Emily Dickinson the Subject of a Major Exhibition at the Morgan Library in 2017
New York, NY, December 2016 — One of the most popular and enigmatic American writers of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote almost 1,800 poems. Nevertheless, her work was essentially unknown to contemporary readers since only a handful of poems were published during her lifetime and a vast trove of her manuscripts was not discovered until after her death in 1886.
Often typecast as a recluse who rarely left her Amherst home, Dickinson was, in fact, socially active as a young woman and maintained a broad network of friends and correspondents even as she grew older and retreated into seclusion. Bringing together nearly one hundred rarely seen items, including manuscripts and letters, I’m Nobody: Who are you?—a title taken from her popular poem—is the most ambitious exhibition on Dickinson to date. It explores a side of her life that is seldom acknowledged: one filled with rich friendships and long-lasting relationships with mentors and editors.
The exhibition closely examines twenty-four poems in various draft states, with corresponding audio stops. In addition to her writings, the show also features an array of visual material, including hand-cut silhouettes, photographs and daguerreotypes, contemporary illustrations, and other items that speak to the rich intellectual and cultural environment in which Dickinson lived and worked. The exhibition is organized in conjunction with Amherst College.
“Emily Dickinson’s work—and life—remain endlessly compelling to literary scholars and to the larger artistic community,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “With its experimental poetics and vivid language, her verse continues to be a source of critical inquiry, while her quiet, unassuming years in Amherst are celebrated in music, theatre, and the cinema. The Morgan’s exhibition explores a less well-known aspect of her life—her personal and professional friendships—that will surely delight and surprise exhibition-goers.”
I. Childhood Years
“I attend singing school.”
Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson was part of a tight-knit family at the social center of Amherst, a small college town in western Massachusetts. She lived almost her entire life in the shadow of Amherst College, which was cofounded by her grandfather and where her father served as treasurer between 1835 and 1873. Life in such an environment brought a steady stream of visitors from far and wide, and Dickinson lived within an intellectually stimulating community that would later be reflected in her letters and poetry. Her father was protective, yet encouraged his children to pursue educational opportunities. Primary schooling for young women was not uncommon in Dickinson’s time, and she formed many strong attachments to her schoolmates and instructors at Amherst Academy, where she was part of a close group of friends known as the circle of five. Her exposure to poetry and keen use of language dates to her youth, as does her interest in the natural world and aesthetic presentation, evident in the books from her library, early letters, and her herbarium, an album of carefully pressed botanical specimens.
II. A Year at Mount Holyoke
"Everything is pleasant & happy here.”
At the age of sixteen, Dickinson left home to study at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a women’s college, in nearby South Hadley, Massachusetts. She tested into the first of three academic levels but was promoted to the second by midyear and took courses in chemistry, botany, history, and languages. She was roommates with her cousin Emily Norcross and her time there is well documented in the surviving letters she sent to her brother, Austin, and friend Abiah Root, one of the circle of five friends from Amherst Academy. It was not unusual for women to attend only a single year of higher education, and Dickinson returned to Amherst at the end of the academic year.
III. Companions and Correspondents
“Stay! My heart votes for you.”
Dickinson was not a student at Amherst College—which was established in 1821 with the explicit goal of educating, in Noah Webster’s phrase, “indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety” for the Christian ministry—but, as the daughter of the college treasurer, she was expected to attend public events such as commencement and to assist with the annual trustee’s reception hosted at her father’s house. After the Civil War, the college drifted away from its focus on missionary training, but during Dickinson’s lifetime it was a hotbed for religious revivals. She led a socially active life when she was young, attending performances, concerts, and lectures and remaining close to friends she had made as a child at Amherst Academy. She also formed new relationships, often through her brother, Austin. He introduced her to his social circle and Dickinson would have a brief flirtation with one member. Later, Austin’s wife, Susan, would become one of the poet’s dearest friends. Even as she became more reclusive, and increasingly withdrew from society in the 1860s, Dickinson maintained an active correspondence, composing more than one thousand letters in her lifetime.
IV. Literary Influences and Connections
“After long disuse of her eyes she read Shakespeare & thought why is any other book needed?”
One benefit of life in a college town was access to books, newspapers, and magazines that might not otherwise be readily available. The Dickinson family kept a respectable library in their home, and Dickinson also borrowed books from friends. In addition to her wide-ranging reading habits, she was acquainted with some major figures in the worlds of publishing and literature, chief among them the editors Samuel Bowles, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Thomas Niles, as well as the writer and activist Helen Hunt Jackson. Although Bowles and Higginson both championed women writers, their views were far from universal. Helen Hunt Jackson forged her own career as an author and urged Dickinson to publish her poetry, with one small success.
V. Civil War Years
“I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-”
Massachusetts played an important role in the Civil War, politically and militarily. For a brief time, the state’s Springfield Armory, not far from Amherst, was the sole government manufacturer of muskets and other arms. Hundreds of local residents, both white and African American, joined the Union army, although Dickinson’s brother Austin avoided service. Students and faculty from the college also joined the conflict. Charity events related to the war became a regular feature of daily life. Dickinson began collecting her rapidly increasing output of poems into hand-sewn manuscript booklets, known as fascicles, as early as 1858, but the war years saw a sharp increase in her productivity. Thirty out of forty fascicles and at least five unsewn sets of poems—each of which could include more than twenty drafts—date from the years 1861-65. Most of Dickinson’s poems that were published during her lifetime also appeared during this period.
VI. Lifetime Publications
“I had told you I did not print.”
Closely examining Dickinson’s unique manuscript practices provides a partial answer to the question of why she did not pursue publication. While Dickinson’s social network included supporters of her writing and the work of women writers in general, there were equally strong voices arguing the opposite position. She regularly exchanged letters with influential editors,including Bowles, Niles, and Higginson. But, for all of their progressive views—Bowles, for instance, hired Fidelia Hayward Cooke as literary editor at The Springfield Republican in 1860—Dickinson was constrained by the disapproval of her father and of other figures she admired. Only ten of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems were published during her lifetime but always with added titles and altered punctuation. With one exception, the poems appeared in newspapers and periodicals on densely printed pages and surrounded by articles and advertisements, as was typical for the period. Dickinson is never credited—her poems all were published anonymously—and it is probable they were printed without her consent. At the same time, she did not shun publication altogether. She submitted several poems to Niles who never printed them while Dickinson was alive, but would later publish the first three posthumous editions of her work to great success.
VII. Posthumous Publications and Legacy
“It was not death for I stood up.”
Emily Dickinson died at her home on May 15, 1886, possibly of kidney disease. Of her trove of poems, hundreds had been shared with her network of friends and correspondents, but Dickinsonhad kept sets and fascicles entirely private. These poems were only discovered by her sister, Lavinia, after her death.
Lavinia looked to Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law and one of the poet’s closest friends, to publish them. But work proceeded slowly, and Lavinia eventually turned the manuscripts over to Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress. Todd dedicated much of the rest of her life to editing and publishing Dickinson’s poetry. The first two books—in 1890 and 1891—were coedited by Higginson, the poet’s old literary mentor. Todd and Higginson faced many difficulties when interpreting Dickinson’s challenging manuscripts and were further hindered by technology (Todd’s typewriter did not have lowercase letterforms). They worked to regularize Dickinson’s lines and alter her punctuation in order to make the verse “look” more like conventional poetry. Nevertheless, more than four hundred poems were brought out within ten years of Dickinson’s death, and her indisputably strong literary reputation was quickly established.
Today, Dickinson is widely recognized as one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century and her work is acknowledged as a precursor to modernism. She profoundly influenced later generations of poets, writers, musicians, and visual artists, including Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Charles Wright, and Susan Howe; Aaron Copland and Dawn Upshaw; Joseph Cornell and Jen Bervin.
Image: The only authenticated image of Emily Dickinson, Daguerreotype, ca. 1847. The Emily Dickinson Collection, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956, 1956.002.