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.
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.
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.
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. . . )
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.
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
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.
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
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)
& 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
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
Theories and Assumptions
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.
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.
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
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."
of Johnson's Text and Paratext
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."