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Emily Dickinson Is Dead
By Jane Langton
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
All but Death, can be Adjusted ...
After the death of his wife Owen Kraznik went on living and teaching in Amherst, but his days had become a bewildering fluster, a tangled wilderness, a formless and perplexing dishevelment. Snatching at the chaos as it hurtled past him, end over end, Owen struggled to arrange it in a rational pattern.
But the Emily Dickinson Centennial Symposium refused to be made sense of. It came crashing into Amherst like a loose boulder, ricocheting from College to University, crushing and grinding and destroying. Who was responsible? Owen didn't know. After the fire, after the disappearance of Alison Grove, after the awkwardness about the picture, after the attack in Emily Dickinson's bedchamber—with an axe!—and after all those other bizarre disasters, it was impossible to single out one human being and say, "Look, that person is entirely to blame."
But some of the guilt was his own. Wincing, Owen couldn't help pointing a finger at himself. Of course he wasn't crucially at fault, but there was no denying that it was Owen Kraznik who had given that boulder its first little nudge, way back in October. And then he had thrown up his hands in horror and galloped after it as it gathered speed and plummeted down into the peaceful valley of the Connecticut River, to bruise and shatter and lay waste, and change lives forever.
It was just an innocent little remark, that was all. If only he had kept his mouth shut!CHAPTER 2
Went home a century ago ...
"Emily Dickinson has been dead for a hundred years." That was all he had said. And it had been true—well, almost true. On that October day last fall it had been ninety-nine years and five months since Emily Dickinson perished of Bright's disease in the big house on Main Street. And Owen had said it on the day the letter came, the letter from Peter Wiggins, the letter about the picture.
Owen had risen early that morning, as he always did, eager to get to his office at the University of Massachusetts before Winifred Gaw showed up. Now, taking the letter out of his mailbox, he held it in his teeth while he fastened the bicycle clips to his pants, and then he sat down on the top of the porch steps and looked at the return address:
Professor Peter Wiggins
University of Central Arizona
Pancake Flat, Arizona
Pancake Flat, Arizona? Owen smiled. What an improbable-sounding place.
He pulled out a thick wad of paper from the envelope. It was an article he had seen before, a study of a famous photograph of Emily Dickinson. Well, the photograph might or might not be a picture of Emily Dickinson. There was a controversy about it. This man Wiggins was trying to prove it was genuine. He had bought it from a collector. He owned it now, out there in Pancake Flat. He had examined the whole subject thoroughly. The photograph was authentic, he said. It was a real photographic portrait of Emily Dickinson, the celebrated poet of Amherst, Massachusetts, without a shadow of a doubt.
Well, good for Peter Wiggins, thought Owen, unfolding the xeroxed copy of the photograph. Turning it to the light, he looked at the face of the young woman in the picture.
Gravely the dark eyes looked back at him through the lens of the ancient camera and across the space of a hundred and twenty-five years. The woman was indeed good-looking. Owen wanted to believe it, that this was really the poet whose life and work had meant so much to him. What a fine and sensitive face! But did it match the younger face, the true face of Emily Dickinson as she appeared in the daguerreotype of 1848? Ah, that was the question. Some people thought they were the same, some didn't.
Owen put the picture back in the envelope and took out the letter. Peter Wiggins wanted to come East. He was inquiring eagerly: Would the English department at the University of Massachusetts be interested in a slide lecture on the subject of the photograph? Did Professor Kraznik know of a teaching position in New England? Résumé enclosed.
The letter had a panicky ring. The poor fellow seemed frantic to escape from Pancake Flat. Owen pictured him, this unknown Peter Wiggins, standing forlornly in some sunbaked desert landscape, stretching out his hand to the East. It was like Emily Dickinson's own yearning for the impossible—"Heaven"—is what I cannot reach! Well, poor Wiggins was out of luck, thought Owen sadly. Nothing could be done for him. All the colleges in the Connecticut River Valley were firing, rather than hiring.
Trundling his bicycle down the steps, Owen mounted and rolled along the driveway, wobbling a little as he turned onto Spring Street, dodging puddles from yesterday's rain. Wet leaves were plastered to the pavement. Overhead the rising sun struck the lofty crowns of the sugar maples and set fire to them as with a match. Owen glanced up at the treetops and told himself he should take more pleasure in things like that. But it was no use. Since Catherine's death he found no savor in natural wonders. Today it was too painful to remember her delight in the autumn color of the Amherst countryside. Better not to notice anything, better not to be reminded, better not to think about that kind of thing at all.
Damp leaves spun around his wheels as Owen turned left on Dickinson Street, focusing his mind safely once again on the article by Peter Wiggins.
There was something about it that dismayed him. The flaw was a common failing—a note of ownership, of territorial arrogance. My theory, my picture, my poet. The inference was always the same, Emily Dickinson belongs to me.
On the surface it seemed innocent enough, this habit of grasping at the great and good after they were gone. And yet to Owen there was something violent about it. It was like grave-robbers stealing rings from the fingers of the dead, or groping in the lifeless jaws to extract the gold teeth. It was like an exhumation. These bones are mine. In the article by Peter Wiggins you could almost hear the ringing clatter of his wrecking bar against Emily Dickinson's tombstone.
Of course, Wiggins was not alone. In Amherst, Massachusetts, almost everyone laid claim to Emily Dickinson. She was like a colonial plantation, a piece of ephemeral real estate.
At Main Street, Owen swooped left and pumped to the top of the steep little hill. At the crest he stopped beside the Dickinson house and dragged the bike up the granite steps. THE DICKINSON HOMESTEAD, BY APPOINTMENT ONLY, said the sign at the front walk.
Owen didn't want an appointment. Owen knew every square inch of the public rooms. He glanced up now at the windows of the bedroom in which Emily Dickinson had written nearly two thousand poems, the room that had been a haven from intrusion by fools, a place of retreat from the polite people of the town. She was still retreating, decided Owen. In death she had removed to the family plot under the white ash tree in West Cemetery. She had withdrawn to her narrow white coffin, six feet under the ground. But she could escape no farther. Any bunch of idiots could claw at the grass growing on her grave and hold up chunks of turf and claim them for their own.
Moving down the sidewalk, Owen gazed through the hemlock hedge at the sloping Dickinson garden. The grass was wet. In the oak tree a bird hopped from branch to branch. Owen stared through the hedge, wondering who really owned Emily Dickinson. If anybody in Amherst could be said to possess the woman in this ninety-ninth year after her death, who would it be?
Oh, Lord, there were so many claimants! In all the five colleges of the Connecticut River Valley there were professors who regarded the poet as property—not to mention the fifty thousand students swarming on the streets of the local towns, Amherst and Northampton and South Hadley. Was there any other place in the world where one literary deity was worshiped so universally? Well, there was Stratford-on-Avon, and Concord, Massachusetts. Did everybody in Stratford own Shakespeare? Did everyone in Concord lay claim to Henry Thoreau? Here in Amherst even a piece of paper whipping down South Pleasant Street was apt to be a title deed, a page from The Complete Poems, unstuck from the paperback edition, fluttering out of somebody's motorcycle saddlebag. Impulsively, Owen covered his ears as he thought of the sounds of righteous Dickinson ownership, the rattle of a thousand typewriters, the battering of chalk on a hundred classroom blackboards.
Then he smiled. It wasn't just people, after all. Even that commonplace bird in the oak tree, there in the Dickinson garden, even that sassy robin who was whistling, head up, chirping a succession of phrases, spattering the whole side yard with cheerful melody, even that small bird could make a claim of its own upon Emily Dickinson. Maybe it was descended from the poet's own Gabriel In humble circumstances and owned the whole green lawn.
Mounting his bike again, Owen pushed off and sped along Main Street to the Common. The hour was still early. Except for a couple of joggers loping around its circumference, the Common was deserted. The sun was just surfacing over the Town Hall, shining on the snapping flag, casting a rosy glow on the brick cornices of Merchants Block. Leaning to the side, Owen whizzed around the corner onto North Pleasant Street. Later the crossing would be jammed with students and choked with motor traffic, but at this hour Owen had it to himself.
North Pleasant Street, too, was deserted. Racing left at the fork, Owen skimmed along too fast on McClellan Street and almost ran into Tom Perry.
Whoops! Dodging left, Owen shouted "Sorry!" at Tom, who was standing in the street, opening the door of his car. Tom was one of Owen's superb successes, the youngest full professor at Amherst College, and another deed holder, of course, in the Emily Dickinson real-estate bonanza. Was that the girl he was engaged to, the fabled doctor from Northampton? Speeding away, Owen looked back to nod and smile at the girl, and then he nearly lost his balance in surprise.
It wasn't the doctor from Northampton. It was a sophomore English major from U Mass. Once you had seen Alison Grove, you didn't forget her. This morning Alison was coming out of Tom's front door, clutching a folded umbrella, teetering along in gold sandals, shivering in a skimpy outfit obviously left over from last night.
Owen whirled away, keeping eyes front. It was no business of his if Tom Perry brought a random girl home to share his bed. It was none of Owen's affair at all.
"Shit," said Tom Perry to Alison Grove. "The great Owen Kraznik. He would come along right now. Our iniquity is discovered."
"Well, who cares?" said Alison, getting into the car. "I mean, like you said you were going to tell your old girlfriend about us anyway. You said you'd break it off. You said she'll understand, because she's this really, really good sport."
Tom got in beside Alison. "Oh, sure. Next time I see her we'll have a heart-to-heart talk. But not now. I called her up yesterday and told her how busy I am." Tom grinned at Alison. "You know, all these midterms to correct, all these conferences with students." Bending his head, Tom kissed Alison's bare shoulder. "Like last night. Very important student conference. All kinds of"—Tom kissed Alison's throat and buried his head in her red-gold hair—"really important stuff to discuss. You know like this—and this—and especially this. Oh, Alison."
Alison Grove leaned back and allowed herself to be caressed. It was what she had been born for. She had always known it. But she had taken her time. Like in high school, she had been really just so incredibly fussy. But she had been right to wait for Tom Perry, who was really so incredibly good looking and just so fabulously important. Everybody said so. All the girls on Alison's floor at Coolidge Hall were incredibly jealous.
"Well, Owen won't tell on us anyway," sighed Tom, sitting up reluctantly. "The saintly Owen Kraznik, he'll keep it under his hat. Oh, say, that reminds me, didn't you say you were looking for a part-time job?"
"Oh, right. My clothing allowance, it's just so incredibly small."
"Well, listen, I understand they're going to fire Owen's assistant, Winifred Gaw. Dombey Dell told me. The whole department at U Mass voted to throw her out. So why don't you go over there this morning and talk to Owen? Maybe he'll hire you in her place. Tell him I sent you. Owen's a soft touch. You can wind him around your little finger."
"Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't know anything about Emily Dickerson. Isn't he this really big expert on Emily Dickerson?"
"Dickinson." For an instant Tom glanced sideways at Alison, aware of a flicker of doubt. He had felt it before, just once or twice. He banished it now by putting his arm around Alison's creamy shoulders. "An expert? That's putting it mildly. If anybody in this world owns the right to talk about Emily Dickinson, it's Owen Kraznik."
"Honestly?" said Alison, widening her eyes, really, really impressed.
"Oh, he'd probably never admit it, being a saint the way he is, but it's true. Owen Kraznik owns Emily Dickinson, lock, stock, and barrel."CHAPTER 3
... Estates of Cloud
Tom Perry was right. If some supreme judge had pounded his gavel and pronounced a ruling on the insubstantial domain that was Emily Dickinson, the title of ownership would surely have been awarded to Professor Owen Kraznik of the University of Massachusetts.
But Owen would never have accepted it. Fiercely, Owen repudiated all claims of vanity. It wasn't blindness on his part. It wasn't that he had never noticed his own moral and intellectual superiority to other people. He had discovered it in childhood. But at eight years old it had disturbed him as much as it did now, at forty. How sad for the human race if it could do no better than Owen Kraznik! In the simplicity of his nature and the clarity of his vision, Owen rejected self-congratulation. As his eminence grew, his eye grew milder still. The more he surpassed, the more helplessly he shrugged his shoulders, the more he refrained from needless victories.
Now, as Owen's bike plunged along Lincoln Avenue, the University of Massachusetts sprawled in front of him, forty-three acres of trampled grass. Owen swept past the long stretch of concrete sculpture that was the Fine Arts Center, dodged around Memorial Hall and Herter, skidded to a stop in front of Bartlett Hall, chained his bike to a column, and opened the door. Running lightly up to the second floor, he felt his insides clench with apprehension. What if Winnie Gaw were there already, lying enormously in wait? Sooner or later Winnie would discover that her boss was coming in early. And then she would insist on getting there before him, to anticipate his every need.
Warily, Owen poked his head into the undergraduate English office, then breathed a sigh of relief. It was empty. Crossing to his own small study on the other side, he sat down at his desk and smiled with satisfaction.
But the telephone had eyes in its head. It began to ring.
Owen stared at it a minute, then picked it up. "Hello?" he said cautiously.
But it was all right. It was only his cousin, Dr. Harvey Kloop.
"Owen? How would you like to come fishing with me at the Quabbin Reservoir? I've got a free day at last. My patients are all behaving themselves and nobody seems to be calling on my services as medical examiner. I've got my boat all hooked up to the car and I'm ready to go."
Owen smiled, picturing the melancholy hollow-cheeked face of his old childhood companion. "Oh, Harvey, I'm sorry. I have to teach today."
"Oh, too bad." And then Owen heard a scuffling noise and a protesting shout, "Hey, wait a minute, Eunice Jane."
"Owen?" It was Eunice Jane. "Listen here, Owen, I'm sorry, but Harvey isn't going anywhere today. He's sorting his underwear."
"And overcoats. He promised me. He said he'd sort his underwear and overcoats right away. Well, the time has come. Now, listen, Owen, while I've got you on the phone, I've got to tell you. You'll be amazed. I've been working on some more of those fascinating lines of Dickinson's, those deeply obscure passages, remember? Like the sterile perquisite, Reportless Subjects, to the Quick, the peerless puncture? Well, listen, I know what they mean. Those other fools were wrong. Wait till you hear."
Excerpted from Emily Dickinson Is Dead by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1984 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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