Martha Nell Smith

Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson.  A revaluation of the poet’s “publication” of her work.  U of Texas Press, 1992.  Honorable Mention, 1993,

  Emily Dickinson wrote a "letter to the world" and left it lying in her drawer more than a century ago. This widely admired epistle was her poems, which were never conventionally published in book form during her lifetime. Since the posthumous discovery of her work, general readers and literary scholars alike have puzzled over this paradox of wanting to communicate widely and yet apparently refusing to publish. In this pathbreaking study, Martha Nell Smith unravels the paradox by boldly recasting two of the oldest and still most frequently asked questions about Emily Dickinson: Why didn't she publish more poems while she was alive? and Who was her most important contemporary audience?

Regarding the question of publication, Smith urges a reconception of the act of publication itself. She argues that Dickinson did publish her work in letters and in forty manuscript books that circulated among a cultured network of correspondents, most important of whom was her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. Rather than considering this material unpublished because unprinted, Smith views its alternative publication as a conscious strategy on the poet's part, a daring poetic experiment that also included Dickinson's unusual punctuation, line breaks, stanza divisions, calligraphic orthography, and bookmaking -- all the characteristics that later editors tried to standardize or eliminate in preparing the poems for printing.

Dickinson's relationship with her most important reader, Sue Dickinson, has also been lost or distorted by multiple levels of censorship, Smith finds. Emphasizing the poet-sustaining aspects of the passionate bonds between the two women, Smith shows that their relationship was both textual and sexual. Based on study of the actual holograph poems, Smith reveals the extent of Sue Dickinson's collaboration in the production of poems, most notably "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers." This finding will surely challenge the popular conception of the isolated, withdrawn Emily Dickinson.

In this boldly revisionary work, three noted Dickinson scholars take issue with the traditional tragic image of the poet. Focusing on the comic elements in Dickinson's art from a feminist point of view, they show how Dickinson uses the comedic resources of language to contest all types of orthodoxy and to offer the possibility of transforming society.

Following a jointly written chapter on "Comedy and Performance in Emily Dickinson's Poetry," each author takes up a different aspect of comedy in Dickinson's work. These views introduce a new Emily Dickinson -- playful, wry, witty, tough, bold, challenging, and successful. Comic Power in Emily Dickinson recovers a poet who questioned not only authority but also the structure of her society. It makes an important contribution to studies of women's humor and the relationship between gender and authority.

Comic Power in Emily Dickinson
by Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, & Martha Nell Smith
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson
Edited by Ellen Louise Hart & Martha Nell Smith
Paris Press, 1998

  For the first time, letters from Emily Dickinson's 36-year correspondence to her neighbor and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, are compiled in a single volume. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson overcomes a century of censorship and misinterpretation, allowing readers to understand Dickinson's poems in the context of her daily life and bringing to light Susan Huntington Dickinson as the central source of the poet's passion and inspiration, and Emily's primary reader and poetic collaborator. The letters literally unfold Dickinson's life and art through expressions of longing and desire interspersed with discussions of literature, politics, and family concerns.

For the millions of readers who love Emily Dickinson's poetry, Open Me Carefully brings new light to the meaning of the poet's life and work. It is a feast for anyone interested in the art of letter writing and for readers interested in biography, autobiography, and the censorship that can create false but enduring legends. Gone is Emily as lonely spinster. Here is Dickinson in her own words, passionate and fully alive.

This Companion to America's greatest woman poet showcases the diversity and excellence that characterize the thriving field of Dickinson studies.

  • Covers biographical approaches of Dickinson, the historical, political and cultural contexts of her work, and its critical reception over the years
  • Considers issues relating to the different formats in which Dickinson's lyrics have been published - manuscript, print, halftone and digital facsimile
  • Provides incisive interventions into current critical discussions, as well as opening up fresh areas of critical inquiry
  • Features new work being done in the critique of nineteenth-century American poetry generally, as well as new work being done in Dickinson studies
  • Designed to be used alongside the Dickinson Electronic Archives, an online resource developed over the past ten years


Companion to Emily Dickinson.  Coedited with Mary Loeffelholz.  Oxford, Malden, MA, and Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishers, 2008. 

Emily Dickinson: A User’s Guide (56,000 words).  Oxford, Malden, MA, and Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishers, forthcoming July 2008.


A world-renowned critic on Emily Dickinson provides a richly appreciative biographical and critical introduction to America's best-known woman poet.

  • Builds on the tradition of interpreting Dickinson through the dynamic interchange between readers' sense of her life and work
  • Draws on prominent critical views from the past century, including sentimental, modernist, new critical, psychological, feminist and postmodernist readings
  • Includes an interactive appendix focused on the Dickinson Electronic Archives, a major online resource the author has been developing for the past ten years
Works in Progress

Life Before Last: Reminiscences of a Country Girl
By Martha Dickinson Bianchi
Edited by Barton St. Armand & Martha Nell Smith

  [an excerpt from Bianchi...]
Life before last for me began when I began, and closed with the century and the end of the Dickinson family in the old Mansion at Amherst.

Our Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a different gift for us than the luxury of New York or the business dreamland of "the far West," and we loved to think of ourselves as the heart of New England, presided over by our symbolic God and spectacular Cock on the gilt weathervanes of our church steeples -- their supremacy of the air still undisputed by skyscrapers.

There was something called "family life" then, quite revolutionized now; and an infinitely happy freedom of country children that has gone down before "organized play" and the "sportsmaster" and the Saturday morning "movies," which we should have resented as interference with our own way.

America, our America, was the home of all the brave and all the free. We loved our freedom as we loved that little part of our country that was our home: that home with its people and their friends, loves and deaths reflected herein, before my liberation from the thrall of the past, coincident with the dawn of a new century, swept me out into a wider life beyond our hedge, and plunged me into strange countries and tongues and a foreign marriage.

By Martha Nell Smith

  This book started nearly twenty years ago over beers in a bar called the Homestead in Highland Park, New Jersey. There I used to pontificate about the importance of Bruce Springsteen’s polymorphous on-stage sexuality. Especially poignant are Springsteen’s homoerotically suggestive depictions the common consumer does not expect and may in fact choose to ignore. . . .Now how does a book that begins like that also include chapters on the author Emily Dickinson, Liberace, Martina Navratilova, Michael Jackson, John Ford’s The Searchers, and Kenneth Starr’s lascivious pursuit of President William Jefferson Clinton? You’ll just have to read it to find out. . . .

The Life of Susan Dickinson
Edited by Martha Nell Smith
  Based on Writings by Susan Dickinson (, including those to her scores of correspondents, as well as her scrapbooks, notebooks, journals, and commonplace books housed at the John Hay Library, Brown University. With the exception of three essays, several letters to the editor, and two poems, none of these hundreds of documents has been published or otherwise made accessible to the public. Her writings and a range of important contextual materials are housed in The Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection, John Hay Library, Brown; the Houghton Library, Harvard University; and Special Collections, the Frost Library, Amherst College.
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