“Life Sucks Without Exhilaration”–A Post on Emily Dickinson by Renee Brame

Posted on
I had the honor of receiving a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities in summer 2014.  This grant allowed me to travel to Amherst, Massachusetts and attend a week-long odyssey into the world of Emily Dickinson.  The scholars that participated are among the most giving and kindest people I have had the pleasure to encounter.  My studies revealed a whole new Emily Dickinson I had no idea existed.  That made me wonder, am I the only one that had her all wrong?  and Does it matter that anyone know more about the real Emily Dickinson?  Here is my answer…

Late in Emily Dickinson’s life, she turned to her niece Martha and dangled a key between the two of them. As she went to turn the key (locking herself inside her bedroom) Emily pronounced proudly “This is freedom.”   Typical Dickinson.  Or is it?  
The description of Emily Dickinson that I usually hear is one of a woman terrified of life and certainly not interested in the concept of freedom.  I also hear the occasional mention of agoraphobia related to Dickinson.  Is Emily Dickinson generally viewed as a woman that found something so vast as freedom within the confines of her bedroom? Was Dickinson a woman that preferred solace and didn’t care what people thought about the methods she used to get there?  Was she an agoraphobe that physically couldn’t handle the company of others?  Most importantly, why do we care?  
All Dickinson scholars have their own opinions regarding Dickinson’s life and work.  They can show you letters and poems and other documents that will “prove” their theories.  Here’s the kicker- No one (not even scholars that have spent their entire life studying Dickinson) can definitively answer questions regarding why Dickinson chose to live her life the way she did.  Theories are rampant and varied.  A couple of threads remain consistent among them all.   
  1. Her life and family were up to a lot more than polite tea parties.  
  2. Her life and work matter.
That is where the scholarly agreements end.
Emily was born to an accomplished family in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830.  She was well educated, attending primary school, Amherst Academy and spending 10 months at Mount Holyoke College. She was a completely normal girl.  She had friends and liked flowers and was courted by boys.  She had a distant mother, ambitious father, a social butterfly sister and considered her big brother to be the tallest, darkest and handsomest guy in town.  Again- pretty normal.  When you really investigate, Emily’s life was no more extraordinary than anyone else’s of that time.  What makes her different is her ability to capture the moments of her life through letters and poems and our inability to be sure that we have translated those letters and poems accurately from handwriting to print.  

“The Way Hope Builds His House.” Frost Special Collections.
Seriously.  The woman wrote largely in pencil, her handwriting got progressively more unreadable and her choice of paper varied from fascicle to the back of chocolate wrappers to envelopes and lord knows what else.  To make things more fun, she would often choose alternate words for various sections of her poems and write them all list style on the paper, leaving no indication of which word was her final choice.  No one would blame scholars if they looked at this information and said “Screw it”.  However, time after time, scholar after scholar, the great and powerful vacuum that is the mystery surrounding Emily Dickinson and her family continues to suck people in.  These are smart people.  Educated, cultured, opinionated.  This doesn’t matter.  The Emily Dickinson vacuum is indiscriminate.  
Other than a poetic ability to nudge, stab, tickle or squeeze your heart until you can no longer breathe, what is it about the Woman in White that captures her followers?  
No one can really say exactly how many letters Emily Dickinson wrote over the years (many hundreds for sure).  What we do know is that she was prolific.  Her letters were occasionally riddles in themselves that perhaps only the reader could ever really understand.  Sometimes they contained poems or were accompanied by flowers or food baked in her mother’s kitchen.  These letters are a road map of Emily’s life.  Follow them in chronological order and you will see a world full of love, wit, occasional snarkiness and, eventually, a whole lot of her friends and family “sleeping the churchyard sleep”.  Match the timeline of letters to poems and they become a road map in themselves.  
Here comes the fun: There are two very specific rips in Emily’s road map.  The first is that we have very few correspondence from the people to whom Emily was writing.  We have her side of the conversation only.  Why?  Emily’s sister Vinnie burned her letters after she died.  Awesome.  Second, the chronological order of these letters (and the poems) are actually a guess.   She didn’t date her papers nearly as much as one would have hoped.  Of course not.  As we are learning, Emily was not one to make things easy for us, or for herself.  Editors have relied on handwriting experts and the power of the almighty context clue to put the letters and poems in an order that seems to make sense.  However, there is nothing to prove that experts are right, other than the fact that they are experts.  
There are more than 11,000 Starbucks in the United States alone.  For every Starbucks, there is a theory about why Emily chose to spend a chunk of her life away from anything resembling a public place.  At a certain point in her life (around the late 1850s), Emily stopped leaving the grounds her family owned.  She spent most of her time either in her room on the second floor of her parent’s house- The Homestead, out in the meadow investigating nature and constructing her herbarium or at her brother’s house (The Evergreens) located several feet away from The Homestead which she accessed using a walkway she called “the path just wide enough for two who love.”  Isn’t that a lovely description?  So, why did she stop going out in public?  Agoraphobia, epilepsy, heartbreak, choice, blah, blah, blah.  The evidence is so conflicting and unsubstantiated that this is one area of her life that I’m all like “Give up, you guys.”  Unless some new and substantial evidence surfaces, I’m not prepared for the hours of pain, heartache and frustration to which opening this Pandora’s Box will lead.  (Hangs head and walks away.)
Sex and Love
Emily never married.  She never had children.  Her favorite dress that she wore quite a lot was white.  This leads to immortalizing her as some kind of asexual virgin queen.  My own personal opinion varies from this.  I don’t think whether or not she did the deed with another human is really the issue here.  She was a person.  A woman presumably with all of her sex organs intact.  And guess what?  There is a whole bunch of dirty stuff in those poems, my friends.  I dare you to read her poetry and NOT find sexual content.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Might I recommend this section from F269:

Wild nights- Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our Luxury!

Futile- the winds-
To a heart in port-
Done with the Compass-
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden-
Ah- the Sea!
Might I but moor- tonight-
In thee!
Two things really stand out regarding Emily’s passionate side.  First, the clear love that existed between Emily and Otis P. Lord.  There are letters that display this love in abundance.  It was real and it was deep.  He totally wanted to marry her.   Unfortunately, this was late in her life and she was pretty set in her ways.  He died two years before her.  So freakin’ sad I can’t even stand it.  Second, The Master Letters.  These letters (written between 1858 and 1862) were discovered postmortem.  There is no evidence that these letters were ever sent.  There is no clear answer to the question- “Who is the Master?”  We don’t even know if a Master actually existed.  Nevertheless, these are not the words of someone dead below the waist.  Much has been written about the master letters and they have been published in a volume unto themselves.  If you decide to read them, I recommend soft music and a bottle of wine.  Here are excerpts.  They speak for themselves:
A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm—
Oh how the sailor strains, when his boat is filling—Oh how the dying tug, till the angel comes. Master—open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired—I will never be noisy when you want to be still—I will be your best little girl—nobody else will see me, but you—but that is enough—I shall not want any more—and all that Heaven will [only] disappoint me will be [because] it’s not so dear…
Publishing Saga
The final aspect that keeps scholars salivating over the life of Emily Dickinson is something that largely happened after she died in 1886–publishing.  The whole process was straight out of a soap opera.  Not to mention the fact that Emily never actually said “Hey family!  I wrote hundreds of poems and then shoved them in a drawer.  Could you make it your life’s mission to have them published for all the world to see after I kick the bucket?”  She totally did not say that.  Here is the short version of what I like to call “Oh no she didn’t!  The Emily Dickinson Publishing Saga”:
Emily dies.  Her sister Lavinia finds the poems and decides not to burn them (despite Emily’s wishes).  Obsessed with getting them published, Lavinia takes some poems across the walkway to her sister-in-law, Susan, for help.  Sue takes too long.  Lavinia gets mad.  She then goes to a family friend–Mabel Loomis Todd–for help.  By the way, Mabel is the longtime mistress of Austin Dickinson (Emily’s brother and Sue’s husband).  Oh Snap.  
Now the poems are divided between two women–a wife and a mistress.  Then the race begins.   
Out of the gate first is Mabel, mistress extraordinaire.  Between 1890 and 1896, Mabel publishes three volumes of poetry and a volume of letters (with the help of family friend and mentor, T.W. Higginson).  In the next lane (and 18 years later) comes Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily’s niece.  She decides to take back Aunt Emily’s legacy and publish the poems and letters herself.  Mabel does get in there during those years and publishes a volume or two.  However, Martha really rules the race from 1914 to 1935.  Notably, though, Mabel and her daughter Millicent did make a comeback with a volume edited in 1945.  
In 1955, something big happened.  A scholar named Thomas Johnson decided to go back to the manuscripts.  He started from scratch.  Retranslated.  Reinterpreted.  Reeverythinged.  Poems and letters, you guys.  Poems AND letters.  Ambitious to say the very least.  Not to be outdone, another scholar named R.W. Franklin took on the same task beginning in 1981.  His final edition was published in 1999 (well more than 100 years after Emily left this mortal coil).  Scholars today are usually either in the Johnson camp or the Franklin camp.  Poor Mabel and Martha get no love.  
So.  Is Emily Dickinson the person you thought she was?  Does it matter?  Does it affect the way you might read her poetry from now on?  If you have never read it before, might you go read some now?  

For me, studying Emily’s life and her family made a difference.  I feel closer and more connected to her and am getting more enjoyment out of her work as a whole.  Coming from someone that was already a big fan, that is a large accomplishment.  
If there is anything I have learned from the life and work of Emily Dickinson, it is this- “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.  Believing what we don’t believe does not exhilarate.”  While a world without Emily Dickinson would continue to spin on its axis, life sucks without exhilaration.  It wouldn’t be as sweet.  And we sure as hell don’t get a second chance.  We need her (and other artists like her) to remind us of that fact.  Emily Dickinson is a master at reflecting our own humanity and mortality in that ultra-precise, punch-in-the-gut way that only she knows how.  She represents a voice, a feeling that we all know, which makes her readers feel a little less alone in the world.  Pretty ironic for a recluse.  

For more information about Emily Dickinson, emilydickinsonmuseum.org should be your very first stop.  Do it.  GO TO THERE!

One thought on ““Life Sucks Without Exhilaration”–A Post on Emily Dickinson by Renee Brame

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *