Friday, November 19, 2010

Cousin Emily

by Sheila Connolly
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I aspired to be an academic—specifically, a medieval art historian. I even have two degrees in art history, and one forgotten publication, “The Cloister Sculpture of Saint-Aubin in Angers” (Gesta, 1979). (Good grief: Google can still find it!)
I’ve been asked to participate in a panel on Emily Dickinson at the Boston Public Library next month. The invitation came from the Poet Laureate of Boston, Sam Cornish—not because of my widespread literary renown nor for my studious insights into the poet, but because he and my daughter both work at the same bookstore. He’s a delightful man, and he’s responsible for promoting poetry through events in the city of Boston. 

I remember the strictures about writing a scholarly article—the formatting for footnotes, the carefully-phrased statements (“several authors have suggested that it is possible that something may have contributed…”). But it’s been quite a while since I dabbled my toes in academia, and I’m a bit intimidated: the list includes poets, professors—and me, a mystery writer.

But there's another reason why I, a non-academic, am on this panel: I’ve written a contemporary mystery in which Emily Dickinson plays a significant role: A Killer Crop, the fourth book in my Orchard Mystery series. The series is set in western Massachusetts, close to Amherst, and it is all but impossible to spend any time in that area without tripping over Emily. Yes, I’ve toured her house more than once, and I’ve even visited her grave (to ask her permission? Or forgiveness?).

But I’m not writing about her poetry, I’m writing about connections. We all have probably heard the stories about Dickinson’s reclusiveness, her avoidance of contact with people. Those stories may be exaggerated, and they focus on the later part of her life. In her earlier years Emily did in fact travel and visit people. And there were many, many Dickinsons who lived near Amherst, and most were related somehow. That’s what my story taps into: Dickinson genealogy.

While I don’t pretend to have specific information on who Emily may have visited, I feel safe in guessing that there were local family connections that may have played a part in her life. The protagonist in my series finds herself in an unfamiliar community where she knows no one, and then she finds her first body. Since she’s the stranger, the outsider, local law enforcement places her at the top of the suspect list—and it’s a short list. She has to fight to clear her name, and she does find friends and supporters along the way. And she begins the process of “belonging”—becoming part of the local community.

In our current society, families are scattered across the country; communication takes place mainly through electronic media. We tend to forget that in the 19th century, movement was far more restricted and most relationships were limited to the distance of a horse-and-carriage ride. The very definitions of “family” and “friends” were different then. Emily Dickinson’s concept of relationships would have been very different, and certainly she would have placed more value on the written word than we do now.
What she could not have known was how treasured her words would be, well over a century later.

P.S.  I'm Emily's sixth cousin five times removed.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I think in the electronic age we have come to place enormous value on the written word again. I think that email and now texting are very similar to those notes that used to fly back and forth across a Jane Austen village. My favorite speculative legend about Emily Dickinson (didn't someone write a mystery on this premise?) is that she had a secret affair with Thoreau. "Wild nights! Wild nights!/Were I with thee...."

Julia Buckley said...

What a wonderful connection to claim!

And Liz, that is a great legend.

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