This is Miss Dickinson, as far as anyone can tell
Dear everyone: Emily Dickinson had red hair. Which is just so typical of her, to have had red hair all this time, when I thought it was brown. Being a casual Emily Dickinson reader, I have found myself in this position often. For a long time I was under the impression that she was a weird ethereal recluse, only to find that wasn't really true. I thought she lived a circumscribed life, creeping around in the attic. Not true. I thought her range of emotion must be very limited. Not true. I saw this dageurreotype:
and I thought her hair was brown. Not true!
Practically since we met, the Picnicker and I have wanted to take a literary-historical-seaside tour of Massachusetts, and the first stop was the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. While I have a better knowledge of E.D. than I did when I was a kid, she is a difficult personage to pin down. This visit corrected some of my lingering misconceptions, but then raised more questions. The image I'd had when I went into the museum was cohesive; the image I left with was contradictory, somewhat blurry, and sprouting questions like a spudding potato.
The case of her hair color is solved, so we can hang our hat on that one fact, at least. On a similarly superficial note, I've always pictured her being of average modern height, but now that I've seen one of her dresses, I imagine she could not have been over 4'10" or so. (Seeing historical clothing is always a shock and gives me the willies.)
What appears to be true is that she did wear white pretty often, and basically didn't leave the Homestead her entire adult life. However, our tour guide pointed out that the house isn't far from the street and E.D.'s room is on the front of the house. She often wrote before a window, moving her tiny desk from one to the other - meaning she was visible from the road. So her private world was in fact, said our guide, a public space. It was also from these windows that she would lower baskets of goodies to children below. So much for her general reputation as a dour recluse.
Let's revisit that tiny desk for a moment. Is it possible E.D. wrote on scraps of paper because that was all that would fit on her postage-stamp of a desk? Scholars, please take note of this theory; I think it's plausible.
A fact I definitely knew but forgot was that Emily's brother Austin had a long-term affair with the wife of an Amherst professor, with whom he was friends. (And, oddly, remained friends.) Austin's wife, Susan, was a close childhood friend of Emily's, and they lived next door in "the Evergreens." While the Homestead is all windows and light-colored wallpaper, the Evergreens is depressingly Gothic, and not just because it is in a truly creepy state of disrepair. In E.D.'s time, the Evergreens was reportedly a place of "light and learning" and E.D. referred to it as a "new Jerusalem." The Austin Dickinsons were art collectors and soirée-havers, you know the type. But one wonders what E.D. thought of her brother's behavior, which doesn't seem very Jerusalemy. I was always curious whether she advocated for Susan's interests with her brother, and indeed whether she had any sway with him, or if she stayed out of it as much as possible.
It's difficult to pin down certain emotional facts because E.D. didn't leave that sort of thing behind in a clear way. For example, the tour made no mention of the speculation that E.D. and Susan had a romantic connection, probably for good reason. In the effusive letters of a mid-nineteenth-century twenty-five-year-old, it's hard to tell what's culturally standard for a close friendship and what's not. Take, for example, what E.D. writes to Susan after a long period of no letters:
If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die.
What is it? An exclusive relationship of some kind? A type of closeness that can't continue once her friend is married? Still lives and beats for me. The excessive drama of it seems romantic. But then she goes on:
Why Susie - think of it - you are my precious Sister, and will be till you die, and will be still, when Austin and Vinnie and Mat, and you and I are marble - and life has forgotten us!
What does that mean? Is this a "Yay, I'm so glad we're going to be sisters legally as well as in spirit!" letter? Or is it a John Donne/Andrew Marvell-style "Listen up, we're all going to die and what we do will be forgotten, so gather ye rosebuds" letter? Poets! Ugh! So vague! Here is what I am certain of: E.D.'s poetry encompasses pretty much every human emotion; she seems to have felt everything, including heartbreak, which implies experience of romantic love, whether it was ever requited or not. That, and the obsessive nature of her letters and poems to Susan, are my two pieces of evidence that at the very least, Emily had some strong and unique feelings for Susan. I'd quite like to believe they were having a torrid affair. Why not; Austin was, and his mistress was, and his mistress's husband was, and I'm willing to bet his mistress's husband's mistress was, too - what a den of depravity was Amherst!
But enough poking around in the poet's personal thoughts, which we have no hope of ever getting to the truth of. Let's look at her poetry... which is also impossible! My favorite part of the tour was the part about her writing process. I had not realized that most of her poems don't really exist in a final, definitive form. She had a habit of writing alternative words or lines elsewhere on the page, and it's not always clear which one she picked in the end, or whether she intended the reader to have a choose-your-own-poem experience. (Did she intend to have a reader, even?)
Take this poem for example:
She hasn't chosen between hastened, hurried, and gathered. Nor has she chosen between impregnable, invincible, inviolable, and illustrious. There's another entire version of the second stanza - is summer too obdurate for snows, or too sumptuous? Those are two very different words! I do not envy anyone trying to edit, or interpret, her poetry. Emily! You're a nightmare! I love you.
She took her poetry seriously, obviously. We all know that, but her reputation is of someone whose genius was sadly overlooked during her lifetime. The title of this post comes from a Caravan of Thieves song, "Raise the Dead," which includes the lyric: "This is Miss Dickinson, go ahead and tell her her poems really lived on." But Miss Dickinson doesn't seem to have pursued publication. During her lifetime, ten of her poems were published anonymously, and she had an offer from a publisher to put out a whole book of poetry - but she seems never to have answered it. How can we know the reason behind her conscious decision not to publish? In one poem she says:
Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man
For so foul a thing
But was this an honest thought stemming from the reflections of her best self? Or was she feeling bitter and contrary? The last anonymous poem that she published was edited to essentially erase the unique E.D. style we all know and love. Was she so disillusioned at being forced to fit contemporary tastes that she gave up any idea of publishing? Or was she really so reclusive that she didn't want her work read? Or did she not want to be influenced by the reaction of the wider world?
As our Grand Tour of Massachusetts progressed, The Picnicker kept objecting to me photographing her while she was sketching and I kept saying it was to help her future biographer(s). Because if there's one indisputable fact, it is this: if you leave no answers to the big questions about your life and work, people will write wildly speculative blog posts about you a hundred years later and get everything wrong. It's my personal cottage industry, for Pete's sake.
E.D.'s deliberate refusal to be normal is one of the things I value about her work and the way she lived. It gives me courage. I've wanted to go to the Dickinson Museum for years, and I'm very glad I did, because the questions it answered were helpful and the questions it raised were interesting. Miss Dickinson's poems definitely lived on for me, and there's nothing like standing in the room where they were written, looking at the [freakishly tiny] desk they were written on, and seeing the view out of the same high windows, though the view itself must certainly have changed. The tour was excellent, the tour guide knowledgeable, and the house in remarkably good condition thanks to Austin's daughter having taken such care with her aunt's legacy.
Our visit was also enhanced by the following cat:
The first thing the Picnicker and I did upon our arrival was - naturally - picnic. As soon as we sat down, Oscar came over, nosed around, crawled into a bag through the handle, turned around, crawled out again, collected affection from both of us, and then sat in some ground cover for half an hour, plotting the demise of some rodent or songbird that the bell around his neck would prevent him from accomplishing. Poor relentlessly thwarted Oscar.
The Picnicker, like me, suffers from migraines, and was feeling under the weather as we left. The following conversation occurred:
Picnicker: Traveling with migraines is so hard! I'm going to end up like E.D.!
Me (stupidly): E.D.?
Picnicker: Emily Dickinson . . . The recluse whose house we just left?
Me: Ohhhh! I was trying to make it into E.D.: Extra Derrestrial.
Picnicker: I'm feeling a bit Extra Durresstrial.
So you see it was all worth it in the end.
Dageurreotype of Dickinson from Wikimedia Commons. Created by William C. North, between December 10, 1846 and late March 1847. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.
The quotes from Emily's Letter to Susan are from Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Both quotes are from letter #20 on page 54. This letter was written in 1855, some months after Susan's engagement to Austin. The book has a suggestive photograph of a lily on the front in case you wondered what side of the debate the editors are on.
A little snow: Manuscript image from the Emily Dickinson Archive, which generously allows use for blog posts, among other things, with this credit line: Amherst College, Amherst MA. Amherst Manuscript # 107 - A little snow was here and there - asc:16401 - p. 1. Publication History: BM (1945), 136, with alternatives for line 4 ("gathered") and lines 6-8 adopted. Poems (1955), 1001; CP (1960), 614, with the underscored alternative for line 4 ("gathered") adopted. (J1444). Franklin Variorum 1998 (F1480A). -History from Franklin Variorum 1998
I highly recommend a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum.
For your reference, Caravan of Thieves' "Raise the Dead":