Emily Dickinson continues to occupy centre stage in American literature. Her poems are considered impossible to compete with, yet despite the appreciation her poems have received in modern time, they remained unpublished until after her death.
Text: Amalie Moen Eidet, English one-year programme
Illustration: Susanne F.Arntzen
Having written 1775 unique poems, Dickinson is described as being sui generis, meaning that she is unique. Her work is posthumous, which is to say that her poems were published after her death. Considering that her poems have guaranteed Dickson a kind of literary immortality, critics have long asked why her work remained unknown during the days that she lived. In her article, ‘Doing Without: Dickinson as a Yankee Woman Poet’, Jane Donahue Eberwein expresses her wonder at the fact that, “she, the greatest woman poet in nineteenth-century America and quite possibly the most brilliant female artist this country has yet produced, should never have earned money for her poems.” How could such a poet have remained unknown until after her death? And how is that her poems still have relevance two centuries later?
Her early days as a poet: the disadvantage of gender
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), known for one of her most famous poems “There’s a certain slant of light”, met many obstacles when she tried to publish her work in the mid-19th century. Her biggest struggles in the early days of her poetic life centred upon her gender. As a woman she was faced with the expectation of becoming a wife and a mother. As her friend, correspondent and mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, put it: “The disadvantage of women has lain in being systematically taught from childhood that it is their highest duty to efface themselves, or at least keep out of sight.” Emily remained hidden from society in her parents’ house for most of her life. As a female who never married or had any children, she spent her life writing numerous poems.
The struggle to become a published writer
When Dickinson first wrote her poems, they were not considered as special or extraordinary as we understand them to be today. Dickinson sent some of her poems to papers such as the Republican, Scribner’s and the Atlantic monthly, but did not receive particularly positive feedback. The Scribner’s rejected her completely. Some of her poems appeared in the Republican, but they were edited into a more conventional shape. Writer Margaret Homans has described the struggle that Emily faced as a female poet: “poetry by women is still and likely to remain conditioned by its response to various manifestations of masculine authority.” Dickinson, who received little recognition from these newspapers due to the “unconventional” nature of her poems, expressed the frustration that she felt in one of her poems (260): “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, and (518), “This is the letter to the World, That never wrote to Me.”
Seeking comfort with a friend who didn’t see her potential
Searching for advice and approval, Dickinson wrote a letter and sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a minister and a contributing editor for the Atlantic monthly. Higginson was similar to the other editors who saw little of value in Dickinson’s work, but there was something about her writing that made him interested enough to stay in touch with her for the rest of her life. Dickinson was inspired by Higginson to continue writing poetry, but editor Robert N. Linscott since speculated that Higginson could have done much more for her. With her poetry in his hands, he should have been able to recognize her talent and act upon that realisation. Linscott wrote that, “If Higginson had been discerning and less timidly conventional, if he had had the ability to recognize genius in a new and original form, and the courage to sponsor it and to urge publication, it is possible that Emily Dickinson would have found fame in her lifetime.” Linscott wonders if Higginson actually hindered the publication of Dickinson’s poems: Dickinson shared many of her works with Higginson, and as a man and a contributing editor to a famous newspaper he had all the power in the world to publish them, but he failed to do so whilst she still lived.
“The greatest woman poet in nineteenth-century America and quite possibly the most brilliant female artist this country has yet produced” – Jane Donahue Eberwein
Finally, her poetry is published –posthumously
Dickinson died in 1886 before her poems were transcribed and printed. Higginson did eventually publish some of her poetry, but the initiative to do so was not his own. Emily’s sister, Lavinia, found Emily’s poems and asked an American writer and editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, if she could publish an ‘after death’ collection of poems. Todd, who was familiar with Dickinson due to her romantic involvement with Dickinson’s brother, Austin, thought that the poet was “in many respects a genius”. Todd managed to persuade Higginson to help her transcribe many of Dickinson’s poems. The volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poems impressed many, but also came in for strong criticism. The first volume of her poems was published in 1890, the second in 1891 and the third one in 1896.
The wrong relative was credited for the immortalisation of Dickinson’s poems
After her Dickinson’s death, Higginson decided to write an article in the Atlantic Monthly publishing their letters from a lifetime of correspondence and including her poems. He described the impression she had made upon him and gives her sister, Lavinia, the credit for having brought Emily’s poems to the world: “But for her only sister, it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been published.” Yet, research reveals that it was in fact the work of Emily Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, that made Dickinson famous today. If it had not been for Martha, Dickinson’s work would have disappeared among the bookshelves by the 1900s. Martha claimed that Lavinia held back many of her poems because she thought that they were unfit for publishing. Martha transcribed Emily’s most private love letters and published eight more volumes of Dickinson’s writings between 1914 and 1937. It’s thanks to Martha that Emily Dickinson’s poetry is still blossoming today. ■