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The Emily Dickinson Series

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The Emily Dickinson Series is a collection of collages by Janet Malcolm that appear in Granta 126: do you remember. Here, Janet Malcolm explains the process behind the series. Click on the image below to see a selection of the collages.

When I first opened Marta Werner’s Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios I felt a shiver of interest and desire such as one feels in an expensive shop at the sight of an object of particular beauty and rarity. I was drawn to the book’s right-hand pages on which typewritten words appeared – words that were wild and strange, and typing that evoked the world of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde. These were Marta Werner’s transcriptions of scraps of handwritten prose by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death. The scraps themselves were reproduced in facsimile opposite the typed transcripts.

The book belonged to my friend Sharon Cameron, a professor and critic and the author of two books on Emily Dickinson that are considered classics in the field. I was at her apartment. She had shown me the book – I forget for what reason – and I asked if I could cut out some of the right-hand pages to put into collages. She looked at me in horror and said, ‘Certainly not.’

I tried to buy the book on Amazon and found it was out of print, and couldn’t find it anywhere else. Sharon suggested I write to Marta Werner.

During the winter, spring and summer of 2013 I made collages that yoked Marta's transcriptions of the Dickinson fragments with images with images I cut out of store-bought books on astronomy. I had used astronomical images in previous collages – they have great graphic clout – but something in Dickinson's words evoked the night sky; it seemed almost obligatory that images of stars and planets and moons accompany her gnomic utterances. A book called The Transit of Venus, 1631 to the Present by Nick Lomb – an illustrated study of the rare astronomical event (it occurs in pairs eight years apart every hundred years) when Venus crosses the disc of the sun and appears on its surface as a black circular dot – yielded a pair of spectacular black-and-white photographs of the sun made during the transit of 1874. I bought extra copies of the book so I could make more than two collages in which these large, mysterious orbs would figure. I also cut out a photograph of a bearded, depressed-looking man named David Peck Todd, an astronomer who was an official observer of the 1874 transit, and later of the one of 1882. Many of the Dickinson fragments read like excerpts from love letters. The consensus among scholars is that these fragments derive from drafts of letters Dickinson wrote to Judge Otis Lord, a widower with whom she is believed to have had a romantic – possibly even sexual – relationship when she was in her late-forties. I had never seen a picture of Lord, and in my imagination the depressed astronomer became a kind of stand-in for him. In the collage called ‘No’, I put Todd’s picture above Dickinson's words: ‘Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer – don't you know that ‘no’ is the wildest word we consign to language?’

In the summer of 2013 I sent Marta photographs of a few collages, and was amazed to learn that the man I had connected to Dickinson in my fancy was connected to her in actuality. Marta identified him as the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, who (with Thomas Wentworth Higginson) brought the genius of Dickinson to the attention of the larger world, by editing and publishing the hundreds of unknown poems found in the poet’s house after her death in 1886. Mabel Loomis Todd is commonly referred to in Dickinson studies as the poet’s ‘first editor’, but she is remembered for another reason as well: for thirteen years she was the mistress of Dickinson’s brother, Austin. The affair began in the third year of her marriage to Todd, and continued until Austin’s death. No wonder the astronomer looked depressed! But, no, it appeared that Todd did not mind being cuckolded, and was even – as a close friend of Austin Dickinson and a philanderer in his own right – complicit in the affair. Mabel kept a journal in which her erotic life figured as prominently as her social and intellectual one. In Education of the Senses, the first volume of his series The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud (1984), the historian Peter Gay quotes extensively from this astonishingly unprudish document, to make his point that the Victorians were sexual beings no less than we are. Mabel wrote about her marital and extra-marital sex life with the unembarrassed enthusiasm of a Frank Harris. She did not take up with Austin because of sexual dissatisfaction – she was the most deliciously satisfied of wives, as her journal documents over and over. Sublime sex with Austin did not replace sublime sex with David – it supplemented it.

When I made the collages I knew nothing of this. Years ago, I had read Peter Gay’s book but had not retained the name of his sex-loving diarist. That the pictures I cut out of The Transit of Venus could in any way be connected to Emily Dickinson’s biography never crossed my mind. I wrote to Marta and said, ‘There does seem to be something occult going on here, and I don't think I believe in the occult.’ Marta wrote back: ‘I am thrilled to be touched by the uncanny. Like you, I have my doubts about the invisible world, but something strange and lovely may be at work. I did not know of these connections – the Dickinson/Venus transit connections – before I found them in your collages. But I assumed YOU knew.’ I wrote back: ‘What are we to make of my NOT knowing?’ ■

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Janet Malcolm and Bernard Cooper will join Granta Magazine Publisher Sigrid Rausing at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, January 29th, 6:30pm, to celebrate the launch of Granta 126 and to discuss their contributions to the issue.

Images courtesy of Janet Malcolm and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. Photos: Etienne Frossard, New York.

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