Dec. 10, 2010

Emily Dickinson's To-Do List

by Andrea Carlisle

Figure out what to wear—white dress?
Put hair in bun
Bake gingerbread for Sue
Peer out window at passersby
Write poem
Hide poem

White dress? Off-white dress?
Feed cats
Chat with Lavinia
Work in garden
Letter to T.W.H.

White dress or what?
Eavesdrop on visitors from behind door
Write poem
Hide poem

Try on new white dress
Gardening—watch out for narrow fellows in grass!
Gingerbread, cakes, treats
Poems: Write and hide them

Embroider sash for white dress
Write poetry
Water flowers on windowsill
Hide everything

"Emily Dickinson's To-Do List" by Andrea Carlisle. Used with permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote: "My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — / In Corners — till a Day / The Owner passed — identified — / And carried Me away." That's the poet Emily Dickinson, (books by this author) born in Amherst (1830).

Emily Dickinson is one of the most-speculated-about writers in history — in popular myth, she was a virginal recluse who dressed all in white and then wrote passionate poems that were so unlike anything being written at the time. Relatively little is known about her life, and biographers often try to use clues in her poems to guess about her habits, personality, and sexuality. The Oxford professor Lyndall Gordon recently published a biography called Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds (2010).

In her biography, Gordon has one major theory that is impossible to prove: She thinks that Emily Dickinson was epileptic, and that this explains the strange jolts and bursts of her language, her frequent use of metaphors like volcanoes and earthquakes, and poems like "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," which begins:

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —"

Gordon says that the drugs Dickinson was prescribed could have been used to treat epilepsy, and thinks that if Dickinson was epileptic, it would also explain her reclusiveness — she was scared that she would have a spell of a disease that was still very stigmatized in the 19th century.

Most of Gordon's biography, though, is about the Dickinson family, one of the most prominent families in Amherst. Emily's father was severe, with a strict moral code. She later wrote in a letter to a friend: "His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists." Emily didn't learn to tell time until she was 15 because she was afraid to tell her father that she hadn't understood his explanation. Her mother took good care of everyone but was not particularly warm, and she was more interested in cooking, keeping a clean house, and gardening than in the intellectual debates that the rest of the Dickinsons loved.

Emily had two siblings, Austin and Lavinia. Austin was the darling of the family, a handsome and accomplished man. Like his father, and unlike Emily, he was a very public person — he served on countless committees, oversaw civic projects and business ventures, and was deeply involved in his church. His mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, once wrote: "I suppose nobody in the town could be born or married or buried, or make an investment, or buy a house-lot, or a cemetery-lot, or sell a newspaper, or build a house, or choose a profession, without you close at hand." Austin had a wife, Susan, and three children, and took care of them all plus his two sisters and his invalid mother. The two families lived next door — Austin's family in a home called Evergreens, Emily and Lavinia and their mother in the Homestead.

Austin had a 13-year love affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst astronomy professor, a talented and charismatic young woman. Mabel was fascinated by Emily, whom she called "The Myth," as did many people in Amherst. Mabel was a musician, and Austin and Lavinia invited her to the Homestead to play and sing for Emily and their mother, which she did many times. But Emily would always leave the room before Mabel arrived to perform, and only communicated with her via letters or occasionally through the walls of separate rooms. Austin and Mabel met in the Homestead several afternoons a week for sexual trysts in the living room, during which Emily was confined upstairs. Mabel's husband knew about their relationship and was fine with it, sometimes going so far as to participate in a ménage-a-trois. Austin's wife, Susan, knew about their relationship and was miserable because of it, but she had children and a reputation to uphold.

To make things even more complicated, Emily and Susan were very close — some biographers have speculated that they were lovers, but others think they were just passionate, devoted friends. For many years, Emily would walk next door to Evergreens and read her poems aloud to Susan, whom she called Sue. Susan was also a writer, and a good listener, and Emily gave her more than 250 poems over the years. Sue shared her library with Emily, and passed along her favorite books, books by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot — as well as her monthly subscription to The Atlantic Monthly, which Emily read devotedly. Even though Sue lived next door and Emily actually talked to her regularly (unlike many of her correspondents), Emily wrote more letters to Sue than to anyone else in her life. She wrote: "Will you let me come dear Susie — looking just as I do, my dress soiled and worn, my grand old apron, and my hair — Oh Susie, time would fail me to enumerate my appearance, yet I love you just as dearly as if I was e'er so fine, so you wont care, will you? I am so glad dear Susie — that our hearts are always clean, and always neat and lovely, so not to be ashamed I have been hard at work this morning, and I ought to be working now — but I cannot deny myself the luxury of a minute or two with you. […] Oh my darling one, how long you wander from me, how weary I grow of waiting and looking, and calling for you; sometimes I shut my eyes, and shut my heart towards you, and try hard to forget you because you grieve me so, but you'll never go away, Oh you never will — say, Susie, promise me again, and I will smile faintly — and take up my little cross again of sad — sad separation How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel — how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice; so hard to 'deny thyself, and take up thy cross, and follow me' — give me strength, Susie, write me of hope and love, and of hearts that endured, and great was their reward of 'Our Father who art in Heaven.' I don't know how I shall bear it, when the gentle spring comes; if she should come and see me and talk to me of you, Oh it would surely kill me!"

Emily wrote more than 300 letters to Susan. But it was Mabel, Austin's mistress, whom Emily never once met face-to-face, who ended up publishing her poems and making her famous. The poet had only published a handful of poems during her life. After Emily's death in 1886 at the age of 55, her sister Lavinia found nearly 1,800 poems in Emily's desk. She realized how good they were and was determined to have them published. She passed them on to Susan and asked her to help publish them; but Susan stalled for months, for reasons that are still unclear — hesitancy to expose her friend; grief over her son's recent death; mixed feelings about Lavinia, who knew about Mabel — in any case, she didn't manage to publish anything. Frustrated, Lavinia turned to Mabel, who threw herself into the task. Emily's poems were handwritten, almost illegible in many cases. Mabel transcribed them all. She also edited them heavily — she streamlined Emily's odd punctuation, including her famous use of dashes in the middle of lines. And when she wrote and lectured about Emily, a woman she had never seen, she presented her as The Myth of Amherst, an elusive woman in white. It is from Mabel that we get a lot of our ideas about Dickinson.

When Mabel and Lavinia published the first book of Emily Dickinson's poems in 1890, it went through 11 editions in a year and sold 11,000 copies. With this success came a huge rift between the women who had control of Emily's legacy. Susan was furious with Lavinia for going behind her back and enlisting Mabel's help, and tried to publish her own version of her friend's poems and their correspondence. Mabel suppressed much of the correspondence between Emily and Sue, and generally downplayed their relationship. Mabel and Lavinia got in a bitter fight about who had a greater right to the poems — Lavinia didn't think Mabel should even get credited for editing. In the end, all three women were clinging to their own sets of poems and correspondence from Emily, and each went on a campaign to promote their own version of the poet's life and work. This feud was passed on to Susan's daughter Martha and Mabel's daughter Millicent. Martha, who wrote romantic novels, published a book about her aunt, claiming that her life and work could all be understood in the context of her tragic love for a minister friend, Charles Wadsworth. Millicent was unimpressed with Martha's scholarship — she wrote things like "Bosh," "Ugh," and "Oh yeah?" in the margins of her copy of Martha's book. And she wrote her own book, claiming that her mother's old nemesis, Susan, was a manipulative woman who made Austin's life miserable and who tried to control Emily. Through all of these bitter family rivalries, everyone had a vested image in promoting a certain image of Dickinson, a woman who was not famous at all in her own lifetime.

Emily Dickinson wrote:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn —
Men eat of it and die.

From the archives:

It is the birthday of poet Thomas Lux, (books by this author) born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946), known for his surreal, funny poems with titles like "Commercial Leech Farming Today," "Traveling Exhibition of Torture Instruments," "The Oxymoron Sisters," and "Walt Whitman's Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor." He is the author of many collections of poetry; his most recent book is God Particles (2008).

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