Although the poems of Emily Dickinson remained virtually unpublished during her lifetime, she did engage in a private kind of self-publication from about 1858 to 1864. During those years, she made copies of more than eight hundred of her poems, gathered them into forty groups, and bound each of these gatherings together with string to form booklets. While she sometimes sent a friend a copy of one of the poems from the booklets, there is no evidence that she showed them in their bound form to anyone. After her death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia—to whom she had willed all her earthly possessions—was astonished to discover the forty booklets among the poet's papers, as well as copies of nearly four hundred poems arranged in the manner of the booklets, but unbound; miscellaneous fair copies; semifinal drafts; and worksheet drafts written on odds and ends of paper—the backs of envelopes and discarded letters, bits of wrapping paper, and edges of newspapers. Lavinia, who had known her sister wrote poems but had not suspected how many, was determined they be published. First she turned for editorial help to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, who must have seemed—and still seems—the logical choice. As the poet's surviving letters and holographs show, Emily Dickinson had shared a lively interest in literature with Susan, sent her more poems and letters than those sent to any other single recipient, and even on occasion sought her poetic advice. When Susan failed to take action quickly enough to suit Lavinia, she retrieved the poems, then gave them to Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an astronomy professor at Amherst College (and mistress of the Dickinson sisters' brother, Austin), who took on the enormous task of editing the manuscripts. With the help of T. W. Higginson, a figure of some literary prominence with whom the poet had corresponded, Todd selected and edited several hundred poems from the mixed cache discovered by Lavinia, then saw them through their publication in the three editions of the 1890s.
In these early editions and those that appeared in the following eighty or so years, editors arranged the poems according to principles of their own that did not reflect Dickinson's arrangement in her fascicles, as her booklets have come to be known. Moreover, during the poems' complex publishing history the fascicles were cast into disarray. Readers therefore knew that Emily Dickinson had created them—both Lavinia Dickinson and Mabel Todd referred to them as "volumes" or "fascicules"—but without the fascicles themselves, one could only wonder about their number, sequence, and even precisely which poems were included. In his 1955 variorum, Thomas H. Johnson attempted to identify the poet's original arrangement; then Ralph W. Franklin in his 1967 Editing of Emily Dickinson and a series of subsequent articles revised Johnson's ordering and added a number of missing poems. But the poet's original arrangement was not fully restored until 1981 with the publication of Franklin's Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Guided by such evidence as stationery imperfections, smudge patterns, and puncture marks where the poet's needle had pierced the paper to bind them, Franklin returned the fascicles to their original state. For the first time, facsimiles of the forty fascicles were made available to readers in the form Dickinson had assembled them.
By reconstructing the fascicles, Franklin introduced a new era in Dickinson scholarship and an important new question to be confronted by her readers: what, if any, organizing principle or principles did the poet have in mind when she created them? Because the forty fascicles include most of Emily Dickinson's poetic production between 1858 and 1864, some have proposed they are simply random gatherings, that as she wrote the poems, she bound them chronologically to provide some degree of order to their burgeoning number. Others have argued that one or all of the booklets focus upon a particular aesthetic or thematic principle. Most recently Sharon Cameron, whose 1992 Choosing Not Choosing was published after I had completed this book, presented strong evidence that Emily Dickinson assembled the fascicles deliberately rather than chronologically. As Cameron points out, for example, some fascicles are composed of poems that Dickinson copied in different years. In some cases she later inserted an additional sheet into a fascicle she had already completed. In others she left a verso or half-sheet blank.
From the introduction to Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method and Meaning. Copyright © 1995 by The Pennsylvania State University.