The connected poet

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A new show at the Morgan corrects the popular myth that Emily Dickinson was a total recluse


  • Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, ca. 1847. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956.

  • Otis Allen Bullard (1816–1853), Emily Elizabeth, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson. Oil on canvas, ca. 1840. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

  • The floral wallpaper from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, displayed at the Morgan. Photography by Janny Chiu.

Turns out Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) had a wider social and professional circle than we had ever imagined. “The myth of the poet in white who never left her bedroom really is a myth,” Mike Kelly, head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College, said at a recent lecture about the new show devoted to the poet from Amherst.

Proclaiming it “the most ambitious Dickinson exhibit ever” – some 90 items, including every known image of the poet from life – Kelly kicked off a preview tour with a look at an 1840 portrait featuring Emily and her siblings, Austin and Lavinia. The painting, which has never before left Harvard’s Houghton Library, portrays a 10-year-old Emily in the company of her most important network, her family. Appropriately enough, she holds a flower and a book, the flower mirroring the surrounding floral wallpaper, uncovered during a 2013 excavation of her bedroom and beautifully reproduced at the Morgan.

The wallpaper highlights another key theme here: newly discovered material about the poet. The exhibit is a showcase for manuscripts — letters and poems — but also for a wealth of visual artifacts, such as daguerreotypes, paintings, hair-locks and a herbarium (album of pressed plants), the latter begun when Emily was about 9 and presented here in digital form.

The herbarium belongs to a section devoted to Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke, which she attended from 1847 to1848. As Kelly said about the college’s 11th annual catalogue, offered to him by a bookseller in 2012: “This is a thing. Before there were yearbooks, before there was Facebook, [students] would make little notes next to friends’ names.” He was referring to student Sarah Tuthill, owner of the catalogue, who penned lines from Othello next to Dickinson’s name: “She is ever fair, and never proud/Hath tongue at will and yet is never loud.”

Such items are important, Kelly said, because they offer insight into “the lives of women in college in the 19th century, their friendships and what these girls were reading.” And what they were doing: there is a vintage photo nearby of students performing domestic chores, a school requirement. Dickinson’s chore: cleaning the knives.

But the written word, captured in letters and in poems, on stationery and on scraps of paper, rules here. As the daughter of Amherst College’s treasurer, Emily was socially engaged as a young woman, taking part in the life of the college through receptions, lectures, concerts and commencements, and interacting with people from all over the country and world.

She developed some of her most important friendships and relationships, however, through her brother, Austin, who introduced her to his Amherst College classmate, George Gould, and whose wife, Susan, became a confidante and “number one reader” of Dickinson’s poems.

Through Austin and Susan, Emily met Samuel Bowles, editor of The Springfield Republican newspaper and an important voice on the national scene. Dickinson sent at least 250 of her nearly 1,800 poems to Susan; Susan or Austin, in turn, directed them to Bowles and other influencers for publication. “There was an army of people — friends and admirers — who got her poems into print,” Kelly said.

Dickinson may have been prolific, but only 10 of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously and all probably without her consent. Bowles published seven in the Republican. The poet’s eccentric punctuation was altered, and the verses were given titles.

Her first appearance in print, however, came in February 1850 in The Indicator, the Amherst College literary magazine. Kelly, who said the Valentine-eve invitation to an unidentified suitor was one of his favorite exhibit pieces, posits that Dickinson sent it to her brother’s classmate George Gould. An excerpt: “meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon — the place is immaterial. In gold, or in purple, or sackcloth — I look not upon the raiment ... I propose, sir, to see you.”

Earlier that month, Gould had sent the poet a quaint invitation to a “Candy Pulling!!” It is unclear whether she attended the event, but she revealingly saved the invite, scrawling a poem on its back 26 years later, bemoaning the passage of time. There is no further documentation of their relationship.

Another mystery surrounds a recently discovered daguerreotype of two women (ca. 1859), one of which may, or may not, be Dickinson. It is displayed here for the first time alongside an authenticated photo of the poet, when she was 16, for comparison. The woman on the right is probably Dickinson’s close friend, Kate Turner.

Her letters to Kate (“Stay! My heart votes for you ... ”) “can be read as a lesbian love affair, or is she just being passionate and dramatic?” Kelly asked, addressing speculation at the end of the tour about the poet’s sexuality. “She loved drama.”

Even as she increasingly shunned society in the 1860s, Dickinson maintained her network of friends and professional contacts, sending them her poetry, her bridge to the outside world.

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