An American poet known for her unconventional use of form and syntax, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote nearly 2000 poems, most of which were published after her death. Claiming that she saw “New Englandly,” she rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Author of several books about the life and works of Emily Dickinson, Martha Nell Smith is a professor of English and founding director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, and executive editor of the Dickinson Electronic Archives.
Simply Charly: As a scholar of English, what first drew you to the life and works of Emily Dickinson?
Martha Nell Smith: It’s important to know that I was a reader of Emily Dickinson before I became a scholar of English. My passion for writings and writers, especially poets, determined my life’s work. Even when I was choosing my dissertation topic in the early 1980s, almost every adviser was warning me (when I broached the topic of writing on Dickinson) that so much had already been done on her, how could anything new or different be said? They were counseling me to find another subject. When I think of all of the Dickinson scholarship published since that time, more than all published before 1980, I realize how absolutely absurd their fears were.
Oh, and I probably should add that I was first smitten with Dickinson when I encountered her in The Golden Treasury of Poetry (Louis Untermeyer’s collection). I was moved by her hummingbird poem—“A route of evanescence”—and have learned that this little riddle hooks many child readers. I also thought her “Snake”—“A narrow Fellow in the grass”—was fascinating, probably because, as a tomboy, I was taken with “Yet when a child, and barefoot, / I more than once, at morn, / Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash / Unbraiding in the sun,—“ (I’m quoting there from the Untermeyer, not from her manuscript). Little did I know that her manuscript actually says “when a Boy, and / Barefoot.” But delighted fascination with a snake did seem a tomboyish orientation to the world. Untermeyer’s note about Dickinson above “The Snake” talks about “her extraordinary way of thinking about things.” As a little girl, I thought that was extraordinarily cool.
SC: Dickinson wrote over a century ago, and yet continues to be widely celebrated as one of America’s most distinguished poets. What about her distinctive style and subject matter continues to resonate with readers today?
MNS: Her acute attention to the details “by the door” (as Emerson might say) that the rest of us take for granted or don’t even see. Who else gets a gorgeous, provocative poem out of watching a bird come down the walk, and, apparently turning the world into his own sushi feast, eating the fellow, a worm, “raw.” Readers find her odd even in 2015, in a way that pulls them into her poetry, into thinking differently about the world. Reading her has its costs—you have to work to make and maintain sense—but those costs pay and repay in perpetuity, as far as I can tell.
SC: You have done extensive research on Dickinson’s historical background and relationships. In what way is her work a product of the life she lived and the times in which she wrote?
MNS: As American poet Adrienne Rich said, “Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history.” So poetry never stands a chance of standing completely outside the life of the poet either. Dickinson’s work is a product of her status as a woman; her condition of being that included loving women sexually; her extended family’s fierce fights over the nature and rights of African Americans and others of color; her comfortable class status, both in terms of her material and prestige environments; emerging theories about evolution and her fascination with those and other areas of science; her critical attention to human engagements with the world that had her quipping “who writes those funny accidents where railroads meet each other unexpectedly and gentlemen in factories get their heads cut off quite informally?” Mechanical and social organization changes are all over her poetry, which, like all other poetry, never stood a chance of standing outside history.
SC: In Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson, you argue that Dickinson’s non-traditional method of publishing her work served to preserve some of the stylistic features, which make her poetry unique, even today. How have the past and present posthumous publications of Dickinson’s work stayed true to the original text?
MNS: There are publications that are faithful to her manuscript inscriptions in the belief that those characteristics are actually part of her poetic strategy. The editions that come to mind are some of Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s (one need only look at her 1924 printing of “Morning / might come / by Accident” in Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson to see what I mean—she recognizes the “letter-poem” genre); others are by Marta Werner, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, Martha Nell Smith, and Lara Vetter. The critical engagements that come to mind are those of Susan Dickinson, Edith Wylder, Susan Howe, Ellen Louise Hart, Sharon Cameron, Marta Werner, Paul Crumbley, Tanya Clement, Lara Vetter, Virginia Jackson, Alexandra Socarides, and Janet Holmes. These all have “stayed true” as it were, in various ways—some by maintaining her line breaks; others by attending critically to her calligraphic inscriptions; others by thinking about visual arrangements and their meanings, including as scores for reading aloud or otherwise attending to hearing the poem; yet others for the arrangement of sequences or of patterns within and/or across sequences. There are a host of reasons for attending to Dickinson’s self-publication and her handwritten scriptures.
But you know what? One does not have to encounter her poems that way to enjoy them deeply and abundantly. Dickinson in translation, not only into other languages but also into other forms and arrangements, is very, very powerful. I’ve heard it said about myself that I insist one must read Dickinson in manuscript to understand her better. I don’t think that I’ve ever said that, though I have and continue to argue passionately that the pleasures I get from reading her scriptures are worth sharing with others.
SC: In your book Comic Power in Emily Dickinson, you and your co-authors challenge the “traditional tragic image of the poet.” What appeal does this tragic narrative have for readers of Dickinson today, and how is it not telling the full story?
MNS: Very interesting question because back when we were writing Comic Power I didn’t think Emily Sad Sack would still be popular with some readers. But the brokenhearted, the lovelorn, the can’t-have-what-she-wants Emily still has many fans. Lack, or something missing, is a notion to which audiences are still very much drawn, perhaps because such a perception enables and may even appear to fill in some gaps. Readers love to fill in gaps. Doing that, we can all make our own story, and Dickinson becomes a creature for which each reader has her own interpretation. That’s of course always true, but a siren call to fill in gaps seems especially effective.
I guess the best way to answer this question is to say that I don’t know why a tragic storyline about Dickinson appeals to today’s readers. I just know that for some, for perhaps quite a few, such a tale makes her all the more fetching.
SC: Your upcoming works, Life Before Last: Reminiscences of a Country Girl and The Life of Susan Dickinson go beyond the poet to explore the lives of her niece and lover. How did your work on Dickinson’s life prompt this expanded focus, and what do you expect the lives of Susan Dickinson and Martha Dickinson Bianchi will tell us about the poet herself?
MNS: When I first started testing my hypotheses about Dickinson publishing her poems coterie-style, in her letters and by reading them aloud in her parlor, I did not expect to regard Susan Dickinson as a major figure. In fact, I expected her to be negligible because that’s what I had been trained to say. Then I started to read through Emily’s correspondences in chronological order, and I saw all of these letters to Susan and then mutilations to expressions about her in letters to her brother Austin (Susan’s future husband), and I started to question what I “knew” about Emily. Reading through her letters to Susan blew me away—the heightened expressions, the intellectual awe, and the duration of the correspondence itself. I knew that I had been wrong to imagine she would be negligible in a study of the correspondences. When I saw Emily writing different second stanzas of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” to suit Susan, I was just flabbergasted that critical ignorance about this primary audience and object of her affections could persist as long as it had. But gossip can be very powerful, especially when it infuses a literary history, and that’s what happened in Dickinson’s case. Gossip by the other woman about the wife set many a discourse, and is still almost impossible to dislodge. Even when confronted with the facts, I knew that many would try to explain them away, and would even be convinced that they had done so (see Hans Robert Jauss’s “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” his essay about how reception of anything as a “fact” is almost impossible to change, even when evidence is presented that calls the “fact” into question).
Seeing this situation, and reading through Susan’s and Martha’s papers, I knew that there was a gaping hole in the narratives about Emily’s life and I was determined to tell it. Others have started the work of filling in these gaping holes, and that’s a wonderful fact of Dickinson studies right now. Lyndall Gordon’s splendid biography began to tell the narrative of how Mabel Loomis Todd (the mistress) came to edit Susan Dickinson’s (the wife) beloved’s poems and letters from a wholly new perspective. I’m convinced that what really bothered people was not Gordon’s hypothesis about Dickinson being epileptic (which they claimed), but that she told things about Todd that others had chosen not to tell—for example, that Mabel was totally in love with Susan, copied her style of dress “like that of a stalker or obsessive fan,” and was in that way threatening to Susan. “The danger to Susan Dickinson was Mabel’s need to be her.” Gordon’s biography has begun the vital work of restoring Susan Dickinson to her rightful place in the annals of Emily Dickinson.
SC: In editing the Dickinson Electronic Archives, what do you hope to say, as a scholar and a teacher, about Emily Dickinson to students of her poetry and history?
MNS: The Dickinson Electronic Archives (DEA) shares my deep pleasures in engaging Dickinson’s manuscripts, those of her family, and expressions about her influence by contemporary poets. The Dickinson Electronic Archives is designed to welcome, engage, and democratize access to Dickinson’s work and provide venues for others to share their knowledge and thinking about Dickinson’s work and its influence. The DEA continues to evolve, primarily through audience exchange. We love that and welcome more. It is collaborative and is becoming more so.
SC: As a University of Maryland faculty member who has is an affiliate faculty member in Women’s Studies and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Studies, and has served on and chaired the President’s Commission on LGBT Issues, how has your work making the university more inclusive informed your study of Dickinson?
MNS: Inclusivity has long been at the heart of my intellectual, poetic, and critical vision, and has been essential to any definition of excellence I carry or in any way tout in academia. As civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” and Bruce Springsteen echoed that sentiment with “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Both of them express poetry’s and education’s most brilliant, generative calling—knowledge building should be open to everyone who is willing to do the very hard but exponentially rewarding work of thinking. Racial, sexual, gender, and class differences are the ways and conditions of living that make people interesting. Ways of “killing” them with intellectual snobbery or exclusionary practices are not at all interesting, nor are they very smart. Becoming an affiliate faculty member of the Department of Women’s Studies (WMST) when I came to the University of Maryland in 1986, and then affiliate of LGBT Studies when that became possible in 2002, and serving on and chairing the President’s Commission on LGBT Issues from 1997 to 2001 are all outgrowths of my commitment to inclusivity. How does all this show up in my work on Dickinson? I don’t see any reason to exclude others’ interpretations of her and her work, no matter how wrong I think they may be, and I don’t see any reason to play some kind of “best” or “most authoritative” game among interpretations. Her writings are what matter, not our jockeying over who is the “best” interpreter of them. All interpretations have some insight to give.
SC: Dickinson’s poetry is still being taught widely in schools today. How does your own approach differ from the way her poetry is generally read in a classroom setting? How is it similar?
MNS: I am finding that the teaching of Dickinson in schools appears to be changing in some quarters. Students sometimes come to me knowing about her manuscript work and thinking that her primary love object was a woman. Some have focused on close reading skills while others have mainly focused on Dickinson’s life. My teaching methods focus on close reading and situating those readings in her time (as best we understand it and can know about it) and in ours. I think all of us need to read more carefully and more slowly. From those who don’t stress close reading, I differ, and that’s a difference that really matters.
SC: Which of Emily Dickinson’s works continue to resonate most strongly with you? Why?
MNS: I tell students and colleagues that my favorite Dickinson poem is “It always felt to me – a / wrong / to that Old Moses – done –,” about Moses being denied entrance into the Promised Land because he had thrown a temper tantrum when he saw the children of Israel persisting in idol worship, complaining about God, blaspheming him, whining, and doing other childishly destructive things). Moses disobeyed God when he saw that outrageous behavior of the tribes he was leading, and smashed a rock with his staff rather than speak to it to call for water for the thirsty throngs. They got their water, but Moses was told that because he disobeyed, he could look at the Promised Land, but he’d never be allowed to touch it. Forget that the ingrate Israelites would be admitted. He, their leader, their steward, would not be. I always thought this unfair, and so did Dickinson. Reading her poem I think about the conditions of slaves, women, the poor, all those who are in any way discriminated against because of who they are, and I hear her prophetic cry, “My justice bleeds for thee!”