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Until recent decades, Dickinson was most often depicted as a sentimental spinster or reclusive eccentric. A new biography and TV show reveal instead a self-aware artist who created a life that defied the limits placed on women.
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson
W. W. Norton, $26.95 (cloth)
The cover of the little book is green with pink lilies. Love Poems by Emily Dickinson, published by Peter Pauper Press in 1950, opens with a short biographical note. Born in Amherst in 1830, dead in her childhood home at age fifty-six, the author of these poems was an “odd but devoted child and sister, thoughtful neighbor, [and] sentimental spinster.” Above all else she was a disappointed lover, having met a man who “ignited her like a sulphur match on sandpaper” but whom “could not or would not marry her.” In her yearning, Dickinson took to the page. As the years wore on and her heartache wore deep, she became odder and more sentimental, as is to be expected of a “sensitive maiden lady with big emotions and strange words to express them in.”
Dickinson was not a woman immobilized by the unrequited or forbidden love of a man. She was an artist who knew the full dimensions of her power.
This is not my Emily Dickinson. My Emily Dickinson is the Emily Dickinson of Adrienne Rich’s 1976 “Vesuvius at Home.” Rich’s Dickinson was not a woman immobilized by the unrequited or forbidden love of a man. She was an artist who knew the full dimensions of her power—as “genius knows itself.” Her seclusion represented a practical choice to control “the disposal of her time” and to practice the “necessary economies” of an artist. She stole the time and space to read, think, and write that would not have otherwise been given her. Hers was a life “deliberately organized” to align with her vocation as a poet. Such choices by men have been congratulated as signs of seriousness and authenticity; in Dickinson, these choices have been inscribed as “girlish ignorance, feminine lack of professionalism,” and the poet herself has been turned into a “sentimental object”—our pink lily with big emotions.
My Emily Dickinson is also the Emily Dickinson of Susan Howe’s 1985 My Emily Dickinson. Howe’s Dickinson was first and foremost a reader—of the Brownings, of the Brontës, of Charles Dickens. She was an artist who lived “eternally on intellectual borders” and whose “intellectual vigilance allowed very little to escape her notice.” An embroiderer of words, a “poet-scholar,” Howe’s Dickinson, like Rich’s, knew full well that her combinations represented a new poetic grammar. It was a grammar that drew from the male discursive forms that surrounded her, but which could not be reduced to these. My Emily Dickinson is, in this way, also the Emily Dickinson of Martha Nell Smith’s Rowing in Eden (1992) and, with Ellen Louise Hart, Open Me Carefully (1998) whose life and work was forged in her abiding love for other women. Mine is a Dickinson who felt, in the presence of her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson, that she “need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.”
Recently my Emily Dickinson showed up on television. The first season of Apple TV’s Dickinson, created by showrunner Alena Smith, portrays a Dickinson in her early twenties who has begun to discover her poetic power but whose life has been scripted by patriarchy. This script does not include genius. Her mother’s first wish is for her to marry; her second is for her to stay in the family home, so she can nurse her in old age. Her father tries to circumscribe her mind. He forbids her from attending lectures at the all-male Amherst College, and he buys her fashionable intellectual books (by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle) but places them on a shelf too high for her to reach. He erupts in tyrannical rage when he learns that she has published her first poem, then comes into her room in his nightshirt, groveling that she never leave him for a husband. The primary conflict of the show is how Dickinson can become a poet-scholar under these conditions. In this way, it is a Künstlerroman, a coming-of-age story of an artist. It depicts the many ways that Dickinson stole time to write. It shows her bargaining with her father for a maid (a scene that, unlike much work on Dickinson, lays bare her class status). It shows her pretending to be sick so she can stay in her room, and it shows her refusing suitors whom she knows would reinscribe the patriarchal patterns of her family, whether they mean to or not. She finds little loopholes in patriarchy and fills them with poetry.
There is also much that is speculative, most obviously the sexual relationship between Emily and Sue. Dickinson goes all in on yes.
The secondary conflict of Dickinson has to do with Dickinson’s love for her friend Sue. This conflict, too, has to do with life under patriarchy. What are women in love in the nineteenth century to do? Sue, unlike Emily, does not have family money, meaning her chief options are either to become a governess—which means having to fend off an employer who believes he is owed sex—or else get married. As season one of Dickinson unfolds, the young women go from resenting their limited options to concluding that Sue must marry Emily’s brother Austin. This, it seems, is the least bad option; at least that way they will always be in each other’s orbits. It is a calculation of imperfect gain by partial loss.
There is much that is not biographically correct about Dickinson. The chronology of events is loose, for example. The season is set roughly between 1852 and 1856, but the events of Dickinson’s life do not unfold in strict order. For instance, her father Edward Dickinson was elected to Congress in 1852 on the Whig ticket, which is dramatized in episode seven, but in an earlier episode, Emily is seen reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which wasn’t published until 1854. Geographies are also changed. The season ends with Sue’s 1856 marriage to Austin in the Dickinson parlor, a ceremony that Emily, in clenching pain, listens to with her ear pressed to her bedroom floor because Austin has forbidden her from attending. Sue and Austin were actually married in a private ceremony is Geneva, New York; none of the Dickinsons were there. The season also makes a theme of all of Sue’s family being dead, and while Sue had in fact suffered the loss of her mother in 1835 (not while giving birth to her, as the show asserts) and her father in 1841, she had six siblings, and a dowry from her living brothers helped establish her stately home next to the Dickinsons. There is also much that is speculative, most obviously the sexual relationship between Emily and Sue, a did-they-or-didn’t-they question that has been debated, exasperatingly, in the scholarship on Dickinson since the 1990s. Dickinson goes all in on yes.
The show has received a fair amount of criticism for these inaccuracies and speculations. But attention to biographical fact can lead us away from what is nevertheless true. Dickinson gives us a portrait of the artist as intense, as vital, as openly hostile to the gendered prescriptions of her time. If this Dickinson feels modern, that is no accident. Smith, the show’s creator, graciously agreed to talk with me, and in our conversation she stressed that Dickinson is as much about the present as it is about the past. “It is not my project to literally represent the day to day life of the real person,” she said. “What I care about is the present, what it feels like now to be coming of age as an artist.” The “real” Dickinson, her life and work, represents source material—“found objects”—for telling this story of the present, and Dickinson is a pastiche of scraps left by the poet, stitched together into a portrait that looks about as much like the present as it does the past.
If this Dickinson feels modern, that is no accident.
To me, Dickinson is about the present in a slightly different way. It is not so much that Dickinson modernizes Dickinson, using the “real” person as an allegorical figure for the twenty-first-century female artist. What Dickinson captures is that the modern is not very modern at all. Those circumscriptions rendered in Dickinson, those structural oppressions of gender and genius that we see the protagonist hacking—those feel nauseatingly familiar. They feel current. If the “real” person of Dickinson is translated and refracted through a pop-cultural idiom of hip hop and teen genre fiction, so much of the “real” nineteenth century—of women’s domestic labor, of anti-immigrant electoral politics, of anti-black racism, of compulsory heterosexuality—can simply be imported. Because here we are, still living it.
• • •
A new book by Martha Ackmann, These Fevered Days, is also an episodic look at the life of Emily Dickinson. Ackmann was a member of the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College until 2016, and for two decades taught a seminar about Dickinson in the poet’s historically preserved house in Amherst (the Emily Dickinson Museum). Ackmann writes that the structure of her book—not a “cradle-to-grave biography” but an illumination of key moments in the poet’s life—grew out of her teaching. “Sitting around that seminar table, the students demonstrated that they understood Dickinson’s life and work more deeply when our conversation centered on an important moment in the poet’s life,” she explains. Ackmann has selected moments that she believes “changed” Dickinson, and she acknowledges that another writer might have chosen a different set. But Ackmann’s selections are not random moments of general or personal change. They are moments of deliberate artistic becoming.
These Fevered Days begins with a fourteen-year-old Dickinson skipping church to write her friend a letter, in which she includes the mysterious but decisive phrase, “all things are ready.” Four years later, Dickinson, a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, cannot profess her faith in God, an ambivalence that will fuel much of the poetry. Soon Dickinson, twenty-one, publishes her first poem, a valentine, in Springfield’s Daily Republican. She decides, in 1859, “to be distinguished,” after which she enters a period of great poetic output, 1862–65, during which she writes over 800 poems. A tiny fraction of these poems will be published during her life (fewer than a dozen in total), and all of them anonymously, but Dickinson does have something of a publishing streak in 1864, when five of her poems appear in magazines whose combined circulation numbers in the tens of thousands. “Although they did not realize it, thousands of people were reading Emily Dickinson in the spring of 1864,” Ackmann writes.
Ackmann’s selections are not random moments of general or personal change. They are moments of deliberate artistic becoming.
The radical abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was one of the many reading Dickinson, and the two would go on to have a robust friendship of letters. In 1862 Dickinson wrote to Higginson to ask if he would “say if [her] Verse is alive.” He agreed that it was—but recommended she not publish it, a catastrophe of literary gatekeeping. After corresponding for eight years—and discussing the possibility of meeting for at least half that long—the two did finally meet at Dickinson’s home in 1870. Ackmann reconstructs the meeting based on the rich account Higginson gave of it in a letter he wrote to his wife the following day, having made notes immediately after the visit so he would not forget the details of their encounter or the exact words Dickinson had used. In his account, and in Ackmann’s, we see Dickinson as a vital force who greeted Higginson by handing him a bunch of daylilies and announcing she was “frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say.” She then proceeded to speak without pause for an hour. She spoke pointedly, aphoristically, telling him: “I find ecstasy in living . . . [the] mere sense of living is joy enough.” When Higginson asked if she ever wished to travel or socialize, she responded, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time.” Then, as if “never” and “ever” and “all future time” did not adequately stress the point, she added, “I feel I have not expressed myself strongly enough.” She was so intense—she “drained [his] nerve power so much”—that Higginson left Amherst “glad not to live near her.”
And here she is again, my Emily Dickinson. There is much that is recognizable to me in the Dickinson of Ackmann’s These Fevered Days. The portrait Ackmann offers is of an artist who knew her own mind, knew the scope of her talent, as genius knows itself. Ackmann’s Dickinson, like Rich’s and Howe’s and Smith’s, is a Dickinson who takes deliberate steps to secure the solitude she needs to create poetry. Indeed, Ackmann’s Dickinson is perhaps more conventionally ambitious than these other Dickinsons. She seeks to be “distinguished,” and Ackmann subtly contradicts the long-held belief that Sue was slipping poems to Samuel Bowles for publication without Dickinson’s consent, suggesting that the two women were involved in a concerted effort to get the poems out to the world. (The stealing of poems is a myth that Sue herself may have started when she wrote in Dickinson’s obituary that “now and then some enthusiastic literary friend would turn love to larceny.”) While Dickinson may have handed Higginson a handful of daylilies, Ackmann’s Dickinson is not the pink lily of Love Poems; she is not a dejected lover; she is not a pathological recluse or sentimental spinster. She is an artist who became focused on her work at a very young age and who, therefore, set out a life of necessary economies.
Dickinson is not a dejected lover or pathological recluse. She is an artist who became focused on her work at a very young age.
There is much of 2020 in Ackmann’s Dickinson, as well: she is modern in many of the ways that Smith’s is, particularly around themes of ambition and career (and much less around themes of sexuality and gender identity). It is impossible to read representations of Dickinson across the decades without noticing that she is always partially created in our own image, or in the image of the day. The literary scholar Virginia Jackson has chronicled these changing faces of Dickinson and their effect on how her work is perceived and treated: there’s the “aesthetic model” of the 1890s: the modernist one of the 1920s; the “professional model” of the 1950s, when male editors such as Thomas Johnson set out to revert the poems to their “original” forms; the feminist model of the 1980s; the queer model of the 1990s—and so on. The Dickinson of 2020, at least as far as Smith and Ackmann have portrayed her, is driven.
Where, in all of this, is the “real” Emily Dickinson? I like to think she is there in my Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is said to have locked her bedroom door after her niece had entered and, with the click of the lock, said, “Matty: here’s freedom”—the utterance of a person devoted above all else to her art. But I know, as Rich knew, that “whenever you take hold of her, she proliferates,” because Dickinson has already told us: “The soul has moments of Escape—”
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