Map of Hampshire County Massachusetts, 1854
I just read and loved My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe, a poet's book about the life and work of a fellow poet. And "fellow poets" is, fittingly, one of the themes of the book. Through her examination of Dickinson's influence and correspondence -- largely through the lens of one of her best-known poems, My Life had stood a Loaded Gun -- Howe reveals Dickinson to have been astutely aware of the literary community and tradition in which she wrote, even though she famously did so from the confines of her room. While her reclusive habits were likely a result of severe agoraphobia, Dickinson's failure to publish during her life was not, as the story goes, a result of timid self-doubt, lack of awareness of the possibilities of the outside world, or a socially crippling side effect of her spinsterdom. It was, Howe argues, a result of the Calvinist values Dickinson deeply held, learned from her readings and her circles (which, being from a wealthy and well-connected family, she certainly had without having to leave the house). She sent her poems and countless letters to friends, many of whom encouraged her to publish, which she refused on the grounds that fame is an earthly reward and therefore a sin. She was just one of many terrified and freezing New Englanders saving their tokens to cash in in the next realm. But the most interesting point here, as I see it, is this: Emily Dickinson knew quite well that she was a poet. To my understanding of her mythology, this revelation was huge.
My Emily Dickinson, Howe's is startlingly lacking in the first person. In fact, there is hardly an "I" statement in the entire book, and only the most intellectual sentimentality.
Until now, I hadn't much thought about my own E.D sentimentality. As a reader growing up near her home, I didn't have to think much about Emily to feel like she was just around, enshrined in brick libraries, a field trip destination, wafting spookily past the icicle-laden windows behind which I read. But upon reading this account of the practiced and self-aware craft she refined indoors but with plenty of company, I realized that the Emily Dickinson distinction lies at the crux of something I've struggled with personally for years: is one a writer simply because one writes? Or, in this case, was Emily Dickinson a poet before she died and was immortalized as one? And, if so, is that because she wrote poems, or because she endeavored to be and identified as a poet? Susan Howe's account was revelatory in a way that I didn't realize would unearth my own interest in Dickinson's ghosts.