediums, which is a different discussion altogether. (See the "Discussion of the Emily Dickinson Electronic Archive" for further information).


Dickinson editors historically have classified each of Dickinson's writings as fitting into one of two distinct genres: letters and poems. Hart and Smith's book "breaks with this method of presentation by integrating various genres in which Dickinson wrote" (xxv). Thus, one of the most salient aspects of their book is the introduction of a new genre in Dickinson studies: the letter-poem, which bridges general disputes about Emily's letters and poems as an either/or differentiation.

Editorial Practices

Hart and Smith concede in their "Note on the Text" that "a great deal of thought and effort went into such overarching issues as which principles should serve as a guide to selection of materials to be included; how the chosen writings should then be contextualized; and how the documents should be organized"(xxi).

Lineation, Punctuation, and Capitalization

Throughout the book, Hart and Smith have attempted to replicate Dickinson's original line lengths, spacing, spelling, and punctuation. With each correspondence, they reproduce Dickinson's own line breaks, in contrast to previous editors — most notably Franklin — who edited the poet according to their own ideas about proper rhyme and meter. While acknowledging that "Dickinson's lower and upper case letters are difficult to distinguish," Hart and Smith also represent her capitalization as they have interpreted it based on the manuscripts (xxiv). They have employed a similar approach in deciphering Dickinson's punctuation. They address the issue of "calligraphic orthography" in the corresponding Notes section at the back of the book. Despite their attempts to replicate her work exactly, Hart and Smith both admit that typography cannot sufficiently transmit most Dickinsonian elements and allow for editorial disputes with respect to Dickinson's sometimes difficult punctuation and capitalization.

Dating and Attribution

Hart and Smith base their dating approximations on the physical characteristics of the manuscripts — including handwriting, paper type, and particular references — rather than simply adopting Johnson's dates, as many editors have done. As a result, they have grouped the documents into four sections (see Organization of Hart and Smith's Text and Paratext). Their method of dating also challenges previous editorial arguments concerning a supposed gap in Emily's correspondence with Susan, dismissing this gap merely "as an editorial construction" (xxvi).

Using material evidence, "including physical characteristics, paper types, signs of handling, notes written on the manuscripts, transmission and publication history, and work by previous editors," they reproduce twenty poems and one letter not previously associated with Susan (xxii-xxiii). These include manuscripts that Johnson did not connect to Susan, although much of the material evidence proves, according to Hart and Smith, that they should have been. They employ similar evidence in arguing for the accuracy of their dating while also acknowledging that the dates they propose are approximate. In addition, they attempt to account for supposed gaps in Dickinson's correspondence with Susan as an "editorial construction" (xxvi).

Despite their convictions, the evidence Hart and Smith base Emily and Susan's relationship on is speculative at times. For example, they attribute worn folds in the manuscript to Susan alone, suggesting that she reread and refolded Emily's correspondences many times. While this may be the case, they do not substantiate their claim by discussing how certain correspondences — those held by Susan — were more worn that others. Also, although Hart and Smith rather effectively attribute pencil crossouts and other markings on Emily's manuscripts to Susan, again they do not assert why these markings are Susan's alone. Some comment on how they arrived at these attributions would have greatly elevated their arguments.

Final Thoughts

Open Me Carefully makes strides in correcting prior editorial misconceptions and in presenting a new and improved Emily Dickinson. In our opinion, Hart and Smith accomplish much of what they set out to do — that is — to let Dickinson's poetry "finally speak for itself" (xix).