Thomas Johnson's Editorial Theories and Practices



Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.
No material currently excerpted.

---, ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955.

Johnson, Thomas H., and Theodora Ward, eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.




Thomas Johnson's Editorial Theories and Practices



Thomas H. Johnson's The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published in 1955 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA). The first "literary scholar" and "textual critic" to edit Dickinson, Johnson published all the "seventeen hundred seventy-five poems, together with the variants, that she is known to have written" (my emphasis, xii), forty-one of which were not previously published. The stated purpose of his three-volume edition is "to establish an accurate text of the poems and to give them as far as possible a chronology" (lxi). Needless to say, Johnson's Poems was an immense contribution to Dickinson scholarship; today, it is still used by many as the "authoritative" collection, although more recent editions of Dickinson's work have both implicitly and explicitly set about revising his editorial assumptions and techniques (see Ralph Franklin, Ellen Louise Hart & Martha Nell Smith, and Marta L. Werner). Johnson must be credited, to a certain degree, for "rediscovering" Dickinson and legitimizing her writing (as demonstrated by some of the editors listed above, however, the process of legitimization is not without consequence). Without his efforts, it is conceivable that Dickinson's poetry would never have achieved the level of recognition and respect it so verily deserves and enjoys today.

Johnson's The Letters of Emily Dickinson was published in 1958. Johnson states in his introduction that "[W]ith the exception of letters presumably destroyed, all those which at the present time Emily Dickinson is known to have written are here assembled" (xxiii). Approximately 1150 letters and prose fragments are included, 100 letters of which were published here for the first time. Johnson also presents more complete letters, in that a large number of previously published letters had not been presented in full.

In 1960, Johnson also published a one-volume edition entitled The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, which presents a single text for most poems (unlike Poems, which presents all known variants). It contains all 1775 poems identified in Poems.


In Poems, Johnson begins by thanking those people who have aided him in an advisory capacity (all men). He then goes on to acknowledge the "courtesy of Millicent Todd Bingham in making available for study and photostating all of the large number of manuscripts of Dickinson poetry in her possession . . . [S]he gave of her time, and placed in my hands for study the great number of transcripts of the poems that had been made by her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd . . . when Mrs. Todd was undertaking the first editing of the poetry of Emily Dickinson" (xiii). Johnson does not thank Emily's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi (although he is required by law to place her name in the copyright section, where no less than ten separate copyrights are listed under her name). Johnson also thanks numerous individuals and institutions for "permission to study and make use of the manuscripts in their possession" (xiii). He thanks certain persons for their reminiscences and Miss Louise K. Kelly for her unpublished thesis "A Concordance of Emily Dickinson's Poems." Finally, he pays especial gratitude to George Frisbie Whicher, Jay Leyda (who arranged the Amherst College Library/Special Collections' card catalog), and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward [who, as editorial assistant, "acted as counselor in all matters of plan and execution. . . " (xv)]. (An interesting side note is that Johnson frequently, although not in every case, refers to women in the acknowledgments section by their husband's name: Mrs. Graham B. Blaine, Mrs. John Nicholas Brown, Mrs. William Esty, Mrs. Howard B. Field, Mrs. Leon Godchaux, Mrs. William L. Hallowell, Mrs. William Tyler Mather, Mrs. Frederick J. Pohl, and so forth. . . )

Johnson thanks many of the same individuals and institutions in Letters. He again makes reference to Todd and Bingham: "[I]t was Mabel Loomis Todd whose pioneer work in editing many of the Dickinson letters in 1894 saved much which otherwise would have been lost. I am grateful for the researches of her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, who has devotedly carried on her mother's work and has herself contributed much to our knowledge of the poet" (xii). No mention is made of Bianchi here.


Johnson perpetuates and furthermore solidifies the "recluse poet" image of Emily Dickinson by establishing this persona from within The Establishment. In other words, due to the fact that he was and is highly regarded within the field of literary scholarship, his construction of Dickinson's persona has become authoritative. (Some editors have begun to challenge this persona: see Hart & Smith and Werner.)

Johnson depicts Dickinson as a sensitive and passionate woman who was oftentimes overwhelmed by her own creative energy — an energy that peaked in and around 1862 and tapered off after 1865 [contrast this viewpoint with that of Werner, who explores Dickinson's post-1870 writings in her edition, Emily Dickinson's Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing; see also Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, in which Hart & Smith point to the "dramatic personal statements and remarkable manuscript art" (203) inherent in Emily's writing from the mid-1870s until her death]. Johnson states in his introduction to Poems that "[B]y 1862 the creative drive must have been almost frightening" and that "she was being overwhelmed by forces which she could not control" (xviii). He goes on to conclude in Letters that "such intensity of feeling was a handicap that she bore as one who lives with a disability" (xv). Johnson thus presents Dickinson to a certain degree as a tortured genius: in other words, her unique gifts did not come without certain consequences. Furthermore, her creative energies, by his estimation, were relatively short-lived.

Johnson acknowledges the tremendous influences that personal relationships had in Dickinson's life. He focuses primarily on male figures such as Benjamin Franklin Newton (as tutor and inspiration to Dickinson), the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (as inspiration and possible love interest), and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (as her "safest friend" although somewhat of a disappointment as a critic of her writing). According to Johnson, throughout her life Emily "turned for leadership to a 'master'" and felt the need for "a tutor or guide" (Letters xviii). Thus he surmises that Wadsworth's removal to San Francisco was "terrifying" to Dickinson because "she feared she might never be able to control her emotions or her reason without his guidance" (Poems xxiii). Johnson furthermore attributes Emily's habit of wearing all white to this event.

Susan Huntington Dickinson, Emily's childhood friend and eventual sister-in-law, is acknowledged by Johnson to be an old and dear friend: "Until the year of her death, Emily regularly sent poems to Sue, and the total of some two hundred seventy thus transmitted is vastly greater than that sent to others" (Poems xxvii) (see Hart & Smith's Open Me Carefully for a focused look at this relationship as seen through correspondence). Susan is described as "vivacious, witty, and attractive" (xxvii) by Johnson but lacking in the true poetic sensibilities possessed by Emily. And although Johnson presents evidence to show that Dickinson turned to Sue for literary criticism and advice, he abruptly concludes that, because Emily chose not to take Sue's recommendation concerning the first stanza of "Alabaster," "Emily never again sought advice from Sue" (xxvii). (To explore this issue further, see "Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman: the Poets Writing a Poem," which can be accessed from "The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman, and American Culture" in the main menu of the Dickinson Electronic Archives.)

Johnson's Dickinson thinks and feels in terms outside and beyond those conventionally prescribed during her lifetime — indeed, it does not seem that she could exist any other way. And because of this, he asserts that "she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current" (Letters xx). Readers, be aware that in this statement and in others throughout his introduction, Johnson has the habit of stating conjecture as fact. One could argue, for example, that Dickinson was acutely aware of the world around her and felt its limitations intensely. By this reasoning, her refusal to submit to conventions of poetry and publishing can be viewed as a conscious rebellion rather than a handicap; her inability to conform need not be viewed as a disability (see Werner).

Editorial Theories and Assumptions

Organization of Dickinson

Johnson adheres to the artistic notion of the final (or finally intended draft). He says of Dickinson's poems, "The text is always in one of three stages of composition: a fair copy, a semifinal draft, or a worksheet draft" (xxxiii). Thus he organizes Dickinson's poems into several categories to which he assigns varying degrees of preference. In order to decide which text or witness is to receive principal representation, he arranges variants in the following order: a) fair copies to recipients, b) other fair copies, c) semifinal drafts ["but where the packet priority can be reasonably determined, the order of both (b) and (c) is subdivided in conformity with such priority" (Poems lxi)], and d) worksheet drafts.

The rigid application of this system by Johnson provides the basis for remarks such as "[S]ome three hundred [poems] never progressed beyond the semifinal stage" and "[N]early two hundred survive in worksheet draft only" (Poems xxxiii). Johnson seems frustrated to a certain degree by the large amount of writing left "unfinished" by Emily. He states that there are "instances where two or more variant fair copies of a poem survive or are known to have been written, yet no one of the texts can be called 'final' . . . one text is apparently as valid as another" (Poems xxxv). Likewise, "more than once she turned a fair copy into a worksheet draft which she ultimately abandoned, thus leaving the poem in a particularly chaotic state" (xxxiv). Thus, although Johnson's organizational framework seems logical, its systematic application to Dickinson's writings is not always practical or even useful; in fact, some scholars have suggested that organization of this type can be downright detrimental to understanding and interpreting Emily's writing (see Werner). It is important to ask whether Emily subscribed to the notion of a "final" or "finished" poem. In other words, Johnson seems unable to consider the fact that Emily may have finally intended her poems to be perpetually "unfinished." He acknowledges conscious experimentation on the part of Dickinson, but resists the notion of a dynamic poem in which variant words or lines may be chosen by the reader.

To his best ability, Johnson organizes the poems and letters chronologically rather than by subject. It must be noted, however, that any ordering — even chronological — is a method by which a narrative framework is imposed on a body of writing. (However, that is not to say that a narrative framework cannot be useful or even necessary for certain presentations of literature.) Furthermore, although Johnson states in his introduction to Letters that "[A]ll autograph letters are presented in their verbatim form" (xxv), Werner points out in Open Folios that, "[A]t times, Johnson splices together discrete fragments, rearranging text . . . in order that there may be a 'beginning,' 'middle,' and 'end' . . . [A]t other times . . . 'constructing' [a 'complete' text] out of the myriad of rough and fair copy drafts available" (45). Moreover, for a category of Dickinson writings called the "Lord letters," Johnson inserts the heading "To Otis Lord," even though there is no evidence to show that such writings served as drafts to letters that were ever sent to Lord or any other recipient. Emily, herself, never used such a heading in the so-called "Lord letter" fragments. Thus although Johnson might not alter or remove any of Emily's words, he inserts his own (as in the headings) and furthermore rearranges her writings to produce more "ideal texts" or complete "works."

Organization of Johnson's Text and Paratext

Johnson's Poems begins with a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction. He subdivides the introduction into several sections: "Creating the Poems, the Poet and the Muse" (biographical information on Dickinson's personal life and her poetic production); "Editing the Poems, 1890-1945" (a history of editors of Dickinson's writing and their publications); "Characteristics of the Handwriting" (a detailed analysis explaining the way in which works were dated according to handwriting, written by Theodora Van Wagenen Ward); and "Notes on the Present Text" (discussion of Johnson's own editorial practices). Johnson includes facsimiles of some of the manuscripts in the introduction.

Johnson arranges all poems in chronological order (to the best of his ability) and dates and numbers them. In Poems, Johnson differentiates the "poem" component from the "letter" component (if there be one) with the use of spacing and indentation (although, as Johnson admits, where a letter ends and a poem begins is often a difficult distinction to make; see Genre); as such, he derives titles from the first line of each poem. After the number and title, each entry contains bibliographic information such as number of manuscripts, existence of variants, approximate date, media (e.g. "in pencil on a fragment of stationery addressed on the opposite side by ED to an aunt"), and appendix references. The variants are introduced in chronological order, with brief descriptions of the circumstances surrounding their production and distribution. The original line breaks are given beneath each poem as is publication information (including the variant readings and misreadings published). Johnson uses a larger font for his principal representation of each poem.

The body of the text is followed by eleven appendices: 1) "Biographical Sketches of Recipients of Poems," 2) "Tabulation of Recipients," 3) "Tabulation of Poems Year by Year," 4) "Unpublished Poems," 5) "The Packets by Chronological Arrangement," 6) "The Packets: The Todd Numbering," 7) "Poems Duplicated in the Packets," 8) "Titles of Poems Supplied by Emily Dickinson," 9) "Poems Published in Emily Dickinson's Lifetime," 10) "Chronological Listing of First Publication Elsewhere Than in Collections," and 11) "Distribution of Missing Autographs." He concludes the edition with a subject index and an index of first lines.

Letters begins with acknowledgments and an introduction. As far as possible, letters are organized chronologically and numbered. The "recipient" (sometime this is only a conjecture on the part of Johnson; see the discussion of the "Lord letters" in Organization of Dickinson) and the (estimated) date [" . . . Emily rarely dated her letters after 1850. . . " (xxiii)] are given above each letter. As in Poems, the "poem" component (if there be one) is separated from the "letter" component by spacing and indentation. Johnson organizes the letters in artificial paragraphs. Original line breaks are not provided. Beneath each letter, manuscript location and publication information are given as well as explanatory notes identifying persons and events. Sources for literary allusions and quotations are provided if known. If a draft to the letter exists, it is presented below the letter's transcription (although the draft is, of course, written earlier, the more recent fair copy to a recipient is privileged) in reduced font. Johnson concludes Letters with appendices and an index.


In Letters, Johnson writes that the "work of preparing the poems and letters constantly overlapped" (xi) and, indeed, many of Dickinson's writings are included in both Letters and Poems, albeit with slightly different presentations. As Johnson admits, "the letters both in style and rhythm begin to take on qualities that are so nearly the quality of her poems as on occasion to leave the reader in doubt where the letter leaves off and the poem begins" (Letters xv). Perhaps Susan Huntington Dickinson had the right idea in refusing to make the difficult determination; instead, she identified many of Emily's works as "letter-poems," a hybrid of the two genres. In both Poems and Letters, Johnson (artificially) separates the letter from the poem in the correspondence with vertical spacing. He furthermore indents the "poem" and creates artificial paragraphs within the "letter."





Thomas Johnson's Editorial Theories and Practices


 Editorial Practices

It should be noted that Johnson was required to work part of the time from photostats of Dickinson's writings (instead of actual manuscripts). This was due to the fact that claims over possession of the manuscripts were in dispute. Thus Johnson was able to see the Bingham manuscripts on just two occasions. (For more detailed information on this matter, see Ralph W. Franklin's The Poems of Emily Dickinson.)

Lineation, Punctuation, and Capitalization

In Poems, Johnson standardizes lineation and yet provides the original line breaks (although I have come across instances where one of the original line breaks has been left out; in P 1666, for example, "Escape" is not noted as being its own line). Spelling is always exactly maintained, except for "hight" (height), "nought" (naught), and "wo" (woe). Improperly punctuated contractions are left. Capitalization is also maintained, although Johnson admits that it is sometimes difficult to determine Dickinson's upper- from lowercase letters: "decisions about them often have to be made on the basis of probability and familiarity with the text" (lxiii). Johnson follows Emily's punctuation to his best ability, stating that "[H]er use of the dash is especially capricious . . . [O]n occasion her dashes and commas are indistinguishable" (lxiii). Seemingly perplexed, he writes "[W]ithin lines she uses dashes with no grammatical function whatsoever" and that "quite properly, such 'punctuation' can be omitted in later editions, and the spelling and capitalization regularized, as surely she would have expected had her poems been published in her lifetime" (my emphasis, lxiii).

This statement is especially peculiar when one considers that Emily chose not to publish because of this "expectation." As Martha Nell Smith observes in Rowing In Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson: "[W]hen Emily Dickinson wrote Thomas Higginson, 'I had told you I did not print,' she enclosed a clipping of 'The Snake,' the version of 'A narrow Fellow in / the Grass' (Set 6c; P 986) which had appeared in the Springfield Weekly Republican two months earlier, to demonstrate her reasons for choosing not to do so. She comments on the printed version: 'Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me — defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one . . . ' (L 316, early 1886.)" (my emphases, 11). Smith suggests that Emily's distribution of poems through letters was ". . . a consciously designed alternative mode of textual reproduction and distribution . . . " (1-2) in which the letter recipients became her poetic audience. Thus although Johnson's decision to follow Dickinson's unusual punctuation is to be commended, his assumption regarding "proper" editorial approaches to Dickinson's writing "as surely she would have expected" remains suspect.

In many ways (spelling, capitalization, punctuation), Johnson does resist his obvious preference for poetic formality and convention. And yet the reader gets the distinct feeling that although he decides to present "literal renderings," it does not seem quite proper to him. (And, too, how "literal" are his renderings, considering that he altered lineation and artificially divided Emily's writing into "poems" and "letters"?) In fact, Johnson seems stuck between respect and admiration for Dickinson's "conscious experimentation" — he is evidently aware that her irregularity is indeed more than mere accident or sloppiness, and his decision to include original line breaks is insightful and bold — and a mission to legitimize her writing. It is ultimately left up to the informed reader to decide whether Johnson's editorial practices positively revise or negatively interfere with Emily's writing. (Forthcoming link to Poems example within this web site such that the reader/user can only return to this page)

Letters: Same as above, although original lineation is not provided. Also, letter salutation and signature are omitted. Artificial paragraphs are created within the body of the letter. (Forthcoming link to Letters example)

Dating and Attribution

In Poems, Johnson states: "Except in instances where direct evidence in letters can be used to date a poem - and they are relatively few - all assigned dates are tentative and will always remain so. At the same time the quantity of manuscripts, both letters and poems, is great enough to provide opportunity for a detailed study of handwriting changes . . . [I]n general the evidence of handwriting is sufficient to limit a date within a given year . . . such identification, in default of corroborative evidence, is only a calculated guess which many sometime be proved somewhat incorrect" (lxii). Thus, in "Characteristics of Handwriting" (in the introduction), Theodora Van Wagenen Ward lists characteristics by year, from 1850 to 1886. The entry for 1856, for example, reads: "General appearance similar to 1855. A new form of A appears, as described below. d: two strokes for initial letter, one stroke for final; ascender to left. g: mostly long sweeping curve to left; a few short and straight . . . (liii)

Close study to stationery was also given, although "[T]he use of evidence from stationery is ancillary" ( lxii).

In Letters, Johnson reveals that "Emily Dickinson rarely dated her letters after 1850" (xxiii). And yet, he asserts that "[F]requently, internal evidence sets the date precisely" although "sometimes an assigned date must derive solely from the evidence of handwriting" (xxiii).

Some scholars have challenged the assumption that Dickinson's handwriting can be so easily categorized into distinct time periods. In Rowing In Eden, Martha Nell Smith points out that "a draft of a letter said to be to Judge Otis P. Lord and dated in the 1870s also looks like the more casual handwriting of the second 'Master' letter of 1861 and that of the scraps, while its fair copy looks like documents dated in the mid-1870s or even early 1880s . . . [S]ince they are draft and fair copy of the same letter, one logically concludes that they were written at the same time. Thus the differences in handwriting indicate that Dickinson had a casual hand for scripting drafts, as well as what one might call a 'performance script,' a more stylized holograph for 'publication'" (63). Likewise, in Open Folios, Marta L. Werner discusses the complexity of Dickinson's handwriting, remarking upon "the numerous conscious and unconscious variations within those basic [handwriting] styles" and "the more problematic hand of the rough and intermediate copies, in which distinct styles disappear almost entirely while isolated letters exist in highly unstable forms" (58). Even editors as far back as Martha Dickinson Bianchi have acknowledged the difficulties in dating Dickinson's work according to handwriting (see our discussion of Bianchi's editorial theories and practice).

Final Thoughts

Throughout Poems and Letters, Johnson shows himself to be a dedicated and intelligent editor. With any edition, however, it is important to examine the editorial assumptions inherent in the presentation of a body of work. Consciously or no, Johnson domesticates Dickinson to a certain degree in his idealized (re)arrangements of her writings within his own academic text, including the many dates and names and numbers surrounding her poems as well as his reconstructions toward more final or complete or ideal works. And as authority is increasingly transferred from the poems/letters themselves to the extensive numbers and notes surrounding them, Emily's own person is diminished in Johnson's representation of her as psychologically fragile, emotionally dependent, and reclusive.

Equally telling are Johnson's elaborate and seemingly "scientific" analyses and categorizations of her writings. One need only examine his extensive appendices to see an obsessive need for editorial containment, whether this be by date or subject or recipient or genre or numbering or tabulation. In other words, Johnson expends a great deal of effort (and a great many pages) "taming" her works (as well as her persona), arranging them so that they can be manageable and managed within the "objective" and "scientific" and "intellectual" spheres of scholarly literature and textual criticism.

Scholars such as Martha Nell Smith and Marta L. Werner have examined the ways in which presentations of Dickinson have been gendered toward the masculine. In Rowing in Eden, Smith scrutinizes the editorial apparatuses in Johnson's Poems and Letters to expose "how easily women are overshadowed by standards of record-keeping that are by and large taken for granted" (132). She points out that in his indices, "the given names of thirteen women have disappeared . . . these women are known only as 'the wife of'" (123). The same standards are practiced in his acknowledgments as well (Mrs. John Nicholas Brown, Mrs. William Esty, Mrs. Howard B. Field are just a few examples of women "named"). Thus Johnson can be seen as participating in a form of "systemic erasure" that "is not a trivial matter, but distorts our history as it translates all characters and relationships into terms making males primary" (Smith 132). Smith likewise points out that "[A]ccording to our present tabulation, Dickinson 'published' 401 poems to women and 184, or less than half as many, to men, but critical emphases on her immediate audience have been on men — Higginson, Samuel Bowles, Judge Otis P. Lord, 'Master'" (131). And certainly, Johnson does spend much more time discussing Dickinson's relationships with Newton, Wadsworth, and Higginson than her relationship with Susan Huntington Dickinson or even her mother, sister, or female cousins.

Thus Johnson can be accused of obscuring an important "fact of Dickinson's creative life: that contemporary women readers were vitally important to her poetic project" (Smith 131). The question remains to be asked whether this was a conscious effort on the part of Johnson. Was his edition in direct response to (against) Rebecca Patterson's The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, published in 1951 (by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston), only four years before Poems. Patterson claimed to have located the "too-much-loved woman friend" referred to by Bingham in Bolts of Melody, "a woman whose importance has escaped every biographer except Mrs. Bianchi" (Patterson viii). Was Johnson constructing his Dickinson in opposition to this book or even more general rumors that Emily had been in love with another woman? Or rather was his gendering a more subconscious act perpetrated within his own male-dominated world (both social and professional) and thus in accordance with literary and social "standards" of the time? We will probably never know. And yet, we cannot ignore Johnson's biases, for blind acceptance of Johnson's authority only serves to make the reader complicit in the act of rewriting Emily Dickinson.