Publication History of the Works of Emily Dickinson



Early Editors

As is well known, Emily Dickinson printed few of her own poems, choosing instead to publish her work by circulating copies to friends and family. After her death, her sister, Lavinia, discovered literally hundreds of poems in Emily's room. Determined to have them published, she searched for an editor. Susan Dickinson, one of Emily's most influential readers, immediately began work on editing an inclusive volume of poetry, wanting to present a "full, and varied" volume of Dickinson's works, one that would include "letters, humorous writings, illustrations" (Smith and Hart xvi). However, at the time the more marketable image of Emily Dickinson was that of the nineteenth century "poetess," the "eccentric, reclusive asexual woman in white," which was not the image Susan seemed concerned to produce (Hart and Smith xv). And, as she felt Susan was moving too slowly anyway, Lavinia turned the manuscripts over to Mabel Loomis Todd, with whom Susan's husband (Austin Dickinson) had had a years' long affair, and Thomas W. Higginson, one of Emily's main correspondents. Todd and Higginson published the first volume of Dickinson's poems, Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1890, to the disappointment of Susan. They had divided the poems into popular themes, such as "Love," "Nature," "Life," "Time & Eternity"—prim categories that helped to establish the myth of Dickinson as "a recluse by temperament and habit," Higginson's words in the introduction. Meanwhile, Susan published manuscripts of her own in journals and continued to compile her manuscripts for a complete volume of her own.

Poems was a success, and the co-editors began work on a second volume (1891), and Todd produced a third volume without the assistance of Higginson (1896). She also published an edition of letters in 1894. A break between Lavinia and Todd, however, put an end to the collaboration, and Lavinia continued to print on her own, in periodicals. She died in 1899, and the manuscripts were passed on to her niece, Martha Dickinson. Martha Dickinson Bianchi published Susan's collection of her own manuscripts in 1914 in The Single Hound and in a 1915 Atlantic Monthly article. She rearranged Todd's Letters and added biographical accounts in her 1924 The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Also in 1924 she combined the poems found in the three Todd-Higginson volumes with her own work and published The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. But this appellation proved too hasty: she subsequently found more manuscript material and released two further installments, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (1929) and Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (1935). Face to Face, an expanded biography combined with poetry and letters, was published in 1932. Bianchi and her co-editor, Alfred Leete Hampson, have been disparaged for what other editors call sloppy work, but Ralph Franklin admits it is "deserving of serious study" (Variorum 5) and Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart also treat her as an editor with a serious mission, giving her credit where other editors have not.

Meanwhile, Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter also brought out further volumes, publishing an expanded volume of Letters. After Bianchi's death, Millicent Todd Bingham published Ancestors' Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson (1945) and Bolts of Melody (1945), which contained hundreds of new poems.

From the beginning of her history as a poet, Emily Dickinson has drawn readers attracted to the details of her life as well as her poetry. As early an editor as Bianchi felt that part of her responsibility was to correct the misinformation that had already spread about the "weird recluse" that people saw Dickinson as. Bianchi also notes that many of Dickinson's early fans insisted on "some actual recreation of her as a woman in her own setting-no mere collection of reputed eccentricities or collated husks of fact from the outside. . . . The demand for the personal Emily became difficult to ignore" (Face to Face xii-xiii). Indeed, the "demand for the personal Emily" continues today. What's more, the way Dickinson the woman has been seen has profoundly influenced the way she has been seen as a poet; her poetry has conformed to her editors' ideas of her biography. This practice has continued with her modern editors, who seem just as interested as their predecessors in uncovering the "real" Emily Dickinson, as the discussions about each editor in this website will show.

Modern Editors

With the deaths of Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham, both family lines ended. Bianchi sold her manuscripts to Harvard University, and Bingham gave hers to Amherst College. At this time, Thomas H. Johnson prepared a new edition from both sets of manuscripts, publishing The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. From this he published The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960), choosing the principal representations of the manuscript drafts, and selections from Complete Poems are in Final Harvest (1962). Working with Theodora Ward, Johnson also produced The Letters of Emily Dickinson in 1958, in which he published all of the known letters and prose fragments. Johnson's work was, and continues to be, of major scholarly importance.

Ralph Franklin, another major Dickinson editor, published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which is a set of facsimile reproductions of the fascicles (1980), providing, for the first time, access to a select group of the manuscripts. This work also attempts to restructure the fascicles into their original order, not their chronological order, as Johnson presents them. In 1986 Franklin produced The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson, a set of "letters," whether fictional or autobiographical, addressed to a "Master." Much speculation as to the Master's identity has fueled Dickinson circles, perhaps giving undue significance to the works. In a major new publication, Franklin produced a The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition in 1998, representing all the drafts and manuscripts available. Working from manuscripts, Franklin gives a "comprehensive account" of Dickinson's oeuvre and her editors.

In 1995, Marta Werner published Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, in which she challenges the masculine interpretation of Dickinson's 1870s textual context. In another feminist interpretation, in 1998 Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith produced Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, which follows in the vein of Bianchi's The Single Hound, a compilation of some of Dickinson's Susan correspondence. Open Me Carefully ranges from prose letters to poetry to what Hart and Smith identify as "letter poems." The editors attempt to retain as much of Dickinson's graphic quality as possible, keeping her original line breaks and attempting to reproduce her unusual punctuation as closely as possible in print.

In 1992 work was begun on the Dickinson Electronic Archives, a comprehensive website designed to give access to digital reproductions of Dickinson's manuscripts. The editorial collective, consisting of Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart, and Marta Werner, hopes to facilitate research into Dickinson as a graphocentric poet, one who was concerned with the layout of the actual page she wrote on. The site includes reproductions of Dickinson's manuscripts, and many of Susan Dickinson's texts as well, among other items. It is an on-going project and invites collaboration.

Since the 1950s, Dickinson scholarship has remained a vibrant, active field, with new developments each decade. As additional editions of her work are published, previous ones do not become obsolete; on the contrary, each one can be taken as another interpretation of Dickinson's sometimes cryptic but always engaging work.