She was a red-haired school girl badgering her friends to see her — an eager college student begging her family for books — a religious rebel refusing to profess faith in the center of Calvinist New England — an amateur botanist collecing plant specimens and labelling them in Latin — and the center of love triangles and family controversy years after she died.
Do you recognize Emily Dickinson?
In the fall when I first visited the Emily Dickinson Museum, the staff there were taking a closer look at Susan Dickinson, Emily’s sister-in-law. Susan lived next door to Emily for more than 30 years. Susan held literary salons that drew in leading writers of her day. She read Emily’s poems and gave criticisms Emily accepted. And Emily sent her ardent letters and poems.
Emily loved her. Emily may have fallen in love with her.
“I think most scholars, and even her family and her neice, would agree that Emily loved Susan,” said Cynthia Dickinson of Pittsfield, who was then director of interpretation and programming at the Emily Dickinson Museum. “The depth of the bond and its importance is unquestioned. It’s level and definition are hard to say.”
“Emily was a passionate person,” agreed Jeanne Shumway, a guide at the musuem.
Susan and Emily were school girls together. While Emily lived sheltered in a close and prominent family, Susan was the youngest child of a tavern keeper and orphaned by the age of 9, Shumway said. She spent her teenage years shuttling from one relative to another, working her way through school.
She came to Amherst, remote and snowy, after years of teaching in Baltimore, to marry Emily’s brother, Austin. She made a reputation for literary salons and for being difficult to talk to outside them. And she lived through her husband’s public affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst College professor.
A few days before my visit, the museum had opened a new exhibit in Susan’s dining room, with a baking contest and a celebration of hospitality.
“Until this exhibit, I had not thought of Susan’s development as a hostess,” Cynthia Dickinson said. “Put chronologically, I can see her progress to famous guests, to Emerson.”
Susan was in her 20s when she hosted the father of the Transcendentalists. In “Magnetic Visitors,” a memoir, she describes that night as a blur: she felt such awe of him that she said and remembered little. But Dickinson and Shumway agreed that she loved good conversation.
Susan became Emily’s first critic and main audience. Emily wrote many more poems to Susan than to anyone else, more than 250.
“She and Susan had the closest relationship in the family,” Shumway said. “She was a muse and a person who had some influence on Emily. Susan would read her poetry and make changes, and Emily would listen.”
Susan read her poetry, Shumway said, and the evidence is slim that anyone else in the family read it or talked with her about it.
They read together — the Brontës, George Elliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare, Thoreau and Emerson — and the newspaper.
When scholars got hold of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts and dated her poems by her handwriting, they saw the influence of current events in her writing, Shumway said. “They drop like flakes” became, not snow but soldiers — a metapor for a Civil War battle that killed one of her close friends.
“Her poems are not retreating,” Cynthia Dickinson said. “Some are explosive. She was engaging with the world in a different way, not avoiding it. She writes very well about pain.”
Knowing Emily’s house has helped Cynthia Dickinson to understand Emily’s poems. She had not lived in New England before she came to this job, she said, and the house gave her a sense of scale. Emily’s house is ample and solid and comfortable, and it makes her background tangible.
“Some people are overcome,” Cynthia Dickinson said. “They have read her for years. They come into her bedroom and weep.
“You see the sources of her inspiration and feel connected to the writer without having to turn poetry into biography.”
She emphasized this distinction. Details in a poem are not always facts: poets speak in metaphor. But the emotion in Emily’s poems did, she felt, have a root in Emily’s life.
“Her poems certainly come from her life and experience,” Dickinson said; “She could not write about pain if she had not experienced it.”
She wrote to Susan:
‘Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
The missing information, the mystery of Emily’s life and the cryptic language of Emily’s poems, draws people in, Dickinson said. Emily often wrote poems for people and sent them in letters, and she referred to writing and art and events they both knew.
She left more than 1,700 poems and 1,000 letters that her family later collected.
“We’re lucky we have her letters,” Cynthia Dickinson said, “because she wasn’t famous while she was alive. They make her real. They help you see what was going on in this active mind.”
At 21, Emily wrote to Susan in February 1852, when Susan was teaching school in Baltimore: “Will you let me come dear Susie — looking just as I do, my dress soiled and my grand old apron and my hair … I have been hard at work this morning, and I ought to be working now — but I cannot deny myself the luxury of a minute or two with you.”
And, impatient with the distance between them, she went on, “how vain it seems to write when one knows how to feel — how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice.”
And yet she wrote to Susan for decades while they lived a lawn away from each other. Susan held her dinner parties with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Hogson Burnett and Noah Webster. And Emily went to some of them, but more often she sat at her desk in her sunny room or walked in her father’s 14 acres of fields.
She went uncorsetted in light cotton cloth, easy to clean after gardening or baking. Shumway described her pouring rum over dried fruit for a West Indian black cake, walking her dog and sitting behind the flour bin to jot a verse on an envelope. She always carried a pencil in her pocket, in a light dress like a bathrobe.