Emily’s Revolution

benfey_1-112510.jpg
Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
Emily Dickinson, circa late 1846–early 1847

Are there limits to our curiosity about Emily Dickinson’s private life? If so, there is little indication that we have come anywhere near them. During the past few years, an outpouring of books has addressed various aspects of Dickinson’s domestic and erotic existence. Biographers have wondered whether she was really as solitary as has been thought. The men in her life—the respectable ministers and editors who, she reported, greeted her clever remarks with an uncomprehending “What”—have been subjected to renewed scrutiny, by scholars and novelists intrigued by what she might have meant when she wrote ecstatically of her “Wild Nights”:

Rowing in Eden—
Ah—the Sea!
Might I but moor—tonight—
In thee!

A book has appeared on the Dickinson servants, often overlooked in accounts of the poet’s exile on Main Street. Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland, Carlo, has been accorded a chapter in a book entitled Shaggy Muses. Meanwhile, records from the Amherst pharmacy have been scrutinized for evidence of possible (and potentially isolating) illness. Did she perhaps suffer from epilepsy, as has recently been suggested? Did she avoid men and women because she was neurotically shy or because, as she told her literary adviser Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog”?1

But are we equally curious about Dickinson’s poems, those eighteen hundred short volleys of brilliance, boldness, and blasphemy? Has “Dickinson the Writer,” as the distinguished Harvard scholar Helen Vendler pointedly refers to her in the introduction to her superb and invigorating new selection of 150 poems and probing commentaries, been accorded as much attention as her reclusive life in Amherst?

For Vendler, the essential biographical facts are quickly dispensed with. “Dickinson chose a secluded life,” she writes; “she never married, and lived till her death with her parents and her sister Lavinia in the family house in Amherst, Massachusetts.” She adds that Dickinson’s “intellectual honesty forbade her taking Jesus as her savior (as all her fellow students in her college did).” She warns us, as Dickinson warned Higginson, that the confiding first-person speaker in her poems—who has love affairs with men and women, suffers near-death experiences, and claims proudly to be both “Nobody” and the long-suffering “Empress of Calvary”—should be understood as “a supposed person” and not as a reliable self-portrait of her own day-to-day life in Amherst.

One might quibble with some of this. Did Dickinson really “choose” seclusion, or was it inflicted upon her—by illness, mental or physical, or perhaps by an overbearing father unhappy with her choice of suitors? (“Thin dry & speechless” was how Higginson described Edward Dickinson. “I saw what her life had been.”) Dickinson was not, in fact, the only student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—which she attended for one year, from 1847 to 1848—unable to find salvation in Christ.2 And when Vendler, in her very first sentence, repeats one …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

  1. 1

    Among notable recent books or parts of books on Dickinson, see Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008); Maureen B. Adams, Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë (Ballantine, 2007); and Aífe Murray, Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009). On Dickinson’s possible epilepsy, see Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds (Viking, 2010). See also Jerome Charyn’s novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (Norton, 2010) and Joyce Carol Oates’s story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” in Wild Nights! (Ecco, 2008). For a reconsideration of Reverend George Gould as Dickinson’s secret lover, see Carol Damon Andrews, “Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson,” The New England Quarterly, June 2008. 

  2. 2

    Of the two hundred and thirty students enrolled during Emily’s year, it would appear…that nearly half of them, at the beginning of the year, were not established Christians. That thirty finished the year without hope should be assurance enough against the notion of Emily’s isolation.” Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), Vol. 2, p. 361.