By Dr. Stephen Haven, Professor of English
Many writers are known at least as fully by their popular reputations as they are by their own work. Yet writers, like most people, are usually more complex and contradictory in their personal lives and in their work than the reputation that precedes them. Emily Dickinson is one good example. She is often viewed as an idiosyncratic recluse, the nun of Amherst, the “Queen of Calvary,” as she sometimes refers to herself in her own poetry, as if she were the sexless Monarch of Divine Suffering. Dickinson seemed to invite this reputation in her later life, dressing in her later years always in white and behaving in such theatrical ways as refusing to come out of her bedroom to greet a family friend, sending out on a plate instead a single red rose. Possibly this was her way of drawing public attention to herself, a provincial form of self-promotion, a way of saying that something unusual was taking place in what might otherwise seem a dull, sheltered life. Still, Dickinson was a grown woman—36 years old—before she went into seclusion. By then she had already written more than half of her 1700+ poems. During her vintage years, from 1860-1865, when she was writing a poem nearly every other day, some of them among the greatest poems ever written by an American, she was regularly attending a literary salon hosted by her sister-in-law and next-door neighbor, Susan Gilbert Dickinson.
Susan Gilbert Dickinson was Emily Dickinson’s childhood classmate, intellectual companion, and often during these vintage years the first reader of Dickinson’s poems. The editor of the Springfield, Mass. newspaper, Samuel Bowles, often attended these literary gatherings, with Emily Dickinson in attendance too, though she shyly chose to stay away the night Ralph Waldo Emerson graced Susan Dickinson’s home. Samuel Bowles published at least a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems in the Springfield Republican. Judith Farr, one of Dickinson’s critical biographers, believes (in The Passion of Emily Dickinson) that Samuel Bowles was the object of Dickinson’s attention in the many love poems she wrote to a male lover, some of them overtly erotic. Farr believes too that Susan Gilbert Dickinson was the object of attention in the many love poems Dickinson wrote to a female lover, many of them equally erotic. Some of Dickinson’s love poems are so radical, even by contemporary standards, that I would hesitate to quote them here. If Emily Dickinson likely died a virgin, deprivation in her intimate, physical love life drove her imagination.
My hope is that all Ashland English majors will read Dickinson deeply and widely before they graduate, and will continue to read her, over and over again, for as long as they love literature.