“Don’t be afraid of my imprecations—they never did any one harm”
– Emily Dickinson, 7 May 1850
FIRST EDITION (SECOND PRINTING, FIRST ISSUE) OF EMILY DICKINSON’S CORRESPONDENCES; INSCRIBED BY NEW YORK’S FIRST FEMALE MAYOR, LOUISE ELDRIDGE.
Emily Dickinson was a prolific letter-writer. But upon her death in 1886, many of her letters—as she had requested—were destroyed by her younger sister Lavinia. With Dickinson’s poems being published in 1890 by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson on behalf of Lavinia, Dickinson’s correspondence, or what remained of them, were a natural further project. As one reviewer wrote in 1892, two years after the debut of Dickinson’s poems, “The world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as literature, has been published” (quoted in Buckingham (1989), p. 194).
In publishing what remained of the letters, a “war between the houses”—as Dickinson scholar Mary Lee Hall describes it—broke out between Lavinia, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (wife of Emily’s brother Austin and close friend of Emily’s) and Mabel Loomis Todd (Austin’s lover for thirteen years) over the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s Poems and Letters edited and published by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Higginson in the 1890s.
In presenting Dickinson’s works to the world for the first time, Todd manipulated the text substantively in areas, in order to make Dickinson’s works more palatable in Todd’s opinion for the popular literary market of the late nineteenth century. Todd tried to characterise Dickinson as akin to Emily Brontë, the publication of whose work was flourishing at the time; Todd notes how the “less remarkable writing” that fills the first volume of Dickinson’s letters is indicative of her “devotion to home almost as intense as in strange Emily Brontë.” (p. vi). The effort to liken Dickinson to Brontë is continued when Todd quotes from an article in an 1873 issue of The Galaxy: “As has been said of Emily Brontë, ‘To this natural isolation of spirit we are in a great measure indebted for that passionate love of Nature which gives such a vivid reality and exquisite simplicity to her descriptions.’ Emily Dickinson’s letters, almost as much as the poems, exhibit her elf-like intimacy with Nature.” (p. xi; citing “Life and Writings of Emily Brontë”, The Galaxy, p. 228). Naturally, Dickinson’s family felt that this identification of Dickinson as a lone genius misrepresented her closeness with her family and the real importance of her home community.
The editing of Dickinson’s letters remains a much contested field today, however, what is clear is that if it were not for Todd’s prompt, if not at times unwelcome, intervention into Dickinson’s corpus—which included careful copying out Dickinson’s holographs (and, in fact, Todd’s transcriptions now contain the only copies of some of Dickinson’s writings)—we may never have seen any of Dickinson’s letters or poems at all.
There were 1,500 second-printing copies of each volume of Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson printed on 8 and 10 December 1894, respectively—with Todd having sent the publisher a list of corrections on 29 November 1984 after the first printing’s run sold out promptly in the month’s earlier (Myerson, pp. 36; 34).
Both volumes are inscribed by a Louise Eldridge, most likely Louise Udall Skidmore Eldridge, who served as the first recorded female mayor in New York State. The books are inscribed to “R. Birkbeck”, and a December 1915 copy of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows that an R. Birkbeck received a mortgage in Flushing, indicating that Birkbeck was active on northern Long Island in the same period when Eldridge was in near-by Saddle Rock. Eldridge became the Mayor of Saddle Rock in 1926 upon the death of her husband, who had incorporated their estate on the north shore of Long Island as a village in 1911 and served as its first mayor, with Eldridge serving as its second mayor until her death, from 1926 to 1947.
DICKINSON, EMILY; MABEL LOOMIS TODD (ED.). Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894. First edition, second printing, first issue (as usual). 12mo (113 x 172 mm), 2 vols., 454 pp., 5 illustrations (vol. 1: frontispiece plate “Child Portrait of Emily Dickinson”, 2 facsimile letter engravings; vol. 2: frontispiece plate “Emily Dickinson’s Home”, 1 facsimile letter engraving). Original green buckram, with gilt lettering to spines and gilt floral Indian pipe decorations to upper boards. Both volumes inscribed in ink on front free endpapers: “R. Birkbeck | from | Louise Eldridge”. Some wear to edges with spines toned, lower hinge of vol. 1 partially separated but holding; text bright a clear throughout, a very good copy .
Buckingham, Willis J., Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1989)
Myerson, Joel, Emily Dickinson: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984)
“Life and Writings of Emily Brontë”, The Galaxy, vol. 15 (Feb 1873), 226–248
With thanks to the Great Neck Historical Society for aiding research on Louise Udall Skidmore Eldridge.
Price: $1,000 .