Peace, at long last, for a poet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AMHERST, Mass. -- Emily Dickinson scholars call it "the war between the houses."

The feud started in the last years of the poet's life with her brother's scandalous love affair, in which the rivals for his affection were the poet's best friend and her poetry's most important champion.

It became public with a vengeful lawsuit on which all of late-19th-century Amherst took sides. It drew in Dickinson's literary heirs and editors. It was carried on by the children of the original combatants. In recent years it has even found its echo in contemporary literary criticism.

But now the side-by-side houses that represent the contending parties are finally forging a symbolic peace.

The Dickinson Homestead, the two-story brick house where the poet was born, wrote most of her poetry and died, will join with the Evergreens, the more elegant home of the poet's brother, Austin Dickinson.

Together the houses and the 3 acres they share will become the new Emily Dickinson Museum. A ribbon-tying -- not ribbon-cutting -- ceremony is set for next month.

"Combining these two houses is almost like a peace treaty between two warring countries," says Dickinson scholar Christopher Benfey, an Amherst resident and professor of English at nearby Mount Holyoke College. "There's been incredibly bad blood between these houses. The merger is the end of more than 100 years of hostility."

"Everyone's tired of fighting," says Polly Longsworth, chairwoman of the board of the new museum and a key figure in its creation. "They want to cooperate and let Emily have peace."

No one knows the story better than Longsworth, who wrote a book chronicling the love affair of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, which set off the trouble in the first place.

She says the generations-long quarrel has been an ironic coda to the life of the reclusive poet, who wrote many of her 1,775 poems in her simple upstairs bedroom in the Homestead, where one window looks out on Main Street and the other toward Austin's house. Dickinson's niece, Martha, recalled that once when she visited here, the poet pretended to lock them in the room and declared: "Matty, here's freedom."

Poet's home

In this quiet New England house unfolded one of the miracles of literary history. Cooping herself up here for days on end, working by window light or candlelight, Dickinson wrote in fierce bouts of productivity -- "Vesuvius at home," she called herself.

For an entire year, 1862, when most of America was occupied with civil war, she poured out poems at the astonishing rate of one a day. Today, the house has a little of the haunted feeling of Gettysburg or Antietam -- only the battles fought here were internal, a searing intelligence confronting the mystery of human existence.

Even when her themes are apocalyptic, Dickinson's stage is usually domestic.

"Home and family meant a great deal to Dickinson," says Longsworth, who is writing a biography of the poet. "They were her world. She lived vicariously through her sister and brother. She was anchored to that spot."

Her reclusiveness -- which did not prevent her from carrying on a voluminous correspondence -- was necessary in part because of her exquisite sensitivity, Longsworth says.

"The Homestead itself was like a second skin to her," she says. "That house protected her."

Among the searing emotions she may have needed protection against were those sparked by the love triangle.

Austin, Emily's only brother and a prominent Amherst lawyer, had married Susan Huntington Gilbert, the poet's closest friend, in 1856. To keep the couple from departing for the Midwest, Austin and Emily's father had built the Evergreens next door and presented it to the couple.

Over the next two decades, the two houses "operated as two parts of the same estate," Longsworth says. Emily regularly walked over to the Evergreens -- though shyness prompted her to time her visits so as to avoid the eminent literary figures who often stopped by, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She took a special interest in her two nephews and niece; when she didn't want to go out, she sometimes lowered treats she had baked for the children from her window in a basket tied to a rope.

An affair begins

In the early 1880s, Austin, increasingly estranged from Susan, began an affair with Mabel Todd, the beautiful wife of Amherst College's astronomy professor. The affair unfolded in secret carriage rides and meetings in friends' homes, but chiefly at the Homestead, which Austin and Emily's sister, Lavinia, offered as a trysting place.

"The war between the houses really begins when Lavinia allows them to meet at the Homestead," Longsworth says. "A love affair wasn't an open secret, as it might be today. Susan fought hard to preserve the appearance of a marriage."

But the romance of Austin and Mabel grew operatic in scale and intensity, as the two expressed their passion in innumerable letters -- most of them addressed by conspiring friends so that the handwriting would not give them away.

The letters, collected in Longsworth's 1984 book Austin and Mabel, are an almost daily account of ecstatic feeling imprisoned by the agonizing constraints of their situation.

"It takes all my nerve to hold myself away from you," Austin wrote early in the relationship. "It was so very sad to me to be so near you and yet give no sign," Mabel wrote after an evening with Austin and Susan.

What the poet, whose own secret loves have been the subject of much scholarly speculation, thought of the relationship is not certain. Decades later, Mabel's daughter would write: "The effect on Emily? She was glad that Austin had found some comfort after his all but ruined life. In my mother's words, 'Emily always respected real emotion.' "

But when Dickinson died in 1886, her still-unpublished poems became new fuel for the quarrel.

Dickinson left instructions that all her papers should be burned -- a close call for American literature. Lavinia dutifully burned her sister's letters but decided to save the poems, giving them to Susan Dickinson, Austin's wife, next door at the Evergreens. But when Susan did little with them, Lavinia took the poems back and gave them to Mabel Todd, Austin's mistress.

Recognizing the poems as works of genius, Mabel painstakingly transcribed them and oversaw their first publication in book form in 1890. Susan, who had no idea a book was in the works, was shocked.

Five years later, when Austin died, he left a small piece of land to his mistress, and the affair that had been whispered about became, in effect, a matter of public record.

In response, Lavinia -- who had, of course, enabled the affair in the first place -- filed suit against Mabel to get the land back.

"It was not really over the land. It was over everything," Longsworth says. "Lavinia lied through her teeth and won."

Mabel, who said in court papers that she had spent years working on Emily's poems and letters and had earned a mere $200, was furious. She put half of the poems, the poet's remaining letters and many family photographs into a box, where they would remain for decades.

Everyone took sides

The battle was carried into the 20th century by Susan's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and Mabel's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, both of whom published books of Dickinson's poetry and family memoirs.

"All of Amherst took sides," Longsworth says. When Harvard University Press finally published Dickinson's complete poems in three volumes in 1955 -- their first appearance with her distinctive punctuation and capitalization -- it was only after contentious negotiations with the heirs.

Even today, says Longsworth, some guides at the Homestead "don't like to mention Mabel Todd." And some Dickinson scholars have lined up with the wife or the mistress in their own wars of literary criticism.

Traditionally, scholars have highlighted Todd's role as Dickinson's first editor. "I feel if it weren't for Todd, nobody would have heard of Dickinson," Benfey says.

Some feminist writers, by contrast, have argued that the passionate letters between Dickinson and Susan hint at a lesbian relationship and that Susan's influence on her friend is underappreciated. "They often regard Mabel and Austin as the enemy," Benfey says.

It was with this burden of history in the background that the trustees who controlled the Evergreens decided that it was time to unite the houses by donating the house to Amherst College, which has owned the Homestead since 1965, says Longsworth, chairwoman of the trustees.

That required a trip to local probate court, which approved the transfer in June.

The new Emily Dickinson Museum is playing host to a series of programs this summer relating landscape and art to Dickinson's poetry.

There are plans for restoring the estate to its state in Dickinson's day, cutting the hemlock trees that block the view from Main Street and replanting a hemlock hedge like the one over which she peered at the street.

Does it mean the war is over?

"Who knows," Longsworth says. "It will be interesting to find out. But people always find something to scrabble about."

The rooms of Dickinson's home evoke her poetry

People who come to Emily Dickinson's house in search of clues to her poetry will find much to evoke its settings and atmosphere.

In the austere rooms of the Homestead, there is a sense of solitude and light, sun moving along walls as the day passes. In the lush garden, there are the flowers, birds and stones she turned into symbols. In the stories of 19th-century family tragedy, the loss of relatives and friends often too early and always at home, there are the sources of her many meditations on death.

Just as the poet confined herself in her small bedroom or the garden below, the poems are contained in stanzas -- the Italian word means "room" -- often the familiar quatrains of the hymnal. But hers are usually hymns of skepticism, irony and desolation. The poems, a few of which follow, range across the human landscape in giant steps, as fearless as the poet was retiring.

-- Scott Shane

There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons --

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes --

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us --

We can find no scar,

But internal Difference,

Where the Meanings, are --

None may teach it -- Any --

'Tis the Seal Despair --

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air --

When it comes, the Landscape listens --

Shadows -- hold their breath --

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance

On the look of Death --

(c. 1861)

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air --

Between the Heaves of Storm --

The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset -- when the King

Be witnessed -- in the Room --

I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable -- and then it was

There interposed a Fly --

With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --

Between the light -- and me --

And then the Windows failed -- and then

I could not see to see --

(c. 1862)

How happy is the little Stone

That rambles in the Road alone,

And doesn't care about Careers

And Exigencies never fears --

Whose Coat of elemental Brown

A passing Universe put on,

And independent of the Sun

Associates or glows alone,

Fulfilling absolute Decree

In casual simplicity --

(c. 1881)

From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Harvard University Press).

Poetry-inspired portraits in D.C.

A volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry changed the life of artist Lesley Dill.

When she received the book for her 40th birthday, she was inspired to add Dickinson's words to her artwork, blending them with textures she created using elements such as charcoal, horsehair and tea.

Through Sept. 14, Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey, featuring 35 mixed-media works by Dill, is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.

Dill's best-known series, Poem Dresses, features dresses in the style that Dickinson was said to have worn, inscribed with the poet's words or composed of them.

Dill's work also features modified black-and-white photographs, such as A Thought Went Up My Mind Today (1996), which features the back of a nude woman, with quotes from a Dickinson poem along her spine.

For more information, call 202-783-5000, or go online to www.nmwa.org.

-- Cheryl Johnston

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°