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Great American Poems REPOEMEDA New Look at Classic Poems of Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, & Robert Frost
By Jim Asher
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Jim Asher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWho was Emmett Lee Dickinson?
Emmett Lee Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's third cousin, twice removed (at her request), was born on October 12, 1803, in Washerst (pronounced "WAS-herst"), Pennsylvania.
Known as "the Boor of Washerst," Emmett Lee was the thirteenth of thirteen children. His father, Emery Dickinson, was an ice delivery man in Washerst (and is thought to be the inspiration for a title of a Eugene O'Neill play). His mother, Emalee Incross, was a cosmetician at the Perish & Begone Funeral Parlor, owned by brothers Eberhard and Egan Perish and Caldwell Begone.
The Dickinson family lived in the basement of the funeral parlor, and this is possibly one reason why Emmett Lee developed an intense fear of the light (heliophobia), became a recluse, and dressed almost exclusively in shades of black. His reclusiveness might also have been brought on by a sluggish liver and biliousness.
Emmett Lee Dickinson was a prolific writer of poetry, and penned such classic poems as, "After Formal Feedings, a great pain comes," "Because I could not stop for Debt," and "There's a certain slant of Art." His poetry very likely motivated and inspired the work of his third cousin, Emily.
Almost two centuries before Emmett Lee Dickinson's birth, the Dickinson family arrived in the New World. Half of the family prospered under Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, a founder of Amherst College in Massachusetts. However, Emmett Lee Dickinson's side of the family did not fare as well. Lemuel Dickinson, Emmett Lee's paternal grandfather, struggled to make a living as a tinker, traveling from place to place mending pans, kettles, and other metal utensils.
Emmett Lee's father, Emery Dickinson, also moved from place to place and job to job as a young man. For most of Emmett Lee's youth, though, Emery settled his family in Washerst, PA, where he worked as an ice delivery man. Emery's brother Hobart owned a novelty shop in town, and he also managed an entertainment partnership with the famed ventriloquist Dooley Dawson (known to the citizens of Washerst as "Doo-Daw" Dawson) that provided clowns, magicians, and balloon artists to children's parties. Hobart often contracted Emery to provide ice for the parties and other social events in Washerst, including Washerst's annual summer festival, the Moss and Hornwort Jubilee.
Emmett Lee's mother, Emalee Incross, was a cosmetician at the Perish & Begone Funeral Parlor. Due to her relationship with the owners of the business, the Dickinson family was able to reside in the basement of the funeral parlor. In later years she contracted out her services to the various funeral parlors in the area under the name "Curl Up and Dye."
Life was not easy for the Dickinson family, and this was particularly true for young Emmett Lee. Since he was the youngest sibling, he wore the tattered clothes passed down from son to son to son to son. Since he was the smallest child, he sat at the end of the dining table and always got "what was left of what was left." Emery Dickinson tried to save on the expenses associated with having a large family, so he would often provide left-over chipped ice from his work as the family's mid-day meal. More often than not, though, the ice chips would melt before reaching young Emmett Lee, so his meal was frequently just a cold beverage.
Life was not without adventure, though. Every summer, the Clemens family from Hannibal, Missouri would visit Washerst, and Jane Clemens would hire Qwerty Anne Dickinson, Emmett Lee's oldest sister, to watch her son Samuel. As a result, Emmett Lee spent much time with young Samuel Clemens.
At first the relationship between Emmett Lee and Samuel was a bit strained, as Emmett Lee would often try to hoodwink Samuel. Once, Emmett Lee tricked Samuel into white-washing a picket fence for him. On another occasion, Emmett Lee convinced Samuel that he should sneak into a graveyard at midnight with the stiff body of a dead cat in a bag, all in an attempt to rid himself of nasty warts. After a few spats and donnybrooks, though, the two developed a friendship that lasted for many years.
During one summer visit, Emmett Lee convinced Samuel to help him fake their own deaths. They staged enough misleading and false evidence by the riverbank that the townsfolk thought the two had drowned in the Monongahela River. The two took delight when they heard cannon fire as local officials tried to raise their missing bodies from the murky bottom of the river. Later, they even snuck into their own funerals and laughed at all of the trouble they'd caused. That night, the two rafted down the Monongahela to the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. Once in Cairo, Illinois, Emmett Lee piloted a river boat up and down the Mississippi for several months under the assumed name of Emmett Lee Abagnale.
In the months following his return home, Emmett Lee spent time at Camp Wattchulukinat for Troubled Youth in Fort Crook, Nebraska. There he met the Redenbacher brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and he forged a friendship that would last for years due to their one common passion: corn. Emmett Lee was, at times, consumed by corn. He was fascinated by the many uses of corn, from food and beverage recipes to personal care and health and wellness remedies to pharmaceutical and industrial products. He was obsessed with analyzing the calendar and weather patterns associated with the planting season. He imagined the creation of a magnificent corn palace, decorated with crop art. For years he headed up letter campaigns to elected officials in towns across Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and other western states, until he finally succeeded in convincing the city elders of Mitchell, South Dakota, to build his grand and glorious Corn Palace.
Unhappytimes & failed marriages
Although Emmett Lee Dickinson always aspired to be a poet or an inventor (he had hoped to patent a mechanized corn planter in 1835 but was dismayed to learn that such a patent had been granted to Henry Blair in 1834), his first job was that as a cadaver model for his mother who worked as a cosmetician at the Perish and Begone Funeral Parlor. It was there he met Daphne Endicott who was an apprentice cosmetician working under the direction of Emmett Lee's mother.
The two fell in love, enjoyed a whirlwind romance, and married in the spring of 1822. However, the marriage fell apart when Emmett Lee discovered that Daphne was having an affair with an actual cadaver at the funeral home. Devastated, Emmett Lee filed for a quick divorce and then departed for Baltimore at the invitation of Edgar Allan Poe, a childhood friend from his days in school.
Poe played banjo, sang comical songs, and told blue jokes under the name of Izzy Sharp at a low-class theater on South Calvert Street in Baltimore. He told Dickinson that he could use a partner, so the two formed the comedy team of Izzy Sharp and Moe (they were the very first comedy team to tell "Why did the chicken cross the road?" and "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup" jokes). Emmett Lee moved into cramped quarters with Poe above the theater. Soon thereafter Poe introduced him to the curtain puller at the theater named Rosalind Raven. A few weeks later, Rosalind moved in with Emmett Lee and Edgar Allan, and in just three more months, she and Emmett Lee were married and expecting a child.
This period in Emmett Lee's life, called his "Rose period," was one of his happiest. His work with Edgar Allan was earning sufficient income with the pennies that spectators would toss onto the stage, and his time with Rosalind was joyful. However, shortly after the birth of his son, Angstrum ("Angst") Dickinson, Emmett Lee entered his "blue period." First, his partner Edgar Allan Poe turned to alcohol when a local theater agent passed on a contract with Izzy Sharp and Moe and signed the Spitz Brothers (with Howie and Willie Spitz) instead. Then, Emmett Lee discovered that his wife, Rosalind, was previously—and still—married to another man residing in Missouri. This realization came to light one midnight when someone came rapping forcefully at their chamber door. Edgar Allan yelled out a warning to the intruder and inquired who was there. An enraged voice answered, "Quoth D. Raven, from Never, MO."
Following the confusion and upheaval in his life caused by Rosalind's duplicity, Emmett Lee wandered the Baltimore area for days trying to clear his head. He drifted from waterfront to woodland and back. At a particularly low point, he met a traveling Frenchman by the name of Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville was in America to visit and write about prison conditions, and at first he thought Emmett Lee was an escaped convict. Once he realized his mistake, he hired Dickinson to handle his luggage for him.
Dickinson accepted the position and rode with de Tocqueville on horseback as far as Buffalo, NY. In Buffalo the two met up with Georges Bizet, a family friend of de Tocqueville, who was there for the world premiere of his opera "Oklahoma Territory." Bizet had been commissioned by the Buffalo Opera Company to compose a work on America's westward expansion, and his new opus, the story of a strong-minded corn planter by the name of Cedric de Becque, was met with critical acclaim. The work was hailed for its progressive themes, including one of interracial love between the farmhand Jonas Cable and a native-American, Princess Snow Pea, as told in the haunting love song, "Corn is High." The opera also included the world-famous quartet, "The Farmer and The Cowman Should Share A Bond of Mutual Affection."
Due to their shared passion for corn, Dickinson and Bizet forged an instant friendship. As a result of this bond, Dickinson remained in Buffalo when de Tocqueville departed for a visit to Canada (he had heard that there was excellent trout fishing in Quebec). However, due to his connection with de Tocqueville, Dickinson was able to secure a job as a guard at a local prison.
Dickinson's new friend Bizet was intensely interested in the stories Dickinson would tell of his work at the prison. Bizet was particularly fascinated by the story of one female inmate by the name of Carmen Seville. Carmen had been arrested and imprisoned for her involvement in a riot at a local cigarette factory, although Carmen maintained fervently that she was innocent of the charges against her. Dickinson soon fell in love with Carmen and became convinced of her innocence by her compelling and convincing testimony. As a result, he helped her escape from the prison, and the two fled to Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
In Ohio the two fugitives settled as Bonnie and Emmett Lee Barrow. Emmett Lee found work as a chimney sweep, and Carmen did occasional work as a seamstress. Although Dickinson scholars are uncertain if Emmett Lee and Carmen actually ever married legally, the two did refer to themselves as husband and wife, and one year after their arrival in Ohio, Carmen gave birth to Emmett Lee's second son, Clyde.
Corn and spirits
At first, work as a chimney sweep for Emmett Lee "Barrow" was slow; however, business did pick up for him when word spread about his competence and efficiency. In the fall of 1829 he was hired by Willis Byron Clifford, the Administrative Assistant to the Assistant Administrator for the Chagrin Falls Chamber of Commerce. As Emmett Lee finished the job at his estate, he and Mr. Clifford talked about the incredulous news of the death of the town's beloved librarian, Octavia Stump, caused by supernatural causes. Approximately ten years prior, there had been a train wreck on the trestle bridge crossing the Chagrin River. Since that time, the decapitated train engineer haunted the bridge and the river bank. On a particularly foggy Friday evening, the headless ghost of the engineer terrified Ms. Stump as she walked home from work. She disappeared for several days, until the headline of the local paper blared, "Floater Found on the Chagrin. Authorities No Longer Stumped – As Is the Local Library."
Mr. Clifford told Emmett Lee that the entire affair reminded him of another supernatural death, that of his grandfather, John Bell. Clifford relayed information about his grandfather's death caused by paranormal circumstances when a notorious spirit terrorized his family's farm and adjacent corn field. The story of a bizarre and unearthly being in a corn field fascinated Emmett Lee.
It reminded him of an uncanny and mystical experience he had had in his youth when his family visited his mother's sister's family in Cooperstown, New York. While there, he befriended a youth by the name of Abner Doubleday. Emmett Lee and Abner would run, play, swim and fish every day– until Emmett Lee saw a spirit rise from the Doubleday corn field. From that moment, Emmett Lee was convinced that he and Abner needed to construct a "crop diamond" (precursor to the "crop circle"). Abner was perplexed by Emmett Lee's preoccupation with the "crop diamond" and wanted nothing to do with it. Emmett Lee pleaded with him, "If we build it, they will come" (although he never specified the antecedent for his pronoun "they").
Just as he was captivated by the Doubleday corn field, Dickinson was gripped by the story of Bell's death in his corn field. Dickinson fixated on the thought of visiting the Bell corn field for research. Not only did his work as a chimney sweep suffer because he could not stop thinking of the corn field, the preoccupation with the account put a severe strain on his marriage. One night at dinner, he fashioned a mound-like embankment of corn on his plate, and then he announced that the family should uproot their home in Ohio and relocate to northern Tennessee. Carmen (now known to all as Bonnie) refused to comply. Emmett Lee dropped his head and merely whispered, "Et tu, Bonnie?"
The next morning, with an imperfect map and a defective compass, Emmett Lee headed for northern Tennessee. Several weeks later, he arrived in eastern Massachusetts. He was unaware of his blunder, and asked the townsfolk the whereabouts of the Bell residence. Assuming he meant the home of Alexander Melville and Eliza Bell, citizens directed him to their address just outside of Boston.
At first the Bells were confused with Emmett Lee's stories of corn fields and supernatural beings. However, when he mentioned Willis Clifford of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, they thought he was talking about Mr. Bell's former business partner, William Clifford (also of Chagrin Falls), so they invited Emmett Lee to stay for dinner.
Dickinson's spirits dropped when, during the dinner conversation, he realized that he was not in northern Tennessee. However, the Bell's youngest son, Alexander Graham, elevated his mood with talk of wanting to grow up to be an inventor. After dinner, Emmett Lee entertained the boy with catchy tunes and witty jokes (from his "Izzy Sharp and Moe" routines from his days in Baltimore with Edgar Allan Poe) and simple magic tricks. Alexander Graham Bell found great delight in a clever trick Dickinson performed with two tin cans and a length of string. Emmett Lee hid around the corner and communicated to Alexander Graham by speaking into one of the cans. To the boy's delight, Dickinson exclaimed, "Mr. Watson. Come here. I need to see you" (the "Watson" was in reference to a racy limerick Dickinson had told the boy earlier that began, "A lively young rascal named Watson").
Dickinson remained in the Boston area and found work as a scavenger in a textile factory (as a "scavenger," he had to pick up loose cotton found under the machinery— a dangerous job as the task had to be performed while the machinery was in operation). With his earnings he was able to secure a room at a boarding house owned by Philo and Caroline Remington. In May, Philo's sister Oliveti visited from New York, and Dickinson was immediately smitten with her beauty and charm. Oliveti was enamored with Emmett Lee's tenacity and his cotton shirts.
A long distance romance between the two developed when Oliveti returned to New York, but it proved to be draining, so Emmett Lee moved to Ilion, New York, where Oliveti convinced her father to hire him as a metallurgical apprentice. Ultimately, he made metal keys for a machine that Mr. Remington was devising to be used for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another on a piece of paper. Remington was going to call it the "inked letter thumper," but Dickinson suggested that he call it the "typo-writer."
Not long after his induction into the apprenticeship program with Remington, Emmett Lee proposed to Oliveti, and the two married in December of 1830. In March 1831, their daughter Qwerty Jean was born.
Attempting to get published
In 1833, seeking literary guidance, Emmett Lee Dickinson wrote to Tobias Hugginkhist, literary critic and editor of the Pacific Bulletin and Journal, to inquire if the PB & J would consider publishing some of his poetry. He opened his letter by stating, "You can tell by the way I fuse my talk, I'm a well versed man who rhymes a lot," and he asked if his verse, with its erratic rhythms, irregular rhymes, and unconventional syntax, was "stayin' alive?"
Excerpted from Great American Poems REPOEMED by Jim Asher Copyright © 2012 by Jim Asher. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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