I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.


Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.

 

 

Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.

 

 

 

 

*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson by Genevieve Taggard

I’ve mentioned in passing that I was reading Genevieve Taggard’s 1930 The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  this spring. The busy schedule of this project, and life in general, slowed my reading-rate, but I thought I’d share a few brief thoughts about it after I finished it.

Once I read about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. First, because I was so struck by Taggard’s poem “Everyday Alchemy”  I presented here, and because as one of the first (if not the first*) full-length biographies of Dickinson, Taggard had access to people who had first and second-hand experience of Dickinson while Dickinson was still alive. I’m not sure if journalistic style interviews were considered appropriate for literary biographies written in the 1920s, but despite Taggard’s limited use of some personal testimony in the book, I can’t help but mourn what could have been documented by a talented journalistic writer early in the 20th century investigating Dickinson and her milieu. Taggard as a feminist and as a person working in Amherst for awhile as a professor, writes in her book about the society of 19th Century Amherst, but she does not write this in a first person “walk with the reporter” kind of way were you could directly share how she evaluates and comes upon her information.

Such an imagined book would have been much longer, and Taggard’s shorter work was not a best-seller in 1930 either, but now that Dickinson’s stature as an American literary icon is established, such a longer form examination of her times from an intelligent reporter would be so illuminating.

Taggard-Dickinson Title Page

One of the lovely things about holding this copy were the “Minneapolis Athenaeum” stamps reflecting the history of this public library

 

If The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  was launched today the big PR hook would be that, from local testimony, Taggard believed she had identified the main male love** of Emily Dickinson’s life as George Gould, and that they were engaged, but Dickinson’s father forbid their marriage. Taggard’s detail on Gould’s life and its possible illumination of Dickinson’s interests via letters—an important way that Dickinson expanded her world and emotional circle—was fascinating to me, even when it was speculative.

Taggard seems to be using a Freudian outlook at times in her analysis of Dickinson’s life, and the other main relationship that she develops throughout her book is that between Emily and her father Edward, an attorney and major figure in the town of Amherst who served in both the national and state legislature. One doesn’t have to have the 1920’s intellectuals’ belief in Freud to agree that this is likely a key relationship, particularly considering that Emily speaks of her mother as being less significant to her (and there’s likely a story there too). I’m sometimes struck by how much some of Emily Dickinson’s poetic expression has an exact but slant-wise way about it that reminds me of some legal writing, such as in contract law. I see the same thing at times in Wallace Stevens (a lawyer/poet).***

In her concluding chapters, Taggard makes the case of Dickinson’s literary greatness, which the ensuing decades have continued to expand and endorse.

It’s a shame, but Taggard’s book is not easily available. It’s not been kept in print, and as far as I know, it’s still in copyright. At least when I looked, used copies are not inexpensively and plentifully available. I was able to read an original edition of The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  from my public library—a little bit worn, brittle and brown. I looked at the ink stamps on the checkout slip from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and wondered a bit about those readers and what they thought of it, but this reader found it well worth reading.

Taggard Check Out

Some of the readers added light pencil marks throughout the book too. I couldn’t help but ask each time I saw one what led to that mark, slowing my reading of Taggard’s book even more.

 

No new audio piece today, but maybe you haven’t listened to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “This World is Not Conclusion”  yet. It’s another of Dickinson’s skeptical hymns, this time full of abstractions and twists of that active mind that she charms us to follow anyway. Here’s the player gadget to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*Susan Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Bianchi published  The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson  in 1924, and I haven’t read it. I’m unsure how much of it is biography and how much is a letters collection, but Taggard politely notes in an appendix that Bianchi got a number of dates wrong.

**There’s a lot of modern interest in Dickinson’s sexuality, with attention being paid to the idea that she was lesbian or bi. Given the lack of the kind of deep contemporaneous social investigation of 19th century Massachusetts society, this may be impossible to determine to the modern gossip level of who engaged in what sex acts with whom. Even at the non-Dickinson-scholar level where I live, it’s apparent to me that Dickinson had a very active mind and was highly attracted to other minds that were similarly energized regardless of if the minds were in male or female noggins.

***I’m not sure how large that group, lawyer/poet, is. The only other one that comes to mind is Tom Rapp, the less-known-than-he-should-be songwriter of “The Sixties.”

Much more dour than Stevens and Dickinson, but I could even see a bit of that “Tell me what it is by telling me what it isn’t” expressive mode in Robert Mueller’s little farewell speech yesterday—but has anyone tried singing that to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”  I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi and William Barr could both read Dickinson’s “The World Is Not Conclusion”  and differ on what it says!

Her Final Summer Was It

I got to see the Emily Dickenson biopic A Quiet Passion”  this month. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie’s running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.

A-Quiet-Passion

This movie has no car chases or flying magician CGI battles

 
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the minds of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
 
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.

So go see “A Quiet Passion”  if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
 
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,”  because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.

Her Final Summer was it MS

Dickinson’s own hand-written manuscript of “Her final Summer was it”

You can hear my performance of “Her Final Summer Was It”  by using the player below. If you’d like to hear other Emily Dickinson pieces interpreted by the Parlando Project, we have done four other Dickinson poems with music here.