These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula
Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

Review: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareShakespeare’s life has been the subject of much speculation, particularly because when compared with some writers, there is much we don’t know about it (we actually know more about him than people think, and more than we know about most of his contemporaries). Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare takes a bit of a different route. Rather than focus only on biographical details, Greenblatt puts Shakespeare in the context of the events that surround him. What did he think of the Earl of Essex’s downfall? How did he feel about King James’s preoccupation with witches and witchcraft? What did he make of fellow writer Robert Greene’s dig (that he had a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide”)? How did he feel about his wife and daughters? We can’t know the full answers to these questions, but Greenblatt examines the plays for evidence, and a picture of who Shakespeare was and how his world shaped him unfolds in the pages of this book.

I especially liked Greenblatt’s commentary on the ways in which Robert Greene may have influenced Shakespeare’s characterization of one of his most memorable characters: Sir John Falstaff. Greenblatt makes a compelling case for Greene as the model of the dissolute knight. Also interesting was some of the speculation about the possibility that Shakespeare’s family were recusants (secret Catholics). Greenblatt’s discussion of the ghost of Hamlet’s father connects to this line of speculation but with a troubling twist that helps explain Hamlet’s inaction much more clearly:

What does it mean that a ghost from purgatory erupts into the world of Hamlet pleading to be remembered? Even setting aside for a moment that purgatory, according to the Protestant church, did not exist, the allusions to it here are an enigma, for spirits in God’s great penitentiary could not by definition ask anyone to commit a crime. After all, they are being purged of their sins in order to ascend to heaven. Yet this ghost is not asking for Masses and alms; he is preempting God’s monopoly on revenge by demanding that his son kill the man who murdered him, seized his crown, and married his widow … Hamlet worries about it, and his paralyzing doubts and anxieties displace revenge as the center of the play’s interest. (320)

Shakespeare’s source material for this play recounts Prince Hamlet’s story quite differently: too young to avenge the death of his father, he feigns madness in order to convince his murderous uncle that he is no threat. Then he waits. When the time is right, he kills his uncle and his uncle’s entire retinue in the best spirit of the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Shakespeare rightly realizes that carrying out such a story would be impossible on stage, and he makes the conflict more about Hamlet’s inner feelings. The passage above really gave me a new understanding of what is really going on in Hamlet’s mind.

Equally interesting to me were the origins of the witches in Macbeth, in particular, the possibility (strong, given allusions written in the play) that Shakespeare read Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft, a book that challenges Jacobean notions of witchcraft, possibly leading to King James’s decision to have all copies of the book burned.

If I have one major quibble with the book, it is that it becomes bogged down with the language of speculation. Phrases such as “let us imagine,” “perhaps,” “could possibly,” “presumably,” and the like almost start to become distracting, making the book sound like so much speculation. I realize that Greenblatt is merely being careful with language, but his speculation is based on solid historical research, and I wonder if he might not have found a way to express that more clearly.

In all, I believe that James Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? were more engaging and focused. In some ways, I think Shakespeare’s story is too big to confine to a single volume, and Shapiro manages to focus on two aspects: one important year in Shakespeare’s life and the authorship controversy. Still, I am glad I read Will in the World, and I have some good information to share with students next time I teach Hamlet or Macbeth.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Booking Through Thursday: Biographies

people who are more important than you.

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question: “There are so many crappy biographies … would you rather read a poorly-written biography of a fascinating life, OR an exquisitely well-written, wonderful one of a not-so-interesting life?”

No question—I’d rather read the well-written one. The poorly-written biography will be chore, no matter now fascinating its subject, but the well-written one might just render its subject more interesting. Case in point—while “cancer” is a disease and not a person, I have hardly ever read a more well-written biography than [amazon_link id=”1439170916″ target=”_blank” ]The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer[/amazon_link] by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Of course, I’m only about 10% into the book, but Mukherjee has managed to almost make it sound like a sentient villain on an evolutionary quest.

Of course, this question doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, as one can usually choose to read a well-written biography of a fascinating person, like Amanda Foreman’s [amazon_link id=”0375753834″ target=”_blank” ]Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire[/amazon_link] (review). I read the book after seeing the Keira Knightley movie [amazon_link id=”B001L57ZZG” target=”_blank” ]The Duchess[/amazon_link].

Truth be told, I don’t read a lot of biographies. I currently only have eight books on my Goodreads biography shelf, and of those eight, I haven’t read six of them yet. I have autobiographies or memoirs on a different shelf. I welcome recommendations. Any must-read biographies?

photo credit: striatic

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

I am not generally a big reader of biographies or nonfiction of any stripe, aside from professional reading, but I became interested in Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, after seeing the movie based on this book: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is not quite like the movie, but one would expect moviemakers to take certain license with with truth in the interest of narrative. The true Georgiana who emerges from the pages of this biography is at one less sympathetic and also more interesting and genuine than the character played by Keira Knightley.

I admit I really don’t know much about British politics. Much of this biography is devoted to Georgiana’s work on behalf of the Whigs. She had several friends who were prominent in the party and used her influence to help them get elected: Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles Grey (1st Earl Grey). In a time when women did not wield much power, Georgiana influenced politics more than many men did. The realm of fashion, she reigned supreme.

More attention is given to Georgiana’s gambling addiction in this biography than in the movie. She borrowed money from many of her friends with promises of repayment that she rarely fulfilled. I have to admit this part of her personality was maddening to read about. The pain it caused her was acute, and it hurt her relations with her husband and friends, but she seemed unable to control it.

Lady Bess Foster, the friend who “steals” the Duke of Devonshire from Georgiana in the movie, comes off considerably less sympathetically and much more conniving in this biography. No doubt Georgiana valued her friendship, but Foreman’s depiction of her character leads the reader to believe Georgiana’s judgment in the matter to be sincerely flawed. In contrast, the Duke of Devonshire is not quite the villain he’s painted in the film.

Foreman includes the Cavendish and Spencer family trees, but I found myself wishing there was a glossary of characters, as so many similar names made it difficult for me to keep up with some of the people mentioned in the book. To Foreman’s credit, she did as much as she could to prevent confusion through repetition and extensive notes. It is clear that this biography was painstakingly researched. Foreman allows the people in the biography to speak for themselves as much as she can through primary source documents quoted extensively throughout the entire book.

If you watched the film The Duchess, you haven’t met the real Georgiana yet. The figure that emerges from the pages of Foreman’s biography is at once more compelling and more intriguing than the film hinted.