Emily Dickinson’s Missing Mail
A fact known to fans of Emily Dickinson, some poetry lovers, or those who have read her for an English class is this: Emily Dickinson was a reclusive, private woman who, in the later stages of her life, rarely left the house. The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Dickinson calls this image of her as a recluse or hermit “sensationaliz[ing] a decision that has come to be seen as eminently practical… The visiting alone was so time-consuming as to be prohibitive in itself. As she turned her attention to writing, she gradually eased out of the countless rounds of social calls.” At the time, it was customary to “call” or drop in on someone and visit them. Instead, Dickinson was a fan of letters; as The Poetry Foundation says, “For Dickinson, letter writing was “visiting” at its best.” Those who knew her and her life best were those who were recipients of those letters. So, how could we learn about her life without them? Before I continue, I want to note that we still have to remember that Dickinson didn’t write these letters for others to read and pore over. She wrote them for her family and friends to share what was happening in her life. This places the readers of these surviving letters in a voyeuristic role as we look into the personal life of a woman who doesn’t know we are watching.
Another fact that poetry lovers or fans of Emily Dickinson would know is that Dickinson asked her sister Lavinia to burn her letters and correspondence when she died. Because of this, The Emily Dickinson Museum estimates that “printed editions of her letters represent only one-tenth of the letters Dickinson actually wrote.” The museum also notes that, “While others may yet be recovered, many were probably destroyed, according to the custom of the time, upon their recipients’ deaths.” This leaves an incredible amount of her lifetime unaccounted for and is one of the reasons why scholars are constantly searching and analyzing these letters to learn about her life.
The first editors who compiled Dickinson’s letters worked with her friends and family, with one of the first publications of her letters done by Mabel Loomis Todd, achieved with Lavinia’s help. Subsequent volumes were published by her niece in 1924 and 1932. Interestingly enough, many of the editors who worked on these publications were women, and The Emily Dickinson Museum begins to list more male editors once they reach the 1950s. Not having read these collections, I can’t exactly say how they paint her. However, I know that every time I’ve taken a class that includes her poems, the classic introduction is that she was a private person, almost a hermit, and that she always wore a white dress. And that’s it. So somehow, despite all of these compilations of letters and invasion into her personal life, we have yet to move away from seeing her as the myth of Amherst.
In looking over some of the letters that Todd had transcribed, Dickinson seems like a kind woman, one who corresponded with her recipients about day-to-day activities, while still maintaining a poetic mastery of her words. Honestly, I think she seemed pretty cool. But I say this to point out that if the general public can see these letters, why should we still think of her as a mysterious hermit? Even though scholars have been combing through the surviving letters to learn about Dickinson’s life and poems, the general introduction of her that I’ve heard since high school hasn’t changed. I think that the person Dickinson is in her letters isn’t acknowledged because she would no longer be mysterious. It wasn’t Dickinson who framed herself in this way, but those who crafted and sensationalized the myths that surrounded her. Were she to be framed as an ordinary woman, scholars would lose the myth that they have created.
Another compelling narrative that has been constructed about Dickinson is the conjecture over if she was a lesbian. Though many of the letters that survive are with family members, such as her brother Austin or friends such as Judge Otis Phillips Lord, one correspondence that has fascinated scholars is her letters to the woman who would become her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. These letters in particular have inspired Apple TV’s “Dickinson” to heavily lean into the lesbian narrative, and seemingly bring it to the forefront of who they think Dickinson was. This isn’t to say that literary scholars haven’t had similar conjectures, but it seems to me that the question of Dickinson’s sexual orientation has begun to permeate her story, and overshadow her work. Now, I’m not here to decide whether Dickinson was in love with Susan or not. But the speculation about these letters to Susan seems to me the biggest invasion of privacy that society could have engaged in. Obviously, these letters were meant for no one but Susan, and if the readers of Dickinson’s letters weren’t voyeuristic before, crafting narratives about her sexual life is definitely voyeuristic now.
So I ask, would Dickinson have wanted to have her life pored over like this? The answer is most likely no. Judging from her lack of desire to leave her home of Amherst, and her avoidance of visitors, it can be assumed that Dickinson was a private person to those who weren’t her friends and family. Despite letter burning after death being customary for the time, it is still noted that Dickinson had asked her sister Lavinia to make sure it was done. As her letters were her main form of communication with others, it is assumed that Dickinson would want to preserve her privacy. Besides, it’s not like she expected to be published after her death and become one of the most famous poets of her time. And even if she did hope to be published, it could still be that she didn’t want anyone to know about her personal life and history.
This loss of Emily Dickinson’s letters is a loss of her history. Though both The Poetry Foundation and The Emily Dickinson Museum have extensive biographies about her, much of their information has been found based on her letters and interpretations of her poems. However, widespread knowledge of her life is limited. The lack of factual personal history has caused people to try over and over again to find out anything they can about her and use it to interpret her poems. This industry of trying to find more about Emily Dickinson nearly overshadows her actual work at times, and is invasive. As a woman who is dead, Dickinson can’t attempt to stop those who are trying to find out about her, and it leads to the question of what authority she has over her life posthumously? Her request to have her letters burned is really her last act of agency over who knows her history, and as some letters have survived, it causes her to lose this authority. This continuous investigation into Dickinson’s life speaks to society’s need to know everything about every major figure we can. The need to pry into Dickinson’s life seems to have escalated when you factor in the potential lesbian love affair. Dickinson has no control over what we say about her in death, and as her status in the poetry world has elevated, scholars have dug into a part of her life that most likely was not public knowledge. We’ve taken a private part of her identity and turned it into spectacle. It’s understandable that poetry and literary enthusiasts would want to know her life, but as more and more editions publish her letters, and books that scour and take apart those letters are set on shelves, the continuous ignorance of her wish to Lavinia is emphasized.
In addition, part of this fascination with Dickinson is because she is from a bygone era, where people were not as heavily documented. We want to know about her in death because no one knew about her in life. In today’s world, with the use of the internet and digital media, people can create copies upon copies of any information they need. But with Dickinson, while there may have been drafts of some of her poems or letters, they were on paper, easily burned away to nothing. The fragility of these pieces of her life makes them more enthralling to us because, were they to be gone, they’d be gone forever. But if a celebrity were to die today and wish for all of their documents and records to be burned? Good luck.
To intentionally become lost is to wish for anonymity, privacy and agency over your life and history, and who knows it. In Dickinson’s case, it would have left the focus solely on her poetry. Additionally, because of the burning of her letters, we cannot accurately grasp how she wanted to be portrayed in death. We assume that her asking Lavinia to burn her letters means that she didn’t want her private life to be known, but this can’t be confirmed. Essentially, I want to make the point that as much as the letters have aided scholars in interpreting her poems, Dickinson was a person. She asked for the letters to be burnt, but not all of them were. Then, instead of using them to develop a full understanding of her as a person, they’ve been used to make her a mythical, mysterious hermit-lesbian. We’ve made her into a character. What we should remember about her is her incredible talent of creating wondrous poems that have transcended time.
I’ve said all of this and discussed how we should leave Dickinson alone, but I’ve fallen into the trap too. While writing this piece, I’m adding to this industry of digging and prying into Dickinson’s life without her approval. Is my speculation about the reasons for Dickinson’s desire for anonymity a betrayal of that desire? To answer my own question: yes. In writing this article, I am both using the letters in order to find out about her biography and then condemning the publishing of them. I’ll fully call myself out here and say it’s hypocritical. With Dickinson as the literary figure that she has become, it’s impossible to call for the burning of her letters as she had wished for because of the guidance they have offered scholars with interpreting her poems. They’ve also inspired television, such as the aforementioned Apple TV’s “Dickinson,” which is another avenue to explore her life and the poems it led to. Dickinson’s poems have captivated people; why shouldn’t they want to learn more? It’s only natural. But perhaps next time, we can work towards respecting the wishes of the dead (me included).
Megan Bostaph is a junior English major who keeps a framed portrait of Emily Dickinson next to their bed. You can reach them at email@example.com.
Art by Carolyn Langer.