‘Open me Carefully’ Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington (1998) – Some thoughts

This volume of compiled and selected letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. It contains the letters written by Emily to her friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington (1830-1913). Unlike her famous friend Susan H. was a very social and outgoing woman. She also travelled a lot, wrote a lot and edited a lot. She read and commented on Emily’s poetry. The letters are important since they spur a continuous 36-years correspondence between Emily and Susan who ended up living as neighbours at Amherst. The letters who not only depict family matters give us somewhat new information on how the women worked on Emily’s poetry and how the friendship developed between the over the years. If the ladies were more than friends cannot be estimated from the letters only. We simply don’t know if it ever was any physical love relation; though the introduction to this book indicates Emily’s feelings for Susan were sexual. As an unmarried woman living in an early 19th century Calvinist society it’s also very likely Emily Dickinson never had much of sexual experience at all. Our society today with access to various post-modern theories and psychoanalysis interpret freely upon the lives and texts of past authors; but interpretation and speculation is what remains when we have no definite answers.

There’s a poetic touch to each letter Emily wrote to Susan. As pointed out in the commentary section attached to each letter there is for an example a comment on Emily’s letter writing style on February 1852: “Throughout Emily’s letters to Susan, she combines a language of courtly love with terms of spiritual devotion. In 1915, Susan’s daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi described her Aunt Emily in the Atlantic Monthly, saying ‘Her devotion to those she loved was that of a knight for his lady.” (Hart & Smith 1998, p. 13) That’s an interesting point of view from someone who once met with ms. Dickinson and her circle of family and friends. Research on Dickinson’s sexuality has been done since professor Rebecca Patterson published her ground breaking work The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951). Pattersson argued Emily’s muse and inspiration was another friend, Kate Anthon. Her published research was not welcomed in the 1950’s and received a lot of criticism based on fear and prejudice. The relatives of Kate Anthon forbade Pattersson further access to any letters and diaries as soon as they learned of her thesis. She managed to copy most of the material before the Anthons had most of the correspondence burned. Fearing any hint of a possible lesbian relationship with one of Americas most famous poets. Some researchers and critics today still wish to masque Emily’s homoerotic poetry and letter-style writing and refer to these outbursts as “romantic friendship”. The desire to oppress this side of Emily’s authorship is pointed out in Comment’s essay Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson (2001). It’s interesting how interpretations continues to stir up controversy.

Sources

Comment, Kristin M. 2001. “Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson”. Legacy. 18 (2): 167-181.

Dickinson, Emily, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith. 1998. Open me carefully: Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press.


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Emily and Susan H.Dickinson

 

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