Among the 295 poems that Emily Dickinson is believed to have written during 1863, at the height of the Civil War, are several arresting short lyrics that address the subject of art as a response to inflicted pain. “Essential Oils—are wrung—,” she writes in one poem. “The Attar from the Rose/Be not expressed by Suns—alone—/It is the gift of Screws.” And in another, less frequently quoted:
Must be a Wo—
A loss or so—
To bend the eye
Best Beauty’s way—
It notes Delight
Here the form of the poem—stalac- tite-thin iambic dimeter, dangling downward from the opening line, from which a lopped-off “It” or “There” still sticks to the roof of the cave—mirrors its subject of “difficult delight.” So do the rhymes, “aslant” like their subject: the “eye” bent toward Beauty’s “way.” In “Must be a Wo,” we see Dickinson working out an idea best expressed in one of her most familiar poems, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” where “formal” refers not only to the need for ceremony in response to pain (“the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—“) but also to the satisfactions of aesthetic form. As Robert Frost, her fellow poet of Amherst, put it: “Anyone who has achieved the least form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations.”
As biographical “evidence,” reliable documentation of a life lived, a poem like “Must be a Wo” is both everything and nothing. Everything, because what possible events in Emily Dickinson’s life could matter more to us than the roughly two thousand poems she wrote and then carefully placed, most of them unread by anyone but herself, in her bedroom drawer? Nothing, because the poem is silent about what specific “loss or so” (deaths in the Civil War? disappointments in love? eye troubles?) this speaker is talking about, let alone whether we are meant to identify the speaker as Emily Dickinson at age thirty-two. In one of her rare directives on how her poems were to be read, Dickinson echoed many other poets in warning that “when I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” This statement would seem to “dissolve any linkage,” as Alfred Habegger notes in his new life of Dickinson, between her first-person speakers and herself.
Emily Dickinson is better known for her privations—her “woes” real or imagined—than for her advantages, and it is partly to right the balance that Habegger has written My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. Neither the wars nor the books are what Walt Whitman had in mind when he claimed that “the real war will never get in the books.” Although Dickinson wrote nearly half of her 1,789 known poems during the Civil War, and stitched many of these into little manuscript booklets for safekeeping, she had little to say about the war in her poems nor did she publish books. (Only ten of her poems, none at her instigation, were published during her lifetime.) What Habegger’s title, drawn from a late poem of Dickinson’s, means is that the real conflicts in Dickinson’s life were internal—what she called “that Campaign inscrutable/Of the Interior”—and that she worked them out in her poetry. “Dickinson’s ultimate purpose in writing was something other than communication,” he writes.
Poetry functioned, in Habegger’s view, “as a kind of self-therapy” for Dickinson, corresponding to a progression in her writing from “the voicing of present, extreme, and exclamatory feeling” during the early 1860s (when Dickinson was in her early thirties) to a mature equanimity late in life that Habegger calls “repose.” Whether the known facts of Dickinson’s life support this view depends on how one interprets several key events—events that remain, for all Habegger’s energetic digging, obscure.
The main outlines of Emily Dickinson’s life are of a piece with her spare and austere poetry—“My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any,” she once wrote. The restrained Connecticut River Valley society into which she was born, on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, was self-consciously opposed to the liberal religious—especially Unitarian—tendencies of Boston. It was specifically to provide an alternative to wayward Harvard that Amherst College, which figures so prominently in Dickinson’s life, was founded—by her grandfather, among others—in 1820. “We have seen error attempting to roll its desolating flood through our churches,” Noah Webster, another founder of the college and neighbor of the Dickinsons, proclaimed at the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone. “We have seen prostituted to the vile purpose of disseminating false doctrines, funds that were consecrated to the interests of truth.”
Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, the leading lawyer in Amherst and a Whig representative in the state legislature, served for many years as treasurer (after his death, his son, Austin, took over the management of the “consecrated funds”) and public advocate of the college. The schools and churches that Dickinson, along with her brother and her younger sister, Lavinia, attended as a child were dedicated to rolling back the “error” of any departure from the strict doctrines of the Reformation.
Rebellion against these reactionary tendencies, first reluctant and then increasingly avid and heartfelt, is the pattern of Dickinson’s childhood and adolescence. “Unless we become as Rogues,” she later wrote, “we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Her strict father was an outspoken opponent of “literary women” (Dickinson’s mother was barely literate, her spelling and punctuation more wayward than her daughter’s) and a grudging supporter of women’s education as preparation for a quiet and domestic Christian life. But he clearly adored his quick-witted and mercilessly articulate elder daughter. Contrary to feminist accounts of her patriarchal imprisonment, Emily Dickinson’s objec-tions to her father’s strictures had an affectionate tone: “He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” Dickinson attended a loosely organized preparatory school called the Amherst Academy, where she read Virgil and was allowed to attend lectures in geology and botany at all-male Amherst College.
Beginning during the fall of 1847, Dickinson spent a miserable year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a school even stricter than Amherst in upholding Christian doctrine and in seeking, through public revivals and intense private prayer meetings, the conversion of its students. No visitors were allowed on Sundays nor were students allowed to go home for the weekend: “The excitement of visiting, of meeting friends and of home scenes,” as the catalog explained, “will prevent in great measure the improvement.” Habegger has discovered evidence that the pressures brought to bear on Dickinson were even stronger than had been thought, with hectoring guests invited to campus to raise the number of converts. When one of the pious girls died in May, those “without hope” were strongly encouraged to “look at the corpse” and think about the hereafter. At first, Dickinson’s failure to feel that inward surge of certainty that would place her among the “saved” distressed her. By the end of the long year, she seems to have felt relief to be leaving this scene of “religious brainwashing,” as Habegger calls it. “I believe the love of God may be taught not to seem like bears,” she later wrote.
By 1855 the Dickinsons were sufficiently well-off to buy outright the conspicuous large brick house on Main Street known as the Mansion (only later did it acquire its more modest nickname of the Homestead)—half of which they had owned at the time of Dickinson’s birth. She entertained undergraduates from Amherst College at the Homestead; and it was assumed that one of these would eventually marry her. What she got from such early “preceptors” as Benjamin Newton (like others in her inner circle a Unitarian) was encouragement in writing her remarkable letters and, apparently, her first attempts at poetry. In her first published work, a valentine in verse that appeared in the Springfield Republican in early 1852, the pleasures invoked are more verbal than romantic (“Mortality is fatal—/Gentility is fine,/Rascality, heroic,/Insolvency, sublime!“). Of this relatively sociable period in her life she later said that, aside from her dog Carlo, “my Lexicon—was my only companion.”
What turned her life inward from flirtatious exchanges with young men and intense friendships with girlfriends like Susan Gilbert, who married Dickinson’s brother and moved next door into the Italianate villa called the Evergreens, remains unclear. For several months of every year she was too sick to attend school, and probably, as Habegger suggests, tubercular. (He believes that the famous 1848 daguerreotype of Dickinson, the only known photographic image of her, shows the emaciating effects of the “wasting” disease.) Long walks in the woods were prescribed, and Dickinson became a passionate collector of wildflowers, carefully preserved in her capacious herbarium and, in a different way, in the many references to specific flowers in her poems. She remembered fondly this “barefoot life” when she no longer ventured outside the confines of her father’s yard, continuing, however, to be an enthusiastic gardener and less enthusiastic keeper of the house. “I prefer pestilence,” she wrote.
Sometime around 1861 there was a crisis in Dickinson’s life, though scholars have disagreed about its nature. She had trouble with her eyes—an eye-bending woe?—of sufficient seriousness for her twice to seek help, and eventually surgery, in Boston in 1864 and 1865. But whether this (as Cynthia Griffin Wolff has suggested) or some other trauma was the “terror—since September” that she spoke of in 1862 remains unclear. A romantic crisis of some kind has also been repeatedly suggested; the drafts of three impassioned love letters addressed to someone she identified only as “Master” have, since their first appearance in 1924, posed a puzzle as yet unsolved. Habegger dismisses recent claims by Martha Nell Smith that Master might be Susan Dickinson, arguing persuasively that Dickinson’s sometimes heated epistolary exchange with her “near-but-distant” sister-in-law was a way to preserve the distance between the two houses while seeming to bridge it. Other candidates for “Master” are Samuel Bowles, the dashing editor of the Springfield Republican and a close friend of Austin and Susan Dickinson, and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a Presbyterian minister whom Dickinson met briefly during a visit to Philadelphia in 1855, and who, in 1862, moved to San Francisco. Whatever its cause, or causes (Habegger believes there was “no discrete event”), Dickinson’s response to the crisis was an outpouring of poems—including many love poems in the same key as the “Master” letters—that lasted through the Civil War, only to dissipate during the period between 1865 and 1870.1
It was toward the onset of this productive period that Dickinson sought the advice of the kindly Boston man of letters Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking him if he was “too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive.” Higginson had published an article in the Atlantic Monthly during the spring of 1862 offering advice to “young contributors”; he was also known to encourage women writers. Higginson, whose letters to Dickinson have not survived, apparently discouraged publication after reading the four poems she enclosed, to which she archly replied that publication was as foreign to her mind “as Firmament to Fin.” That Dickinson twice credited Higginson with saving her life—“The Vein cannot thank the Artery,” she told him—presents yet another puzzle. It seems likely that he was the only man she knew who lived, however tepidly and conventionally, the life of the imagination.
Habegger writes that during the five years preceding Higginson’s visit to Amherst during the summer of 1870, Dickinson wrote few poems, but that afterward she seems to have rededicated herself to poetry. It is at this juncture in her life that Habegger believes that Dickinson began to achieve the “satisfactory emotional resolution” of her early turmoil with potential lovers and possible publishers. The evidence he marshals for this claim is disappointingly arbitrary and quantitative, however. He notes, for example, the diminishing count of love poems and “poems about the sealed house of memory.” One wonders whether this sort of numerical index is really the best measure of a poet’s inner life. Nor does it refute, as Habegger believes, claims by critics like David Porter that her poetry did not change much over time. (Porter was referring to the form and diction of her poems.) But Habegger seems correct in his broader claim that Dickinson’s inner world lost some of its tension—hardly an unusual occurrence for people as they move into midlife.
During the final decade of her life, Dickinson, now in her forties, was able to contemplate both publication and marriage. The writer Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood friend of Dickinson’s, was another protegee of Higginson’s, who showed her some of Dickinson’s poems. Jackson, far more impressed than Higginson, renewed her acquaintance with Dickinson and insisted that she allow a book of her poems to be published. “You are a great poet,” Jackson told her in 1876. “When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy.” Whatever ambitions Dickinson had concerning publication in 1862 had cooled in the meantime, and she allowed a single poem, the sententious “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed,” to be published anonymously in an anthology. Its author was widely assumed to be Emerson.
A few years later, around 1880, Judge Otis Lord of Salem, a crony of Dickinson’s father, fell in love with her after the death of his wife. To Lord she wrote some of her most passionate letters—resuming some of the verbal pleasures of her early valentines in what Habegger calls “a shared imaginative and linguistic romp”—but the answer to his proposal was the same as the one she had given Helen Jackson: “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?” Decades later, Lord’s niece, who stood to inherit his estate if he did not remarry, wrote of Dickinson: “Little hussy—didn’t I know her? I should say I did. Loose morals. She was crazy about men. Even tried to get Judge Lord. Insane, too.” Three years after she told him no, Dickinson died of a stroke, on May 15, 1886, at the age of fifty-six.
Since Emily Dickinson’s life was conspicuously devoid of some of the usual events of literary biography—publication of books, literary circles, marriages, extramarital affairs, use of drugs or alcohol—most of her biographers have had two choices. They can invent, embroider, and speculate to fill the void. This was the approach of several early biographers of Dickinson, each of whom proposed a different lover, male or female, for the poet. Or they can try to find a new biographical form, less dependent on the narrative events of a single life; this was the approach of Jay Leyda, in his important two-volume The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960). Leyda, a filmmaker who had served as Eisenstein’s assistant and later wrote the standard history of Soviet film, adopted a strictly documentary method, assembling in a loosely arrayed collage every document he could find—news of fires and marriages and concerts; police reports of Amherst robberies and murders—that might have a bearing on Dickinson’s life.
Richard Sewall, in his superb two-volume biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974, 1980), relied heavily on Leyda, and surrounded Dickinson with painstakingly researched portraits of her forebears, immediate family, and friends. “Like Jamesian ‘reflectors,'” Sewall wrote a little hope-fully, “each relationship gives back a phase, or facet, of her character, her personality, and her literary purpose.” There was plenty of dramatic incident in both Leyda’s and Sewall’s richly textured volumes, though much of it touched Dickinson indirectly or not at all. Emily Dickinson is not born until the beginning of Sewall’s second volume, page 321 in the single-volume edition currently in print.2
Habegger intends to tell a more straightforward story. “If biography is a narrative that integrates everything, no matter how complex, into a single life’s forward-moving braid,” he writes, “it would seem that the biography of Emily Dickinson has yet to be attempted.” In Habegger’s book, Dickinson gets born on page 71, a substantial step toward telling the story of a single life. However, his first chapter, “Amherst and the Fathers,” seems a throwback to old ancestral accounts, where “traits” of tough-mindedness and intellectual independence are found in Dickinson’s male ancestors. There are no revelations in his book. Instead, he makes a steady stream of small corrections to the documentary record, and convincingly (though not definitively) connects many oblique allusions in poems and letters to specific events. Throughout Habegger’s biography one has the impression of old facts and documents receiving a fresh look, with a judi-cious settling and placing. In this regard, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books makes a handsome complement to Ralph Franklin’s recently published variorum edition of Dickinson’s poetry.3
The biggest surprise in Habegger’s book is that the Reverend Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia, in some ways the least appealing of the many candidates proposed over the years as her secret lover, is even more central than in earlier accounts of Dickinson’s life. When Wadsworth’s name first surfaced in relation to Dickinson, in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s biography of her aunt published in 1924, it seemed a transparent ploy to inject a little marketable romance into an austere life. During her visit to Philadelphia, according to Bianchi, Dickinson met “the fate she had instinctively shunned”:
Certainly in that first witchery of an undreamed Southern springtime Emily was overtaken—doomed once and forever by her own heart. It was instantaneous, overwhelming, impossible. There is no doubt that two predestined souls were kept apart by her high sense of duty, and the necessity for preserving love untarnished by the inevitable destruction of another woman’s life.
Wadsworth was married. But despite the implication that Dickinson’s love was reciprocated (“two predestined souls”), what stands out in the passage is Bianchi’s careful hints that the passion might have been one-sided: “Emily was overtaken…doomed by her own heart…kept apart by her high sense of duty.”
Edward Dickinson was well into his first and only term in the US House of Representatives when Emily and Lavinia Dickinson spent three weeks visiting him in Washington during the spring of 1855. On the return trip they stayed in Philadelphia with a cousin, and it was there that Dickinson apparently heard Wadsworth preach at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church. He was evidently an effective speaker, in the Christianity-as-bears mode. Mark Twain, who heard Wadsworth in San Francisco a decade later, wrote that he “never fails to preach an able sermon; but every now and then, with an admirable assumption of not being aware of it, he will get off a first-rate joke and then frown severely at any one who is surprised into smiling at it.”
With his long hair parted in the middle and covering his ears, though not his balding forehead, Wadsworth seems an unlikely romantic figure, but apparently he knew how to turn on the Byronic charm. Years later, Dickinson remembered the following exchange with him: “Once when he seemed almost overpowered by a spasm of gloom, I said ‘You are troubled.’ Shivering as he spoke, ‘My Life is full of dark secrets,’ he said.” Wadsworth answered a routine request for alumni news from the Princeton Theological Seminary with the portentous claim that he had lived “extempore” and “was born without a memory.” His dark secrets, so reminiscent of the unmentionable sins in Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” according to Habegger probably did not go much beyond his father’s insolvency and his own expulsion from Hamilton College for an unauthorized absence.
This is the man Habegger thinks, with evident misgivings, was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life, the intended recipient for the three fervid “Master” letters,4 and the inspiration for such anguished and triumphant poems as the following:
Title divine—is mine!
The Wife—without the Sign!
Acute Degree—conferred on me—
Empress of Calvary!
Royal—all but the Crown!
Betrothed—without the swoon
God sends us Women—
When you—hold—Garnet to Garnet—
In a Day—
“My Husband”—women say—
Stroking the Melody—
Is this—the way?
The poem, with its defiant weighing of public privation and secret status, has seemed central to many readers; “Empress of Calvary” was to have been the title of the essay on Dickinson that Randall Jarrell was writing at the time of his death.5
Habegger thinks the poem was Dickinson’s explicit avowal of her illicit understanding with Wadworth, and that she sent a copy to her friend Samuel Bowles sometime in 1860 to confide her bitter secret to him. “You will tell no other?” she wrote him. “Honor—is its own pawn.” Since Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, is himself often mentioned as Dickinson’s secret lover—he was Sewall’s choice—this is a significant claim. In January 1863, Bowles wrote a note to Austin Dickinson sending “the Queen Recluse my especial sympathy—that she has ‘overcome the world.'” He added, in the same mocking tone: “Is it really true that they sing ‘old hundred’ & China [a hymn tune] perpetually, in heaven—ask her; and are dandelions, asphodels, or Maiden’s vows the standard flowers of the ethereal?” Habegger believes that Bowles’s mention of “maiden’s vows” goes beyond a joke about her unmarried chastity, and “carried the suggestion that her fervent and private attachment to Wadsworth was some sort of virgin fancy, a product of inexperience.” He argues further that this note to Austin “forfeited Dickinson’s trust” and represented “her friend’s failure to honor her tortured confidence.” The result, Habegger concludes, was “a twelve-year hiatus in friendship,” between 1862 and 1874, during which Dickinson sent Bowles “no personal letters and few poems. One or two of the latter,” Habegger concedes, “seem effusive enough, but the appearance is misleading: the relationship had been irreparably damaged.”
The dates and documents fit, and while not quite up to Miss Bianchi’s “first witchery of an undreamed Southern springtime,” Habegger has the makings of an intense drama of romantic secrets betrayed by a faithless confidant. But notice what we are asked to accept on faith here: first, that the flirtatious Bowles, receiving “Title divine,” assumed it was about Wadsworth rather than himself; second, that his joke about Dickinson remaining single would be taken to be an allusion to a poem he had received two years earlier; and third, that “effusive” poems she sent to Bowles thereafter were not seriously meant. Here and elsewhere one feels that Habegger’s commitment to Wadsworth as the object of Dickinson’s passion has skewed his stated commitment to “gimlet-eyed scrutiny and an insistence on plausible evidence.”6
A similar sense of opportunistic sleight of hand surrounds his assessment of a new photograph, reputedly of Emily Dickinson, purchased last year on eBay for $481 by Philip Gura, a professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina. The photograph, an albumen print of an earlier daguerreotype, looks like Dickinson—indeed, one might say it looks a little too much like the daguerreotype taken shortly after her sixteenth birthday. The hands, though reversed, are in the same position, the hair (known to be wavy) is straightened in both pictures, the fixed stare is similar—as though someone going through a stack of miscellaneous photographs had found a match with a famous existing photographic portrait. But Habegger is convinced (as Sewall, in his biography, was of another—now discredited—image) that the photograph is genuine, and that Emily Dickinson sent it via Bowles to Wadsworth, after his move to San Francisco. “The hypothesis that the original daguerreotype was sent to Wadsworth…explains why the image vanished from sight”—preserving love untarnished, presumably.7
From such cloudy speculations it is a relief to return to the sturdy particularity of Dickinson’s own words. Two anecdotes from Habegger’s book testify to her fiercely held convictions about the autonomy of the imaginative life amid a world of “woe.” It is bracing to learn that in 1872 a certain Miss P.—the novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, perhaps, or the editor and activist Elizabeth Peabody—visited the Homestead and asked Dickinson to contribute a poem, as Dickinson wrote,
to aid the world by my chirrup more. Perhaps she stated it as my duty, I don’t distinctly remember, and always burn such letters…. I replied declining. She did not write to me again—she might have been offended, or perhaps is extricating humanity from some hopeless ditch.
Around the same time, her nephew Gib was chastised in kindergarten for having claimed that a beautiful white calf was living in his house. His mother, Susan, confronted the teacher and pleaded for the value of the imagination. When Emily Dickinson heard of it (according to Gib’s older sister Martha), she sent an indignant note to the teacher, intended for the entire faculty, enclosing in the same envelope a dead bee and a poem—a carpe diem plea for the pleasures of spring over Puritanical toil and morality—called “The Bumble Bee’s Religion”:
His little Hearse like Figure
Unto itself a Dirge
To a delusive Lilac
The vanity divulge
Of Industry and Morals
And every righteous thing
For the divine Perdition
Of Idleness and Spring—
As for the calf, Dickinson in her note to Gib’s teachers “besought them one and all to come to her, she would show them! The white calf was grazing up in her attic at that very moment!”
In her recently published A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), the German scholar Marietta Messmer skirts the issue of the Master’s identity, arguing that Dickinson’s letters are “textual performances” that “blur the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.'” Messmer nonetheless accepts Martha Nell Smith’s claim that when Dickinson writes to Master, “but if I had the Beard on my cheek—like you,” the last two words are interpolated from a “much different time” and perhaps by another hand, and thus can-not be taken as proof that Master was male. Habegger, by contrast, finds “no basis” in Dickinson’s manuscript for these claims. On Martha Nell Smith, see also Christopher Benfey, “The Mystery of Emily Dickinson,” The New York Review, April 8, 1999. ↩
Harvard University Press, 1994. ↩
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin (Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1998). ↩
It is possible, of course, that Wadsworth’s dark secret was his own spiritual uncertainty, which he disclosed to his fellow “rogue.” Doubt is the dominant theme of Dickinson’s second letter addressed to “Master”: ↩
See Christopher Benfey, “‘The Wife of Eli Whitney’: Jarrell and Dickinson,” in Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard, edited by David Sofield and Herbert F. Tucker (Ohio University Press, 1998), pp. 266–279. ↩
In her essay in the recently published The Dickinsons of Amherst (University Press of New England, 2001; with essays by Christopher Benfey and Barton Levi St. Armand, and photographs by Jerome Liebling), Polly Longsworth, who is completing her own full-scale biography of Dickinson, summarizes some of her conclusions; arrived at independently, they are strikingly close to Habegger’s. She too believes that the “terror since September” was a composite of several events (including an anxiety disorder); that it is “very likely” that Dickinson was in love with Wadsworth; and that, based on “internal clues” (Dickinson tells Master she longs to come “nearer than Presbyteries” to him—Wadsworth was a Presbyterian minister), he was probably the intended recipient of the “Master” letters (see especially pp. 40–41 and 46). ↩
In The Dickinsons of Amherst, Barton St. Armand presents yet another photographic image purportedly of Dickinson, with a better provenance than Gura’s. Mary Hampson, the final tenant of the Evergreens and a close friend of Martha Dickinson, handed the portrait to St. Armand during the 1980s, and, referring to the photograph reproduced in Sewall’s book, exclaimed, “That’s not Emily! This is Emily!” According to professional analysis, the three-quarter-view portrait, reproduced on page 127 of The Dickinsons of Amherst, is “‘a weak photographic image’ produced by a developing-out process that has been used as a base template and enhanced by hand, most probably using a mixed media of watercolors, crayon, pencil, and chalk.” In a recent e-mail to Polly Longsworth, Gura notes a “striking resemblance” between this image and the photograph he purchased. ↩