Read an Excerpt
From the Foreword by Emily Fragos
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and she died there fifty-five years later on May 15, 1886, in her "father's house," where she had spent almost all of her adult life in seclusion. The "weary life in the second story," as she called herself with typical Dickinsonian perspicacity, never forsook human relationships, however, daily participating in a busy household and sending herself out into the world through her passionate, witty, mournful, and celebratory letters.
"My business," she told friends, "is to love" and Dickinson loved with a flame turned up to the white heat. She loved her parents and her sister and brother; her girlhood and adult friend; teachers and studies and books; the busy college town of Amherst; and the Springfield newspaper with its amusing local stories. She loved utterly Sue Gilbert, who would marry her brother Austin; and the mysterious "Master" of the famed "Master Letters" (who has never been identified but may have been Charles Wadsworth or Otis Lord or Samuel Bowles). She loved the rebirth of spring; her beautiful garden; the wild flowers of the fields; butterflies, toads, and bees; her huge brown Newfoundland, Carlo; the town's children for whom she baked cookies; the Brontës and George Eliot, the Brownings and Shakespeare; many church sermons (but certainly not all); her travels as an exuberant young girl to Washington and Philadelphia and Virginia. She was charmed by the circus that passed beneath her window and left a bright spot of red in her hyper-alert mind. She celebrated the births of babies and announcements of marriages in words of joy and kindness. Emily Dickinson found life startling and ecstatic and comical and terrible, often all at the same time. She lived in awe.
Her letters, with their feverish observations, metaphors, epigrams, allusions, paradoxes, hyperbole, and rapid leaps of imagination, must have confounded their recipients — even if they were used to "Emily being Emily." Each day she lived and expressed with an intensity and a devotion that no one she knew could emulate, much less reciprocate. She would at times become wounded when her letters, into which she poured so much of herself, went unanswered, leaving her vulnerable, almost in despair. "You are like God," she wrote to a friend who had not written back. "We pray to Him and He answers 'No.'" Absence was unbearable for this poet, as it is for many, but Dickinson's losses were multitudinous and they started early in her childhood and painfully continued throughout her life. She cherished the birds that flew away because they always came back, unlike the endless stream of loved ones whose deaths undid her.
I have devoted one chapter to Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the prominent man of letters who eventually helped bring her poetry to the world's attention. It is one of the greatest moments in world literature when Higginson opened that first letter from an unknown correspondent in April 1862. "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" she inquired. Her ensuing letters to him were suddenly different in tone, more breathless, deeper, if that is possible, than the letters to friends and family members. These are the words of a poet on the subject of her own genius. "Vesuvius at home" is erupting, as she announces herself with the utmost modesty, yet in earnest, and it is absolutely palpable. You can feel it happening.
Dickinson's life has always invited conjecture. She gives no reasons in the letters for her increasing isolation. We see her standing shyly at the edge of a crowd, looking on; going out only at dusk; and then not going out, with the tacit understanding of her protective family. Everyone knew she wrote poems, but no one knew the extent of her work until after her death when her sister Lavinia discovered almost 200 of the poems in Emily's sun-lit room on the second floor of the Homestead. The prolific Dickinson wrote a mind-boggling 1,775 poems of surpassing originality, numinousness, and profundity. It is estimated that she wrote 366 poems in one year alone.
In the end, Dickinson was what she was meant to be, could really only be — a poet of the highest order and rarest concentration — and her great gift subsumed the rest as she moved irrevocably deeper into her own mind and heart.
The letters are mined with phrases and entire lines that will startle readers who recognize them from the poems. There is even a real fly that may remind the reader of the immortal one "with Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz —." The feeling is one of plunging into the teeming source from which Dickinson's art was distilled. Reading these letters is as close as we can come to being inside Emily Dickinson's alive mind as it engaged with the world around her. Almost a century and a half after she asked Higginson to "say if my Verse is alive," her words still take one's breath away.