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.
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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 “Such a sheaf of unpublished verses lies before me, the life-work of a woman so secluded that she lived literally indoors by choice for many years, and within the limits of her father’s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. Read more…