Emily Dickinson may be one of America's best-known poets, but she barely published a word in her own lifetime. And though she spent her days hiding away in her family's home in Amherst, Massachusetts, somehow Em had an exciting enough life to be the subject of endless biographies and speculation about her sex life.
The Dickinsons were a prominent religious family, very involved in the educational community (her grandfather was a founder of Amherst College).
Emily studied at the Amherst Academy, and, at seventeen, attended Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a strict, evangelical school that didn't sit well with the open-minded waif. Due to bad health and a worse vibe, Emily split after less than a year.
Her innovative poetry broke the rules of grammar and was probably the first modern verse ever crafted. Using imperfect rhymes, daring concepts, and changing the meter on a whim, Dickinson may have simply been over most editors' heads to get a fair shot at publication.
The bulk of Dickinson's 1,700 some-odd poems were kept in the bottom drawer of her dresser, and only seven were published during her life (all, perhaps, against her wishes). Lucky for the rest of us, Emily's sister found a way to get the masterpieces to print, and time told the tale; by the twentieth century, Dickinson took her place as one of the country's greatest poets.
Dickinson's poetry originally became popular in the 1890s, but was heavily edited to fit a more traditional style. (Emily had a weird way of laying out her poems: all dashes, weird caps, and thought rhymes.)
Republished in 1955 the way she would have wanted, The Poems of Emily Dickinson fit right into the time -- modern, bold, and setting the standard for where poetry can go.
The following is an excerpt from the book The Dead Guy Interviews
by Michael A. Stusser
Michael Stusser: Where'd you get your love of language?
Emily Dickinson: My father used to read the Bible to us like it was theater, and I loved the rhythms of the passages. We also read [Ralph Waldo] Emerson's poems, Shakespeare, Keats, and the Brontė sisters.
MS: Your dad has been described as basically a hard-ass. Is that how you remember him?
ED: Oh, not in the least. Let's remember the time: Ninteenth-century fathers were, by definition, a bit removed. Less than affectionate, you might say. But mine was respectful, and most important, he valued education for his children. I remember Daddy buying me all sorts of books, then begging me not to read them lest they joggle the mind!
MS: You Dickinsons didn't stray far from home, did ya?
ED: Why would we?
MS: I don't know. Branch out. See the world?
ED: I went away to school.
MS: Ten miles away!
ED: Amherst is a perfectly lovely community. Austin [her older brother] moved next door, and my sis, Lavinia, lived with me and the folks. I saw no real reason to venture out too far . . .
MS: Tell us a bit about your friendship with Abiah Palmer Root.
ED: She's a dear. We were good friends until she got all religious on me, and then we grew apart.
MS: Because you wouldn't publicly convert?
ED: In the end, I had to let her know that, while I was religious, I wasn't convinced hers was the only way. "Saved" is overrated.
MS: How so?
ED: I simply refused to think badly of the world, or believe that greater pleasures can be found in heaven than on earth. It's why I came back to visit . . .
MS: Resisting conversion, refusing to change your writing style, questioning the traditional roles of the sexes. Feminists love your feisty independence.
ED: And I theirs.
MS: How'd you get into writing?
ED: Well, it began with letters, starting around the age of twelve. I loved to play with words, and I'd do it almost in secret to whomever I was writing. Got away with a lot more that way.
MS: People have the impression you were a freakish recluse, hiding behind curtains in the attic of your house in a white dress, afraid of the outside world.
ED: I've read a lot of those descriptions and they make me out to be an agoraphobic ascetic. I was definitely the stay-at-home type, but I had lots of friends, and kept in touch with all sorts of folks. I wrote over a thousand letters, you know?
MS: Come on, now -- for your last twenty years you never left the house! You even sent your sister to be fitted for your dresses.
ED: I had all I needed at home: family, a warm fire, books, peace and quiet, and my poetry. We had fourteen acres.
MS: You often "visited" with friends by talking to them through a closed door.
ED: I wasn't fully dressed.
MS: What did you do all day?
ED: Vinny [Lavinia] and I did household chores and took care of poor, quiet mother.
MS: How thrilling.
ED: And I could bake with the best of them! I won second prize in the 1856 Cattle Show for my rye and Indian bread.
MS: Dressing all in white was a weird choice.
ED: They called me "the nun of Amherst."
MS: Did you think you were a nun?
ED: I was hardly a Catholic, or even a confessed Christian.
MS: Some suggest you saw yourself as a secret bride to the already married minister Charles Wadsworth.
ED: In case you aren't aware, dear, brides didn't even wear white in those years.
MS: A madwoman? A maid? A ghost? What?
ED: How about you stop guessing now. It was simply one of my favorite colors. If you must know, it looked quite fetching with my fair complexion and chestnut hair. [She blushes.]
ED: I also liked to be in control of my visiting guests. I let you in, didn't I?
MS: I've been trying to set this meeting up for over 150 years.
ED: And here we are, my sweet man. Should we sit in the garden?
[We move to the greenhouse, which is dark and covered by shades.]
MS: In the 1850s, you began to have problems with your eyes.
ED: Anterior uveitis, I think they called it. It's intolerance to direct sunlight -- made it so I had to garden at night, by lantern light. Thought I might even go blind, and so I dispatched over three hundred poems in a single year.
MS: Why not publish your poems when you were alive?
ED: At one point I talked to a family friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, about publishing. I showed him a few poems, and when he tried to "improve them" -- for a more romantic style, I suppose -- it really took the wind out of my sails.
MS: Delicate little flower, aren't you?
ED: Why, yes, I'm delicate, but more important, experimental and a bit defiant. Thomas said that my gait was "spasmodic," and he's not wrong. My poems were handwritten, and there was no good way to put my phrasing and meter down on the page without my own set of dashes and such.
MS: So you never wanted them published?
ED:Publication is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man
Poverty be justifying
For so foul a thing.
Let's just say that I wrote for myself and for a few friends -- and Thomas was one of them. I always said his friendship and feedback saved my life.
MS: You're not going to like what he did to your poems after you took the big dirt nap.
ED: Let me guess: straightened out the punctuation, took out the half rhymes, and changed my odd capitalization.
MS: Yeah, that, and gave them titles, and even reworded a few so they'd make "more sense." You were damn popular, though -- they got great reviews and were printed in dozens of editions.
ED: That's all well and nice, I suppose. I'm not quite as pleased with the brutal edits done by my brother's mistress [Mabel L. Todd] -- removing my signature from letters, erasing my sexy stanzas, and even changing pronouns to avoid any mention of love between my sister-in-law and me. Jealous worm -- that's a no-no in my book!
MS: Which brings us to the big question, if you don't mind. Folks want to know, are you a lesbian?
ED: I think the best place for you to look for the answer to that question is clearly in my poems.
MS: Any in particular I should reread?
ED: The Master letters would be a fine place to begin.
MS: If I'm not mistaken, those are love letters to a guy you call "Master."
MS: So you're not gay.
ED: Gay, bisexual, autoerotic, intimate, romantic friendships -- the words only confuse the truth of the matter, and perhaps it's best left that way, my inquisitive visitor.
MS: I'm kinda looking for a more definitive answer here, Em.
ED: I'd suggest you read my poems for the passion and read my unedited letters to Susan [Gilbert] to compare and contrast.
MS: Susan was a "friend" of yours since you were kids.
ED: There are four decades of love notes to look over.
MS: I thought those were burned by your family after your death.
ED: No, Susan's replies got burned, but my original letters survived and are quite telling, not to mention articulate. You'll love my penwomanship. Hee!
MS: Well, here's one from April 1852:
Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper
Good bye, again.
MS: But didn't she marry your brother Austin?
ED: Indeed, and it broke my heart. But if I couldn't have her, I suppose it's best to keep her in the family.
[More blushing. Then a knock on the door.]
ED: I am sorry, but I must run, dear. I have a "friend" coming over for tea. Good day -- and let's do this again, shall we?
Copyright © Michael A. Stusser, 2007
Author: Michael Stusser's column, "Interview with a Dead Guy" appears in mental_floss magazine. He is a frequent contributor to Seattle Magazine and Law & Politics. His "Accidental Parent" column (ParentMap magazine) recently won the prestigious Gold Award from the Parenting Publication of America. Stusser has also authored several board games including "The Doonesbury Game" (with Garry Trudeau), "Hear Me Out" and "EarthAlert."