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Emily Dickinson’s Secret Lives

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—
Gold—to Gold—
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!”

  1. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1994.

  2. 3

    The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin (Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1998).

  3. 4

    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”:

    If you saw a bullet hit a Bird—and he told you he wasn’t shot—you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word. One more drop from the gash that stains your Daisy’s bosom—then would you believe? Thomas’ faith in Anatomy, was stronger than his faith in faith.

    Or perhaps when Dickinson conveyed her own religious yearning, Wadsworth responded with desires of a different kind. Later in the same letter she writes,

    I heard of a thing called “Redemption”—which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else.

    Unless more revealing documents come to light, these questions, including the question of Master’s identity, will remain unanswered. (Selected Letters, p. 159, letter no. 233).

  4. 5

    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.

  5. 6

    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).

  6. 7

    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.

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