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Omissions Are Not Accidents:
Erasures & Cancellations in Emily Dickinson's Manuscripts
by Martha Nell Smith

Sitting in the Frost Library at Amherst College, poring over erasures, surprised by scissorings, I was, quite frankly, aghast at the extent of mutilation to some of Dickinson's letters and poems. Translated into descriptions by Thomas Johnson, the tamperings, like Dickinson's handwritten productions translated into uniform type, "sound" considerably less dramatic than they actually are. Remarking upon the powerful effect of reading Dickinson's manuscripts, Amy Clampitt declares that "there's something about the way those words go racing across the page, and yet with spaces between them, that changes your idea of everything you've read before. . . .The handwriting is fierce." Likewise, the mutilations are fierce, and, as I said at the outset, readers cannot help but wonder what provoked an earlier reader or readers to responses creating such gaping gaps in the Dickinson documents. (Martha Nell Smith, Rowing in Eden 16-17)

The present reflection takes its title from the following "Author's Note":

Omissions are not accidents.

Effectively serving as epigraph for Marianne Moore's The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, which appeared in 1967, in time for Moore's 80th birthday, the short note is in the upper righthand corner, also on a leaf's right page, as is the dedication "TO LOUISE CRANE," which appears on the leaf immediately preceding this one. Each leaf bears only a very few words the three of the Dedication and the four of the Epigraph. Their layouts are similarly emphatic, as are their situations in the book itself. Both are tucked into the volume immediately following the copyright page and immediately preceding the Contents pages. Moore wants to call attention to the fact that these poems are addressed to the woman friend who gave her two of her most treasured objects:

   My favorite possessions? I am not a collector, merely a fortuitous one. I have.... a Japanese teak mouse, Austrian turquoise velvet one, and a bird embroidery framed in black and lemon lacquer (a long-shafted topaz lalibie with freckled breast and beak curved like a curlew's). A fly of amber with gold legs and a real fly in the amber one of the big one both given me by Miss Louise Crane.... (Prose 598)

OK, so that's how the essay got its title, a bit that shadows the subject of my paper. If omissions are not accidents, such inclusions are more than "happens" (as Lavinia Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's sister, characterized the poet's infamous withdrawal from the world only "a happen"). More than "happens," the omissions are more than accidents.

As I have numerous times before, today I take as my subject erasures and cancellations of Emily Dickinson's pages. My history of concern and my most keen focus today are with erasures and cancellations made by hands other than Emily Dickinson's. Those erasures and cancellations are of various types, and I want to be clear that I will not focus on each and every kind made by other hands. For example, my inquiry does not include extended consideration of documents such as the second page of "Dear Sue - / The Supper / was delicate / and strange - " (OMC 252), from which Emily's signature has been excised, apparently by Susan Dickinson and not by Emily Dickinson herself. If you are familiar with my work, you know that since writing my dissertation in 1985, I have been preoccupied with recovering a critical sense of the relationship between these two women the closest of confidantes over four decades, living side- by-side and exchanging writings (of their own and of others, ranging from Barrett Browning to Dickens to Shakespeare to Rebecca Harding Davis), Susan and Emily Dickinson's relationship is akin to that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, yet it has not been generally recognized as a literary liaison of singular importance to America's poetic darling.

The manuscript I have just mentioned no longer resides with the Dickinson family but is preserved, along with nearly half of Emily Dickinson's surviving manuscripts, at Harvard University. In the Houghton Library folder housing this manuscript is a note from Susan on blue-ruled paper, "Signature Taken out to give a begging friend" (H B66 - manuscript image not available). This mutilation transports a signature so that it becomes a souvenir. That is interesting if one is to analyze the advent of the author "Emily Dickinson" beginning to function as celebrity, and we might return to issues appendant to the celebrity author in our discussion for they surely inform resistances to disrupting conventional narratives of editorial practices.

But first my critical interest lie with mutilations other than ones like these, and at various points in this sampler of Dickinson's mutilated writings, you may have to imagine them, for the photographs of the wounds on which I'll be dwelling do not reproduce nearly as easily as this one. It's difficult, most difficult, to photograph absence, even though sometimes photography can render more acutely traces of what was present, the erasures of which are now barely visible to the naked eye. Still, I'm asking you to imagine scars on the body of Dickinson's writings, particularly the scars that litter her early (she was in her twenties) letters to her brother Austin, by using the tools of photographic and digitized reproduction offered here. All of these letters are recorded on elegant, embossed stationery, objects of civility that in quiet but powerful contrast underscore the incivility of the erasing, obliterating hand. These scars are themselves a kind of writing, an alphabet of removal designed to counter Emily Dickinson's actual expressions. Famous Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Higginson, with whom the poet corresponded for nearly twenty-five years, once compared Dickinson's handwriting to "fossil bird-tracks," and these erasures track the path of an early editor suppressing evidence of Emily Dickinson's intense engagement with her primary audience, the woman to whom she sent more writings than she did to any other.

What was the object of suppression? What moved a hand to overwrite, underwrite, counterwrite Emily Dickinson's original record? How much do we know about these violated and repressive scriptures designed to contain meaning? We know enough about them to say with certainty that this counterwriting explicitly attempts to remove loving remarks about Susan Huntington Gilbert, Emily's beloved friend who became her sister-in-law. The precision with which they were enacted is a tale all its own why erase only some letters, only some words? Why work so fastidiously with a knife to remove ink from linen? Why cut out parts of letters and leave the rest? Why blot out a poem in the middle of a manuscript book? Why not, in each instance, not only search but destroy in toto? Why not transcribe and destroy? Why preserve the traces, the evidence of this alphabet of removal?

In some instances the acts are almost ludicrous and provoke laughter. An April 1853 letter from Emily to her brother Austin, inked on exquisite gilt stationery while he was in law school in Cambridge (A 601; L116), tells him

   I dont love to read your letters all out loud to father - it would be like opening the kitchen door when we get home from meeting Sunday, and are sitting down by the stove saying just what we're a mind to, and having father hear. I dont know why it is, but it gives me a dreadful feeling, and I skipped about the wild flowers, and one or two little things I loved the best, for I could'nt read them loud to anybody several words erased.

Then in the sentences immediately following, "er" is removed and overwritten with "im" and the "s" is erased from the feminine pronoun "she" to masculinize agency:

I shant see him this morning, because [s]he has to bake saturday, but [s]he'll come this afternoon, and we shall read your letter together, and talk of how soon you'll be here seven lines erased.

The removals are of Susan's name and commentary about her. What we have been able to read shows that the erasures are at least in part discourses of desire. And, enacting absence creates a presence unknown to the writer Emily Dickinson but long affixed to the author "Emily Dickinson." The revision imposed by another on "Emily Dickinson" simultaneously removes her name as addressee and gives Susan a beard, leaving ample evidence of its stridently imposed transvestism. The illusion of a man haunts this letter just as a phantom man haunts the legacy of Emily Dickinson.

Similarly, in a letter written but two weeks earlier, as both brother and sister have been wooing Susan and after Austin has succeeded in pulling off a tryst with her in Boston, the last two letters are erased from "Susie" to make "us":

   Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I amsomething of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love [S]us[ie] just as well as we can. (A 597; L110)

Hence the erasure attempts to remove a record of "Susie" being at the center of conflict between brother and sister, and to replace expression of love for the outsider with declaration of sibling affection.

Erasures, cancellations, and cuttings mark all of Emily's early 1850s letters to Austin. The following passage in an 1851 letter is cancelled, with lines pencilled through inked words and over the painstaking erasures made by a knife on linen stationery:

   . . .I had a long letter from erasure last Tuesday evening and Mat [Susan's sister] had one that day and came down here to read it - we had a beautiful time reading erasure and talking of erasure the good times of last summer - and we anticipated - boasted ourselves of tomorrow one line erased the future we created, and all of us went to ride in an air bubble for a carriage. We have made all our plans for you and userasures in another year - we cherish all the past - we glide adown the present, awake, yet dreaming, but the future of ours together - there the birds sing loudest - and the sun shines always there!    Martha and I are very much together - we fill each niche of time with statues of you anderasure and in return for this, they smile beautiful smiles down from their dwelling places. Martha wears the charm when she goes out calling, and many a eulogium is passed upon your gift. Erasure says in her letter she has had a "brief letter from you" - . . . (A 572; L 57)

Removals a year later in an 1852 letter are even more dramatic:

   . . .We will call on half of a page cut out

What is not erased in the following is cancelled by a simple penciled line drawn through the words:

   I have been hunting all over the house, since the folks went to meeting, to find a small tin box, to send her flowers in lines erased very often andlines erased. . . .inquired for, and sent half of a page cut out... for the houses are pretty full five lines erased (view full manuscript series). 

Perhaps even more intriguing than the pattern of all of these mutilations they are to remove affectionate references to Susan is the fact that they point to themselves, call attention to the work of overwriting (or underwriting) Dickinson's words. Inept if the goal is to pass and leave no trace, these signs underscore their own objectives.

Even more poignant is the inked over text of "One Sister have I in the house" (A 80-8, A 80-9, A 69; P14). The eleventh poem in a fascicle of about twenty-four poems (one may not wholeheartedly concur with Ralph Franklin's reassembly), this poem celebrating Susan and Emily's relationship is entirely inked over. Unlike the cuttings Dickinson herself made of her Bible, her father's Dickens, periodicals, and other texts circulating in the Dickinson parlors, as well as, perhaps, her scissoring of some of her letters known as the "Lord" letters and presented in Marta Werner's Emily Dickinson Open Folios, inking over intends to obliterate Emily Dickinson's profound and poetic affectionate expressions for and about Susan Dickinson. Thus this obliterating addition, in ink, is akin to subtractions perpetrated by scissors and/or a knife's meticulous scrapings. In previous remarks, I have observed that these mutilations are of different orders. About these sites of defacement, I have noted that, while we know what is beneath the inked over poem, "like the elder Hamlet and the nine lost books of Sappho," the erasures and the passages cut away "call out to us though we cannot quite see them" (Rowing 32).

Because they are remaindered conspicuous absences disrupting and disfiguring what would otherwise be whole they seem to call attention to the fact of their being. Made by Mabel Loomis Todd in the late nineteenth century, a woman who was playing satisfying mistress to Susan disappointing wife forgotten (HL20; JL93); and noted by editor Loomis Todd's editor daughter Millicent Todd Bingham in the 1940s and 1950s; and then by variorum editor Thomas Johnson in the 1950s and his heir Ralph Franklin in the 1960s and again in 1998; the erasures, cut aways, and blottings out have gone, until the last decade, practically unremarked in critical study. For most critics and editors, these have not been worthy of critical examination. In fact, of particular interest for critical inquiry is that these elisions both those that can be restored and those forever out of our grasp have been and continue to be compulsively reenacted and recycled rather than rigorously examined in Dickinson studies. Most recently, a reviewer in The New York Review of Books intent on calling Susan's critical abilities into question, intent on preserving the image of the idiosyncratic genius "Emily Dickinson," declared that Susan could not possibly adequately appreciate Emily's bold literary endeavors. After all, according to this reviewer, Susan's critical abilities were limited: she praised, supposedly condescendingly, Emily's poems for their "simplicity and homeliness." This phrase is from Susan's obituary for Emily, easily found in numerous reprintings and in Writings by Susan Dickinson, so it is surprising, even astonishing, that the reviewer boldly erases the gist of what Susan actually wrote. Susan praised Emily's poems not simply for their "simplicity and homeliness" but for their "simplicity and homelinessas well as profundity" (page 9 of 12, link to complete obituary here).  By erasing as well as profundity, he transports and distorts Susan's Emersonian appreciations, removing them from the realm of philosophy and tucking them, with one imperiously sweeping critical gesture, into the realm of greeting card. As did Loomis Todd, the mutilator of the last century, he leaves this like Poe's purloined letter, out in the open for all to see, for he knows that so obvious, so apparent, so visible, his erasure will very likely not be seen by most. Indeed, by most readers the disfigurement of what Susan actually wrote has not been seen, though it is plainly visible.

Though one presumes it would not, even lesbian criticism of Dickinson participates in reenacting these erasures of Susan's erotic and literary importance. E.g., Lillian Faderman chastises Austin and Susan's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, for editing Dickinson's letters in a way that masks her aunt's love for her mother, and points out that the post-Freudian Bianchi excises the very sensual "How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice, . . .Oh what will become of me? Susan, forgive me, forget all what I say." Yet Faderman's own selective quotation edits out and disguises Dickinson's most self-conscious phrases, for she stops quoting as if the letter ends with "forget all what I say," and provides no ellipses to indicate there is more. But this letter, which, like others of this period, speaks of wanting to hold, kiss, and caress Sue, continues, and Dickinson seems well aware that her feelings for Sue and loving speeches about them are unacceptable and exceed the contours of romantic friendship, the paradigm of critical understanding used time and again to erase the powerfully erotic significance of this relationship. In the letter Faderman quotes, Emily urges her beloved to ignore her and take up tales of holy virginity: "Susie, forgive me, forget all what I say, get some sweet scholar to read a gentle hymn, about Bethleem and Mary, and you will sleep on sweetly and have as peaceful dreams, as if I had never written you all those ugly things" (OMC 3Rowing13-14). I have discussed at length how Faderman's erasure seeks to standardize romantic friendship and squash Susan and Emily into an overarching paradigm. Yet Faderman's biggest in that it is most profound and consequential erasure is more akin to that of the aforementioned reviewer. That excision exists in the fact that she refuses to study beyond Emily's earliest letters to Susan, those written in the 1850s. In a recent review herself, she refuses to deal with anything but these early letters to Susan and thereby participates in the erasure of the lifelong nature of this devotion between women, a devotion in which, according to Emily, "Poetry" and "Love. . .coeval come" (H 364; OMC 140; JP1247), and where, according to Susan, "Poetry" is "Sermon - Hope - Solace - Life" (1900 letter to Curtis Hidden Page). Similarly, in his splendid variorum, Franklin erases the genre Susan christened "letter-poem" (February 8, 1891 Letter to William Hayes WardWritings by Susan Dickinson) [draw on example of "Morning / might come / by Accident _ / Sister _ (HB90; OMC 246; JL912)]

In order to make a poem from this manuscript, Franklin dissects its with ontological pronoucements and makes a poem of "Show me Eternity, and I will show you Memory - " (FP 1658). Such dissection indicates well how a letter-poem text must be changed in order to be delivered within the frame of a single set of conventions. He says that this "poem" concludes "a letter to Susan Dickinson, following the signature 'Sister.'" Yet the "Sister" he intellectually attaches to the first eleven physical lines of this letter-poem is in fact physically attached to the second segment of this letter-poem. The word appears, as my coeditor (of Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson) Ellen Louise Hart has so persuasively argued, after a physical space that marks off it and the next eight physical lines as the second segment of this three-part writing (Hart, "Encoding" 263-265):

might come
by Accident -
Sister -
Night comes
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt.
      Sister -
Show me
Eternity , and
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
package lain
And lifted
back again -
Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -
(OMC 246)

Franklin must ignore the physicalities of Dickinson's document in order to declare as a "letter" writing that does not differ metrically or in subject matter from writing on the same document that he wants to declare "poem." In Franklin's intellectual scheme of things, the first eleven physical lines of this letter-poem would be marked as a sentence (or as sentences) of a letter, and then the following fourteen physical lines would be marked as verse units; thus the logic of the markup would divide this documentary body and its constitutive parts into separate pieces. This dismembering representation bears no correlation to the logic of the physical document nor, as it turns out, to the linguistic content, and in fact distorts a sense of the text so that Hart's insight is unavailable to readers of the new variorum, her critical understanding of Dickinson's poetics "overturned" through the silent erasures of bibliographic grammars: Hart notes that the letter- poem's first segment concludes with the extraordinary logic that "doubt measures the strength of commitment that faith demands and is itself the form in which faith continues," that Dickinson in turn marks this leap in faith with a "leap in the [letter-]poem, which appears physically as a break between" segments. The letter-poem "pairs opposites that are actually complements, morning and night, faith and doubt, eternity and memory, finally leading to the poem's central pair, 'Sue' and 'Emily'" (264).

The marks of erasure on the manuscripts are thus perpetuated as marks of erasure in editorial history of Emily Dickinson's writings and thus in American literary history. Perhaps this is because responsible interpretation of these sites of defacement around erotic declarations from one woman to another is practically drowned out by the textual "noise" created by the mutilations and the resistance they provoke (or rather,invite) in the reader. Where there was intelligible utterance, cacophony has been created. In the name of authority and of what is appropriate for official literary and editorial study, that cacophony was for a century by and large ignored, read over with silence even as Emily Dickinson's words had been written over with muffling tactics. Generation after generation of readers, then, reenact the work with scissors, erasers, and razor-sharp knives of the original mutilator and have done so unself-consciously. It is that that seemingly compulsive, unexamined reenactment that is of particular interest to me, and that should be something about which not only every Dickinson editor and read should be conscious but about which every reader should be conscious, for such unexamined reenactments of censorships infuse literary history and thus our sense of the objects that count as appropriately literary and how they count as appropriately literary.

Even when the words can be discovered and the erased, torn, or blotted out can be repaired, restoration is in fact an impossible dream, for the scar of the mutilation has from the beginning of her words' lives in the world of mechanical reproduction been a constitutive part of an "Emily Dickinson" text. These wounds, these scars, have not been ancillary or incidental but have been so central and visible that they have been taken for granted, deemed only of interest to maybe biographers. Dickinson herself seems to have anticipated this. In an 1860 letter-poem to Susan she writes:

   for the Woman
whom I prefer
Here is Festival -
When my Hands
are Cut, Her
fingers will be 
found inside -
(OMC 102)


So my questions begin with a concern about how we might responsibly handle these omissions. They are not only "not accidents," but they are and have always been characteristic parts of what the reading publics have known as "Emily Dickinson's" writings. Her posterity has never known "Emily Dickinson," nor her texts, without these wounds. How then do we responsibly deal with them? Do we begin by acknowledging that these injuries witness an important fact a truth about the famously isolated "Emily Dickinson" that whatever the writer's life, this author has always been corporate? And was the writer corporate as well? More interesting to me than the suppression of the erotic is the suppression of evidence of mental, compatriot intellect between two women. And I'm keenly interested in what appears to be a systematically articulated fear of the writer who is not isolato. Do we fear leaving that thralldom?

And these questions extend to questions that go way beyond the world of Emily Dickinson and Dickinson studies. I am interested in hearing from you how you think they may extend to questions now posed about digitizing American literary history, digitizing literary histories, digitizing literatures. What are the redefinitions demanded by the knowledge now made visible? What do these signs of ambivalent responses to textual bodies tell us about literary studies, about reconstitutions of literary histories? Might we propose what another of my coeditors, Marta Werner, calls a new subject of textual "vulnerology," a science of (textual) wounds? How do we begin to re-map the zones and defines of discourses that have held in place assertions of objectivity and authority and that have bound our critical storytellings? Are distinguishing between scribal and authorial intention or asking how they modify one another useful places to begin?

These are just the beginnings of my questions, and I am looking forward to hearing more from you. For these questions and the many more generated by these particular observations about Emily Dickinson surely lead to larger issues beyond the particular thralldoms surrounding that nineteenth-century American author, a writer whose own revisions and rereadings have long been erased from the official canons of American literature, precisely because our bibliographic definitions of the author cannot account for the praxes of the writer.

Martha Nell Smith


WORKS CITED (also see bibliography page)


Moore, Marianne. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books, Viking, 1967.