Emily Dickinson’s dashes are the most famous punctuation marks in all of American literature. And they are famously ambiguous – “among the most widely contested diacriticals in the modern literary canon,” notes Ena Jung.
Scholars don’t simply debate what the dashes mean; they debate what the dashes are. How do you reprint Dickinson’s idiosyncratic handwriting using a standard typeface? Do you go with the short hyphen (-), the medium en-dash (–), or the long em-dash (—)? Adam O’Fallon Price observes that this particular style of punctuation is so frequently associated with Dickinson that the “em” in “em-dash” might stand for “Emily”!
When Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson first collected and published some of Dickinson’s poems in 1890, they omitted most of the dashes, replacing some with commas. For the few they retained, the publisher chose the longer em-dash, a choice that was naturally repeated as Dickinson’s poems were increasingly anthologized in the first half of the twentieth century.
The em-dash is what is most generally thought of as a “dash.” But “are the marks we refer to, for convenience, as Dickinson’s dashes truly conventional dashes?” wonders Mary Loeffelholz. Scholars have generally preferred shorter marks. Thomas Johnson’s monumental 1955 edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson went with the medium-length en-dash (my own personal preference). Ralph W. Franklin’s authoritative 1998 edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson shrunk them further by using mere hyphens. (And now the online Emily Dickinson Archive makes it easy to view the poet’s original manuscripts, potentially eliminating the need for standard typography.)
Such a shortening is not without its effects. “Has our experience of Dickinson’s writing altered, if subliminally, with these changes?” asks Loeffelholz. Are we reading a different Dickinson?
The Dickinson dash might be read merely as a cue for a pause – a breath – a hesitation. But many understand it to signify more powerfully. “The dash sensitizes the reader’s reactions, activates the responsive reservoirs of the reader,” wrote David Porter back in 1966. It is “a graphic representation in the poem of the presence of the creative impulse, of the spontaneity of the emotional force that went into the composition.”
For Paul Crumbley, Dickinson’s many different dashes – penned with different lengths and different angles of slant – likewise reach out to readers and suggest multiple possibilities of discourse. “The dash suggests that disjunction, to Dickinson, is one of the defining characteristics of the self in language.” Deirdre Fagan, however, counters that that dash – which appears more often than any single word in Dickinson’s poetry – represents “the unutterable” itself. “The dash is silent,” she writes, but “the potency of the dash remains, nonetheless, and becomes, cataclysmically and without words, emotion both expressed and unexpressed.”
I like both of these views, Crumbley’s and Fagan’s, and I’ve seen them expressed beautifully in two recent texts. Ben Lerner takes Fagan’s side, referring to Dickinson’s dashes as “markers of the limits of the actual, vectors of implication where no words will do.” For what it’s worth, Gavin Jones, echoing Crumbley, offers my favorite articulation, insisting that the dash is “a prostrate ‘I,’ the punctuation mark of a fallen and discontinuous self.” The little tippler – lying prone in the gutter!
Crumbley, Paul. Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson. UP of Kentucky, 1997.
Fagan, Deirdre. “Emily Dickinson’s Unutterable Word.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 70–75.
Jones, Gavin. Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History. Cambridge UP, 2014.
Jung, Ena. “The Breath of Emily Dickinson’s Dashes.” Emily Dickinson Journal 24.2 (2015): 1–23.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Loeffelholz, Mary. The Value of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge UP, 2016.
Porter, David T. The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry. Harvard UP, 1966.
Price, Adam O’Fallon. “Regarding the Em Dash.” The Millions (4 January 2018).