Emily Dickinson comes alive at the Folger Library


A rare display of Emily Dickinson artifacts at the Folger Library, April 12, 2012. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

Thursday night, the Belle of Amherst returned to the capital — in spirit, at least.

Jim Lehrer, executive editor of the PBS NewsHour, and his wife, Kate, a novelist, performed a dialogue drawn from the letters of Dickinson and her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The performance was part of a special exhibit at the Folger Library. Sitting on a small podium at the end of the dark-paneled reading room, the Lehrers reenacted highlights from the most famous correspondence in American literary history.

It was 150 years ago this month that an unknown woman, 32 years old, wrote to one of the country’s leading abolitionists: “Mr. Higginson, are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”

At that time, she had composed around 300 poems, but shared them only with friends. Four had been published in a newspaper anonymously and without her permission.

Struck by the odd vigor of her letter, Higginson wrote back, and over the remaining years of her life, she sent him poems and begged him for critical advice. But Higginson quickly realized he had nothing to offer this “wholly new and original poetic genius,” except his bewildered admiration: “When a thought takes one’s breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence.”   

The script the Lehrers performed was composed by their friend Polly Longsworth, an Amherst scholar who drew the dialogue from Dickinson’s letters and Higginson’s later writings (tragically, his letters to Dickinson were destroyed, according to her instructions, upon her death in 1886). There was no physical romance between the maiden poet and her famous friend — they met only twice, and he found her anxious and strange — but hearing them portrayed by a long-married couple like Jim and Kate Lehrer highlighted the subtle passion in their written words.

Remarkably, some of those written words were on display at the other end of the reading room. On loan just for the day from the Emily Dickinson Museum at Amherst College were small scraps of paper on which Dickinson had composed, in pencil, her immortal lines of verse. Patrons hovered over the only known copy of “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” On the back of a tiny splayed envelope appear the words “The way Hope builds his House.” For lovers of poetry the world over, these are pieces of the Cross. And next to them sat a lock of Dickinson’s hair, still “bold, like the chestnut bur,” as she wrote to Higginson in 1862.

How impossible now to imagine her alone in her room thinking, “I’m nobody! Who are you?”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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