Emily Dickenson: A Literary Life, By Linda Wagner-Martin - Review


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The Independent Culture

Was Emily Dickinson a recluse or a “joyous aunt”? Did she absent herself from the household to work on her poetry, or because she was an epileptic, ashamed of her condition? Is there a clue when she writes in 1869 to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, perceived by many to be the “Master” of her earlier poems, that “I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”?

Palgrave Macmillan’s “Literary Lives” series exists not so much to answer intriguing biographical questions as to establish the link between the art and the life that gives rise to these questions. Wagner-Martin, with acclaimed biographies of Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald to her credit, does a superb job here of teasing out the implications of that connection.

Sometimes form and content don’t seem to match, when Dickinson chooses a hymnal structure for her poems after she remains the only member of her family to reject the Christian set of her home town . Then again, so many poems use the words “death”, “dying” or “died” in their titles, unsurprising when written by a woman who grew up during the devastation of the Civil War, not to mention her own fears about her health.

The link between the art and the life is never straightforward, as Wagner-Martin notes. The death of Dickinson’s beloved father did not silence her as many might have expected. While experiencing severe problems with her eyes from 1863 to 1865 she had her most productive period, in which she managed to complete more than 600 poems. Some believe her productivity was “prompted by her eye condition”; others regard it as the moment the poet understood properly the extent of her genius. For others still, it was a reaction to her breakdown in 1861, when the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (did Dickinson hope for a mentor, to show her how to be a professional poet?) seemed to lay her particularly low.

Readers often long to know, less the personal intrigues of writers (Wagner-Martin spares only a few lines for Dickinson’s brother Austin’s marital woes that saw a horrendous fight for the rights to her poems after she died), and more how they manage the writing life at all. Dickinson managed it best when there was a full-time servant in the house to take her place (even though her father preferred to eat bread only baked by her), and allow her to retreat, but she also needed a mentor.

This uneasy combination of private and public torments many writers, and Wagner-Martin quotes the critic Paula Bennett who argues that Dickinson’s “reaching-out” to Higginson “deeply compromised” the nature of her poetry”. Certainly Dickinson’s refusal to be published would suggest a fear of the public, yet her poems, which spoke both directly and indirectly of the Civil War, would suggest a public impulse.

What cannot be denied is that, from the late 1860s, “she never left home again”. Dickinson’s reclusiveness will always fascinate, but coming as it does just as she experiences possibly her only real love affair, with the widower Otis Lord, it suggests a very different kind of reclusiveness from what we might imagine. Little about Dickinson’s poetry is simple; little about her life, and her motivations, is simple, either.