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).
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
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.
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).
Theories and Assumptions
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
Punctuation, and Capitalization
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).