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Emily Dickinson and "these modern literati"

July 1, 2011 |  8:01 am

Emilydickinson_ltrs "Emily Dickinson's Letters" is a charming, 4-inch by six-inch pocket book from Everyman's Library with a shiny golden ribbon placeholder. The book doesn't bother itself with completism -- her letters are excerpted -- nor does it get bogged down with  heavy historical footnotes.

Instead, it gives a sense of Dickinson, a poet reputed to be socially withdrawn and something of a recluse, as being engaged, lively and jocular -- at least with her family and other friends with whom she corresponded. That's because her letters provide snapshots of her day-to-day life at home, at school and then at home again.

Among the discussion of gardens and her pleasure at being an aunt, she at one point moves from the everyday to the literary.

Dear Austin, the 23-year-old Dickinson wrote to her brother in the spring of 1854:

Father was very severe to me; he thought I'd been trifling with you, so he gave me quite a trimming about "Uncle Tom" and "Charles Dickens" and these "modern literati" who, he says, are nothing, compared to past generations who flourished when he was a boy. Then he said there were "somebody's rev-e-ries," he didn't know whose they were, that he thought were very ridiculous -- so I'm quite in disgrace at present....

"These modern literati," of course, are writers who were producing what we now think of as classics. But at the time, they appeared -- at least to Dickinson's father -- as brash newcomers. Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom's Cabin" just two years before, in 1852. Charles Dickens was well-established, but still only in the middle of his career -- which was singularly long and successful (more than 150 years later, his books are still in print). He'd already published "The Pickwick Papers," "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" and "A Christmas Carol" but hadn't yet written "A Tale of Two Cities" or "Great Expectations."

It looks silly to us that Dickinson's father teased her about her fondness for "these 'modern literati,'" as if they were mere flashes in the pan. They weren't -- and Dickinson, whose handfuls of published poems might have looked like not much in compared with past generations, wasn't either. In fact, her work has become as well-remembered as Dickens, Stowe and the other "modern literati" her father scoffed at in 1854.

-- Carolyn Kellogg