Emily Dickinson; Or, Don’t Touch Those Notebooks!

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.


Until recently, the only authenticated adult portrait of Emily Dickinson–and the basis for the doctored Dickinson image.

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.


First editions of the First, Second, and Third Series of Dickinson’s poems.

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?


6 Comments Add yours

  1. I was also excited to learn about the newly discovered picture of Emily Dickinson. Makeup on Emily? That is just plain shameful 😦 Blech!

    I’m taking a Modern Poetry course online and we’re studying Dickinson’s poetry this week. It’s funny that you mentioned Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant as I was reading that today.

  2. Alicia♥ says:

    Hi! I’ve found your blog on Book Blogs and I’m now a proud new follower! Do drop by mine @ http://bookaworld.wordpress.com too!!


  3. Hi, found you on Book Blogs I’m sure my husband knows who you are as he watches Pawn Stars a lot. Glad to met you and check out your blog. I’m following via email. Check out my blog at http://www.melinathereader.com Thanks Rebecca Keep up the good work.

  4. aralu says:

    What a fun post! I have never ventured into the rare book world, but your posts make me want to learn more! Especially the Dickinson post.

    How horrible it must have been for literary historians to have been presented with Dickinson’s work torn out and out of order. I can understand why thinking about it makes you vomit a little.

    I have not read that much Dickinson and perhaps I have completely misunderstood the poem, but I absolutely love “I heard a fly buzz when I died”. There is something very comforting to me to think of death as ordinary. Who needs all that revelatory pressure?

  5. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Stingo recites the poem “Ample Make This Bed” by Emily Dickinson in Sophie’s Choice. This one really got to me.

    Ample make this bed.
    Make this bed with awe;
    In it wait till judgment break
    Excellent and fair.

    Be its mattress straight,
    Be its pillow round;
    Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
    Interrupt this ground.

    This one is also special to me.

    A Book

    There is no frigate like a book
    To take us lands away,
    Nor any coursers like a page
    Of prancing poetry.
    This traverse may the poorest take
    Without oppress of toll;
    How frugal is the chariot
    That bears a human soul!

  6. claire says:

    Amazing, about the fascicles. Thanks so much, Rebecca.

    One of my favourites:

    Bind me — I still can sing —
    Banish — my mandolin
    Strikes true within —

    Slay — and my Soul shall rise
    Chanting to Paradise —
    Still thine.

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