Saturday, September 12, 2009

An absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom

There have been a lot of theories concerning Emily Dickinson's reclusive tendencies. Traditionally, many people have believed her to be a recluse or hermit. This stereotype, unfortunately, is very pervasive and is still sometimes taught in schools. Those who hold to this view of Dickinson, however, discount the intense relationship that she had with her family members, and it also ignores the large amount of writing she did. She wrote prolifically to her sister-in-law before Sue and Austin Dickinson settled next door, she wrote to extended family, and she wrote to a small, tightly-knit group of close friends.

Others have theorized that perhaps Dickinson had some sort of phobia of people and, therefore, shut herself inside the homestead. This could be a plausible explanation in part, but I don't think it's accurate. One on hand, Dickinson seemed to be famous for ducking out of the room when strangers visited. The reason for avoiding people could not be because of her literary skills or literary fame, since only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime and all anonymously. Sometimes I truly think she enjoyed messing with the minds of Amherst and provoking, on some level, the gossip. I wonder if she didn't mention, on the sly, to her sister Lavinia that she was going to don a white dress yet again and let herself be seen in the garden for a moment or two then disappear for a week or so inside and have laught with Lavinia later over what fantastic stories the townspeople made up in the subsequent days.

Honestly, I feel like she was simply bored by most people. Upon a visit to Washington, DC in her twenties, Dickinson is said to have reported that in DC society "everybody knows everybody and the nobodies are the most clamorous of all" (Wineapple 64). She seems to have had little regard for the games that society plays, and her poems such as "Much Madness is divinest Sense" and "I'm nobody! Who are you" seem to reinforce this. I don't think that Dickinson was afraid of society-- but I think she saw little point in the rules, games, and structures of "polite" society.

Having said all of that, I do partly blame her family for some of her strong attachments to home and growing reticence to leave. Habegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars are Laid Away in Books, goes into great detail about Dickinson's childhood. He discusses the high child mortality rate, as well as Edward Dickinson's firm belief (that seems rather unfounded) that young Emily Dickinson was frail and his insistence that Emily remain at home, rather than going to school, any time she showed the slightest sign of sickness. Dickinson was strongly attached to both siblings-- older brother, Austin, and her younger sister, Lavinia. After one year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, Edward Dickinson decided that Emily would not stay at the school for a second. Dickinson wrote "Home was always dearer to me & dearer still the friends around it" (Wineapple 54).

Family was vital to the Dickinsons, and often they seemed to reject nearly all others in favor of one another. Much of Emily Dickinson's letters to her family reinforce this tenacious bond, as in her letter to Austin in which she claimed "We're unlike most everyone and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight" (Wineapple 61). Neither Emily nor Lavinia Dickinson ever married, and both lived their entire lives with their family. Much of these years were spent in the Dickinson homestead, which had been Edward Dickinson's home as a child. Lavinia Dickinson best characterizes the Dickinsons' need for privacy and the unity of family when she remarked that the Dickinsons "loved with greedy ardor, each in his or her own individual way, each an absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom" (Wineapple 60).

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