Dec. 10, 2011


by Emily Dickinson

Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot—
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves—
Who hears may be incredulous
Who witnesses, believes.

"1722" by Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. © Little Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Melvil Dewey, born in Adams Center, New York (1851). He went to Amherst and worked in the college library, and decided it needed to be reorganized. So, he came up with the Dewey Decimal System, a series of classifications divided and subdivided into subjects and assigned a decimal number to each book.

It was on this day in 1901 that the first Nobel Prizes were awarded. Since 1901, depending on how you count citizenship, 11 Americans have won the Nobel Prize in literature — the most recent was Toni Morrison in 1993. In fact, a couple of years ago, the secretary of the Swedish academy publicly complained about American literature. He said, "Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world. ... The U.S. is too isolated, too insular."

It's the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson (books by this author), born in Amherst (1830). She was a bright student, social, with plenty of friends. She and her friends took walks across the hills around Amherst, picking pink and white trilliums and lady's-slippers, and Emily told her friends stories about the animals that lived in the woods. They went on sleigh rides, attended concerts and lectures, had parties and cooked chowder over open fires and talked about their favorite writers. At the age of 14, she wrote to her friend Abiah Palmer: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how I shall delight to make them await my bidding, and with what delight shall I witness their suspense when I make my final decision."

In the 1840s, when Dickinson was a teenager, a religious revival swept across New England, and she emerged from it as an outsider. Eventually, Dickinson's mother, father, sister, brother, and most of her friends all made public declarations of faith, but she never did. In 1846, she wrote to a friend: "I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly — and I can say that I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever." But four years later, she was no nearer conversion than before, and still struggling. She wrote to another friend in 1850: "How lonely this world is growing...Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered...and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless. Abby, Mary, Jane, and farthest of all my Vinnie have been seeking, and they all believe they have found; I can't tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?"

When Dickinson was 20, in 1850, she was still very social; she wrote in a letter: "Amherst is alive with fun this winter — might you be here to see! Sleigh rides are as plenty as people — which conveys to my mind the idea of very plentiful plenty. How it may seem to you I don't calculate at all — but presume you can see the likeness if you get the right light upon it. Parties can't find fun enough — because all the best ones are engaged to attend balls a week beforehand — beaus can be had for the taking — maids smile like the mornings in June — Oh a very great town is this!" A year later, she was writing to her friend and future sister-in-law: "Susie — have all the fun wh' you possibly can — and laugh as often and sing, for tears are plentier than smiles in this little world of ours; only don't be so happy as to let Mattie and me grow dimmer and dimmer and finally fade away, and merrier maids than we smile in our vacant places!"

As the years went by, she became noticeably more reclusive — she corresponded mostly through letters, and allowed only a few visitors. But she also threw herself into her poetry — with her sister, Lavinia, managing the household tasks, and without many social obligations, she had plenty of time to write. In 1855, the Dickinson family moved back to the estate known as the Homestead, where Emily had been born. Her brother, Austin, and his wife, her friend Susan, built a house next door. For the first time, she was no longer sharing a bedroom with Lavinia — she had her own room, on the second floor, in the southwest corner. By 1865, when she was 35, she was no longer an active participant in Amherst's social life, and she had written more than 1,100 poems. When Dickinson died in 1886, at the age of 55, Lavinia found about 1,800 poems in her sister's desk.

Over the years, scholars have done a lot of speculating about Dickinson, coming up with all sorts of theories. Last year, a biographer named Lyndall Gordon suggested that Dickinson was epileptic, and that her epilepsy explained her seclusion, the rhythm and content of her poetry, and even her famous white dress, which according to Gordon was white for sanitary reasons. Various critics have tried to prove that her seclusion was the result of a broken heart, and have offered up any number of men in her life as the possible heartbreaker. A few years ago, a scholar named Carol Damon Andrews published an article claiming that Dickinson was engaged to her brother's friend George Gould, but that her father broke it up because Gould was too poor, and that Dickinson's love poems are written to Gould. There is also the popular theory that she was a closeted lesbian, possibly in love with her sister-in-law, Susan. Other scholars have diagnosed Dickinson with SAD, seasonal affective disorder.

Many people think that there is no one answer for Dickinson's seclusion — but that above all, she was driven by a fierce desire to write poetry, and she chose to sacrifice everything else for that. Allen Tate said: "All pity for Miss Dickinson's 'starved life' is misdirected. Her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent."

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