- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

"It is a voice that speaks to us almost a hundred years later with such an urgency, such an immediacy, that most of us are half in love with this girl… ." Thus Archibald MacLeish, over 40 years ago, expressing an experience of Emily Dickinson that has been a major obstacle to scholarly inquiry into her life and work. He went on, "There is nothing more paradoxical in the whole history of poetry, to my way of thinking, than Emily Dickinson's commitment of that live voice to a private box full of pages and snippets tied together with little loops of thread."
That qualification, "to my way of thinking," has a modesty whose appropriateness MacLeish himself may not fully have appreciated. He was a man, first of all, a man to whom certain kinds of success appeared to come quite naturally, an able administrator, Librarian of Congress, and one of the very few to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary category. His "way of thinking" has been widely shared, while Dickinson's has hardly been understood.
Another significant impediment to Dickinson scholarship is that the large documentary record, mostly letters and poems and combinations of these, raises many more questions than it answers. The bulk of the letters Dickinson received were destroyed, as was customary, immediately following her death. Few scholarly ventures can be as risky as making conjectures about how this or that correspondent may possibly have aroused or responded to the lapidary outbursts of riddling intensity that Dickinson sent out, sometimes in nearly manic profusion. According to this new biography, there are "only six instances in Dickinson's lifetime of correspondence where we can compare a letter of hers to the letter she was answering."
Furthermore, the posthumous publication of Dickinson's writings has from the beginning been marred by rivalries and family tensions. Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson's first editor, was the young mistress of Dickinson's brother, Austin, whose wife Susan, meanwhile, was Dickinson's close friend.Austin's and Susan's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and Loomis Todd's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, each retained control of considerable collections well into the middle of the 20th century, and deeper indebtedness to one or another of them had effects on the work of later biographers, including Richard B. Sewall, whose two-volume "Life of Emily Dickinson" appeared in 1974 and set a standard that will long be worth trying to meet.
There have been a few since, and they have had their excellences. Most of them, however, have avoided the challenge of making a chronological narrative from the subject's pre-birth background through pertinent post-mortem events. The usual approach has been to divide the life into aspects rather than chronological periods, devoting chapters to individuals, recurrent themes in the poems, and such unyielding mysteries as the identity of the person whom Dickinson addressed as "Master" in a few famous letters.
Several quite recent books have concentrated fully on one or another facet of Dickinson's work or personal life; some have exhibited the selfishness that often overcomes people who presume that their ways of thinking must surely shed light on Dickinson's. That some are feminists and lesbians is fair enough, given the troops of male professors who have taught Dickinson so as to suggest that she would have loved them if she had had the chance.
Alfred Habegger has suffered these predecessors, a small few of them gladly. His previous work includes "The Father," an excellent biography of Henry James, Sr. In "My Wars Are Laid Away in Books," he exhibits a firm belief in traditional techniques of biography, even in the face of such difficulties as Dickinson poses. He has done what he accurately calls "a broad archival investigation in order to discern her friends' historical reality apart from her" [emphasis Mr. Habeggers]. He has looked very deeply into the life in and around Amherst, Mass., during the late-18th and 19th centuries. He has even made the first use of some archival material; among the most telling of these sources is the printer's copy of Mabel Loomis Todd's 1894 edition of Dickinson's letters, which was blue-pencilled before it went to the publisher. Many of the deleted but legible passages are not to be found elsewhere, yet Mr. Habegger appears to be the first on that ground.
The large and troublesome fact remains that there are many things we would like to know that we have no notion how to discover. It is a miracle of Mr. Habegger's prose strategy and style that these myriad puzzles are absorbed into the narrative. As he might have put it himself, we would like to know what percentage of his sentences end with question marks. His aim is to hold to the record; at moments he may be said to insist on this a little theatrically, as when he addresses the blank spaces in the record of the poet's late 20s, and the suggestion that the record is so sparse because she had a well-concealed breakdown, "perhaps even a fully psychotic episode."
"As with other hypotheses that seek to explain this writer, nothing proves quite so useful as gimlet-eyed scrutiny and an insistence on plausible evidence. That she experienced severe and mounting troubles is clear. That she became any less capable of performing her usual functions, domestic and compositional, is not."
Mr. Habegger is cautious but convincing on the possibility that "Master" was the Rev. Charles Wadsworth: He is the only candidate who has not yet been ruled out, but this does not mean that he couldn't be. "Still, there are enough clues pointing to the minister that he is the one we will consider as occasion offers."
Here he meditates briefly on Dickinson's practice of making final copies of her poems and sewing them into booklets to be stored away: "… the manuscript books were a private hoard, or a secret garden of work done, or a thing put through for its own inherent excellence. Or so we guess, not having one explicit statement as to what the massive project meant to her."
The nearly constant presence of such circumspection is reassuring, though of course Mr. Habegger has made some decisions about who he thinks Dickinson was. He does not shrink from her tremendous peculiarity, but he goes a long way toward balancing it with the tremendous poetic gift Dickinson possessed, came to recognize, and at last to nurture with single-minded devotion.
Serious students of Dickinson, of course, read every biographical study that appears. The reader who would choose only one would be well advised to start with Alfred Habegger's. It is a fine achievement, authoritative, balanced, and pleasurable to read. Among its strengths is the sharp relief into which it throws Dickinson's sturdy sense of herself as a poet; she left more clues than the legend would suggest. One especially is worth repeating here in view of the terrorist attacks. In an 1862 letter to her Norcross cousins, she speaks of the poet's place in wartime:
"Sorrow seems more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one's own, now would be many medicines… .I noticed that Robert Browning had made another poem, and was astonished till I remembered that I, myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps. Every day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be, more stupendous.

Henry Taylor is the author of five books of poems, most recently "Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews." He teaches poetry, translation, and literary journalism at American University.


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