Emily’s 132nd Birthday

Emily Dickinson, considered by some America’s greatest poet, invites us in every line to gaze at her life “through a glass, darkly” far more than “face to face.” Despite the perfection of her phrases and the unexpectedness of her vision, she seems destined to leave us all wondering what experiences gave voice to such unique emotions.

At a sold-out event last night in celebration of Dickinson’s 132nd birthday (yes, there was cake, from her recipe, no less), the Folger Shakespeare Library certainly asked as many questions as it answered. More questions, probably. Its pair of guest Dickinson experts – researcher Martha Nell Smith and poet/visual artist Jen Bervin – served up presentations based on their work that fascinated far more than they settled. The only thing the talks truly settled was why these two women were so fascinated.

“I’m lucky,” Smith giggled at some point in her talk. “I’ve made a whole career of reading Emily Dickinson’s mail.” From the knowing laughter from both floors of Folger seating, it was clear many in the audience were more than a little jealous.

Before the program, the Folger hosted a screening of the film Wild Nights, directed and written by Madeleine Olnek and starring SNL alum Molly Shannon as Emily. Variously described in the media as a “comedy,” a “drama” and a “dramatic comedy,” the film has enjoyed a positive reception on the international festival circuit and is set for theatrical release early next year. Olnek joined the two scholars onstage for the post-talk Q&A.    

There were, arguably, two Emily Dickinsons on display at the event. One was the seemingly shy, reclusive and virginal woman who never married and never much left her family home in Amherst, Mass., whose small poems were “discovered” gathered in packets after her death in 1886. Still, the evening’s more accepted, and indeed preferred, “Emily” (it was a first-name sort of crowd) was a woman who engaged in a decades-long emotional and probably physical love affair with the only love of her life, her brother’s wife Susan.     

Such a modernized but still-unresolved narrative certainly casts fresh meaning on the passions expressed in her poems. Though websites for the poet’s house museum in Amherst still make no mention of this theory, it was clear from the talks and especially from the audience’s comments and questions that most at the Folger believed the affair was real.

The lectures were scholarly in approach, making little effort to bring newcomers “up to speed.” It is the nature of scholarship, and therefore the opposite of good journalism, to presume and demand that your audience has read all the literature.

Such a newcomer, even one familiar with and inclined to honor Dickinson’s poetry, would have heard mostly a “study of a study.” Bervin’s talk, with many pictures of single-space sentences from manual typewriters, concentrated on letters to and from a Dickinson scholar beginning in the 1950s. These were as interesting to follow as they were testy, outlining the myriad joys and sorrows of book preparation and publication. Some missives showed that snipping and sniping among scholars, and especially between passion-driven authors and care-driven editors, tend to be eternal. And funny, at least after the fact.

In some ways, Smith’s talk was more broadly accessible, if no less entertaining, than Bervin’s. It was simply easier to imagine mining insights by spending years reading through handwritten and at-times VERY personal correspondence of people you know and come to love. If the goal of that reading is understanding the formative relationship of a great poet’s life, a relationship edited out of the record by that poet’s survivors, the seeker becomes less dusty old scholar and more dashing detective.

Emily’s letters to Susan are more overtly sensual and even sexual than the images set down in her poetry, the poems her family allowed to be published. Yet the single most striking exchange might concern one poem’s second verse, with Susan insisting it wasn’t quite right and Emily sending new version after new version, trying to make her great love happy. For an Emily long-believed to write without concern for reception or popularity, these letters give us an Emily who wrote, at least sometimes, in hopes of satisfying an audience of one.

Those who value seeing “face to face” over “through a glass, darkly” learned at the event to be grateful for one thing above all – that Susan kept her letters from Emily apart from everything else, where the family couldn’t toss them into the fireplace some icy Amherst winter night.  

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