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A Week to Remember: Emily Dickinson

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of American poet Emily Dickinson and her letters, poems and pressed flowers.

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830. Her poetry was virtually unknown during her lifetime, but today, Dickinson is considered one of America’s most important literary figures.

She was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father served in the state legislature, and for two years in the United States House of Representatives. Dickinson was a fine student, and the principal of her secondary school described her as “an excellent scholar of exemplary deportment.” He noted, though, that she was prone to melancholy and frequent thoughts of death.

In 1847, after finishing her education of Amherst Academy, she briefly attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College). She stayed there for less than a year before returning home; accounts vary as to her reasons for leaving.

Once home, Dickinson settled into a comfortable life. She took on many of the household chores, and at least for a few years, enjoyed attending various social events in Amherst. She was known locally for her skill as a gardener. She had studied botany in school, and kept a leather-bound volume that she eventually filled with more than 400 specimens of pressed flowers. One of her nieces later remembered Dickinson’s garden as full of flowers, “enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia.” Marta McDowell writes about Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life (e-book).

From the mid-1850s on, Dickinson’s mother was frequently bedridden with a series of chronic illnesses. Dickinson took on the role of caretaker until her mother’s death in 1882 and began to withdraw from the community. By the mid-1860s, she was an almost complete recluse, leaving her home only when absolutely necessary.

It was during this period that Dickinson began to seriously focus on her poetry (e-book | print). She revised poems that she had written earlier, and copied her work into 40 small volumes, containing more than 800 poems. Her family and friends knew that she wrote poetry, and a family friend published a handful of her poems in his newspaper. But those poems—fewer than a dozen—were the only Dickinson poems to be published during her lifetime, and they were heavily edited, removing most of her idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization.

3 books about Emily Dickinson

Though Dickinson removed herself from physical interaction with the world, she maintained an active correspondence with her friends, writing thousands of letters. Her most frequent correspondent was Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the wife of her brother Austin, to whom she wrote more than 300 letters. Austin and Susan grew increasingly distant during their marriage, and some scholars have read the letters between Susan and Emily as suggesting a romantic relationship.

Another regular correspondent for many years and another possible romance was Otis Lord, a local judge. They met in the early 1870s and wrote letters every Sunday for more than a decade until Lord’s death in 1884. Most of their letters were destroyed, but Emily wrote to him in one letter, “While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us?"

Dickinson’s father died in 1874. His funeral was held at the Dickinson home, and Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open.

Dickinson continued to write in her later years, but she was less meticulous about editing and organizing her work. She died on May 15, 1886, of kidney failure. Her funeral was arranged, and her obituary written, by her sister-in-law Susan.

After her death, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia discovered the 40 volumes and many loose pages of her poetry and recognized its worth. The first volume of her work was published in 1890, edited by T. W. Higginson—a literary critic who had been Dickinson’s friend for many years—and Mabel Loomis Todd, the long-time mistress of Dickinson’s brother. There was no complete collection of her work published until 1955. Julie Dobrow’s After Emily (e-book | print) looks at the role of Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter in publishing Dickinson’s poetry.

Critical reaction to Dickinson’s poetry was mixed at first, with many critics disapproving of her eccentric punctuation (she was very fond of using dashes in places one would not expect to find them) and capitalization. But by the 1920s, she was increasingly viewed as a forerunner to the new generation of modernist poets, ahead of her time in her rejection of rigid Victorian formality.

Dickinson’s poems often deal with death and mortality, and with what she called the “undiscovered continent” of the self, the mind, and the spirit. While she was a regular churchgoer for only a few years in her youth, she read the Bible regularly, and many of her poems deal with the teachings of Jesus; some poems are addressed directly to him.

Dickinson’s poems are well suited to musical settings; they are short, written in straightforward language, and with more than 1,700 poems to choose from, it’s easy to gather groups of them that fit together thematically. Probably the best known musical setting of Dickinson is Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson; there are sets of songs or choral pieces with similar names by (among many others) Vincent Persichetti, Otto Luening, Larry Alan Smith, and Daniel Crozier. There are entire albums of Dickinson songs by Don Walker and Ellika Hansen; and pieces with less obvious titles by Augusta Read Thomas (Gathering Paradise), Elena Ruehr (Cricket, Spider, Bee), Robin de Raaff (Symphony #4, “Melodies Unheard”), and Juliana Hall (Syllables of Velvet, which sets not Dickinson’s poems, but excerpts from her letters).

In Terence Davies’s 2016 biographical film A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson; Nixon also narrated the documentary My Letter to the World. Julie Harris starred in the 1976 one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, winning a Tony Award for her performance, which was filmed for PBS.

Two biographies of Dickinson take their titles from the same phrase of her poetry—Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) and Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Gun (e-book). Charyn is also the author of the biographical novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (e-book | print). William H. Shurr’s New Poems of Emily Dickinson (e-book | print) creates new “poems” out of excerpts from her letters.

Also This Week

December 15, 1859

L. L. Zamenhof was born. Zamenhof was an ophthalmologist and amateur linguist, best remembered as the creator of the language Esperanto. Zamenhof began working on the language while still in his teens, and he believed that the adoption of a universal language would foster international understanding and world peace. It is difficult to precisely estimate the number of Esperanto speakers—it may be as high as a million—but it is almost certainly the most widely spoken constructed language. Esther Schor’s Bridge of Words (e-book | print) is a history of Zamenhof’s creation.

December 11, 1922

Maila Nurmi was born. Nurmi became an icon of the mid-1950s, using the stage name Vampira. Vampira hosted a weekly broadcast of horror movies on KABC-TV in 1954-55. The show aired only in Los Angeles, and only for a year, but when the show ended, Nurmi kept the rights to the character. Vampira appeared in a few movies, most notably the 1959 cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space. The documentary Vampira and Me tells the story of Nurmi and her character, and includes some of the little surviving footage from The Vampira Show.

December 12, 1929

Toshiko Akiyoshi was born. Akiyoshi is a jazz pianist and bandleader who made her first recordings in the 1950s. In the 1970s, she began exploring ways to integrate traditional Japanese instruments and themes into her own music. For twenty years, she led the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra; she disbanded the ensemble in 2003, saying that she wanted to focus on solo piano playing. Some of Akiyoshi’s early albums are available for streaming at Hoopla.

December 9, 1965

The television special A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time. Peanuts writer Charles M. Schulz and animator Bill Melendez created the show, which was highly unusual in many regards—the use of children (none of whom were professional actors) to provide the voices, the melancholy mood, Linus’s recitation of the Biblical Christmas story, and Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack. The show was so unusual that CBS feared it would be a ratings disaster; they were wrong. The show was a critical and commercial success, and the first in a series of more than 40 Peanuts television specials.