Monday, February 19, 2007

The Last Word?

Apparently there's disagreement over who is really THE "preeminent scholar of Emily Dickinson." I went to Amherst Books today in search of her Complete Poems and found several volumes, some edited by Thomas Johnson, some by Ralph Franklin. Each book jacket named its editor the "foremost scholar of Dickinson's manuscripts." (It was funny in Little Miss Sunshine that the uncle character was so attached to his identity as the #1 Proust scholar, and this quibble seems equally silly.) They even disagree about HOW MANY poems Emily actually wrote: 1,775 or 1,789? Either way, I will probably read less than a thousand of them this week, although I did choose Johnson's "Complete Poems" because I appreciate his work on behalf of Dickinson (he was the first to restore her famous dashes after her neice and other publishers took them out)-- and, it came in a more affordable paperback version.

The guide to Emily Dickinson says that study of her work is "bound to a discussion of how her poems have been edited, and how her handwritten manuscripts have been interpreted in contemporary editions." In other words, since she never published her work or lived to see it in print, the act of printing her poems has become an act of interpretation. The early publishers grossly misinterpreted and changed her poems, removing all her signature dashes and even changing words! If anyone changes my clearly printed words after I am dead, my dispersed ashes will reassemble and blow blindingly into their eyes.

Another book I did not purchase today was Johnson's "Final Harvest," a selection of Dickinson's poems. I was amused and appalled at the title. FINAL harvest? As if his is the last, most authoritative version and selection there will be? The jacket even bore a review describing it as "the end of a long road of scholarship." How presumptuous!

1 comment:

  1. How odd! I did not know that Dickinson's early editors had butchered her work in such a way. I also have the Johnson version of the complete poems and find Dickinson's biographical information enormously fascinating. What must it have been like to devote yourself to your poetry in such a way as she and never live to see them touched by another human being?

    Indeed, if someone deigns (DEIGNS!) to change my work after I am gone I will reassemble myself to their doom. I'll totally go X-Men on them and Dark Phoenix them out.