Monday, February 1, 2021

These Fevered Days, Ten Pivotal Moments In the Making Of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann

 Hi Dear Folk,

I have been hunkered down with this book for far too long, and it now, absolutely must go back to the library, no more renewals.   I wanted to do a review and this is the stick I needed.

Emily Dickinson had a fertile mind but lived a life confined to house and locality, at this present time it seemed absolutely the correct read, as my mind is busy, but confined to home and hardly venturing forth beyond our little area on the map.  Can one in such circumstances live a full life?  And I say yes, Emily Dickinson did.  Life other than an external situation.

To some it seemed she lived an ordinary life, 

... resided in one town, went to school, never held a job, lived in her parents home, remained single and died at fifty-five.  She loved passionately, wrote scores of letters, anguished over abandonment and fought with God, found ecstasy with nature, embraced seclusion, was ambivalent towards publication, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.  Only after her death, when her sister opened the drawer, did the world begin to realize, that the life of Emily Dickinson was far from commonplace.

Author's Note.  

Martha Ackmann taught a Tuesday afternoon class in the Dickinson homestead.  I have often thought of that class and how it would be to sit in her very home discussing Emily's poetry.  There is such an ambience of setting to learning, hence my heart goes out to those students sitting at a computer doing remote learning.  Here it is a snowy day in January and my mind goes back to my days at Hadham Hall, sitting in a tower turret room, on a snowy day, with leaded glass windows, looking out over the snow covered cedar trees, taking a history class.

Emily was born December 10th, 1830 in Amherst, MA to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, schooled at Amherst Academy and Mt Holyoke Female Seminary, South Hadley, MA.  Published posthumously in 1890.  She did not keep a diary, but frequently corresponded with friends and of course wrote poetry.  She could be reclusive, and reserved the right to hold lengthy lively conversations with you if she so chose, or not to.  Of the town she lived in:

One professor's wife Deborah Fiske, put her finger on two qualities that made Amherst unique.  Amherst, Massachusetts, she said, was filled with "a very spending evening sort of folks" and its best women were "free from the silly very birdish airs."

Emily held dear the group she called her Circle of Five:  smart and lively girls ...

With friends Emily even produced a literary journal they named "Forrest Leaves"  which reminds me so much of the March sisters, in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The surrounding of oneself with learning and learned people, the founding of schools for just such a purpose, including girls.

Emily came from an academic family who believed in the value of education and had the means to pursue it.  A year at Mount Holyoke cost $60.  Her maternal grandfather, Joel Norcross, was one of the founders of Monson Academy and at the same time Samuel Fowler Dickinson was getting Amherst Academy off the ground.  Emily's mother and Aunt Lavinia had attended Monson, and later Mr. Herrick's School for girls, in New Haven, Connecticut, where young women regularly attended lectures at Yale.  Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke, from which many pupils went on to be missionaries and teachers.  Religion was most important at these institutions.

President Hitchcock once remarked that religion was at the very core of Amherst College.  Area newspapers shared his point of view.  In reporting on commencements at Amherst and Mount Holyoke, newspapers listed students who read prizewinning essays as well as the number of seniors who had professed their faith.

The Dickinsons were Congregationalists the largest faith in Massachusetts at that time.  Emily was part of the "no hopers."  As such she was still allowed to attend Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon was a liberal thinker.

Miss Lyons rooms were behind the double parlors and across from the Seminary Hall.  Emily could remember the many words Mary Lyon had spoken there.  "Don't be a hypocrite," she had told them, "be honest." Distinguish between what is very difficult and what is impossible.  Do what is difficult."  "The difference between great and small minds is the power of classifications.  Little minds dwell on particular things.  Great minds take in a great deal."

Fidelia Fiske had been a teacher at Mount Holyoke, her missionary letters from Persia were often read to the girls.

... and more letters in Seminary Hall from the intrepid Fidelia Fiske.  Emily knew she would never set out for Persia or teach Choctaw Indians. ... she would bore into her own interior, confronting an unknown as wild and uncertain as any new world missionary had seen.

Valentine's Day was celebrated with a Festival in town where ice cream was served and Valentine's were penned.  Esther Howland an enterprising young women who had attended Mount Holyoke; mass produced Valentines from her father's stationery store in Worcester, she hoped her brother could find $200 worth of orders, he came back with $5,000.  Emily loved to write Valentines and spar with them.

"A little condescending, & sarcastic, your Valentine to me," she teased a male cousin, "a little like an Eagle, stooping to salute a Wren, & I concluded once, I dared not answer it, for it seemed to me not quite becoming; in a bird so lowly as myself; to claim admittance Eyrie, & conversation with its King."

Emily did not like housework, it took time away from her beloved writing.  This was especially so when Vinnie her younger sister was away at school.

"Vinnie away," she had written, "and my two hands but 'two' - not four, or five as they ought to be - and so many wants - and me so very handy - and my time of so little account - and my writing so very needless."  Emily said that if she took so much as "an inch of time" to write, she would be castigated - not so much by her family as the world and her own guilt.  Housekeeping, to her, was a way to cultivate a woman's submission and steal time, and she wanted nothing of it.  "God keep me from what they call households," she said.

There are so few literary works written by working class people before the fifties, to find any is a rare and special gem, they just didn't have the time to do so.  One can say that has changed for the better.  Even Emily came from what can be considered a more well to do background, begrudged the time spent on, as she said "households."  Neither was she a fan of small talk and as she got older her solitude became more pronounced, fewer people were let into her secluded world,

That winter when the Sewing Society began its meetings, Emily declined to attend.  She knew "the public"  would be puzzled by her absence and make her the object of prayers, and she let loose with a torrent of sarcasm.  "Now all the poor will be helped - the cold warmed - the warm cooled - the hungry fed - the thirsty attended to - the raged clothed - and this suffering - tumbled down world will be helped to its feet again," she wrote her friend Jane.  

In reference to her hand sewn little books which came to be know as 'Facicles.'

Sometime Emily would carefully write a poem and fold the sheet as if for mailing, but never send it.  She dated practically nothing and almost never included titles.  One poem was as short as two lines and others extended to five or six stanzas.  There were countless images from nature - robins, gentians, owls, snowflakes - and verses that echoed the religious cadences of her youth:  

In the name of the Bee - 

And of the Butterfly - 

And of the Breeze - Amen!

Several poems described an aching void that she refused to identify.  

Emily and the people of Amherst were heart broken by the loss of Amherst men in the Civil War, thirty-one men from the town died for the Union cause.  

She delighted in standing apart, and sneered at puffed-up somebodies who forever croaked about themselves.  "I'm Nobody!  Who are you?"  she wrote in one verse.  "Are you - Nobody - too?"

Yet it was unclear - as it always would be - if Emily were speaking for herself in her poems or inventing a persona with vastly different opinions.  Amherst residents would have been surprised if they had discovered the shy, reclusive daughter of Edward Dickinson was capable of writing such bold lines as  

I'm "wife" - I've finished that - 

That other state - 

I'm Czar - I'm woman now - 

She rarely showed such audacity in person.

Thomas Higginson was the co-editor of the first two collections of Emily's poems.  She corresponded with him for eight years before finally agreeing to meet with him.

First he heard her.  From upstairs on the second floor came the sound of quick, light steps - footsteps that sounded like a child's.  Then she entered.  A plain woman with two bands of reddish hair, not particularly good-looking, wearing a white pique dress.  The white stunned him.  It was exquisite.  A blue worsted shawl covered her shoulders.  She seemed fearful to him, breathless at first, and extended her hand, not to shake - but to offer something.  "These are my introduction,"  she said, handing him tow day-lilies.

Jostling along on the tracks, miles from Amherst, ... She was not capable of casual conversation, he told Mary, (his wife) or of friendship.  It took every ounce of his being to meet her level of intellectual intensity... "Without touching her, she drew from me.  I am glad not to live near her."

Helen Hunt one of her closest friends, who lived in Colorado and had just married for the second time.

Helen was pleased to hear from Emily, but baffled by the second verse.  What did "dooms" mean and how did the idea of calamity connect to her wedding?

When fleeing from the Spring

The Spring avenging fling

To Dooms of Balm - 

Emily died May 15th, 1886.

That Wednesday afternoon, May 19th, the funeral service took place in the Dickinson's family library.  "To Amherst to the funeral of that rare & strange creature Emily Dickinson."  Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote in his diary.

I never studied Emily Dickinson, or her poetry, but in my year of coming to grips with who is an American? this is just a little cog in rounding out my thoughts.  I feel as did Helen Hunt, much of her poetry baffles me, but my favorite Emily Dickinson poem is this, I'm Nobody!  Who are you?  A question we all should be asking in this present time.

I prefer the first published version.

I'm Nobody!  Who are you?

(First Published Version)

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Dont tell! they'd advertise - you know!

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog -
To tell one's name - the livelong June -
To an admiring Bog!

I did enjoy this book and would recommend it.

Keep safe,



  1. I love Emily Dickinson's poems and so happy that her sister found them after her death. What a tragedy that would have been if they were never published. Have a great new week. xoxo Kris

  2. I have never heard of Emily Dickinson. It sounds an interesting book. Our libraries are all closed. My books were due back in December but we keep getting extensions. Now it is to the end of February but doubt if they will open then. Trouble is we can't borrow any either. The charity shops are all shut so no books from that source. So have bought a few from world books and one from Ebay. There is Borrowbox which downloads books free from the library but I prefer real books.

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