Jerome Charyn | A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century | Bellevue Literary Press | March 2016 | 24 minutes (6,471 words)

Below is an excerpt from A Loaded Gun, by Jerome Charyn, who writes that Emily Dickinson was not just “one more madwoman in the attic,” but rather a messianic modernist, a performance artist, a seductress, and “a woman maddened with rage—against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and will.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

I am, with all the world, intensely interested in Emily Dickinson.

Commentaries on her poems began 125 years ago, when Colonel Higginson’s little article, “An Open Portfolio,” appeared in The Christian Union on September 25, 1890, two months before Dickinson’s first batch of poems was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. It was meant to give readers a pre-taste of the poems. Perhaps Higginson was a nervous impresario and worried that his name was attached to a book that might be mocked, and that he himself might be ridiculed as the presenter of Emily Dickinson.

Emerson, he said, had once talked about “The Poetry of the Portfolio,” the work of poets who never sought public acclaim, but “wrote for the relief of their own minds.” Higginson damned and blessed such primitive scratchings—“there will be wonderful strokes and felicities, and yet an incomplete and unsatisfactory whole.” And thus he presented his own “pupil,” whom he had reluctantly rescued from oblivion. “Such a sheaf of unpublished verses lies before me, the life-work of a woman so secluded that she lived literally indoors by choice for many years, and within the limits of her father’s estate for many more—who shrank from the tranquil society of a New England College town.” And yet he was startled by what she was able to dredge up from “this secluded inland life.” And he presented a few of his pupil’s poems, regularizing them as much as he could. The ellipsis was gone; so was every single dash.

Yet he was also a shrewd observer. “Her verses are in most cases like poetry plucked up by the roots; we have them with earth, stones, and dew adhering, and must accept them as they are. Wayward and unconventional in the last degree; defiant of form, measure, rhyme, and even grammar; she yet had an exacting standard of her own, and would wait many days for a word that satisfied.” He saw her wildness, and didn’t really know how to deal with it.

He must have assumed that these “wayward” poems would be buried overnight. But “An Open Portfolio” had helped create the legend of the recluse in her inland village who could weave her verses “out of the heart’s own atoms.” Higginson’s article succeeded in ways he couldn’t have imagined—the book went through printing after printing and sold eleven thousand copies. The village poet had come right out of the cupboard.

In October 1891, in the thick of all this flurry of sales, Higginson received a letter from a wealthy banker-writer, Samuel G. Ward, who revealed this wild poet to her coeditor.

My Dear Mr. Higginson,

I am, with all the world, intensely interested in Emily Dickinson. No wonder six editions have been sold, every copy I should think to a New Englander. She may become world famous, or she may never get out of New England. She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of Puritan descent pur sang. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder. . . . We conversed with our own souls till we lost the art of communicating with other people. The typical family grew up strangers to each other, as in this case. It was awfully high, but awfully lonesome. Such prodigies of shyness do not exist elsewhere.

Ward goes on to describe Dickinson’s poetry in perfect pitch. “She was the articulate inarticulate,” that lone voice out of the Puritan wilderness. And we haven’t gotten much closer to Dickinson’s puzzling rhymes, even after more than a century of criticism. We’ve put back into order the little bound booklets—fascicles—that Mabel Loomis Todd ripped apart. We’ve studied the shifts in her handwriting. We have her secret stash of poems and whatever letters we could find— Jay Leyda, a man almost as cryptic as Dickinson herself, believed that we may have uncovered only a minuscule portion of her letters—as little as one tenth. And her letters are every bit as bewildering as the poems, perhaps even more so, because they pretend to give us a clearer picture of the poet. We soon come to realize that’s she’s wearing an assortment of masks—sometimes she’s Cleopatra and an insignificant mouse in the same letter.

* * *

The brutality of this belle of Amherst would stop a truck.

It wasn’t always like that; in her earliest letters, she’s chatty and reliable; the voice is never disembodied, never drifts. She’s like a female Mark Twain, a teller of tall tales. Here’s Emily at eleven and a half, writing to her brother Austin:

—the other day Francis brought your Rooster home and the other 2 went to fighting him while I was gone to School—mother happened to look out of the window and she saw him laying on the ground—he was most dead—but she and Aunt Elizabeth went right out and took him up and put him in a Coop and he is nearly well now—while he is shut up the other Roosters—will come around and insult him in Every possible way by Crowing right in his Ears—and then they will jump up on the Coop and Crow there as if they—wanted to show that he was Completely in their power and they could treat him as they chose—Aunt Elizabeth said she wished their throats would split and then they could insult him no longer— [Letter 2, May 1, 1842]

With a bit more vernacular, Huck Finn could be talking here. And at fourteen, she writes to her friend Abiah Root: “I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year.” [Letter 6, May 7, 1845]

But something happens to that chatty exuberance by the time she’s in her twenties. The letters grow shorter and shorter, have much more violent shifts. And when she first writes Higginson in 1862, seducing him with her poems, compelling him with her leaps, she’s like a huntress with poison arrows.

“I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—” [Letter 261, April 25, 1862]

Higginson didn’t have a chance. And neither do we. But it’s hard to grasp how and where that sudden mastery arose. It had to come from more than craft. It’s as if she had a storm inside her head, an illumination, like a wizard or a mathematical genius. Dickinson was reinventing the language of poetry, not by examining poets of the past, but by cannibalizing the words in her Lexicon. Jay Leyda was the only one who understood this. In his introduction to The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960), he talked about the “omitted center” in her letters and poems—all the tiny ribs of language that were left out. But Leyda was much more optimistic than I am about where those ribs came from. She told riddles: “the deliberate skirting of the obvious— this was the means she used to increase the privacy of her communication; it has also increased our problems in piercing that privacy.” Leyda assumes she always had a reader in mind, that all the missing keys depended upon a specific audience, and that Sue or Austin would know what that “omitted center” was about. Hence he gives us the minutia surrounding Dickinson’s life. And The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson is a monumental book that reads like a musical composition or collage, filled with every sort of scrap. That sentimental legend of a lovelorn Emily “isolates her—and thus much of her poetry—from the real world. It shows her unaware of community and nation, never seeing anyone, never wearing any color but white, never doing any housework beyond baking batches of cookies for secret delivery to favorite children, and meditating majestically among her flowers.”

Leyda believed that Dickinson was no more isolated from the world than most other artists, that “she wrote more in time, that she was much more involved in the conflicts and tensions of her nation and community, than we have thought.” Yet she remained a riddler, like Leyda himself. Perhaps that’s why he was able to penetrate her personality—crawl right under her skin—before any other critic. It’s difficult to uncover where Leyda was born, or who raised him. Leyda’s “omitted center” is as elusive as Dickinson’s. He still believed that hers was recoverable.

I’m not so sure. Leyda understood the limits of his “rag-picking method . . . most of our biggest questions about her must remain unanswered.” But he still persisted, like some magnificent collagist, still hoped to find the missing keys.

Suppose the keys weren’t missing at all, but were part of some private, internal structure. And suppose her definition of poetry was different from ours, and she was a very different kind of poet, more like an explorer and discoverer, who meant to subjugate her Lexicon, rather than juggle words. She would share some of her discoveries in her letter-poems, sing a verse or two to a favorite cousin, but she shared her hand-sewn fascicles with no one; these were very private catalogues, complete in themselves, meant for her own consumption; and the variants to a particular word that she wrote in the margins were like magical flowers, not meant to cancel one another, but to create a cluster, or bouquet. That “omitted center” was less a mask than the sign of her modernity. For those critics who swear she was feminizing a male-dominated culture of language constructions, I would say that there’s something strange about the femininity of her attack. Camille Paglia best describes the force and “riddling ellipsis” of Dickinson’s style. “Protestant hymn-measure is warped and deformed by a stupefying energy. Words are rammed into lines with such force that syntax shatters and collapses into itself. . . . The brutality of this belle of Amherst would stop a truck.”

* * *

We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.

But more than a century after Higginson first introduced Emily Dickinson to her public, we’re still having a hard time unraveling most of her riddles. We’ve examined her in every sort of context, have peered into her culture and seen how women behaved with other women, and how nineteenth-century courtship rites distanced them from the language of their male suitors. We’ve seen Dickinson’s own sexual ambiguity. Sam Bowles seemed to have a crush on Sue’s former schoolmate Kate Scott, but so did Emily Dickinson, who knit a pair of garters for the ravishing young widow, and had the garters sent over to the Evergreens (while Kate was in residence), with the following lines:

When Katie walks, this simple pair accompany her side
When Katie runs unwearied they travel on the road,
When Katie kneels, their loving hands still clasp her pious knee—
Ah! Katie! Smile at Fortune, with two so knit to thee!

It’s hard to imagine that Dickinson was unconscious of how erotic these lines were—it’s almost as if she were caressing Kate with her own “loving hands,” but whether she was conscious or not, the garters still leap out at us like a pair of seductive spiders.

Yet all her puzzles didn’t have such keys, no matter what Leyda said. We may have Kate’s reminiscence (in 1917) of Emily at the Evergreens in 1859, “with her dog, & Lantern! often at the piano playing weird & wonderful melodies, all from her own inspiration, oh! She was a choice spirit!” These “weird and wonderful” riffs do mirror the music of her poems, and we can see how Dickinson loved to improvise, but she remains a moving target, hard to find. “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied—” she wrote to Higginson in 1885. [Letter 972]

Possibly a portrait of Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott, c. 1859. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I believe she suffered horrendously as a woman; dream brides drift in and out of her poems like a continual nightmare—yet she did not want to be “Bridalled.” Sometimes she was married to God, with her “Title divine,” sometimes to the Devil. Like Sue herself, she had a genuine fear of male sexuality, that infernal “man of noon,” who scorches and scalds every little virgin flower—“they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous, and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up.” [Letter 93, 1852]

She had a plan for Sue and herself, a lifetime of love and devotion to the one craft that was open to women—“we are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.” [Letter 56, October 9, 1851] Together they might defeat or outfox “the man of noon.” But Sue was an orphan in search of a home. She couldn’t practice her craft in the poorhouse. And so she yielded herself up to Austin, this willful girl who seemed to have such a sway over Emily all her life. So many of Dickinson’s poems and letters are like dream songs, where she had to borrow from Shakespeare to change her sex, morph into some Marc Antony trying to conquer that Cleopatra who lived next door. . . .

I believe that her rebellion against the culture of nineteenth-century Amherst was of another kind. She was promiscuous in her own fashion, deceiving everyone around her with the sly masks she wore. She was faithful to no one but her dog. Her white dress was one more bit of camouflage, to safeguard the witchery of her craft. It may have been an act of impersonation, as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest in The Madwoman in the Attic, but I don’t agree that Dickinson, decked in white, became “a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in her room in her father’s house.” There’s a different tale to tell.

* * *

Cotton Mather would have burned her for a witch.

She played the role of little girl that nineteenth-century women were meant to play. But she was far from a little girl, even if she told Higginson, “I have a little shape—it would not crowd your Desk—nor make much Racket as the Mouse, that dents your Galleries—” [Letter 265] It was one more act of seduction. She must have sensed her own monstrous powers—this Vesuvius at Home. The Brain, she would write, is wider than the Sky.

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound— [Fr598]

She may have sent her letter-poems to favorite friends like little bombs of love, but I don’t believe she ever meant to share her own “experiments” with anyone else. Higginson was reluctant to unclasp her Portfolio—poems plucked up from the roots of her mind. But she wasn’t boasting when she said—twice—that he had saved her life, not because he had much to say about her poems. He didn’t. But he cared for his half-cracked poetess, must have sniffed her greatness and her suffering. He wasn’t a fool. He just couldn’t read the future very well, couldn’t have seen that the twentieth century would soon explode into slant rhymes that would render him obsolete. Yet Dickinson desperately needed him. He was her lifeline—not to the literary culture of Boston; she wasn’t much interested in that. But she could practice her own intelligence—and her craft—on him. And so much of what we will ever know about her comes from her letters to Higginson; with him, she could wear the mask of a poet.

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way. [Letter 342a, Higginson to his wife]

Not as far as Dickinson’s poetry is concerned. And that’s why we pay homage to this outlaw. She wasn’t one more madwoman in the attic. She was the mistress of her own interior time and space, where she delivered “Dirks of Melody” that could delight and stun. She was the blonde Assassin who could dance with “the man of noon” and walk away at will—in her poetry.

“I cannot dance opon my Toes—/No Man instructed me—” she declared in one of her most striking poems. But she needed no instruction. Dickinson was dancing all the time. Few people in Amherst ever caught that dance, not even Sue. She danced right past her father’s eyes, made herself invisible in her white dress. And Allen Tate, one of a handful of poets and critics who rediscovered Emily Dickinson in the twentieth century, paid her the highest sort of compliment when he said: “Cotton Mather would have burned her for a witch.”

* * *

I speak as a biographer here, a self-torturing biographer. But every account of Dickinson feels wrong.

I wanted to follow the witch’s wake, so I went on a pilgrimage to Mount Holyoke College, in western Massachusetts, to breathe in some of the atmosphere the poet had breathed for two semesters, in 1847 and 1848, and to interview Dickinson scholar Christopher Benfey, who teaches a course on Emily Dickinson’s time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, as the college was then called. But it was like trafficking in ghosts, since the seminary’s main building, with its elaborate portico and line of chimneys, no longer exists. And from the window of Benfey’s office near the main gate, I looked out upon the little serene pockets and hills of the college lawn. “We did an archaeological dig,” he said, “so where you see that oak tree”—in a lacuna on the lawn—“is perhaps the footprint of the building. . . . And the road you came in on is the same road. So Dickinson was right here. Dickinson stood right here where you’re sitting—lived right here.”

Most scholars, including Alfred Habegger, dismiss the importance of Dickinson’s stay at Mount Holyoke. “We know of no new friends she kept up with after leaving. In later years she hardly mentioned the place.” Yet I’m convinced that her grounding as a poet started here, in South Hadley. It was Dickinson’s first extended leave from Amherst as an adolescent—it troubled her, made her feel horribly homesick, but she found a kind of solace in words; there’s a sudden thrill in language itself as she writes letter after letter to Austin, and we can sense her plumage gather, like some songbird startled by the sound and texture of its own song.

A Menagerie performs outside her window, with its pet monkeys and bears. “The whole company stopped in front of the Seminary & played for about a quarter of an hour, for the purpose of getting custom in the afternoon I opine. Almost all the girls went & I enjoyed the solitude finely.” [Letter 16, South Hadley, October 21, 1847]

She needed that solitude—and the distance from her family, so that she could lick her own feathers. As Benfey says about Dickinson, “We put that little mountain range between ourselves and our mother and our father and our sister and our brother, and we think, I’m separate from them. I’m alone with language in a new way. I’m writing letters with a new intensity. For the first time, we have that sense of Dickinson writing these letters that go across mountains and across rivers. And for the first time, she has the sense that words travel, that they have wings,” like the hummingbird and its “Route of Evanescence” that Dickinson loved to write about.

And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head—
The Mail from Tunis— probably—
And easy Morning’s ride— [Fr1489A]

But it wasn’t simply her solitude that sharpened her. She met her first real antagonist, Mary Lyon, within the school’s walls. Lyon was a formidable foe. The founder and headmistress of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Lyon came from a much humbler background than the poet and believed in educating rich and poor alike as female soldiers in Christ. But no matter how wily she was, the headmistress in the severe white bonnet couldn’t get Dickinson to profess her faith, couldn’t rescue her soul. Emily Dickinson was one of the few “unsaved” seminarians. The battle was less about God and the Devil than about two women with strong wills, one of them a sixteen-year-old girl whose father was almost as tyrannical as Mary Lyon. None of Lyon’s little Christian soldiers could persuade the poet. She learned whatever she wanted to learn, and discarded all the rest.

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript of “Wild nights, wild nights.” Via Wikimedia Commons.

Benfey was still bemused by Dickinson as a young scholar. “I like to joke that she spent a year here and still thought i-t-apostrophe-s was the possessive of it, a word that she would write in a particular way.” But that allowed her to give any word “a color, a taste, a feel, a texture, an intensity” that no other poet could duplicate.

Yet Benfey still broods over the year Dickinson spent at Mount Holyoke. He’s surrounded by the college’s earliest catalogues on his shelves, but insists, “We don’t really know what Mount Holyoke was like. I’m sitting in this office with a direct connection to Mary Lyon and Emily Dickinson. I think I know as much about that period as anyone alive and I know nothing. . . . I know more about the questions. I know that Mary Lyon is as mysterious a figure as Emily Dickinson, that if we could begin to understand who Mary Lyon was, we might begin to understand how complex that relationship was.

“I speak as a biographer here, a self-torturing biographer. But every account of Dickinson feels wrong. I can’t pretend that I can say, ‘And then Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke, a really important transitional milestone’—it feels false from the first letter put down on the page.”

And this is the dilemma we all have, that impossible plunder of capturing whoever she was. We fling out words like a chorus of arrows to find some mark, to brand Emily Dickinson, mythologize her in some way, and she hints at all the dangers, gives us a wicked slap in the face.

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
Jason, sham, too— [Fr910]

* * *

We get the sense of her as a performance artist. She walks downstairs to see Higginson, carrying the two day lilies, and says, ‘These are my introduction.’

Benfey agrees with W. H. Auden “that language finds certain people and lives through them, almost the way a virus lives by finding a host, I think language lives by finding hosts. . . . It found a way to live in Shakespeare. Infested him. Got all it could out of Shakespeare and then moved on.”

“It didn’t disappear,” I say. “It went into the ground—”

“For a long time, and found Emily Dickinson.”

And then the virus moved on. “You listen to those early songs of Bob Dylan, and you think, Whoa, how could he have written them? But he doesn’t know. Just as Dickinson wouldn’t have been able to say, ‘Well, I first thought of the loaded gun image when I was sitting in my father’s room and there was a gun in the corner and I thought, I’m like that gun.’ We have no idea.”

And the letters she wrote were as puzzling as that loaded gun.

“We still don’t know how to read them,” Benfey says. “We assume the difficulty of the poems. And we assume the availability and relative intelligibility of the letters. It’s gotta be the opposite, because with the poems, we have some idea what rhyme and meter are. But with the letters, we have no fucking clue what the rules for reading and writing letters are. The ‘Master Letters’ have gotten a ton of attention, but it’s the other letters . . .”

We talk about the cunning and the craft of her letters to Higginson. “She doesn’t need him as a mentor,” I say, and Benfey agrees.

“That’s where we get the sense of her as a performance artist. She walks downstairs to see Higginson, carrying the two day lilies, and says, ‘These are my introduction’ in a breathy voice, and it was the most amazing sort of ballet imaginable. You know. The white dress . . .”

Higginson served as “a mirror, a conduit, a messenger—a publicist. Somehow she identifies both [her] publicists, Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. And damned if they don’t pair up and sell her to the world.

“She performs for both of them. She gives them just the amount they need; she withholds access in just the right way.” She tantalizes Mabel, never reveals herself. “‘You may see me when I’m in my ultimate box, in my coffin. That’s when you’ll see me for the first time, in my box.’”

She “micromanaged” her own funeral, like another ballet, “with the Irish Catholic men carrying her out through the open barn—and put her in another box, the tomb, another box on top of it. The whole thing was orchestrated beyond belief.”

Yet I’m not convinced that her final performance was to have a pair of messengers, Mabel and Higginson, entomb her poems in yet another box and publish them. The “phosphorescence” of her poems was from a very private glow. She spelled the way she wanted to spell, constructed her poems like hieroglyphics with all the weird minuscules and majuscules of her own hand, until you could no longer tell the difference between them; it was the deepest sort of play.

My Basket holds—just—Firmaments—
Those—dangle easy—on my arm,
But smaller bundles—Cram. [Fr358]

She had no time for those “smaller bundles” of recognition and career. It’s not that she disregarded her own worth as a poet, but she saw that worth in a messianic way.

The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference— [Fr930]

And she was out “opon Circumference,” where she wasn’t hindered by custodians of culture, and could explore as she pleased. “Finite— to fail, but infinite—to Venture—” [Fr952] She tore language from its roots, created an internal Teletype that is still difficult for us to comprehend. None of us knows her motives. We have to pry, like clumsy surgeons. We attach ourselves to whatever clues we can. And we try to listen, crawl into that hole in time where her creativity began.

The Clock strikes One
That just struck Two— [Fr1598D]

* * *

Dickinson wasn’t a madwoman, but she was maddened with rage—against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and will.

In 1956, R. P. Blackmur, who was as much of an autodidact and outsider as Emily Dickinson, and grew up less than fifty miles from where she was born, wrote about her in The Kenyon Review: “One exaggerates, but it sometimes seems as if in her work a cat came at us speaking English.” This is what Colonel Higginson must have intuited, without ever being able to articulate it—this strange woman, who had “the playful ambiguity of a kitten being a tiger,” according to Blackmur. She must have scratched Higginson many a time with her “claws,” while she called herself his Scholar and his Gnome; she crawled right under his skin. She bombarded him with letters and poems, even while he was away at war. He returned from battle like a wounded ghost, settled in Newport, had to take care of his sick wife. He tried three times to lure Emily out of her carapace and have her come to Boston, where she could listen to him lecture, converse with other poets, and attend meetings with other women at the aristocratic and exclusive Women’s Club. And Dickinson refused him three times. “. . . I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,” she wrote to the colonel in 1869. It’s Dickinson’s credo of defiance and probably her most famous line. [Letter 330, June 1869]

Dickinson scholars love to toss this credo back at us as hard evidence of her growing agoraphobia. But it’s evidence of nothing more than her swagger, her delight in shocking the colonel. Meanwhile, she plotted in her own way, kept inviting Higginson to Amherst. Finally, after corresponding with her for eight years, he did go to see his half-cracked poetess, in August 1870. The death of an older brother, who had lived nearby, gave him the excuse to visit. It was one of the great encounters in American literature. A gentle soul who swore he loved danger walked right into Emily Dickinson’s lair and met the Satanic, catlike sibyl whom R. P. Blackmur would write about almost a century later. She glided down the stairs of her father’s house and said, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say—” [Letter 342a, Higginson to his wife] and talked continuously for an hour, sucking all the energy out of the colonel.

And when Higginson finally got a word in and asked the reclusive sibyl “if she never felt want of employment, never going off the place & never seeing any visitor,” the sibyl said, “‘I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time’ (& added) ‘I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.’” [Letter 342a]

That sounds more like a poet plucking her feathers and pruning her resources than an agoraphobic who was careening out of control.

And then she uttered something that was even odd for a sibyl. She asked Higginson if he could tell her what “home” is. “I never had a mother,” she said. “I suppose a mother is one who to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” [Letter 342b] She was thirty-nine years old. And in not one of her previous letters—to Higginson or any other correspondent—had she ever spoken of herself as a motherless child. Nor had she said anything unkind about her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson—Emily Sr., as some scholars call Mrs. Dickinson to distinguish her from her poet daughter. She appears in one of Dickinson’s very first letters, where she helps save Austin’s sick rooster from oblivion. She’s a whirlwind of activity—cooking, sewing, gardening, and going off to “ramble” with her neighbors, bringing them crullers or another delight, and “she really was so hurried she hardly knew what to do.” [Letter 52, September 23, 1851] Sometimes she suffers from neuralgia, where one side of her face freezes up. And in 1855, after Edward Dickinson moved his family back to the Homestead, his father’s former house, she fell into a funk that lasted four years. But her daughter was just as uneasy about the move. “. . . I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” [Letter 182, about January 20, 1856]

Cover of the first edition of Poems, published in 1890. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Both mother and daughter had frequent bouts of melancholy. Both took part in Amherst’s most publicized event, the annual Cattle Show, where they baked pies and bread and served on committees. And even after her sibyl-like remark to Higginson, she still recognized the presence of her mother, as she wrote to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross: “. . . Mother drives with Tim [the stableman] to carry pears to settlers. Sugar pears, with hips like hams, and the flesh of bonbons.” [Letter 343]

Then, in 1874, she wrote to Higginson:

I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me.
He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none. [Letter 405]

Here she was doubly unkind. Not only didn’t she have an anthropomorphic mother, but the mother she did have—Awe—had a male identity. She was now forty-three, long past her most productive period, as most Dickinson scholars believe. And why did she suddenly parade in front of Higginson with one of her letter bombs and annihilate her own mother? But it wasn’t only Mrs. Dickinson who was in her line of fire. In 1873, while both her parents were still alive, she wrote to Mrs. J. G. Holland, one of her most trusted friends:

I was thinking of thanking you for the kindness to Vinnie.
She has no Father and Mother but me and I have no Parents but
her. [Letter 391]

It had to have been more than some momentary crisis. She adored her father—and feared him. He was constantly present in her mental and material life. She’d become a creator in her father’s house, in that corner room, with her Lexicon, her lamp, and her minuscule writing desk.

Sweet hours have perished here,
This is a timid [mighty] room— [Fr1785A]

But the two biting remarks to Higginson about her mother would have a scattergun effect. In 1971, psychoanalyst and Dickinson scholar John Cody published After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, a five-hundred-page study that presents Dickinson as a mental case whose only manner of survival was writing her cryptic and very private poems. Cody argues that Dickinson could never have become a poet without her delinquent mother—she was indeed a motherless child, emotionally abandoned by a woman who was “shallow, self-centered, ineffectual, conventional, timid, submissive, and not very bright.” Mrs. Dickinson was utterly responsible for her daughter’s “infantile dependence . . . and compulsive self-entombment.” And, says Cody, “one is led to conclude that all her life there smoldered in Emily Dickinson’s soul the muffled but voracious clamoring of the abandoned child.”

Cody isn’t the only culprit. For many critics, Dickinson has remained the madwoman entombed in her own little attic. Even Alfred Habegger, one of her most subtle biographers, believes that Dickinson’s “great genius is not to be distinguished from her madness.” And for Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Emily Dickinson may have posed as a madwoman to insulate herself, but became “truly a madwoman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).” Whatever theories we may hold about madness and art, or about some great psychic wound Dickinson suffered—a relentless blow that Dickinson herself described—

A Death blow— is a Life blow— to Some
Who, till they died,
Did not alive—become— [Fr966A]

her letters and poems are not the work of a madwoman, or someone trying to cover up her own debilitating tremors and attacks. In a letter to Colonel Higginson, Sue wrote that Emily “hated her peculiarities, and shrank from any notice of them as a nerve from the knife.” Why don’t I believe her? Dickinson’s entire life was a singularity; she could have been one of Melville’s “isolatoes,” living in the interior continent of her own mind. How else could she have thrived? But Sue had a terrifying need to normalize her sister-in-law, turn her into one more village poet, scribbling about unrequited love. She couldn’t bear to look at Emily’s deep rage and urge to destroy. Dickinson never shrank from any knife—she loved knives. It was her task at Mount Holyoke to clean the knives and collect them, like some kind of knife thrower in the making. She could wound us all with “Dirks of Melody.” [Fr1450] Mutilation had become a central motif in her letters and poems. “Here is Festival,” she wrote to Sue in 1864, exiled in Cambridge for nearly eight months while a Boston ophthalmologist dealt with her irritated eyes. “Where my Hands are cut, Her fingers will be found inside—” [Letter 288]

It’s one of Dickinson’s most disturbing images, as if Sue and Emily were sisters bound together by mutilation, but where had this mutilation come from? Had Emily cut herself, or had Sue crept inside her like some ghoul, with a dirk of her own? There’s a lot of bile and savagery in that image. And perhaps it might help us understand her own sudden, brutal remarks to Higginson about her mother, like Blackmur’s cat breaking into English. Dickinson wasn’t a madwoman, but she was maddened with rage—against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and will. Yet that annihilation of Emily Sr. was also about something else. Dickinson had to reinvent herself, or be stifled and destroyed by all the rituals around her—she was the daughter of the town patriarch. Cody believes that Dickinson was doomed to become a spinster because she was “too uncertain of her attractiveness and too fearful of heterosexuality to consider marriage.” That hardly stopped most other women of her class, and it wouldn’t have stopped the Belle of Amherst. I suspect that what disturbed her more than giving in to the “man of noon” was the notion of having to give up the Dickinson name. She could only become “The Wife—without the Sign!” [Fr194A] Her brother was the adored one, the pampered one—he would perpetuate the Dickinson line. Emily and her sister were household pets. Edward would school the girls, send them both to a female seminary, but he never mapped much of a future for them. Born into a genteel caste, the two sisters “suffered the tormenting paralysis of women deadlocked by a culture that treated them as both servant and superior,” according to Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson, a kind of love song from one poet to her nineteenth-century sister. And so we have the picture of Emily Dickinson as the perpetual child, a pose she often adopted with Higginson and others as one of her many masks. But that childish whisper of Emily’s wasn’t her natural voice—her own hoarse contralto wasn’t a whisper at all. She was, as Howe insists, a woman “with Promethean ambition.” She would remain a Dickinson, but parent herself, become a creature of both sexes, defiantly original and androgynous.

A loss of something ever felt I—
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was—of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out— [Fr1072]

And it was as “the only Prince cast out” that she lived her life, searching for the “Delinquent Palaces” of her childhood—and her art. We can feel that streak of rebellion when she unconsciously sympathizes with a maverick student at Mount Holyoke. She had only been there a little longer than a month and was still homesick when she wrote to Austin:

A young lady by the name of Beach, left here for home this morning. She could not get through her examinations & was very wild beside. [Letter 17, November 2, 1847]

It was this wildness that frightened and attracted Emily, a wildness that would haunt the dreamscape of her poems. We never learn what happened to Miss Beach, whether she settled down with some “man of noon” or remained a maverick—another “Prince cast out.” But Dickinson had to rebel in a much more secret and convoluted way, as the village Prometheus, who stole whatever she could from her Lexicon and the local gods of Amherst, and manufactured her very own fire.

* * *

Jerome Charyn | From: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century | Bellevue Literary Press | March 2016