Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 1

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom

This week, I had the great fortune of participating in an NEH workshop in Amherst, MA at the Emily Dickinson Homestead and Amherst College—Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. The experience was so meaningful and rich that I know I won’t be able to capture it in one post, but I will try to do it justice in several posts. I plan to write one post about each day of the workshop. It was not my first visit to Amherst or the Emily Dickinson Museum, but it was the most meaningful and personal.

The first evening, we gathered together for dinner and conversation. I was delighted to be able to reconnect with Whitney, whom I met at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers, and also to make new acquaintances (and by the end of the week, I called them friends). Early the next morning, we met at Amherst College. A new friend and Massachusetts teacher Bruce Penniman, whom I first met through the New England Association of Teachers of English and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, led us each morning in contemplation of an Emily Dickinson poem and a writing prompt. “Writing Into the Day” soon became one of our favorite activities, and it’s a great way to start the day with your own students.

Our first lecture, delivered by Emily Dickinson scholar and author Joanne Dobson was “Emily Dickinson: Why She Matters.” While Dr. Dobson’s answer to this question initially seems glib, it’s actually an excellent answer to the question of why any writer (or anything matters): “She matters because she matters to me.” Dobson described the first time she felt an Emily Dickinson poem “read her.” I found the concept of a poem reading a person revelatory. It is new language to describe that visceral reaction to a poem, that wonderful definition of a poem that Emily herself gave Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire 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?

I recall feeling one of Emily Dickinson’s poems read me when I discovered it after my grandmother died last year.

The lecture opened me up to new ways of thinking about why Dickinson didn’t publish. Friends urged her to do so. In her way, she did publish—manuscript circulation or social circulation was common in her day. She actually made no provision for her manuscripts upon her death. Her sister Lavinia burned her correspondence, which was customary in the era, but saw to it that her sister’s poetry was collected, edited, and published some four years after Emily Dickinson’s death. Lack of publication allowed her to be incomplete, to defy closure. People are uncomfortable with a lack of closure. Her poems can be uncomfortable, particularly as many of them contain varietals, and we do not know what her final word choices might have been.

After this lecture, we walked over to the Emily Dickinson Museum and toured both the house and the Evergreens, home of Austin and Susan Gilbert Dickinson, next door.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
A view of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom from the doorway

If you are in Amherst and can take in this tour, you definitely should. The tour guides are knowledgeable. I have toured the home three times and the Evergreens twice, and each time has been a great experience.

In the afternoon, we learned about expectations for creating our curriculum projects, which I was happy to see were grounded in backward design. I’m still working on my unit plan, but I feel really good about it in the draft stage, and I believe it will be a great learning experience for my students. I’m considering trying to find a way to bring my students to the Dickinson museum.

Our final lecture of the day was “What Happened to Emily Dickinson’s Stuff,” delivered by Jane Wald, who is the Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. The history of the publication of her work is a fascinating family drama. Initially, Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia asked their sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson and Dickinson’s friend and correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish Dickinson’s poetry. Susan Dickinson seemed disinclined to move forward with the project in any productive way, and Higginson said he couldn’t undertake the editing at that time. Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, who was a writer, a correspondent of Emily Dickinson’s, and most infamously, their brother Austin Dickinson’s mistress. She persuaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson to help her edit Dickinson’s poetry, and together they produced the first published (and heavily edited) volume of Dickinson’s poetry by 1890. They were so popular that two more volumes of poetry and a collection of Dickinson’s letters were published in the 1890’s.

Later, Lavinia had a falling out with Mabel Loomis Todd over a property dispute, and Lavinia filed a lawsuit against Mabel. Todd lost the lawsuit, so she locked away the Emily Dickinson manuscripts in her possession in a camphorated trunk, and no one touched them for thirty years. Dickinson’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi was the next person to publish a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but because of the family squabbles between the Dickinsons and the Todds, it wasn’t until the 1950’s when Thomas H. Johnson returned to the manuscripts and made the first attempt to establish a chronology for the poems. The history of Dickinson’s publication (as well as her own feelings about publication) is fascinating, but I’ll save more for future posts.

It was raining buckets, so our walking tour of Amherst was converted into a virtual tour. The delightful Martha Ackmann, a Dickinson author and scholar (you’ll hear more about her in future posts) used maps and visuals to take us to Emily Dickinson’s Amherst. We considered the landscape and the soundscape. I knew from being in the Emily Dickinson homestead that Dickinson could hear the train from her bedroom. I discovered on my last day of the workshop that Emily would have been able to see the train as well.

As you can see (I’ve written over 1,000 words already), our days were full—too full to recount in a single post.

A new poem I learned of (one of many) in this workshop seems appropriate to share to close, given what we learned about Dickinson and publication on this first day.

Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man—
Poverty—be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly—but We—would rather
From Our Garret go
White—unto the White Creator
Than invest—our Snow—

Thought belong to Him who gave it—
Then—to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration—sell
The Royal Air

In the Parcel—Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace—
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price—

Franklin 788

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