Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. JohnsonSelected Letters by Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson
Published by Belknap Press ISBN: 0674250702
on March 15th 1986
Genres: Nonfiction
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five-stars

When the complete Letters of Emily Dickinson appeared in three volumes in 1958, Robert Kirsch welcomed them in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The missives offer access to the mind and heart of one of America's most intriguing literary personalities." This one-volume selection is at last available in paper-back. It provides crucial texts for the appreciation of America literature, women's experience in the nineteenth century, and literature in general.

When I studied the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson this summer in Amherst, this collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters was one of my required reads. I didn’t finish it before the course began, so I decided it pick it up again to finish before the year closed. Consider it a way to pick up a few loose threads.

As Dickinson says in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor and friend as well as early editor, “What a Hazard a Letter is!” While this volume is not a comprehensive collection of Dickinson’s letters, it does include a broad selection dating from Dickinson’s preteen years to her final letter to her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross right before she died. Many of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the mysterious “Master” are included. Emily Dickinson seems to be the kind of person about whom the more one learns, the more enigmatical she becomes. Her writing is often a riddle. I wonder what her correspondents made of her. She seems to have taken a great deal of care to write to loved ones, particularly when they were grieving, and toward the end of her life, her letters paint the picture of someone buffeted from too many losses, beginning with the loss of her father in 1874 to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend and admirer of Dickinson’s who insisted that Dickinson publish her work:

You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy. (Letter 444a)

Dickinson writes beautiful letters, which should surprise no one familiar with her poetry, but it’s interesting that her letters are in some ways as impenetrable as her poetry can be. One that makes me scratch my head, to her sister-in-law (and some say her lover) Susan Gilbert Dickinson, includes the line, “Could I make you and Austin [Dickinson’s brother]—proud—sometime—a great way off—’twould give me taller feet—” (Letter 238). I mean, I think I know what she means by “taller feet,” but the expression is so odd that I am not sure.

Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she wrote to out of the blue after he wrote an article of advice for writers for The Atlantic Monthly, includes similarly unusual diction:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn— (Letter 260)

Dickinson sent that letter to Higginson while he lived in Worcester, MA, probably less than two miles from where I am sitting right now as I write this. Imagine receiving this letter from nowhere!

Dickinson could have chosen many words, but she asked if her “Verse is alive” (emphasis mine). Her second sentence is just a bold lie: she has plenty of people that she can and has asked to read her poetry and give her their opinions. She continues to play with the notion of “living” poetry through the wordplay of “breathed” and “quick” in the next sentence. Is she warning him not to publish her work in the final line? In any case, he didn’t know what he was looking at because he apparently told her she was not ready for publication. Her reply includes the deft line, “Thank you for the surgery—it was not so painful as I supposed” (Letter 261). She had to have been disappointed that he didn’t encourage her, but if so, she doesn’t betray it to anyone in her letters, and she didn’t seek to publish her work much in her lifetime, despite Helen Hunt Jackson’s encouragement.

In any case, it’s to Higginson’s credit that he recognized her genius enough before he died to edit several volumes of her poetry along with her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. I do wish this collection had included Dickinson’s final letter to Higginson, from early May 1886 (the month she died):

Deity—does He live now?

My friend—does he breathe? (Letter 1045)

One of my instructors at the Emily Dickinson course suggests there is a circle closed with this final letter to Higginson. In her first letter to Higginson, she asks if her poetry is alive, if it breathes. Her final letter asks very similar questions. She had heard Higginson was sick and had to cancel a lecture he planned to give. The words are not accidental, not when you’re Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps most beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you read it after reading this collection of letters, is the final letter Dickinson ever wrote. It is addressed to her Norcross cousins and reads simply:

Little Cousins,

Called back.

Emily (Letter 1046)

If you enjoy Dickinson’s poems, you will certainly delight in her letters.

I happen to have two copies of this collection, and it is a little bit hard to find nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s out of print, or what, but Amazon only sells it via third-party sellers. Stay tuned for a giveaway post since I do not need two copies.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This is probably the last book I’ll finish for the Backlist Reader Challenge, which means I fell pretty far short of finishing the challenge. However, this book has been on my TBR list since I first visited Emily Dickinson’s house.

five-stars

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn Ward

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn WardThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126350
on June 20th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 240
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five-stars

A surprise New York Times bestseller, these groundbreaking essays and poems about race—collected by National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward and written by the most important voices of her generation—are “thoughtful, searing, and at times, hopeful. The Fire This Time is vivid proof that words are important, because of their power to both cleanse and to clarify” (USA TODAY).

In this bestselling, widely lauded collection, Jesmyn Ward gathers our most original thinkers and writers to speak on contemporary racism and race, including Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, and Honoree Jeffers. “An absolutely indispensable anthology” (Booklist, starred review), The Fire This Time shines a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestles with our current predicament, and imagines a better future.

Envisioned as a response to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1963 essay collection, these contemporary writers reflect on the past, present, and future of race in America. We’ve made significant progress in the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essays were published, but America is a long and painful distance away from a “post-racial society”—a truth we must confront if we are to continue to work towards change. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about; The Fire This Time “seeks to place the shock of our own times into historical context and, most importantly, to move these times forward” (Vogue).

I have had this book on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, thinking if the books were in dialogue with one another, it would be a good idea to read the conversation starter first. I’m so glad I read both of these books and so many other books in the closing weeks of this year. I am learning so much, and my eyes are opening up to a reality that has always run parallel to my existence, but which I never understood because it wasn’t my experience. I have had to contend with my own racism, and I’d like to think I have overcome it, but I know that I am a work in progress. At least I am trying to listen, though that’s not much and certainly isn’t enough.

As an educator, this reading has been essential to me because I see all how schooling is a social justice problem, and I have been a part of that problem. I’d like to be part of the solution going forward. I have ideas about how we might resolve some of the social justices issues inherent in our educational system.

This collection of essays pivots around the Black Lives Matter movement and two refrains run through many of the essays: Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO, and the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In a particularly searing paragraph, contributor Daniel José Older says,

[T]he simple, resonating demand that black lives matter laid bare the twin lies of American equality and execeptionalism. Even on the left, even in this age of exposed racial rifts, politicians still say with a straight face that this country was founded on principles of equality. Words mean things, we say again and again, but actions mean much more, and still as a nation, we worship the very slave owners who gave legal precedence to the notion of percentages of human beings. We scream equality and freedom while unabashedly modeling our actions on the fathers of genocide. (200-201)

And this is the crux, to me, of what this book examines in contributions from luminaries such as Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Clint Smith, Isabel Wilkerson, among many others. In some ways, it finds a partner in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Both collections, as well as James Baldwin’s book, as America to hold a mirror up to its face and honestly examine what it sees. We just don’t want to do it. I suppose I am taking a hard look at America because I’m trying to figure out what went wrong. I think I have a deeper understanding of why we are in the political predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Making sense of it doesn’t make me feel better in any way. If anything, I feel worse. But I don’t know if I am yet hopeless. Maybe I am. Confronting these hard truths about who we are is not something the majority of Americans seem willing to do, but I hope people s in this collection, so it’s hard to pull out particular favorites. If I skim through the book, I noticed that I highlighted the contributions of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Wendy S. Walters, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, Emily Raboteau, Daniel José Older, and Edwidge Danticat. My own city of Worcester plays a role in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s essay “‘Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” Jeffers traveled to the American Antiquarian Society, located in Worcester, to research Wheatley. It’s shocking how little we know for certain about Wheatley, and it’s perhaps even more shocking we have probably relied on an erroneous source for what we do know.  You will definitely learn something if you pick up this book, but my hunch is you’ll learn a great deal.

five-stars