Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Emily

 by Sheila Connolly

Today would have been Emily Dickinson's 180th birthday. I hadn't realized that the release of my most recent book, A Killer Crop, would coincide so neatly—but in case you don't know it, writers have little control over when their books come out. That's up to the publisher's schedule. So maybe this timing is a bit of serendipity, because Emily is a pivotal figure in my story. No, it's not a historical novel—it's very much contemporary. And so, apparently, is Emily Dickinson.

Last month I wrote here that I had been invited to appear as part of a panel at the Boston Public Library. That is one impressive place, in both architecture and status, and I was honored to be invited. I will admit I wondered if people would actually attend such an event on a chilly winter evening, especially since the lighting of the Christmas tree on the Boston Common was taking place at the same time, but a nice group did come (I'll bet we were the warmer choice).

So there we were, four poets, a college professor, and me, talking about Emily Dickinson. What did we find to talk about?

I was happily surprised by how cohesive the whole was. One theme, unscripted, was "looking inward, looking outward." The mythology holds that Emily Dickinson led a reclusive life. There are anecdotes about her reluctance to see people outside of her family, at least in the later years of her life. But she had seen more of the wider world—she had attended school for a year in South Hadley, and with her family she had traveled to Washington DC and Philadelphia. And she carried on an active correspondence with a wide range of people. She was by no means isolated.

Whatever the facts of her life, we know her best from the poems she left—and there were many. After her death there were some bitter arguments over what Emily had written—and Emily herself had asked that her sister Lavinia destroy her letters, which Lavinia did. For many years her poems (about which she left no instructions for Lavinia) did not see publication because of a bitter feud between Lavinia and her brother's mistress. Even when they were finally published, several people had engaged in some serious editing—passing judgment on the late poet.

But still Emily's voice comes through. She listened to herself, and herself alone, flouting the conventions of contemporary poetry—much of which has disappeared from view.

In doing research for A Killer Crop, and in the discussion at the library, I realized that there are many filters through which individuals and groups view Emily Dickinson: psychological (was she agoraphobic? Mentally ill?), physiological (did she suffer from epilepsy? Migraines? Was her handwriting so idiosyncratic, bearing little resemblance to the formal script that girls of her time and class would have been taught, because she had poor eyesight?), feminist, social, stylistic, sexual (was she a lesbian? Was she an overheated spinster penning near-erotic lines to unattainable and oblivious men?). Is any one of these a crucial factor in her poetry?

What is clear is that the body of work she left still resonates with readers. Why was our motley crew gathered in a room at the BPL to discuss her, more than a century after her death, and why did people come to listen and ask questions? Why does she continue to fascinate generation after generation? Why did her work stand above the endless lines of Victorian poetry that padded many newspapers of the day, and outlive them all?

If Emily was inward-looking, some of her peers were the opposite. Consider the chaotic literary ferment going on in Concord at the same time period. Picture if you will Ralph Waldo Emerson holding forth at the dinner table, where his guests included Louisa May Alcott (pining over Ralph), Henry David Thoreau (who strolled the short distance from Walden Pond), and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Imagine the conversations they may have shared! Then contrast that with the quiet of Emily's narrow, carefully constructed world across the state in Amherst. Both sides produced works that outlived them and are still widely read today.

Whether the fruit of inward reflection or outward observation, poetry still has the power to bring us together and to move us. That's why we still celebrate the life of Emily Dickinson.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

There's a novel, possibly a mystery, in which the premise is that Thoreau and Dickinson were lovers--a love letter or letters is the McGuffin. Sheila, your statement that Emily "traveled" to Washington and Philadelphia fits neatly with my post yesterday of how we've lost our sense of wonder. I just spent a couple of days in Washington, driving back to New York yesterday in 4 hours 45 minutes. I had a great time there--but I didn't exactly think of it as "traveling."

Julia Buckley said...

It would be nice to think that certain writers of the past--real visionaries like Emily--could still be with us, not just in her work, but in her physical presence.

But at 180, I'm guessing she'd be pretty cranky. :)

Great post.

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