I was recently sent this link about the newly discovered photograph of Emily Dickinson, and naturally I had to celebrate. (This discovery gives Amazon even less reason to use the abomination that is the doctored-up image of Dickinson which appears on the Kindle. That image has changed her hair, clothes, and even added makeup. Disgusting.) In honor of the historic discovery, I’ve decided to write a post about a lesser known aspect of her writing: the fascicles.
Today we know Emily Dickinson as one of the most important poets of 19th century America, fighting only with Whitman for the top spot of The Most Important. But in her lifetime, her poetry was relatively unknown outside of her own intimate circles. Only eleven of her poems were published before she died—and all those anonymously.
Anyone close to Dickinson knew her habit of writing little poems (her “flowers”). Dickinson would send her friends a flower with one of her poems attached, or she would include a poem or three in her correspondence. But imagine her sister Lavinia’s surprise when, after Emily’s death, Lavinia opened up her sister’s wooden chest and found forty booklets (called fascicles) of Emily’s poetry, along with over 400 other poems not yet bound into fascicles.
This was one of the greatest discoveries of 19th century literature, although Lavinia did not know it yet. Seeing the amount of time and care her sister put into writing the poems, Lavinia determined to have them published. The first step in that process? Why, ripping them out of Emily’s personally organized and hand-crafted fascicles.
Every time I think of that, I vomit a little bit in my mouth.
As Dickinson scholar Eleanor Heginbotham notes, the fascicles are “quite simply the most important clue [Dickinson] provided for reading the poems within them. They are Dickinson’s own context.” The loss of this context left Dickinson studies savagely handicapped until legendary Dickinson scholar Ralph Franklin reconstructed all forty fascicles in his book The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson in 1981.
The process by which Franklin reconstructed the fascicles is fascinating. By analyzing clues such as smudge marks, offsetting from items laid into the text (such as flowers), puncture marks where the needle sewed the papers together, and the type of paper used, Franklin was able to determine which poems were bound together. His publication marked a new era of Dickinson scholarship. And in the digital age, we’ve been able to reap the fruits of this labor even further: now scholars have digital access to the fragile original manuscripts.
The first paper I presented at an academic conference was a study of an obscure poetic device (kennings) in the work of Emily Dickinson. Because of all those hours I spent immersed in her poems (the Franklin edition, of course!), snippets still frequently spring to mind. It’s because of her that my string of thoughts is often like a bee, buzzing from flower to flower. Which I think she’d appreciate.
Since I tend to like illustrating a point by storytelling (obviously), one of my favorites is “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant.” What’s your favorite Dickinson poem, and why?