Emily’s Revolution

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Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
Emily Dickinson, circa late 1846–early 1847

1.

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.

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