Monday, March 13, 2006

Answering Emily

James Playsted Wood's quick-reading sketch of Emily Dickinson is notable for its lack of obviousness. Not that Wood isn't a sufficient biographer. In Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, he provides enough personal detail and event, color and deduction to keep the reader alert. Weaving a chronology of people, Wood identifies the characters in her life and the changes in her writing. He correctly fixes her penchant for obfuscation. He calls this thing "oblique." I call it "slant." But Wood falls prey to a traditional interpretation of Emily. He cannot answer the mystery of her passion. He forwards several names, categorically denies each and then leaves the reader to wonder. Wood is a tepid investigator because he dares not advance what his clues hotly present.

This kind of reticence still echoes when it comes to Emily Dickinson's personal life. Except for an interval here and there, the myth of Emily Dickinson remains cloistered. When Millicent Todd Bingham was given entry to the cache of Emily's poems in 1929, she saw more than poetry. Among the contents hidden away in her mother's cedar chest, were "diaries, letters and other Dickinson documents..." A selected volume of letters was published by Bingham's mother, Mabel Todd Loomis in 1931, just before her death. The daughter maintained loyalty and New England decorum when she said of her mother Mabel Todd Loomis: "She did not talk about Dickinson relationships and animosities."

Relationships. Animosities. The chief gossip of Amherst falls under these categories: Mabel Loomis Todd was the mistress of Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson. Austin was the disappointed husband of Susan Gilbert. Susan is quite likely the passion of Emily Dickinson's life.

At her passing, Emily's written accounts were collected by her sister Lavinia and deposited in the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd. Why choose her as Emily's literary executor? Why not a family member? Could be a question of that decorum. Could be that Mabel was given the job of expunging the Dickinson family dirt.

Before she could complete the task, a dispute arose between Lavinia Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd to postpone completion for 30 years. It was over a piece of land in Austin's estate. I wonder if Mabel was promised a share of Austin's estate for her work. Further, I wonder if it was Susan who made the offer. Susan would be Austin's heir, and capable of making that kind of offer.

A few years before her own death, Mabel got her daughter's help in editing the Emily documents for publication. With mortality pending, Mabel may have wanted control over their presentation. With Emily's reputation rising, her intentions might have been pure self interest. Perhaps she saw herself preserving the legacy of Emily Dickinson.


Susan Gilbert Dickinson.
Emily met Susan Gilbert at Amherst Academy when they were students. Their friendship expanded when Susan moved from Geneva, NY to live in the town of Amherst. Emily's attraction to Susan Gilbert was a crush that developed into passionate longing. Was it reciprocated?

Back to Wood.

"Emily took to Sue with abandon," he says. "She gushed over her... She wanted to keep wonderful Sue forever." So according to one of her biographers, Emily plotted to make this happen through her brother Austin. Something did happen. Against his parent's wishes, Austin married Susan Gilbert. When it looked as if the Dickinson family would lose both Austin & Susan to the call of the West, he was offered a palatial new home and a piece of his father's law practice. Susan and Austin soon moved in to their home, "across the hedge" from Emily and the Dickinson family. The date was 1857.

"What really happened to Emily between 1857 and somewhere around 1860 was that she became Emily Dickinson." That's Wood speaking. But what happened to make Emily Dickinson the poet Emily Dickinson? There was passion, excitement, the rush of new hope, of untasted love. Yes, love. Abandon. Wild nights. And then there was the utter dejection of its restraint. The blank of pain.

While Emily was blossoming, she sought readers. Wood et al would prefer that the subject of her passions be one of those readers. Most biographers select the Rev. Higginson, a married man who met Emily only a few times during her life. In this choice, they overlook the obvious. Or more exactly, they so obviously ignore the obvious.

Wood says that Emily sent poems to Higginson for review and yet, she realized that he was no match for her intellect, her own creative genius. In fact, Higginson did little to support Emily as a mentor in her lifetime. He advised against her seeking publication. He did not advance her as a poet. He did not give her constructive feedback or act as a coach. Their relationship was built by Emily, for Emily. It was an outlet. He served as a conduit for the products of her mind. He was one of many who served that purpose. Even after death, the family Dickinson did not take her creative wealth to the Unitarian minister but to a local woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, where family control could still exercise its will or so Lavinia assumed.


Wood is emphatic in his statements about Emily's sexuality. He flat out states that, "Emily Dickinson was attracted to men,..." and he adds, especially "older men." These were males of her father's age, who represented "strength and security." Wood's coloring here is so patronizing that I want to discount it out of hand. What seems more evident is that Emily discoursed with "older men" because of their knowledge, because they were aware of the world, were opinionated, and might prove better conversationalists than their sons, who no doubt would perceive Emily as some sort of aberration with her keening for an intelligent discussion.

Had Higginson been the object of Emily's fervent and secret passion, then logic demands that the two would have some physical coming together, some flesh to flesh fire to light the white heat of her love poems. Instead, they met when she was in her 40s, and the good pastor described the poet as "virginal" and "childlike" in his immediate letter to his wife.


Emily had a different purpose when she sent her poems to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her Amherst chum and sister-in-law. Susan was the recipient of over three hundred poems. And of these, Emily included those poems of high passion, of subtle eroticism; those slant poems that have befuddled her biographers. Were these intended for public consumption or were they private and personal missives directed to the one who elicited her affection? Anyone who has written a poem that burst from passion will know the answer. You share your love in its various forms with your lover, not with some absent stranger.

Emily named her secret love in at least one poetic reference.


You love me? You are sure?
I shall not fear mistake?
I shall not cheated wake
Some grinning morn
To find the sunrise left
And orchids unbereft
And Dollie's gone?

I need not start? You're sure
That night will never be
When, frightened, home to thee I run
To find the window's dark
And no more Dollie - mark! -
Quite none?

Be sure you're sure you know!
I'll bear it better now
If you'll just tell me so
Than when a little dull balm grown
Over this pain of mine,
You sting again!

"Dollie" is a woman's name. Even if it is cloaked, it's not an apellation for a man. This poem is written directly to its subject; it is Emily talking to Dollie and asking for a commitment. "Will you be there? And don't give me a quick answer. Think about it, be sure you know!"



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