Now here’s a happy-go-lucky Emily Dickinson we haven’t heard about from the history books: It’s early 1855 and she’s enjoying a three-week trip to Washington, D.C., where her father, Edward, is finishing his term in the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s staying at a fancy hotel and mixing with upper-crust politicos and tossing witty barbs into dinner conversations. Emily and her sister, Vinnie, are here as footloose 20-somethings in the big city, as giddy as spring breakers freed from the tradition-bound routine back home in frigid small-town New England. Armed with a trendy tourist guide, they go sightseeing at the gleaming new monuments of democracy and hop on a steamer down the Potomac to romp hand-in-hand at Mount Vernon.
This scenario doesn’t jibe with the stereotypical image of the famous recluse of Amherst, Mass., defiantly holed up and scribbling away in her second-story bedroom: the doom-and-gloom spinster who wrote nearly 1,800 searing poems, many of them odes to the allure and creative power of isolation, where “the Soul selects her own Society — Then — shuts the Door.”
Young Emily as wide-eyed tourist run amok in the nation’s capital has the whiff of a Hollywood pipe dream, as outlandish as an episode from the Apple TV Plus series “Dickinson,” which depicts a twerking, cross-dressing, opium-taking badass in 19th-century period costume who says “dude,” stitches “F My Life” in her needlework samplers and flaunts her rebellion with an Instagram-ready exhibitionism. The show, like other recent treatments such as the 2018 film “Wild Nights With Emily,” subverts the facts in a 21st-century fan-fiction projection of the poet. They have garnered her a devoted new following well beyond the English-major obsessives of yore.
As far-fetched as it seems, her excursion to Washington — though little known and barely mentioned in many biographies — did in fact happen. It offers a glimpse of the real-life Dickinson every bit as surprising as — and in many ways even more compelling than — her present-day alter egos. The trip was the farthest that she ever traveled from home, and the distant and alien backdrop of the capital sets her in stark relief from the domestic setting where she resides in the popular imagination.
“We have this idea of Dickinson as being hermetically sealed in her bedroom and never leaving her house,” says Martha Ackmann, author of the recent book “These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.” “And here we have her in Washington during the run-up to the Civil War, meeting with dignitaries and out seeing the sights. The trip to D.C. is myth-busting and it’s an important moment in her life.”
From letters and recollections, Dickinson comes across as fully engaged with the world around her while in Washington. She was a keen observer of the social and political scene and unimpressed with D.C.’s rich and powerful. At 24, she was at a crossroads, a time of casting about after a stint at college where she dazzled professors and peers as a brilliant wordsmith “quick as the lightning in her intuitions and analyses.” But she had not yet found her calling as a poet, and she faced an uncertain future as her friends were getting married or starting careers as teachers, one of the few occupations open to women.
Dickinson’s arrival in Washington in February 1855 made the front page of the Evening Star, which chronicled the comings and goings of notables like her congressman father; “E. Dickinson & daughters” was listed in the daily column “Arrivals in Principal Hotels.” The newspaper’s front had the usual hodgepodge of the era — ads for the Stone Cutters’ Ball and quack cures for rheumatism and V.D. It also featured a long, sentimental poem, “The Poor,” the sort of mawkish Victorian-era drivel that Dickinson’s jagged, spare, proto-modern verse was at war with.
At the majestic Willards’ Hotel, a few blocks from the White House, Emily and her younger sister charmed fellow guests — Vinnie with her comical impersonations and Emily with her sharp wit. One night at dinner, the waiter brought a flaming plum pudding to the table, and Emily, according to family lore, remarked to the cadaverous 77-year-old Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, not known for his rollicking sense of humor: “Oh, sir, may one eat of hell fire with impunity here?”
She was repelled by Washington’s high society: “the pomp — the court — the etiquette — they are of the earth — will not enter Heaven,” she wrote in a letter back home. It was the same quiet but steely resolve with which she rejected the churchgoing folk of Amherst. (As a self-described pagan, she was defiantly immune to the religious revivals that swept through New England during the 1840s and 1850s. She said the only biblical injunction that she followed was “Consider the lilies” from the Sermon on the Mount.)
She reveled in her first taste of a Southern clime. “Sweet and soft as summer, Darlings, maple trees in bloom and grass green in the sunny places — hardly seems it possible this is winter still,” she wrote in a letter to friends back home. With their father busy with his congressional duties, she and Vinnie were free to roam the capital. They had a copy of “Morrison’s Stranger’s Guide to the City of Washington, and Its Vicinity,” a popular handbook for tourists. It had an evocative illustration of George Washington’s burial vault at Mount Vernon, which must have been catnip to the death-haunted Emily.
The sisters took a steamboat ride from the Seventh Street wharf down the Potomac to the estate, which at that time was run-down and ramshackle. The grounds were choked with weeds, and the mansion’s piazza overlooking the river was propped up with old ship’s masts. For Emily, a lover of ruins and “crumbling things,” the scene fired her imagination like nothing else on the trip. When she describes the day trip in a letter, she compares the glitzy but dull social whirl at the Willard with her ramble at Washington’s dilapidated estate as if the trip had been a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine.
“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,” she wrote, “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.”
Here is Dickinson connecting with American history in a personal, almost devotional manner, particularly in her preference for Washington’s military title. The passage also reveals the budding writer injecting a new kind of startling imagery into the flowery prose. “That’s so Dickinson, to talk about a tomb as a ‘marble story,’ ” notes Ackmann. At this point, Emily had written only a few unremarkable poems, but Ackmann says such bold use of metaphor shows the poet-to-be “in that period before the pot begins to boil. She’s just beginning to bubble.”
Though Emily didn’t care for D.C.’s social scene, she was at least somewhat interested in politics. When Edward attended a Whig convention (the party that would soon give way to the Republican Party), she had expressed her frustration as a woman shut out of political affairs, complaining, “Why can’t I be a Delegate to the great Whig Convention? don’t I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff, and the Law?”
She was a habitual doodler, and, when her father began his term in the House of Representatives in 1853, she had drawn a satirical sketch on his stationery embossed with the U.S. Capitol. It featured an American Indian in feathered headdress, captioned as “Member from 10th,” walking toward the Capitol dome, which she had with a few pencil strokes made into a wigwam with smoking chimney — the wigwam being a symbol of the Democratic Party. It was apparently her idea of a partisan political cartoon, and, according to biographer Alfred Habegger, “Emily was saying that Congress was now a Democratic stronghold, and that the Member from the 10th” — her father — “was walking into a fight.”
An unsavory side of her political leanings reveals Emily — who as a poet was light-years ahead of her peers — as a person very much of her class and time. She reflected her family’s snobbery and bigotry in an 1851 letter to her brother, Austin, when he was teaching in Boston and many of his students were sons of Irish immigrants. Austin had described in the siblings’ usual bantering tone the disciplinary punishments, including whippings, that he doled out to students. “Vinnie and I say masses for the poor Irish boys souls,” Emily wrote in casually callous jest. “So far as I am concerned I should like to have you kill some — there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans.”
Ultimately, the noise and pace of Washington proved too much for Dickinson, who complained that “all is jostle, here — scramble and confusion.” According to Ackmann, she had seen quite enough of officialdom and was ready to go back home. “Washington was a moment of intake for her,” Ackmann says. “There was so much outside stimulation that she wasn’t able to have that quiet center that she so desperately needed to process her thoughts and think things through deeply.”
By the end of the decade, Dickinson had settled for good into the family homestead in Amherst, from which she would make only two more extended trips, to Boston in 1864 and 1865, for an eye ailment. Here in the self-sequestration with which she chose to cultivate her solitary art, she would over the next three decades write her illimitable poems, bundled into neat packets and discovered by Vinnie after Emily’s death at 55 in 1886, and now beloved by readers around the world.
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland. Illustration by Cris Clapp Logan. Design by Clare Ramirez.