An Excerpt from “A Symposium on Emily Dickinson”

David Baker


Emily Dickinson entered into this world on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and died in the same town, in the family homestead, “quite suddenly” as her friend Clara Newman Turner wrote, on May 15, 1886. She was fifty-five years old. Her doctor listed the cause as Bright’s disease (what we now call nephritis or kidney failure) and its duration as two and a half years. Already Clara Newman Turner’s “quite suddenly” is one of countless misrepresentations we find about Emily Dickinson. In 1885 Dickinson wrote that she saw “a great darkness coming” and fainted while baking in the kitchen. On November 30, 1885, her weakness was so worrying that her brother, Austin, canceled a trip to Boston. She spent the next months in bed. The last thing she wrote was that famous haiku-like note to the Norcross sisters: “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily.” Austin remembered in his diary that “the day was awful . . . she ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the whistle sounded for six.”

Emily Dickinson never married. She was in love once, twice, maybe three times, it’s hard to tell. There is so much legend. But she did indeed favor white for clothing. She was often accused of being shy—aloof, apart. “Best things dwell out of sight,” she whispers. For years her privacy was directed at unfamiliar company, though by the end she hid from almost everyone but Austin and her sister, Lavinia, or conversed from behind the cracked door of her threshold. She graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year brought the longest time she was ever away from home, when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. It was ten miles away. She stayed for ten months. And so, at the age of seventeen, Emily Dickinson came home and turned herself into a primary housekeeper, rarely leaving again. The farthest she got from Amherst came in the spring of 1855, when she, her mother, and her sister spent three weeks in Washington, D.C., where her father served in Congress as a Massachusetts representative; they stopped on the way home in Philadelphia for two weeks of family visits.

It’s hard not to abide by categories of gendered stereotypes when recounting her life. It is how she lived. Shira Wolosky deems that Dickinson’s gendered norms are so extreme as to radicalize those norms: “Dickinson’s is modesty with a vengeance, more explosive than obedient, more challenging than conforming.” She was a decent cook; my students recently made her coconut cake from the recipe we have in her unmistakable slant of hand. She was a good seamstress. And she was a remarkable observer, a naturalist, a birder, and a deeply invested gardener. Her father, Edward, gifted her with a greenhouse, a “conservatory” they called it, in 1851. It faced east and south and adjoined the family dining room. Edward hoped to keep his daughter happy during the long winter months of the Northeast, when the death of a flower could bring her profoundest grief: “My acquaintance with the Irreparable,” she wrote, “dates from the Death Bed of a young flower to which I was deeply attached.” Judith Farr suggests that Edward felt gardening might be a more suitable pastime than poetry for a socially elevated young woman. But eventually the sober lawyer, the righteous Christian, found his daughter’s gardening to be “disproportionate, irreligious,” and tried to steer her toward her “one talent”: baking.

We find her talent to be poetry. I find her the single most ferocious, terrifying, and intrepid lyric poet of our language—with Milton, Blake, maybe Berryman, maybe Plath, for the sheer proximity to chaos, devastation, psychic and physical rupture, obliteration. Yet she wrote about what was right there, at the window, out the door, in the trees or the sitting room of the big house on Main Street. She wrote a poetry of intimacy and intimate proximity.

She wrote and wrote—more than 1,800 poems. Between 1858 and 1866 she wrote at least a thousand of those poems. In a remarkably short period—namely during the years of the Civil War—she wrote more than eight hundred of those. I did the math. From April 12, 1862, and the firing on Fort Sumter, to April 9, 1865, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, I count 1,458 days. Eight hundred poems. That cannot be a coincidence, though only three or four poems refer to the war in recognizable detail. Anxiety is a mighty powerful translator. Two hundred twenty of these poems came during the incredible year of 1862, the year of her first crisis, her mysterious leap to radical intensity, morbidity, and greatness. Critics make of the crisis what they will: depression, a failed love affair, seasonal affective disorder, the onset of Bright’s, melancholia, bipolar dysfunction, artistic imbalance. She herself saw little difference between such physical or metaphysical causes. She specifically resists such pat categorical explanations: “Twas Crisis—All the length had passed— / That dull—benumbing time / There is in Fever or Event— / And now the Chance had come.” Interestingly, 1862 was the year of another chance, one of her biggest personal risks. This is the year she first wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson—again in April, on the fifteenth, to be exact—to ask him “what is true,” to find out if her “Verse is alive.”

Dickinson saw only seven of her poems—all unattributed—published in periodicals. “Publication is the Auction of the mind of man,” she reminds. Then again, she published much of her work herself. She wrote out final drafts of her poems in ink on fine paper, ordered specially. She used all of a page. The pages came pre-folded once; she arranged them into groups, from eleven to twenty poems—chronological perhaps, thematic, who knows—stacked them carefully, punched two holes in them, and tied them with good string. These packets, these fascicles, were her books. There were ultimately forty of them. “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me,” indeed. And when she died, Mabel Loomis Todd took more than 665 of those poems and stuck them in a camphorwood chest and closed the lid.

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