“Not what has been lost, but what remains?”

ACP intern Liz Tran (‘23) explores materiality and accessibility through Marta Werner’s Writing in Time.

It seems as though we will never stop learning about Emily Dickinson. Since her death in 1886, there has been a relentless stream of playwrights, scholars, biographers, poets, and admirers attempting to recreate her life through the vast abundance of writings she left behind. There is no definitive corpus of her work and as such, she has become the perfect candidate for the creative imagination of others. In this ambiguity, multiple versions of Emily Dickinson have been shaped and reconfigured through the years, each one changing with the newest finding on her life.

Certainly, a few things about her have remained constant in these iterations. Emily Dickinson seemed to have many of the virtues found in the classic Connecticut Valley puritan. She was sensible and inventive, she did not waste, and perhaps most distinctly, she was private. Of course, private does not necessarily mean isolated; while scholars used to assume she was a secluded woman, they have since discovered that her life was filled with close relationships and company (her surviving written correspondences extend to upward of a hundred people). Through the continuing discovery of her life within her home, her community, and her world, a wonderfully spirited and subversive figure has emerged. In a previous community post titled “Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Woodsworth, and the Poetics of Everyday Life,” Olive Amdur (’23) expressed these confluences in Emily’s life quite wonderfully:

“She was also, however, a poet of letters, and of rich correspondence in and beyond Massachusetts. Dickinson lived at once in seclusion and community—in private and public—and this was, for her, the creative life, immersed in poetry, nature, and shared ideas.”

It’s also important to reconsider the ways readers have interacted with her works. Older analyses were quite rigid and often characterized her and her writing in absolute terms, usually with previous assumptions in mind. The impulse to find answers to the difficult questions–Who is she writing to? Is she even writing to anyone at all?– led to explanations that (rather dubiously) stringed together a story and a reason for almost everything she did. This approach is not necessarily wrong. For many readers, it’s only natural to always be searching for the who, why, how!of a piece of writing or literature, but it can stand in the way of interacting with her work with a more holistic mindset.

This past year, Amherst College Press released a new title by Marta Werner, Writing in Time: Emily Dickinson’s Master Hours, which seeks to tell the story of Dickinson’s famous three letters to an unknown reader. Separate from the typical analysis–ones in which these documents are treated as isolated from Dickinson’s works–Werner writes from a more integrated perspective: “What if, instead of imagining the ‘Master’ documents as part of the drift of what has been lost, we seek to restore them in relation to what remains?”

When beginning her research, Werner was acutely aware of the accepted beliefs about Dickinson that tended to follow her corpus, and this certainly included the Master documents. To address this, her approach began with trying to destabilize these inherited assumptions to allow space for a new analysis. She scrutinized the publication history and ownership of Dickinson’s poems with a methodology that is quite distinct from previous analyses. Her investigation into the documents was committed much more toward the physicality of these letters rather than an exact interpretation. While the book included detailed historical and textual introductions of the documents (information typically included in other published analyses of Dickinson’s works), Werner’s delicate and sincere contemplations rang through clearly as she devoted time to describe the letters in their material sense. It was in this way that Werner added to her analysis of the Master documents; in line with the full-hearted and gritty cadence of Dickinson’s poems, Werner wrote with a personal and emotional touch. Of course, she did not see her narrative as the definitive nor “correct” one, and admitted that the inferences in the book were just that: conjecture and even presumptuous. Regardless, she hoped to reveal some of the mystery the documents carry, even if this meant stepping away from the so-called Master and into a more experimental and imaginative perspective:

“Ultimately, Writing in Time comprises an experiment in what I would call—looking back at an intense process of bibliographical analysis of a few documents Dickinson kept close in her care and custody like a poetic mooring until the end of her life—intimate editorial investigation.”

To this end, it seems only fitting that the conclusion of Writing In Time is not an account of Werner’s experience with the texts nor her interpretations of it; instead, she described with painstaking detail the literal boundaries and paper folds of the final verse in the third Master document. It was as if with her reading and careful interaction with each document, the reader experienced it, too.

For me, reading Dickinson in this way was a refreshing change. It made me think about the transformation of Dickinson’s life into the public sphere, and in particular, through the digital world. She never seemed to focus on publication when she was alive; instead, her writings made their way almost exclusively to her friends and close correspondents. Thousands of poems, fragments, and more exist, and almost all of them were created without the intent to publish. Even after her death, it was difficult to view her writings as a collected and unified corpus ready for analysis. Many of her manuscripts remained scattered across various archives and locked away behind a paywall for the exclusive use of a selective university.

In 2013, however, the Emily Dickinson Archive was inaugurated as an all-in-one website that contained digital copies of the thousands of manuscripts held by Amherst College, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, and other institutions. Additionally, the Amherst College Digital Collections includes a host of original poems, manuscripts, and letters from Dickinson to her family and friends. This collection ranges from 1830 to 1886 and includes several fascicles and letters. Wallpaper poems, solitary lines on a chocolate wrapper, and more are available to the public as a wonderful and easy-to-use website. Today, both the Archive and Digital Collections are accessible resources that offer anyone an intimate look into Dickinson’s writings.

It’s funny to think about the experience of using an open access archive as an intimate one, isn’t it? With the complete Dickinson Archive, there is hardly anything separating the reader from Dickinson and vice versa. The decades-old analyses and preconceived notions about her works are no longer necessary to interact and learn from her manuscripts, and through this the reader can experience Dickinson in their own right. It’s easier than ever to browse for a favorite poem, the tilted dash mark, or the slanted script curving underneath and over dirty envelopes. It’s raw and bold and it’s the type of private that feels personal but not isolated. I think Emily would approve.

BIO: Liz Tran is a junior at Amherst College majoring in Spanish and Statistics. She loves libraries, Spanish literature, and dogs without leashes. She is an appreciator of all things vintage and hopes to own some really, really old furniture someday. Raised in New Hampshire, she loves the familiar green of Amherst and is grateful for the purple, too.