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Monday, April 20, 2015

Great Writers of New England: Emily Dickinson

Aside (and this is a huge aside) from nearly 2000 revolutionary, hair-raising poems, Emily Dickinson was the author of the finest query letter ever:

Mr Higginson, Are you too deeply occupied
to say if my verse is alive?
Mr. Higginson had put out a call to "young writers" to submit their materials. Emily was 30 years old at the time, which is youngish, but let's face it, Mr. Higginson probably intended the announcement for young male writers. He did read what she sent, and did think her poems were alive, perhaps too much so. Out of concern for their nonconformity with the poems of the day, he discouraged publication. Emily's sister, Lavinia, was surprised at the copious amounts of poetry in the house where they both lived after Emily had passed away. Luckily, she found editors who believed in them, and they weren't lost to future generations.

Lavinia's grave site gets nearly as many signs of respect as Emily's, in recognition of her contribution to literature in English by publishing her sister's poetry.

The tour at the beautiful home (at the top of the post) where Emily was born and died emphasized her passionate, gregarious nature. Her hair remained bright red until her death, as if reflecting the emotion we see in her writing. Her family was important in Amherst and Emily was well educated and had many friends. But the fact remains that as her life went on, she became more and more reclusive. Emily died at 55, and high blood pressure seems to have been the culprit. High blood pressure and reclusiveness suggest that she suffered a lot of anxiety.

On the other hand, when you enter her bedroom, you can see why she wouldn't have wanted to leave. It was on the second floor in the corner visible in the photo above, and she had great views:

She could see her brother's house next door... 
...the building where her father worked in town...
...and this church's steeple. 
Most of the house is set up with replicas because the original furniture and dress are kept in other museums, but in the bedroom, there was the original stove and bed, and something nowhere else could boast: the original floor. It was covered the way it must have been when Emily lived there, with woven rush mats, but the guide described for us that before the mats were placed, you could see the scuff marks where she would actually have walked! This helped them place the furniture pieces in the exact positions they would have occupied during Emily's lifetime.

This is a replica of the desk where she often worked. It was placed near the corner windows so she wouldn't miss seeing anything while composing. I was impressed with the small size of the table. What does a determined writer need beyond writing implements? Not much at all!

I say "determined" because she kept writing in spite of what appears to be a deeply held belief that her writing was of no interest beyond Emily's circle of friends. In other matters, she doesn't seem to have been someone so easily kept down. So why didn't she try harder to be published? (Ten poems appeared anonymously during her lifetime.) It must be partly due to her respect for Mr. Higginson's opinion. The two corresponded throughout Emily's life. He visited Amherst a couple of times and spoke at her funeral. And so, in spite of numerous accomplishments, Mr. Higginson is mostly remembered as the man who told Emily Dickinson not to publish.

Lack of publishing deadlines freed Emily up to keep perfecting her poems for years. She was very particular about word choice, which is admirable, but has made the editing of her work nightmarish.

Much more information about Emily Dickinson's surprisingly complex life and the inspiring place she lived and worked is available at the museum's site.