“In the Trumpian sense of the term, she’s the ultimate ‘nasty woman.’ An inspiration. Volcanic. When I start to write about her, I always feel, uh-oh.” The volcano referred to is Emily Dickinson, as described by the contemporary poet Susan Howe in the catalog for an exhibition, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” opening on Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum.
The show is one of the largest gatherings ever of prime Dickinson relics, and it comes with an aura the size of a city block. It instantly turns the Morgan into a pilgrimage site, a literary Lourdes, a place to come in contact with one aspect of American culture that truly can claim greatness, which we sure can use in an uh-oh political moment.
The show has a mission: To give 21st-century audiences a fresh take on Dickinson. Gone is the white-gowned Puritan nun, and that infantilized charmer, the Belle of Amherst. At the Morgan we get a different Dickinson, a person among people: a member of a household, a village-dweller, a citizen.
She was born in 1830 to rural gentry in Western Massachusetts, and one of the earliest items in the show gives an impression of modest Yankee privilege. It’s a portrait of Dickinson at around age 10 with her older brother, Austin, and young sister, Lavinia, done by a local artist, Otis Allen. It’s sort of a big deal to have it here: This is the first time it has left Houghton Library at Harvard since it arrived there in 1950. And the Morgan displays it well, against rose-patterned wallpaper that replicates the original, only recently uncovered, in Emily’s Amherst bedroom. In a sweet coincidence, the roses on the paper echo the flower the poet-to-be holds in her portrait.
As the daughter of a lawyer-politician — her father, Edward, was elected to the United States Congress in 1853 — and a lifelong consumer of newspapers and periodicals, Dickinson had a good sense of what was happening in the world. She went to grammar school, and was a bookworm, but had friends and a poised, dry sense of humor, as some teasing early letters to her brother suggests.
In 1847, she spent a year as a boarding student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, her one stint in higher education. And from that time came what many devotees will consider the exhibition’s star attraction: the much-reproduced daguerreotype of the 16-year-old Dickinson with her pale skin and wide-spaced eyes. It’s another rare visitant — it last left home at Amherst College in 1986 — and it’s almost a shock to see how small it is: pocket-size, like a holy card or a talisman.
Dickinson said that she liked Mount Holyoke, but I don’t know. It had its stresses. Part of the curriculum was religious, with students expected to make a profession of faith before graduating. The school informally divided potential candidates into three categories: those who would readily comply; those who would need some persuasion; and “No-Hopers,” to whom they paid special attention. Dickinson, who had developed an allergy to orthodoxy, was a No-Hoper, and proud.
It’s important, in presenting a revisionist view of her, especially a normalizing one, to note that from the start, resistance was her natural mode, and one that grew increasingly pronounced, and eventually acute. The end of her schooling signaled the start of a new phase of her life. She was again at home and beginning to work in a serious way on poetry, which required concentration and a degree of isolation: a commitment, the willingness, I guess you could say, to make a vow.
I think it wasn’t easy. The 1850s were a period of personal tumult. Her school friends had dispersed. Several had married. Among them was Susan Gilbert, with whom she had forged a tight emotional and intellectual bond, and whom she relied on as a first reader and editor of her poetry. In 1856, Gilbert — there’s a picture of her here — married Austin and lived with him in the house next door to the family homestead.
By 1858, Dickinson had accumulated enough poems to begin collecting them in handwritten, thread-bound booklets known as fascicles. And from around this time comes what is thought to be another portrait, a daguerreotype that surfaced in 2012 and is on first-time public view at the Morgan. It’s a portrait of two seated women, the one on the left tentatively identified as Dickinson; the other one as her friend, and possible romantic partner, Kate Scott Turner.
In the show, it’s placed side by side with the earlier, authenticated photograph. The Dickinsons in each, with their candid, unguarded gaze, share a clear, if inconclusive, resemblance. And her pose in the dual portrait is extremely moving. Far from being the timid, removed figure of myth, she looks directly at the camera and reaches, in a half-embrace, to touch the back of her friend.
Much of Dickinson’s poetry from this time has an experimental, incendiary flair; images of combat and violence occur. It’s as if she were experiencing the Civil War before it happened. And when it did happen, her production soared. Oddly, in the midst of the conflict, war was rarely her active theme. But like Walt Whitman, who began working as the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse in a military hospital in Washington, Dickinson seems to have been caught up in the emergency-room atmosphere that gripped the nation, a mood probably not entirely different from the one found in a divided America now.
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