Drawing on letters, poems, and everything that is known about Dickinson's life, Afternoons With Emily is a vivid portrait of America's most famous poet, a coming-of age story that spans the Civil War, and a tale of two brilliant women who each chose to break with convention and live life on their own terms.
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Afternoons with Emily
By Rose MacMurray
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Frank G. MacMurray Jr., Adelaide MacMurray Aitken, and Worth D. MacMurray
All right reserved.
My story did not begin when I was born; no one's does. We are all the result of a thousand intersecting lives - when the chance action of some casual stranger sets Fate in motion. I exist only because a kindly teacher, on impulse, offered his book of classical myths to a serious little boy of seven. This small event of some ninety years ago eventually led to me, Miranda Chase - and to my sitting here tonight, recalling my life, tracing the path that led me to Amherst and to Emily, and then far beyond either.
I am a true New Englander, with ten or twelve generations of New England forebears on each side of my family. John Latham, my mother's ancestor, was one of the very first band of settlers that came to New England in 1620. The Chases, my father's family, arrived with the Dickinsons in 1630. Even the proud Dickinsons, Amherst's royalty, reached the stony shores of Massachusetts ten years after the Lathams. Emily knew this, but it always suited her to forget it.
My father, Josiah Bramhall Chase, was born in Springfield, a small prosperous iron-smelting city in western Massachusetts, in 1795. All his life, Father was proud that his birthday, December 15, was on the same date the Bill of Rights had been ratified by our new Congress in 1791.
My grandfather, Elliott Chase, was an engineer and chief metallurgist for the Springfield Foundry, which later manufactured most of the rifles for the northern armies of the Civil War. He was an imposing figure - influential, respected, and widely read. He patented four inventions that brought him a small regular income. He was admired for speaking fluent German and for entertaining metallurgists from abroad.
My grandmother, Jane Stafford Chase, conducted a "dame school" in her house for very young children. She and her sister taught a generation of four-year-olds and are still remembered fondly. I have seen some of her teaching notes and plans; they are spirited and charming, a world beyond the joyless Puritan methods then in use. Although she died twelve years before I was born, I have always sensed her influence on my own work.
My Chase forebears lived simply but comfortably. Their spacious white clapboard houses, set among splendid arching elms, were unadorned, not so much furnished as burnished. Whenever I visit the Chases or Staffords or Bramhalls around the valley, I am struck by how every plain surface - wood, metal, or glass - glows with care and pride.
These families were judges and farmers and shipbuilders on the Connecticut River. They prospered, yet there was none of the casual luxury - the hothouse fruit, the crystal and silver trinkets, the fine gold-tooled morocco leather bindings - that I remember in Boston on Mount Vernon Street and that I now recognize as the visible tips of the concealed fortunes of my mother's family. But my father and his younger sister, Helen, had one indulgence, one unlimited luxury.
"Our roof was supported by books!" Father once told me. He recalled that books were everywhere - overflowing from shelves onto windowsills and into corners. Defoe lay open on a table; Scott and Fielding were stacked in toppling piles at each bedside.
As soon as he began to read, Josiah Chase found the true passion of his life: a copy of Ovid, which his teacher had lent him, enthralled him with the myths of classical Greece. At eight, he began learning Greek after school. He stepped into Athens, sixth century BC, and never left it. At fourteen, he won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, competing among the most brilliant boys of New England. The routine was spartan, the leisure scant, the study demanding - yet my father always spoke of his years at Exeter as the happiest of his life.
On his second day of school at Exeter in September 1810, Josiah Chase and another new student, Tom Bulfinch, met in Latin III and eyed each other warily.
"Which were best, Greeks or Romans?" Josiah asked Tom.
"Greeks, of course!" Tom answered Jos. Thus began an extraordinary friendship - one that lasted more than fifty years and made them both famous. Tom Bulfinch, with my father's encouragement and advice, wrote the seminal text The Age of Fable, while Tom served in the same capacity for my father's first compendium and analysis of the great classical plays.
Together the two young scholars worked side by side at the pace of a classical snail, never hurrying and never doubting their work would succeed someday. I can imagine the two leggy schoolboys, earnest and crack-voiced, building their shared dreams, piece by meticulous piece. I kept a few pages of Father's earliest notebook, written at Exeter and annotated by Tom when Father was fifteen. The notes are blotted and swollen from having fallen in the Swampscott River after a forbidden swim. I still smile as I recall them: "Check on Patroclus's shield. Look up 'laurel' (branch and leaf formation). Who was Phaëthon's sister?" And the endearing confession: "The rest of these pages used for the tail of our kite, May 9, 1811."
After Exeter, Tom and Jos went on to Harvard together. They studied their beloved classics and graduated with honors in 1814. Then they shared a tiny yellow house on Linnaean Street in Cambridge. Tom eventually clerked in a Boston bank, and Father instructed in Greek literature at Harvard. He once confided that before every lecture that first year, he fingered his lucky Greek coin for the courage to face all those eager students. He blossomed in that venue, growing expansive on the lecturer's stage. The devotion of his students long after they graduated was a testimony to the compassion and interest he demonstrated in his Harvard office. It was some time before that warming light shone on me, his daughter.
Mythology took up most of Josiah's and Tom's leisure, and the related travel used up all their money. As the years passed and their ambition and diligence never faltered, their friends gave them ironic classical nicknames. Father was "Hercules" (for his heroic labors) and Tom was "Sisyphus" (whose stone kept rolling back downhill forever).
Then it was 1840. Jos and Tom were middle-aged bachelors now, their great works still unfinished. Tom's father, Charles Bulfinch, had just returned to Boston as an elderly laureate, having completed the U.S. Capitol. He invited Tom and my father, whom he treated as another son, for sherry on Thanksgiving Day.
"You'd better bring that Greek coin of yours, Jos," Charles Bulfinch told Father. "I have a Greek surprise for you."
This proved to be Miss Marian Latham, a Bulfinch neighbor on Beacon Hill. She was a small, stunning beauty, a startling replica of the nymph Arethusa, whose profile graced my father's lucky gold coin.
"I have your head right here in my pocket," said my delighted father, taking out the coin to show her. There is no record of her reply to this startling and charming overture. I imagine she went on smiling, and my father went on staring. I cannot imagine them talking - that afternoon or ever. Actually, I have no memory of my parents in conversation.
The Marian Latham Chase I knew was an elegant figure, rarely seen, who spoke only platitudes and stared with lovely vacant eyes. My maternal grandmother, Eliza Cabot Latham, died in childbirth when my mother, Marian, was three. Many of my relatives remember the pretty, lonely child growing up motherless in the big house at number 32. Even then, the weakness to which she would later succumb had been present in the occasional gasping for air, the labored breathing as she slept, the flushed cheeks upon exertion. But this was rarely discussed and certainly never outside the immediate family.
Marian Latham finished her classes and lessons at eighteen. She was considered "accomplished" - that is, she wrote a pretty hand, sang a bit, and spoke flawless French. If she was remote, it was attributed to breeding, her stillness a quality to admire in a future wife. Furthermore, she was a noted beauty, an ornament to Boston society - and an heiress to a great fortune. Surely there must be a brilliant match waiting for such a belle! Yet at twenty-nine she was somehow still single. Her kindly relations had scoured Boston for years, collecting partners for Marian at their parties. But these introductions seemed to lead no further once the young eligibles learned that Marian's delicate eyes and complexion were but early symptoms of the inevitable declining health that lay ahead.
As a small child I wondered so often what she was thinking, what her secrets were. I soon learned that her secret was a terrible one: tuberculosis, the disease whose diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. This stalker of health spared no one. Even the rich and eminent - Chopin, Thoreau, Lanier, and Keats - were felled by it. Marian's father was a known consumptive, a semi-invalid who seldom left home. Marian herself was a "parlor case," with an early history of coughing blood but with intervals of better health and cautious activity. It is easy to see how my mother, already somewhat withdrawn by temperament and circumstances, would be further distanced from the world by knowledge of her fatal disease. It was there in the house already, eating at her father. Any morning it might turn and ravage her too. How could she ever be unguarded and carefree?
This was the situation in 1840 when my father, a stranger to Boston society, appeared with his proposal. What a sigh of relief must have emanated from the tired Lathams! I can almost hear them now, congratulating each other.
"A capital fellow!" the Howes and Lathams and Curtises assured one another.
"From somewhere in the Connecticut River Valley ... a bit older, but that Marian needs a steady hand. Harvard '14, and on the faculty there now. Mark my words, Marian will be fine!"
My parents were engaged in a fortnight and married just after Easter 1841. There were reasons for this modish hurry; my Latham grandfather was seriously consumptive, and the engaged couple were not young. So the double parlors and the spiral stair at 32 Mount Vernon Street were hung with garlands of white lilac and crowded with relatives in silk and serge. The Chases, coming from Springfield, never guessed how few festivals had graced the handsome house.
The bridal pair spent a week in Newport, in a house lent by a pious Howe cousin whose rectitude had been enriched by a hundred years in the slave trade. Then they returned to Mount Vernon Street, and - after the round of family dinner parties to honor the newlyweds - my father unpacked his books and settled into his father-in-law's mansion.
If there were acquaintances who whispered that my father had sought to better himself by marrying up, they were mistaken. He loved comfort and convenience and beautiful things, but he was incapable of scheming to achieve them. He loved to travel and buy books and presents, but he had indulged himself in these ways when he was poor. Since he spent almost all his waking hours in the Athens of Pericles, it is quite possible that he never noticed the ease and elegance of his new setting. He slept on Beacon Hill, but by day he looked upon the agora from the acropolis.
Perhaps in my father, Marian had found the perfect partner. Wrapped up in his own world, he would never attempt to invade or intrude into hers. And she would not make demands of his time or attention, leaving him to visit with the ancients. Neither noticed or missed the daily interactions, the entanglement of lives that other marriages entailed.
My own story begins at 32 Mount Vernon Street, where I was born on September 16, 1843. I was installed on the fifth floor - the "nursery floor," up under the roof. My parents resumed their tranquil parallel lives, undisturbed. Father read and studied and taught. Mother supervised her father's servants; she dressed beautifully and skimmed French novels. Very occasionally, they dined out.
If my parents ever asked to "see the baby," then someone must have carried me in - all ribbons and shawls, like a squab on a garnished platter. The rest of the time I was cared for by Irish nursemaids. At three months, I was christened Arethusa, soon shortened to Ara by my grandfather, who I am told loved me dearly.
How I have searched my memory for the faintest trace of this gentleman! I retain only a huge, warm presence, a prickly kiss, a sense of being welcome and valuable. It is family lore that he would have me brought down at breakfast every day. He would hold me on his lap while he read the morning paper and tell me when to turn the page - and they say I never wriggled once. Father must have observed this often, to tell it so well when I would ask him.
My first actual clear-edged memory is of Grandfather's winter funeral - though the concept of death was meaningless to me. I remember the great snorting black horses, wearing curling black feathers and silver jewelry; they stamped and steamed in the cold. I remember the fresh, bright snow on the cobblestones and the quiet crowds of people in black. Their sharp shadows were blue on the snow, violet on the pink brick houses. This was in February 1846; I must have been two and a half.
When summer came that year, the big house was suddenly noisy with hammers and saws. Jolly red-faced men came and went, shouting and spitting in strange languages. I begged to see all this, and my bored nursemaid would take me downstairs to watch the carpenters working. They were changing my grandfather's old bedroom into a new room for my father's books.
When the loud carpenters disappeared, the house settled back into dense silence. My father vanished into that study, barely emerging. Sometimes I heard the heavy front door open and close; sometimes I heard the tall clock strike the hour calmly; but usually my big house kept its unbroken quiet.
My lively, sociable relatives all lived nearby, up and down Beacon Hill, in high, bay-windowed houses like mine. My mother seemed to me a whole other species than my brisk, busy, talkative cousins and great-aunts. I used to stand at the street windows of our famous double parlor on the second floor. From there, I would see my aunts and cousins passing in carriages or crossing to call on one another. They were always in twos and threes, talking earnestly. Sometimes they would look up and wave, but they did not often stop. I never expected them to. My grandfather's death, my mother's isolation, the frequent doctor visits, all spoke to one fact: we were dangerous. My family had a terrible disease, and the relatives did not want us very close.
I do not mean to suggest that my parents and I were complete outcasts in that family neighborhood. The relatives never abandoned Marian; instead, there was a distance. It was simply that Latham plans did not often include the Chases. "Marian wouldn't enjoy it," said the uncles. "Marian isn't well enough," said the aunts. "Arethusa probably shouldn't exert herself, just in case," said the cousins.
There was and is very little known about the course, treatment, and prevention of consumption. My grandfather had died of it, and after I was born, my mother's illness flared up; she went from being a "parlor case" to a near invalid.
The Lathams told one another that Dr. Jackson saw Marian every week and that he always listened to my chest too. They reassured themselves that we were being taken care of while firmly establishing among the connected families that I too either had or would soon come down with consumption like my mother.
Cousin Daisy Powell was the family's designated herald. Sixty or so, alert and stylish, she loved her duties of reporting news and carrying messages among the relations. She was unfailingly kind to me; she always expressed an official family sympathy and interest.
"We all want you to get better," she assured me. "What did Dr. Jackson say about your health this week?"
"Not much. He always asks if I have spat blood."
"And have you?"
"Not yet." And I would search her face for a clue as to whether this was the right or the wrong answer. There seemed to be an expectancy surrounding this question. I answered truthfully, and there did seem relief in my response, but the very routine nature of the questioning reinforced the idea that coughing up blood was inevitable. My difference, my unique unhealthy condition, was a fact, a given - like the Lowell cousins' freckles. Being "not well" was as much a part of me as my fair braids or the little hidden mole behind my left ear - or the secret that I did not really have a mother.
Excerpted from Afternoons with Emily by Rose MacMurray Copyright © 2007 by Frank G. MacMurray Jr., Adelaide MacMurray Aitken, and Worth D. MacMurray. Excerpted by permission.
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