“There are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,” Sarah Orne Jewett wrote in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), “—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance.”
Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, recently restored to what is thought to be its original appearance, with rose-patterned wallpaper discovered during the project, is one such shrine of solitude, visited every year by thousands of hushed and reverent pilgrims from all over the world. As they enter the Homestead, on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, they pass through what were once Dickinson’s extensive gardens, the subject of an ongoing archaeological excavation. Then they climb the stairs to the upper sanctuary, where they are greeted by a facsimile of Dickinson’s immaculate white dress—its fragile original is at the local historical society—hanging, ghostly, in a glass case in the hallway leading to the poet’s bedroom.
Dickinson’s writing desk (another facsimile, since her actual desk, along with half her manuscripts, is owned by Harvard) is believed to be where she wrote her almost two thousand poems, most of them unknown at the time of her death in 1886 at the age of fifty-five. Pictures of two of her favorite authors—Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot (“What do I think of Middlemarch?” she wrote. “What do I think of glory?”)—hang on the wall. From her front bedroom window, Dickinson could monitor visitors arriving in carriages from Boston; from the side window she could spy on goings-on next door at the Evergreens, the Italianate villa of her melancholy brother, Austin, his wife, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, and their three doomed children, Ned, Martha, and Gilbert.
Our classic writers are accorded certain dramatic roles they are forced to reenact in the popular imagination: dissolute Poe; expansive, multitude-embracing Whitman; rascally, wise-cracking Mark Twain. The picture that most visitors are likely to bring with them to the Homestead was established in the introductions to the first volumes of her poems and letters, issued posthumously during the 1890s: the New England nun immured in her bedroom in her virginal white dress, the poet who wrote, from her own experience, that “Renunciation—is a piercing/Virtue,” the poignant line break in the manuscript (renunciation is a piercing, first, and a virtue only after) registering the pain of her self-imposed exile on Main Street.
During the past thirty years, following the publication in 1979 of Richard Sewall’s landmark biography of the poet, feminist responses to her work from Adrienne Rich and others, and the facsimile publication in 1981 of her remarkable manuscripts (often with unresolved word choices suggesting alternate versions of well-known poems, a “fluid” approach to poetic composition clarified in Cristanne Miller’s painstaking new edition of Dickinson’s poems “as she preserved them”), there have been persistent efforts to question the popular view of Dickinson, suggesting that perhaps her renunciation was not as complete as had been thought.1 Three recent attempts to reimagine Dickinson’s life—in a film, a screenwriter’s novel, and a novelist’s wide-ranging reflections—offer strikingly different views of what constituted Dickinson’s central passion, and why the nature of her emotions remains of such pressing interest to us.
The English director Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion might seem a throwback to an earlier version of the poet, as a martyr of puritanical renunciation who substituted romantic fantasy and an obsession with death for the traditional fulfillments of marriage and publication that were denied her. Davies, whose previous films include a much-admired adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000) and the recent Sunset Song (2015), first encountered Dickinson when he was a teenager and heard Claire Bloom reciting, on a televised documentary, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The poem combines—in its vivid fantasy of a gentleman caller directing his carriage to the graveyard—both romantic longing and death, as it slowly dawns on his passenger that “the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity.”2 A Quiet Passion darkens and becomes increasingly claustral as it moves ineluctably to its seemingly inevitable close, as the great poem accompanies Dickinson’s horse-led hearse, viewed arrestingly from above, to her waiting grave.
But Davies’s other formative influence, revealed during comments accompanying a private screening of the film in Amherst, were the explosive, woman-centered films of Joan Crawford. In A Quiet Passion, he has elicited a remarkable performance from Cynthia Nixon. It must have been tempting to portray Dickinson, whose letters bristle with sly remarks, as a witty woman out of Oscar Wilde, astonishing the household with her irreverent, barbed mots. “House is being cleaned,” Dickinson once wrote. “I prefer pestilence.” Instead, Nixon’s Dickinson takes delight in the epigrams of others, especially her rebellious friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Buffam is allowed to say what we are led to think, by her delighted response, Dickinson also believes, on abolition, feminism, and religion. Still, there is much that remains unsaid in this intensely interior film; we often see Dickinson from the back, as in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, or silently at her desk, writing. We are reminded continually, by the soundtrack of silence and the lightest ambient sound, of the stillness of nineteenth-century houses at night, the lamp-lit darkness, the ominous ticking of the clock.
Faith and family are at the heart of this film, which opens with the scene, based on some details from the historical record, of Mary Lyon, the formidable founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, ruthlessly triaging her students into three categories: those who recognize Jesus Christ as their savior; those who cherish a hope of salvation; and the so-called “no-hopers.” Dickinson, isolated in her honesty, is the sole no-hoper. A version of the scene is repeated when Dickinson refuses to kneel in a family prayer service and her stern but sympathetic father, played by a bewigged and almost unrecognizable Keith Carradine, berates her for not even trying to keep up appearances—clearly his own minimum standard for appropriate behavior.
After Miss Buffam is exiled to a marriage she cynically assents to, Dickinson is distraught—“They all leave!”—and finds solace in the company of her sympathetic sister, Lavinia, handsomely played by Jennifer Ehle. One of the best scenes in the film is a tea party that devolves into a water party when the guests, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (whose sermon has moved Dickinson to a “quiet passion”) and his astringent wife, announce that they are total abstainers. The emotional high point of the film occurs when Dickinson takes Wadsworth (who has requested warm water, signaling his own simmering passion) on a stroll through her garden, and he admires the poems that she shows him. When Wadsworth leaves for a post in San Francisco, Dickinson feels even more abandoned, though Lavinia reminds her that Wadsworth is unavailable.
It seems a bit inconsistent, under the circumstances, for Dickinson to explode—a “Vesuvius at Home,” as she once described herself—when she finds her brother Austin having sex with his much younger mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, in the Homestead living room. Dickinson, in Davies’s final view of her, appears to adopt precisely the sort of puritanical moralizing that would have pleased the repressed Victorians of her father’s generation.
Little of all this has any biographical basis. There is no evidence, for example, that Mabel Todd—a writer, musician, and wife of the Amherst College astronomer David Todd—ever met Dickinson. Vryling Buffam is an invention, a stand-in for several intense female friends, including Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, in the course of the poet’s life.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her chosen if perhaps blinkered literary adviser, is missing from the film, and so is the older Judge Otis Lord, with whom Dickinson is thought to have had an affair late in life. Davies has made it clear that he aimed for what he calls “narrative truth” rather than fidelity to the factual record. (Asked, at the showing I attended, why he had given so little attention to Dickinson’s relation with nature, Davies charmingly replied, hand cocked to his ear, “Her relation with Nietzsche?”) What he has tried to convey, above all, is a supremely gifted woman under enormous pressure from family, conventional religious expectations, and circumstance who achieved, despite such hurdles, what Dickinson called “A quiet—Earthquake Style” in her indelible poetry.
Another movie-driven version of Dickinson, by the English screenwriter William Nicholson, who received Oscar nominations for his work on Gladiator (2000) and the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands (1993), also seeks to identify Dickinson’s central “passion.” In Nicholson’s lively and well-researched novel Amherst, a young English screenwriter named Alice Dickinson, moonlighting from her job in advertising, arrives in town to research her film concept about the affair of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Alice has decided, based on her own experience, and confirmed as she watches an episode of Girls during her transatlantic flight, that passion is in short supply in our contemporary world, in which “everything’s possible” and “loving has become an extension of shopping.” An italicized passage might summarize this novel: “You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.”
Alice is convinced that Mabel and Austin, flagrantly trampling on social norms, did achieve passion, but she isn’t quite sure how Emily Dickinson fits into the picture, nor does she have a satisfactory ending for her film treatment. She solves both problems at the same time: Dickinson, she decides, experienced passionate love vicariously, through her chosen surrogate, Austin. At the same time, she secured her own immortality as a poet through her chosen publicist Mabel Todd, who collaborated with Higginson as coeditor, thus delivering Dickinson’s “Letter to the World” after her death. “Austin was very timid and conventional,” Alice explains to a friend. “I like the idea that it was Emily who pushed him into the affair. Passion by proxy, sort of thing.” She imagines Dickinson saying, “Go further, Austin. For me.” As part of her research on the nature of passion, twenty-four-year-old Alice has an affair with Nick Crocker, a charismatic, married, and much older English professor at Amherst College.
Nicholson’s boldest narrative decision is to portray Dickinson not as a character interacting with others, as in Davies’s film, but as a ghostly presence who monitors events from some spiritual sphere beyond the grave. We are invited to believe that Dickinson approves of her wayward brother’s May-to-December affair with Mabel, a kind of blanket permission for the workings of Eros that is meant to extend to the twenty-first-century screenwriter and her own affair with an older man. “Emily was on the side of passion,” Alice concludes. Unlike Davies’s Dickinson, Nicholson’s poet wants to explode all social conventions, unleashing passion rather than keeping it “quiet.”
Did Dickinson approve of Austin’s affair? Some, including the scholar Polly Longsworth, who first brought the affair to wide attention, have assumed so, noting, as Nicholson also does, that there is evidence that Austin’s marriage was a sexless one. Others, such as Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns (2010), one of Davies’s sources, have surmised the opposite. The truth is, we simply don’t know enough to be confident about Dickinson’s views on such matters. Fiction has gone where biography fears to tread.
Jerome Charyn’s racy 2010 novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson was a previous attempt to blow the genteel cover off Dickinson’s supposed true passions. Charyn, who says he “never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” invented a fictional handyman at Mount Holyoke for Dickinson’s sexual initiation, as a sort of counterweight to Mary Lyon’s enforced piety. In A Loaded Gun, he is again out to release Dickinson from the myths that have enclosed her. While purporting to be nonfiction—with essayistic chapters on Dickinson’s mother, her dog, her servants, her photographic image, her poetic fragments—Charyn’s book is perhaps best viewed as yet another imaginative attempt to get to the source of Dickinson’s emotional intensity, and to imagine an “Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century.”
Drawing on the research of previous biographers and scholars (including my own), Charyn is ultimately less interested in biographical accuracy than in gaining imaginative access to Dickinson’s difficult poetry, and to one poem in particular:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –
Three stanzas follow, in which the speaking gun brags about guarding her owner’s head at night and killing her owner’s foe (“None stir the second time – /On whom I lay a Yellow Eye – /Or An emphatic Thumb”).
At first glance, this violent poem, first proposed by the poet Adrienne Rich as Dickinson’s most self-identifying work, seems in a different register altogether from the genteel and apparently old-fashioned “Because I could not stop for Death,” an earlier generation’s choice for Dickinson’s supreme masterpiece. And yet the two poems have some obvious features in common. Both are parables in which a male figure associated with death claims control of a passive female speaker. In one poem, the speaker, a loaded gun, shares in the mayhem (“To foe of His – I’m deadly foe”); in the other she is a victim of it. With its riddling structure, the poem about the gun has attracted much commentary, though little critical consensus. “Perhaps no single allegorical meaning can be made to fit the poem perfectly,” Helen Vendler concludes in her commentary.
But if I had to choose, I would see fiery Dickinson and her eroticized Male Muse as Gun and Master, and think of the poem as the depiction of Dickinson’s ecstatic and aggressive release of her firepower into the world of expressive language.3
Charyn thinks that a puzzling daguerreotype, which serves as the frontispiece for his book, brings us closer to the emotional texture of this elusive poem. Acquired by a collector at a junk sale in western Massachusetts in 1995, and subjected to years of expert scrutiny under the supervision of the Amherst College Special Collections, it was first brought to public notice in 2012 by the Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, and presented (on the basis of careful analysis of Dickinson’s alleged astigmatism, and other physical traits) as a possible image of a mature Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott (who was known, among other identifying marks, to have two moles on her face). Since only one reliable photographic image of Dickinson is known to exist, which is thought to depict her at age sixteen, this was electrifying news, rendered more piquant by the second woman in the portrait, dressed in mourning, around whose back Dickinson (if it is Dickinson) extends her left arm, either to comfort, caress, or possess.
Kate Scott is a name well known to Dickinson scholars. In 1951, Rebecca Patterson published a book, much ridiculed at the time, called The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, in which the proposed “solution” to the difficulties presented by many poems was a passionate affair between Kate and Emily, allegedly begun around 1859, when Kate, the widow of a Cooperstown physician, visited her former classmate Susan Dickinson in Amherst. Following the visit, the first of four that Kate made to Amherst, Emily Dickinson wrote several letters to her, including one in which the words fall into her favored ballad measure:
I touch your hand—my cheek your cheek—I stroke your vanished hair, Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart? Had not its heart been torn enough but you must send your shred? Oh! our Condor Kate! Come from your crags again!
Kate traveled to Italy instead, apparently inspiring a poem of Dickinson’s in which, habituated to despair, the poet rejects hope as too overwhelming. “It might be easier/To fail – with Land in Sight – /Than gain – My Blue Peninsula – /To perish – of Delight.”
This poem, along with Patterson’s novelistic book, inspired in turn one of Joseph Cornell’s most intensely imagined sculptural boxes, named Toward the Blue Peninsula (circa 1953), in which an absent bird, a stand-in for Dickinson, seems to have escaped its cell-like white room, furnished with a lone perch. Charyn notes that Cornell had learned something of Dickinson’s own creative and sometimes, in her manuscripts, collage-like processes from his friend Jay Leyda, a prominent Dickinson scholar and historian of film who had helped to establish the text of the landmark 1955 edition of her complete poems. Cornell sent a multicolored pencil, named “Lovely,” to Leyda in honor of the poet; one suspects that perhaps he meant to suggest “Lonely” as well.
For Charyn, the “second dag” (as he calls the newly discovered photograph) helps to destroy, once and for all, the lingering image of Dickinson as the “harmless maiden aunt who happened to write poetry.” He concedes that the authenticity of the image may remain in doubt. “Still,” he writes, “for the first time in over 150 years, we have what may be an image of Dickinson in her own prime as a poet, and with some sexual heat, rather than a recluse and a nun in white.” The photograph, he says,
rides us right into the twenty-first century with Emily Dickinson, not so much because of the revelations about her and Condor Kate, but because of the enchantment of the daguerreotype itself, and the persona it reveals to us, Dickinson as a carnivore, a huntress.
More specifically, the daguerreotype “takes us into the landscape of ‘My life had stood a loaded gun,’” according to Charyn.
It’s darker than we might ever have imagined. The Master and his Loaded Gun share the same persona. The Doe they hunt is for a different kind of winter meat—sexual prey…. And isn’t Condor Kate Dickinson’s “prey” in the daguerreotype, her conquest, whom she’s sharing with the camera and with us?
Such a torrid view of Dickinson may not be to every reader’s taste. One may wonder, for example, why a female sexual predator is any more appealing than a male one. A corrective of the old version of Dickinson as (to quote the poet-critic John Crowe Ransom) “a little home-keeping person” was surely needed. And yet on what grounds are we to believe that our Dickinsons for the twenty-first century are any less a projection of our own notions of how a nineteenth-century poet might think and feel than the Dickinson of the 1890s, the 1950s, or the 1980s? Less sexually repressed, less aesthetically or morally or religiously conventional, as we imagine ourselves, are we somehow freer to see the truth about Dickinson? Perhaps, in our greater distance from Dickinson’s specific circumstances, the opposite is the case.
As the philandering English professor Nick Crocker observes in Amherst, “We each make an Emily in our own image.” But the shy and retiring Emily Dickinson, of whom there is so much biographical evidence, cannot be transformed into amative Walt Whitman (whose book she had not read, she told Higginson, though she had heard it was “disgraceful”) by merely willing it so. She is both the gun standing in the corner as well as the gun firing its yellow eye; this is the paradox, so deeply ingrained in Dickinson’s poetry, of her quiet earthquake style. And maybe those visitors to the Homestead, bringing their “dim foreboding” to the lonely bedroom and the clean white dress, are not entirely wrong in their suppositions.
Dickinson’s “envelope poems,” poetic fragments drafted on scraps of paper salvaged from her correspondence, suggest an even more radical “fluidity” of composition, as well as implying, through their creative reuse of envelopes, a relationship to the intimate exchange of letters. First sumptuously published in The Gorgeous Nothings (New Directions, 2013), and compiled by Marta L. Werner and Jen Bervin, a selection is now available in smaller format as Emily Dickinson: Envelope Poems, from New Directions. For more on this subject, see my “The Art of Janet Malcolm and Emily Dickinson,” The New York Review, February 20, 2014. ↩
Cristanne Miller notes that Dickinson, an avid letter writer, shared more than a quarter of her poems with family and friends, but tended to keep poems about “death, pain, and desire” private. “Because I could not stop for Death” was sent to no one. ↩