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Emily Dickinson and the Ghosts

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The Life and Mind of limiiy Dickinson. By Genevieve Tagnard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00. Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor. By MacGrcgor Jenkins. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.00.

The writing of a modern biography has something in common with presenting a new theory as to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays: it is necessary to find a principle for a new cryptogram that will make the known words fit together so that they will say the things that one wishes them to say. Emily Dickinson was born on December tenth, 1830, at Amherst, Massachusetts. Three or four poems were obscurely published in her lifetime. She lived in retirement most of her life at her father’s home and after his death with her sister Lavinia; and died, known only to a few friends, May fifteenth, 1880. That, except for the intense inner life of the poet that has record in her poems, is almost her complete story, as it is definitely known; that,—and the simple, homely incidents of callers and letters and gingerbread for children that were a part of every gentle spinster’s life in those sober New England times.

For once the world was fortunate as it had been when William Shakespeare left his works and so few records of his life after he had closed his books. Whatever the Emily Dickinson was that wrote the poems, the life or personality of the poet could not come between her readers and the poems. In 1890 Mabel Loomis Todd and Thoman Went-worth Higginson published the first volume of “Poems.” A year later “Poems, Second Series” was issued, with the same editors. Her “Letters” were edited by, Mrs. Todd in 1894 and “Poems, Third Series” followed in 1896. The two friends, acting for her sister, Lavinia, had selected these three volumes of verse from manuscripts that are known to have included as many as twelve hundred poems and are estimated now by some to represent at least two thousand pieces. What part these belated volumes had in determining the currents of American verse during the four decades that have passed since can never be estimated. Their success was immediate, but only in the last ten years has the universality of Emily Dickinson’s fame and possible influence become sufficiently apparent. The tones and the values in her verse belong obviously with the tones and values that have gained acceptance between the publication of her poems and the present time, but how far she was accepted because she belonged and how far she helped form the modern ear is easier to wrangle over than to determine. Meantime her lovers found the poet sufficiently in her poems and were not greatly disquieted that this vibrant and wise poetry had been written by an obscure little woman in Amherst. Then in 1024 her niece, Austin Dickinson’s daughter, Madame Martha Bianchi, published :The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson” and a year later the “Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.” Even had there not been the importance of an event given to the publication by Madame Bianchi in 1929 of “Further Poems, Withheld from Publication by her Sister Lavinia,” it would have been the time for more books about Emily Dickinson. The curtain was dark before an intensely interested audience. Madame Bianchi had whetted, not satisfied, its curiosity. The characters of the play were known and interesting ones. There was the strong and austere father, Edward Dickinson, the gentle attendant sister, Lavinia. Brother Austin, feared of little boys, robust and important, lived just down the street with his efficient and perhaps loquacious wife, the “Sister Sue” of the “Letters.” There was Maggie the servant girl and in the distance, to be reached by letters, Thomas Wentworth Higginson oC the lordly “Atlantic” that was a god and superstition in New England then as it is now. A small cast, you will say? Then you do not know the resources of biographers. There is the Mysterious Man—or must I say three of them? For there are Major Edward Hunt, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and Reverend George Gould. The poems say there was a lover and one of these, for the purposes of our drama, must be the Dark Man of the poems.

In Louis Untermeyer’s excellent new enlarged edition of his “Modern Ajnerican Poetry” the case for Charles Wads-worth is accepted, with a footnote referring to Josephine Pollitt’s recently published “Emily Dickinson: the Human Background of Her Poetry” as making a plausible but not convincing argument for Major Hunt. The scene is set for the entrance of George Gould in Genevieve Taggard’s “The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson.”

Miss Taggard has simplified her task by the positiveness with which she rests her formula upon the hypothesis which serves as the cryptogram by which she reads the story anew. Edward Dickinson, the eminent statesman, is the jealous father of the most modern triangle with Emily and George Gould, as a young Amherst student, completing the figure. The father, a repressed Puritan himself, could not bear ar.y other gods before him in his household, but especially with his vivacious minded young Emily, he fixed his image inviolate. When young George Gould told his love, the father, unconsciously jealous, forbade her marriage to an impecunious young clergyman without a parish. Emily vowed she would dress in white and live the life of a recluse. Later even her flowers aroused her father’s jealousy, George Gould lacked the courage or the power to storm the fortress. Later still he married. Later still he died, a distinguished clergyman, declaring his life had been a failure. Bluntly stated, this is the thesis of the book. There are others who are there. In fact there were two “ghosts” in Emily’s garden, we are told. One was another young Amherst student, dear to Emily but not beloved. Emily’s words to Colonel Higginson are quoted: “When a little girl I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died . . . Then I found one more, but he was not content I be his scholar, so he left the land.”

The author rests her contention primarily upon three statements which she prints in her book signed “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” The most important of these is a sworn statement giving George Gould as the forbidden lover upon authority of confidential stories received from Emily’s sister, “Vinnie,” her servant, Maggie, and a friend, Mrs. Davis, and stipulating that on no account must the name of the writer be used during lifetime. Miss Taggard has for the present at least the advantage of the last word. She builds up a plausible explanation of the whole life through a love story, but I cannot imagine any thoughtful reader closing the book with the feeling that this is the life of Emily Dickinson to which he must pin his faith, though he may easily be as ready to believe in George Gould as in any of the other “ghosts.” Read as one would read a novel, this new “Emily Dickinson” is an interesting book. It unfolds skillfully and with a captivating charm. The reader can forgive the positive presumption of fact where the assumption is obvious and the redundant re-use of the same material, for the sake of the pleasant ease and at times honest beauty with which the prose moves forward. It is less easy to overlook the self-consciousness of the structure and occasionally also of the style. In the first chapter a letter is dispatched by Emily Dickinson from Amherst to T. W. Higginson at Worcester. That chapter closes with the words: “It was about time for the first arbutus. About time. . . .” A Gilbert and Sullivan echo, “tra-la,” reminds one that that kind of “fine” writing will be as distasteful to our sons as the fine writing of our fathers is to us. Over halfway through the biography Emily’s letter with its four poems is received by Mr. Higginson and answered. We have waited with Emily a long time for that answer. “Time is not clocked in this story,” the author reminds us and performs none the less the task of tracing the poet’s ancestors from Yorkshire to Amherst and the poet’s life to “the verge of the Civil War” —all “before Mr. Higginson opens the note.” Are we such a childish generation that our chroniclers must sugar-rag us so?

There is a long chapter in which Miss Taggard compares Emily Dickinson to Thoreau because like him Miss Dickinson is regarded as a solitary. The chapter is a pleasant essay in itself but it breaks in upon the unity of the book and gives one the feeling that the author has gone somewhat far afield to add to the bulkiness of her work. A similar effect is produced by so great an insistence upon a parallelism between the relations of father and daughter with the Dickinsons and Mrs. Browning and Mr. Barrett. When the nature of the family in English speaking households of two generations ago is recalled and the dominating position of the head of the family in connection with all the women of the group, it seems hardly necessary to call on the Freudian hypothesis to explain the many cases when fathers refused their daughters permission to marry for social reasons or any other. Emily’s case was neither unique nor unusual. Social and economic explanations were often real and were based often upon the greater prominence then given to family as above personal considerations. Miss Taggard, it is true, does not in so many words represent Edward Dickinson as possessed of an Electra complex, but the implication is quite definite. By her own showing he was as dominating an influence in the life of his son Austin and when the father had died Austin himself by virtue of his control of the bank accounts left Emily and her sister no more chance for liberty of action than Edward had done. The facts remain the same whatever the explanation.

Miss Taggard has used the conventions of a cheap form of popular biography, but when concession has been made to these, it must be said that she has written in other respects a careful and honest book. She uses the poems with skill and insight as a part of what I have called her “cryptogram” to interpret the life and support her assumptions. She convinces one that Elizabeth, and not Norcross, was Emily, Dickinson’s middle name and shows in other such details evidences of painstaking effort to be accurate when matters of record are concerned.

No two books could be in sharper contrast than Miss Taggard’s imaginative biography and MacGregor Jenkins’ “Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor.” Mr. Jenkins was the son of Emily Dickinson’s pastor and neighbor and to the boy and his play-mates Emily Dickinson was a friendly, lady and even an older playmate. She would call the boy in to enjoy with her a beautiful moth at a time when she was inaccessible to social visitors. In his straightforward and unpretentious little book Mr. Jenkins gives the impressions of the sweet lady, human and playful, that he remembers from his boyhood; and the Emily Dickinson of the myth, which has taken feature through the many books that have recently been written about her, pales into a somewhat theatrical apparition beside the reality of his picture. It is not likely that “Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor” will have a wide appeal: it has no exciting theory to develop; it tells only a few simple incidents about her life and leaves out all the flowers of spring that “have nothing to do with the case”; it is merely the honest recalling of what Emily Dickinson was like to an observant and sensitive boy who knew her as a grown-up friend. As such a first-hand record, Mr. Jenkins’ little book, when other temporarily more important and more entertaining books have passed with their theories, will always be among the few authentic books about an important American poet. It is only a glimpse of her we get but doesn’t he seem to let the spirit of the woman out—

. . . some gala day, With implements to fly away, Passing pomposity?


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