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Understanding Emily: Pomona College Becomes Home to "The Emily Dickinson Journal"

She died in 1886 with all but a handful of her poems unpublished, but today Emily Dickinson’s poetry and personal life are the subjects of intense academic inquiry. And Pomona College holds an important place in this discussion as the new home for The Emily Dickinson Journal, a preeminent journal in Dickinson literary criticism

English Professor Cristanne Miller recently became editor of the Journal, and completed the first issue produced at Pomona in spring of 2005. Andrea Carter Brown, who also will teach an advanced course in poetry writing next year, serves as managing editor.

“As editor I get to see the most recent work that people around the world are doing,” says Miller, who has been at Pomona since 1980. Miller notes that for the forthcoming Journal she has received entries from Japan, Italy, Canada and Poland.

Miller reads each entry as part of the peer-review process. She decides whether the entry meets the Journal’s standards and then sends the entry out to other prominent Dickinson scholars for review.

Dickinson wrote over 1,800 poems on a wide variety of subjects, and the scholarly work that appears in the Journal also has tremendous breadth, pursuing multiple angles on Dickinson’s poetry and life.

One such topic is the relationship between Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts and formally edited presentations of her poems. Since Dickinson’s work went largely unpublished in her lifetime, it was left up to editors after her death to interpret how to publish her marked-up, hand-written manuscripts. Dickinson sometimes would write her poems on a slant, write multiple versions of poems or add additional words at the end of poems. Dickinson’s quirky style has bred debate about how to faithfully represent her work in print.

Another topic of interest for scholars is the biographical study of Dickinson. Because Dickinson didn’t write a lot about her life, there are still many questions left open.

Dickinson wrote two-thirds of her poems during the Civil War and lived in the North -- Amherst, Mass. to be precise. Scholars are interested in her feelings about the war, her ideas about slavery and to what extent she thought of herself as an American as opposed to a citizen of Amherst or a member of a particular well-to-do family. Scholars debate the relationship of Dickinson’s very short, often quite personally couched lyrics about psychology and philosophical questions to political and national issues that occurred at the time of their writing.

“Although Dickinson has traditionally been viewed as a recluse who was isolated from political and social questions in the world,” Miller says, “more and more scholars are arguing that she was keenly engaged with these questions.” Miller includes herself among these scholars.

Dickinson’s sexuality is another matter of scholarly debate. Dickinson was never married and never had children. There is clear evidence that she was in love with a man late in her life but turned down his offer of marriage. On the other hand, Dickinson wrote passionate letters to her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson both before and after Susan married her brother. Scholars pay attention to the relationship between Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Miller says, “to understand a variety of poems as well as (Dickinson’s) sense of her own life and world.”

As editor, Miller is particularly interested in expanding the Journal to encompass Dickinson’s relations to 19th-century American studies as well as Dickinson’s impact on 20th-century poets.

In addition to multiple articles, Miller has written two books on Dickinson, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar and Comic Power in Emily Dickinson, the latter co-authored with Suzanne Juhasz and Martha Nell Smith. She also was an editor of The Emily Dickinson Handbook.

The Emily Dickinson Journal, founded in 1992, is published twice each year by Johns Hopkins University Press for the Emily Dickinson International Society.

More about Emily Dickinson