A Vice for Voices
Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence
A bold reassessment of Dickinson’s letters
Despite her reputation as a reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson wrote more than one thousand "letters to the world," engaging in lively epistolary conversations with close to one hundred correspondents. Although these letters have found many avid readers since they were first published in 1894, they have often been viewed as mere background materials or vehicles for the writer's poems. This study offers a reevaluation of their status within Dickinson's canon, arguing for "correspondence" (rather than "poetry") as her central form of expression.
Concentrating on Dickinson's exchanges with childhood friends, as well as with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Elizabeth Holland, Austin Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and the mysterious "Master," Marietta Messmer explores the poet's gradual shift from writing confessional letters to developing her unique "vice for voices" by creating fictionalized epistolary personae. While radically challenging nineteenth-century letter-writing conventions, these personae also subvert the narrowly circumscribed roles available to women at that time. Messmer shows how Dickinson used this double-voiced mode of correspondence to manipulate and interrogate a variety of male-dominated, "authorized" literary, religious, and sociocultural discourses.
"Messmer takes on an important topic in Dickinson studies and gives it the fullest and most sophisticated treatment to date. Her book will open up to more intense scrutiny the questions of how Dickinson's letters contribute to the poet's oeuvre generally and of how the letters can inform or illuminate studies of the poems. This is work of the first order. There is no question that it will make a significant mark in Dickinson studies, and it will probably spark fierce debate."—Cristanne Miller, coeditor of The Emily Dickinson Handbook