Emily Dickinson – and the benefits of obscurity to a writer
Today is the anniversary of the death of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson (10 Dec 1830 – 15 May 1886). Another author from my ‘famous and appreciated … too late’ series. All quotes in this post are from Emily’s writing, unless mentioned otherwise.
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Last month I wrote about Anna Sewell. Anna lived just 5 months after the publication of her 50 million selling classic Black Beauty, but she probably had an inkling of what was to happen. Supposedly within two years of publication one million copies of her story were in circulation in the United States alone, and this at a time when the US contained just 12.5m* households (50m pop.**).
Whereas Emily Dickinson, Anna’s contemporary, was essentially a private poet, with just 10 of her 1800 poems published during her lifetime, and even amongst those few there were some that were published against her wishes. As the years passed she led an increasingly reclusive life, to the point whereby it became rare for her even to leave her bedroom. There is a contrary view to this here (article in hyperallergic.com).
How do most people live without any thought? There are many people in the world, you must have noticed them in the street, how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?
When briefly researching her life I found a lot of gaps and often unsubstantiated claims. Did she collaborate on some of her poems? Was she in love with another woman? Why did she become a recluse? Did she suffer from agoraphobia and epilepsy? Did she wander about her house dressed all in white, like Anne Catherick from The Woman in White? If so, why?
And what was in the correspondence and personal papers that Emily asked her sister, Lavinia, to burn?
Pardon My Sanity In A World Insane
What we do know is that, thankfully, her sister burned only what Emily strictly instructed her to burn, and not the forty plus manuscripts containing the great mass of her poems.
At this point I can’t help being reminded of the loss of Jane Austen’s letters. As far as we know most of her letters were burned by her sister, Cassandra. Was there a diary, perhaps? Jane died in Cassandra’s arms. It may be that Cassandra felt that the end of her own life was not long away but, as it happens, she lived on for another 28 years, and without Jane’s precious letters for comfort. The fact that I find that upsetting 200 years later makes me think that it must have been immensely more so for the surviving sister.
That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.
But let’s return to Emily Dickinson who died 131 years ago today. One publisher told Dickinson that her poems were ‘quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties’ and ‘generally devoid of true poetical qualities.’ Emily wasn’t the only author to have been on the wrong end of painful criticism, but it must have hurt. There is something to be said for obscurity and not putting yourself out there. Consider some of the criticism that Emily Bronte had to put up with following the publication of her only novel, Wuthering Heights:
Review 1: Wuthering Heights
Publication: Paterson’s Magazine (USA)
Date: March 1848
‘We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights…’
Review 2: Wuthering Heights
Publication: Graham’s Lady’s Magazine (USA)
Date: July 1848
‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors…’
Review 3: Wuthering Heights
Publication: North American Review
Date: October 1848
Reviewer: Edwin P Whipple
‘The truth is, that the whole firm of Bell & Co. seem to have a sense of the depravity of human nature peculiarly their own. It is the yahoo, not the demon, that they select for representation; their Pandemonium is of mud rather than fire. This is especially the case with Acton Bell, the author of Wuthering Heights …’
Ouch! Worse than Twitter. A good reason for them all, both author and reviewers to hide behind anonymity. Try picking up the pen after reading that little lot (assuming Emily did read it). So perhaps anonymity is better for the writer, writing freely as a “nobody”.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Many writers assume anonymity via a pen name. Stephen King used one (Richard Bachman) because, in the early days, his publisher thought that he was too prolific and that might tire his fan base. Eric Blair used one (George Orwell) partly because his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, required him living as a vagrant and he didn’t want to embarrass his family. And for many Victorian women a unisex pen name was advisable if they wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Many internet users today choose to write under another name, feeling that it gives them a freedom (to use or abuse) that they would not have otherwise.
The ultimate anonymity is not being published at all, which is essentially the route that Emily Dickinson took, or had forced upon her. But this meant that she was free to write privately whatever she wished without, often hurtful, criticism.
Charlotte Bronte wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell (the novelist and her future friend and biographer) and expressed her feelings on hiding behind an alias:
Currer Bell will avow to Mrs. Gaskell that her chief reason for maintaining an incognito is the fear that if she relinquished it, strength and courage would leave her, and she should ever after shrink from writing the plain truth.
However, Charlotte gave up her anonymity and, for a short while, became a literary rock star in London.
The full version of that Bronte graphic story is here.
One of Charlotte Brontë’s most quoted lines is: “I think if a good fairy were to offer me the choice of a gift, I would say – grant me the power to walk invisible.”
I imagine that Emily Dickinson would have agreed with that sentiment of Charlotte’s.
This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me
As mentioned, today is the anniversary (15 May) of Emily Dickinson being ‘Called back’ – see gravestone. On Emily’s instructions, her coffin, casket lining, handles and surrounding ribbons were white. Emily herself wore a robe of white flannel. This was a woman that left the world still something of a mystery.
As her work began to be published in various forms, and as Victorian literary and societal traditions gave way to modernism and new ways, her reputation and fame rose. Today Emily Dickinson is considered an important poet throughout the English speaking world, and American culture in general. Thank you, Emily.
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
― Emily Dickinson
* U.S. Households,1 Families, and Married Couples, 1890–2007 https://www.infoplease.com/us/household-and-family-statistics/us-households1-families-and-married-couples-1890-2007
** 1880 United States Census via Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1880_United_States_Census
In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 (30 minute programme). You may be able to listen to this via the BBC Radio iPlayer.
A Quiet Passion (movie) – Official Trailer (2017) – with Cynthia Nixon.
Emily Dickinson Biopic Drama HD. The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognised artist.
BELOW: Emily Dickinson, Untitled (I’m Nobody! Who are you?) Poem in Fascicle 11 (ca. late 1861). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
BELOW: Emily Dickinson’s bedroom at the Emily Dickinson Museum
BELOW: A 4 minute tour of Emily Dickinson’s home
BELOW: Emily Dickinson on Pinterest (via The Long Victorian)
Here are some other authors who became famous and appreciated … too late. I shall slowly work my through some of this list and add links.
Alphabetical order (by surname)
Anne Bronte (17 Jan 1820 – 28 May 1849)
Emily Bronte (30 July 1818 – 19 Dec 1848)
Thomas Chatterton (20 Nov 1752 – 24 Aug 1770)
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 Oct 1400)
Phillip K. Dick (16 Dec 1928 – 2 Mar 1982)
Emily Dickinson (10 Dec 1830 – 15 May 1886)
Anne Frank (12 June 1929 – 1945)
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924)
Stieg Larsson (15 Aug 1954 – 9 Nov 2004)
H.P. Lovecraft (20 Aug 1890 – 15 Mar 1937)
George Orwell (25 June 1903 – 21 Jan 1950)
Sylvia Plath (27 Oct 1932 – 11 Feb 1963)
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC)
Edgar Allan Poe (19 Jan 1809 – 7 Oct 1849)
Anna Sewell (30 Mar 1820 – 25 April 1878)
Henry Thoreau (12 July 1817 – 6 May 1862)