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Chapter One: Strings

by Ruth Miller

All that I am going to describe happened first on Main Street in 1815, then on North Pleasant Street in the town of Amherst, and seemed to terminate in 1886 with the passage of a small casket carried out the back door of the Mansion along the garden path through the hedges across the meadow to the Dickinson family plot in the graveyard. On the squat white gravestone only the initials EED (Emily Elizabeth Dickinson) were incised. Early in the 20th century Martha Bianchi, Emily Dickinson's niece, thought fit to install a wrought iron fence to enclose the burial plot and she ordered a tall coarse-grained marble tombstone to be put in place, not exactly where the bones lay but close enough. On it was carved Called Back, words said to be the last line Dickinson wrote in a letter to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross:

Little Cousins,
Called back.

Called back she was. Retrieved from the obscure life she had led to be declared the major American poet of the nineteenth century (save Whitman), the most influential poet of the twentieth century (save Pound and Eliot), carried from America to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and maybe in the coming century to be placed again in a soldered box on the moon. Transformed from the second daughter of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross to the Myth of Amherst.

How did this happen?

At first by manipulation on the part of family and self-appointed friends, by the planting of innuendo and hearsay or outright untruths in prefaces and essays written by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, editors of the first publications of the poems of Emily Dickinson. Early reviewers who had little else to go on freely borrowed from Higginson and Todd. The energetic Mabel Todd promoted her Third Series by accepting all invitations to speak about her poet to the Tuesday Morning Club, the Woman's Club, the College Club, as well as at salons in the homes of Louise Chandler Moulton, Mrs John Adams Andrews, Mrs Alfred Stanley, and other would-be hostesses. (1) The letters salvaged and published by Mrs Todd with her non-disclosures, her plethora of ellipses — the four-dot teasings —excited curiosity and speculation arousing further interest in and invited speculation about the mysterious poor Emily. Then too there came the distortions of facts and figures pertaining to the initial success of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Series of published poems. In time there appeared second hand and third hand story tellers passing off their phantasms as discoveries or revelations based on so-called facts. Soon an Emily Dickinson industry thrived, fostered by genuine advocates and disingenuous profiteers. Nobody noticed that every interpretation of the life and the writings of the quiet little lady who went nowhere and was seen by virtually no one for her last eighteen years (during which time she never ventured beyond the parameters of her father's house) always began with “It would appear that ... ” “We can assume ... ” “We must assume ... ” “How can we not assume?” Nobody noticed or seemed to care that each definitive account of the life of Emily Dickinson always began with “Probably,” “Surely,” “Doubtless,” phrases of sheer speculation. In the course of time speculation became hypothesis, hypothesis was somehow documented and became fact; fact became tradition and tradition transformed into myth. Now myth is believed to be fact.

But there are only three indisputable, noncontroversial facts in the narrative of the myth of Amherst: one, Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830; two, Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886; and three, Amherst is in the State of Massachusetts.

Nevertheless generations of scholars have been hard at work for nearly a century. Analysis and synthesis, advocacy and contention, the invention of new interpretations —plausible, implausible —of the truth about ED, have produced myths more useful to the myth-maker than to the readers of the poems. Biographers, literary critics, poets and partisans, philologists and linguists, medical practitioners —eye doctors and psychiatrists —feminists, anxieties of influencers, nuns, caretakers who lived in the Homestead, specialists in punctuation, meter and metaphor, respectful canonizers and disrespectful reviewers, graduate students seeking topics for their dissertations, assistant professors seeking tenure, associate professors seeking promotion, and acquisitions editors vying for status in their market place, all have leaped into the fray; all have assigned themselves the task of explaining the wraith of Amherst.

And yet today, despite the scores of books and monographs, despite conferences and celebrations and newsletters and clubs, Emily Dickinson remains an enigma, known to the great world, known in one way or another, to everyone but herself. Emily Dickinson did not know she wrote her poetry in secret, that none of her relatives, friends, neighbors, editors or fellow poets were privy to her transactions in the business of words; Emily Dickinson did not know that she disdained to publish, that she lived a cloistered life withdrawn from all society because of a tragic love affair, or that she lived a rich full life in association with men and women of distinguished intellect, that she was well-educated, deeply learned, mistress of profound thoughts, and a merry minx, warm and loving, tender, sweet and gentle, a true blue friend to all in need. Emily Dickinson did not know she had been married, became pregnant, had an abortion, and in shame and remorse withdrew from the world. Nor did she know she was a lesbian, with a yen for Katie Anthon to whom she sent a pair of garters, a yen for her sister-in-law Susan, lost to her in marriage to brother Austin. She did not know that from her infancy, because her mother disliked her, she hid a tiny phallus in her underpants and went on yearning for her father, her brother, a soldier, a minister, an editor, an uncle, a cousin, a judge, and Jesus himself. Emily Dickinson never knew she was an archetype of the New England Puritan, an idealist, a realist, a metaphysical poet, an abolitionist, a voice of war, a Marxist, a covert nun, that she hoarded strychnine and called herself back one morning in May, a suicide. These are some, only some, of the myths.

Often the myths overlap, more often they are contradictory; some are less important than others, but when taken as a whole the strange chronicle of how Dickinson came to be the major American woman poet of the nineteenth century and today occupies the position of the major American poet without whom contemporary American poetry would not have come into existence, bears retelling.

I begin with the melodramatic fabrication of the “surprise,” the myth that Sister Lavinia did not know Sister Emily wrote poems. The myth was first presented as fact by Mabel Loomis Todd who wrote in her “Preface” to the Second Series (November 9, 1891) and repeated in her article, “Emily Dickinson's Literary Debut,” written for Harper's Magazine, March, l930,“The 'portfolios' were found shortly after Emily Dickinson's death, by her sister and only surviving housemate.” The myth was reaffirmed in 1945 by Todd's daughter, Millicent Bingham who published Ancestor's Brocades, subtitled “The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson.” Mrs. Bingham was able to quote from her mother's diary: “Shortly after Emily's death her Sister Lavinia came to me actually trembling with excitement. She had discovered a veritable treasure — a box full of Emily's poems which she had had no instructions to destroy.”


The Myth of Amherst is Ruth Miller's tenth book. Her first book, The Poetry of Emily Dickison, received the Melville Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America. Professor Miller has a M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from New York University. She taught literature for eighteen years at Brooklyn College, twenty-five years at Stonybrook, as a Fullbright Scholar in Russia and India, as Visiting Professor of English in Japan and Israel. Professor Miller now lives in Israel with an Airedale terrier, a ginger cat, and a Burmese canary.