Memories of Emily Dickinson: a white summer dress, a hank of hair. Her pale moon face in daguerrotype. And everywhere her short, elliptical lines scratched into paper --
. . . my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me.
Dickinson was never the harmless spinster of popular imagination, the beloved "Belle of Amherst" who wrote charming verses about bumblebees; her art, honed in solitude, cuts the heart's flesh like a razor. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Dickinson's death, the Folger Shakespeare Library has honored her legacy, mounting an astonishing exhibit of the poet's manuscripts, letters and memorabilia. And yesterday 250 scholars, writers and other lovers of the country's most misunderstood poet roamed the Folger, gazing at the auburn flame of Dickinson's hair under glass, inspecting her letters, reading her poems.
Speaking from the Folger stage, critic Alfred Kazin celebrated the strangeness of Dickinson's accomplishment, her ability to write, in Emerson's words, with "dry light and hard expressions." And of Dickinson's tendentious relationship with deity, Kazin recalled her remark, "God was penurious with me, which makes me shrewd with Him."
Scholars from Japan and Poland described the difficulties of translating an artist as elusive and terse as Dickinson. The Japanese look to the haiku form as a comparison, while the Poles tend to translate more for ideas than images.
Though she is now a key part of the canon of American literature and a culture hero to many poets, especially women, Dickinson was ignored for years. The first wave of scholars of the American renaissance period, such as F.O. Matthiessen, Edmund Wilson and, in his way, D.H. Lawrence, concentrated on Whitman, Melville, Emerson and Thoreau but not Dickinson. Only five or six of her poems were published in her lifetime. Not until Thomas Johnson assembled a three-volume edition of her 1,770 poems in 1955 and an edition of her letters in 1958 did the poetry of Emily Dickinson become recognized as an American classic.
"When I was studying English in the '20s at Williams College -- just over the hills from Amherst -- I never once heard Emily's name mentioned," said Richard Sewall, professor emeritus at Yale University and author of the definitive biography of Dickinson. "There was just no text available as there was with Whitman. Happily, all that's changed."
A minister's daughter, Dickinson rarely left her prominent family's Amherst house, the Homestead, preferring instead to write in her second-story corner room. During the Civil War -- which she managed to ignore almost entirely -- she wrote furiously in her room; in 1862 she wrote 365 poems. In later years she grew so reclusive that she often communicated with her family by dropping notes down through the floorboards.
The possible reasons for Dickinson's insistence on privacy continue to fascinate literary scholars. Despair, religious and sexual, is often suggested. One paper distributed at the conference here suggests that physical illness -- headaches, poor eyesight, rashes and finally lupus -- was the key.
Sewall, however, insists "that Emily Dickinson simply found life at the Homestead conducive to her life as a poet. She wasn't sociable in the sense that most people use the word, but she was sociable with a pen in her hand. She once said 'the lexicon was my only companion,' and that said it all. She was a writer, and she needed the sort of world she created for herself. Her life was a happy one."
Dickinson never married, and yet her white cotton dress, typical of the outfits she almost always wore, seems a kind of wedding gown. One stands before the dress and reads on a placard Dickinson's acute description of herself in a letter to her confidant, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "small like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur -- and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass that the guest leaves."
In 56 years of life, she refused the impulse of tourism. "When I want to travel I just close my eyes," she said. She visited three big cities: Boston twice for visits to a doctor; Philadelphia, briefly; and Washington with her sister to visit their father Edward Dickinson, who spent a term in Congress as a member of the Whig Party.
She stayed in the capital for three weeks in the winter of 1855 and found the experience all "scramble and confusion." Katharine Zadravec a consultant to the Folger Library, has expertly assembled for the exhibit every trace of the poet's visit to Washington.
Dickinson stayed at Willard's Hotel, visited the National Gallery (now the National Museum of American Art), carried "Morrison's Stranger's Guide to the City of Washington and Its Vicinity" and seemed to enjoy especially a trip to George Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon. In a letter to friends in Philadelphia she wrote:
"I will not tell you what I saw -- the elegance, the grandeur; you will not care to know the value of the diamonds my Lord and Lady wore, but if you haven't been to the sweet Mount Vernon, then I will tell you how on one soft spring day we glided down the Potomac in a painted boat, and jumped upon the shore -- how hand in hand we stole along up a tangled pathway till we reached the tomb of General George Washington, how we paused beside it, and no one spoke a word, then hand in hand, walked on again, not less wise or sad for that marble story; how we went within the door -- raised the latch he lifted when he last went home -- thank the Ones in Light that he's since passed in through a brighter wicket!"
The visit to the capital was the first and last extensive journey out of solitude. "After Emily's trip to Washington, she never traveled again," said Zadravec. "One of the women she met here invited her to go on a trip to Europe, but she would never leave again."
The exhibition continues through June. Tonight at the Folger Library, actress Frances Sternhagen will read from Emily Dickinson's poetry and letters.
"It won't be a 'Belle of Amherst' thing," said Zadravec. "It will be the real thing."