Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

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Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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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: ★★★★★

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My Grandmother

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I think most people who read this blog do not follow my education blog, so you likely have not seen my post from this last Tuesday.

I will be flying to Denver early tomorrow morning. I will give a eulogy at her funeral. I wrote her obituary, which doesn’t begin to capture everything that is important and everything I will cherish about her.

I love her, and I am looking every day for that feeling that she is with me and watching over me. She said she would be. But all I feel is her absence. I will keep hoping. This poem by Emily Dickinson (Fr. 428) has been my lifeline:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

 

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

 

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

 

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

 

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

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Who Was Emily Dickinson?

It’s not a secret I love Emily Dickinson. My blog’s title is taken from my favorite of her poems. I have visited her house twice and paid my respects at her grave twice in the last year and some change. Last Friday, I had an opportunity to hear a talk by writer Jerome Charyn at Amherst College. The title of his talk was “Did Emily Dickinson Really Exist?” Of course, Charyn chose the title to provoke. He has written two books about Emily Dickinson—one fiction and the other nonfiction.

Steve bought me A Loaded Gun for my birthday, and I bought myself The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson after hearing his talk.

The center of his discussion concerned a new daguerreotype believed to feature Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner Anthon. I believe the daguerreotype is copyrighted, so I won’t reproduce it here, but you can see it on Amherst College’s website. After hearing Charyn speak about the photo and also learning more about its provenance from the person who found it, I am fairly convinced it is Emily Dickinson on the left in the photograph. Of course, it’s true that many people would say the opposite, and the only way we’ll get to the bottom of it, finally, is if the FBI is willing to look into it with their special equipment. I have a feeling they don’t spend a lot of their time verifying suspected photographs of 19th century poets, though.

The photograph’s owner let me take a picture of the copy of the daguerreotype that he brought with him. It is in a frame case that is nearly identical to the original and is the same size as the original. It’s not the best picture, so in order to see the photograph properly, please do check it out at the link I mentioned previously.

photo-oct-14-8-19-29-pm

As you can see, it’s about wallet-sized and would have been a personal photo—something carried in the pocket or placed in a drawer. It’s an intimate photo. Kate Scott Turner, pictured on the right, was wearing widow’s mourning. Emily’s dress was probably blue, green, or gray (I learned a lot about how we can determine colors from daguerreotypes). I didn’t know that because daguerreotypes were printed on silver, they do not pixelate. If you zoom into a photo on paper, eventually you get dots. Not so with silver. The photograph’s owner said that we really haven’t duplicated the quality of a daguerreotype with our modern technology. Of course, I thought that was fascinating.

I learned that the known daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson was taken when she was a teenager, right after an illness, so she is a bit thinner than she otherwise would have been. The known daguerreotype has not been handled with care and has been damaged over the years. It was also made with older technology than this newer daguerreotype, and what happened was the edges of the daguerreotypes made with this older technology tended to warp the edges. The “new” daguerreotype’s owner pointed out that Emily’s thumb looks like a lobster claw.

627px-black-white_photograph_of_emily_dickinson2

Well, it does look weird now someone has pointed it out to me. He said that there was something wrong with the way her nose looks—large on one side and thinner on the other. He said this was likely due to the same issues with the older technology. He said that Dickinson’s family didn’t think this photograph was a good likeness. However, I think if you examine the eyes, they do look like the eyes of the woman on the left in the new daguerreotype. She had astigmatism, so there is a flatness to the eye on the viewer’s left that is similar in both photos. The mouth looks the same to me as well, as does the hair. I’m not a photographer, and I know very little about the history of photography, so I learned a lot I didn’t know.

Aside from these interesting particulars, the daguerreotype’s owner said a trunk of fabric swatches for a quilt was found in the Emily Dickinson house, and he thinks one of the swatches looks like the dress Emily is wearing in the new daguerreotype. Interestingly, and even more tantalizingly, when Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Emily Dickinson for a photograph, she responded, “Could you believe me—without? I had no portrait, now. . . .”

I have to agree, as an English teacher and a writer, that the comma Emily Dickinson uses after “portrait” is purposeful. She seems to be saying she used to have a photograph, but that she gave it away or doesn’t have it anymore for some other reason. The owner of the new daguerreotype believes that Emily gave the portrait to Samuel Bowles, a friend of both Emily’s and Kate’s. The daguerreotype’s present owner, who is a daguerreotype collector, bought the daguerreotype in a junk shop and was able to trace the provenance to Bowles.

A lot of circumstantial evidence, yes, but it convinced me. I was intrigued by Jerome Charyn’s description of Dickinson as a “sexual predator.” I think that’s going a bit far, but the subject of his talk was her poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” which Charyn claims is near impossible to explicate. However, he thinks that this poem, which he sees as written from the viewpoint of a gun, indicates that Emily herself is the loaded gun. Kate looks distinctly unhappy. Perhaps she was coerced to pose for this portrait and didn’t want to. Dickinson, however, projects confidence, looking boldly into the camera and putting her arm somewhat aggressively around Kate.

Emily famously wrote letters to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. Charyn claimed in his talk that there is no way to read those letters except as love letters. Of course, I immediately ordered a copy of them so I could see for myself. He spoke so eloquently of how delightful her letters were that I felt I should read them myself.

Dickinson’s sexuality has been the subject of some speculation for a long time. I don’t know enough about it to make a judgment, hence my desire to read her letters and poems and see what I can learn. I can’t wait to dive into Charyn’s books and Emily’s letters and learn more about her.

The evening certainly gave me a lot to think about, and it didn’t do much to shrink my ever-growing to-read list. Charyn claims the more he learns about Dickinson, the less he knows. I was more intrigued by Emily Dickinson than ever after this talk. I loved the drive up to Amherst. The fall colors are gorgeous right now, and it was a beautiful night. It had been a long time since I did something that was geeky fun by myself.

What do you think? Is this Emily Dickinson in this daguerreotype? Anyone want to “book club” Charyn’s books with me?

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Birthday Weekend

Birthday petit-fours from my husband

Birthday petit-fours from my husband

It was my birthday this weekend. I have moved into a new demographic!

I decided I wanted to go to Northampton and Amherst for my birthday. There was a Poetry Festival in Amherst, but unfortunately, most of the events I wanted to go to were on Thursday or Friday before I could get there. Bummer. On Saturday, the Emily Dickinson House was sponsoring a marathon reading of all 1789 of her poems, but I really didn’t want to just dip in and out of that, so I wound up deciding to spend Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Northampton and Amherst are college towns. Between the two of them, I count U Mass Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mouth Holyoke College, and Hampshire College. I may be forgetting some. At any rate, they are close together, and with all those colleges, you can imagine the college-town vibe is strong. Northampton is definitely fairly funky, at least the downtown area.

We found a wonderful used bookstore. I loved it because the books were mostly in pristine condition. So many used bookstores don’t have really nice books, and most of them certainly don’t have the kind of selection Raven Used Books has. Here is my haul from Saturday.

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We went back today before leaving for home, and I scored two more books: Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations and Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13 Rue Thérèse. The Club Dumas looks like it might be perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge, and who knew that there was a historical fiction novel about Hildegard von Bingen (Illuminations)? Byatt’s novel doesn’t have great reviews on Amazon, but I’ll give it a go. I loved Possession so much.

For my birthday lunch, we went to a burger place called Local Burger. Back when I was in college, I could get an excellent hamburger for about a buck at the cafeteria on campus. It had a nice charbroiled flavor, and it was juicy without being pink (pink ground beef skeeves me out). I hadn’t had a burger as good as those old cheap cafeteria burgers since. Until this one. And the fries were amazing.

We drove into Amherst and stopped into Amherst Books where I found a remainder of Remembering Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan and Kathryn James and Living with Shakespeare edited by Susannah Carson with essays by so many people—F. Murray Abraham, Isabel Allende, Brian Cox, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others.

Last night for dinner, we had some excellent Italian food at Pasta e Basta. I was “that person” and took a picture of my pasta because it was so pretty.

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I wish I could have brought my leftovers home. There was at least another meal left on that plate. I didn’t think it would travel well, though.

After dinner we picked up some cookies at Insomnia Cookies. Had such a thing existed when I was in college, I have no idea how big I’d be by now. We got four kinds of cookies, and I can definitely recommend the Double Chocolate Mint. I also tried Peanut Butter Chip, but the Chocolate Chunk and M&M cookies were all gone too fast.

This morning, we went to Jake’s for breakfast, and I had some fantastic eggs, potatoes, and toast. We walked around and did some more shopping. I found myself this glorious Brontë sisters mug with quotes from the sisters’ works.

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Northampton and Amherst are nice places to visit, and they’re only a little over an hour away. They have a different feel from other places in Massachusetts—perhaps because they’re college towns, or perhaps because they’re in the western part of the state. We don’t really have indie bookstores in Worcester, either (that I know of)—just B&N, so it was nice to go book shopping in those places and score some deals on some great-looking new and used books. In addition, everything was pretty reasonably priced—another of the virtues of a college town, I suppose.

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Steve and Dylan at dinner

Maggie and Me

Maggie and Me

Once I was home, Steve presented with two more books: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. He had already given me Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. My parents sent me a gift card for more goodies from Amazon, too. I really need to do some reading!

P. S. I have no idea why the last image is upside-down on some devices. I can’t figure out how to fix it without deleting and starting over, though, so I just left it.

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Site Has Returned

I apologize to folks who have been trying to access this site and found it had been suspended by my former host. I wrote a post on my education blog about my experience, so I don’t feel the need to replicate it here. Just follow the link if you are interested. In the end, I was able to find a new host and get my site up and running again within three days. I wish I had spent the last three days reading on the beach instead, but nope!

Some books in the review pipeline:

I have finished the first one and the second and third are in progress. I am reviewing the first two as part of a TLC Book Tour in the beginning of October, so those reviews won’t appear until then. Also, I joined up with three different reading/book subscription boxes—think Birch Box or Stitch Fix for books. I plan to review/unbox each of them here on the blog. I am hoping to get back into it with my reading mojo pretty soon. I did really enjoy The Bitch is Back, but I didn’t read a lot this summer, and now it’s nearly over. One week from today, I need to return to work. Students will be returning soon after.

We did have a good summer, though. We went to Bar Harbor, Maine and visited Acadia National Park, which is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. We drove up to Montpelier and Waterbury, Vermont and bought maple syrup and cheese and toured the Ben & Jerry’s factory. My oldest daughter visited and we took her to Salem, MA (it was hot as the side of the sun that day!) and Amherst (to see Emily’s house, naturally). We also went to the Worcester Art Museum, and wouldn’t you know it, I recognized this painting from an old paperback cover of The Scarlet Letter. Because that is how I would recognize a painting, you know? It was a fairly excellent summer for exploring New England a bit for sure.

I’ll leave you with a poem.

The Summer that we did not prize
Her treasures were so easy
Instructs us by departure now
And recognition lazy—
Bestirs itself—puts on its Coat
And scans with fatal promptness
For Trains that moment out of sight
Unconscious of his smartness—

Emily Dickinson, Fr# 1622

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Sunday Post #32: Visiting Emily

Emily Dickinson's House

This weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in Northampton/Amherst. My family came with me, and we visited Emily Dickinson’s home (now a museum) and grave. Now, given the title of my blog, you might guess I’m a fan. I am not sure what it is about her poetry—the jarring dashes and slant rhyme, the ballad meter (on most), or the strong images. I like the way she thinks, and I find I agree with her about a lot of larger issues in life.

We took a 45-minute tour of her house. You can also take a 90-minute tour that includes a tour of her brother Austin’s house next door. The tour began in a parlor, and the docent discussed some of the portraits hanging in the room and told us about Emily’s family. Next, we went into the library. Some of the books from the library are now housed in other locations, but some remain. The docent told a great story about Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s visit to Dickinson. It seems she wore the poor man out with conversation. He also shared the anecdote about Higginson’s reaction when Emily sent him her poetry—he described it as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled.” Her famous reply: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic’—I am in danger—Sir—You think me ‘uncontrolled’—I have no Tribunal.”

The next stop is on the second floor. Sunlight shines through a window facing the front of the house, illuminating a replica of Emily Dickinson’s white dress. I nearly cried when I saw it. She must have been about the same height as me. A little more slender, though. About 20 years ago, I could have fit into her dress. The museum doesn’t allow pictures, but I sure wanted to break the rules to get a picture of that dress. You can find other pictures of it online, however.

Finally, we saw Emily’s bedroom. She has pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the wall, and according to our docent, Emily’s niece Mattie attested to the fact that Emily did hang picture of those two writers on her wall (whether they are the exact same ones, I don’t know). Her actual sleigh bed is still in the room. A replica of her little writing table sits in the corner. The room has recently been restored with wallpaper reconstructed from the actual wallpaper that Emily had in her room. It was amazing to stand in that space where Emily wrote most of her poems. I can’t really even describe how it felt.

We went outside to take a look at Emily’s gardens. Of course, she was a great gardener, but her garden doesn’t survive. Still, I found these beautiful purple flowers. The label said they were called “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). They were gorgeous, and they seemed perfect for her garden.

Love Lies Bleeding

We took a short walk to the cemetery where she is buried. Luckily for us, a quick Google search led us to an article that indicated her family’s plot was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Otherwise, we’d have had to wander a while, and my husband’s patience was not going to extend that far.

We found it pretty quickly after discovering that detail. We took a few pictures of her headstone and the family plot. I placed a rock on top of her headstone. Many people had the same idea before me, as you can see.

Emily Dickinson's Headstone

I was interested to see that her stone reads “Born Dec. 10, 1830.” That is my oldest daughter’s birthday—December 10. Then it says, “Called Back May 15, 1886.” In her last letter to her cousins, right before she died (and she knew she was dying) she wrote,

Little cousins,

Called Back.

Emily

I read that her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi had that inscription done some time after (her original headstone had just her initials on it).

Emily Dickinson's grave

It’s hard to get a good, unobstructed picture of the headstone because of the fence.

Dickinson Plaque

I love that the plaque on the little gate in the fence describes Dickinson as a “Poetess.” One of those archaic terms one never needs to use anymore.

Dickinson's tree

There is a really nice tree growing in the corner of the Dickinson family plot. I think she’d like that very much if she knew it.

Emily and Lavinia

Emily is buried to the right of her sister Lavinia (on the end). I didn’t know much about Emily’s sister, known as “Vinnie,” until the docent shared some details. Did you know it was Vinnie who found Emily’s poems after Emily died and worked to make sure they were published? I had no idea. As you can see, some folks left stones for Vinnie, too.

Dickinson Plot

Rounding out the Dickinson family plot are the graves of Emily’s parents (both names are inscribed on the headstone that is second from left). I think the one on the end is her grandfather.

I learned a some interesting things about Emily’s writing process from the docent at the museum and even walked away with a good idea for a lesson in diction that I think my students will enjoy.

What an incredible opportunity to walk in Emily Dickinson’s footsteps and visit her!

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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New Kindles

KindlePerhaps the biggest book news this week has been the impeding release of the latest generation of the Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader device. The new Kindle will be available in two colors: white or graphite, marking the first time you could get the Kindle in more than one color. The biggest news is that the Kindle will be available in wireless only and wireless + 3G versions. The wireless only version will be an affordable $139. I paid $259 for my Kindle with wireless and 3G in April, but this version of the new Kindle will cost only $189. The new Kindle will also be lighter by about 2 ounces. The battery life has been extended. With wireless off, the battery will now last a month. It will also have double the storage of the current Kindle. The new Kindle is also supposed to have sharper contrast and quieter, faster page-turns. I have to say that had I known this new Kindle was coming down the pike, I would have waited a few months. I’m hoping owning a Kindle isn’t going to turn into the same frustrating cycle as being an Apple customer. Are you planning to get one? They’re sold out for now, but you can put your name on a list. Amazon says as of today that if you order today, you can expect your Kindle on September 4. I think it’s great that Amazon is working to make their excellent e-reader even better.

A lot of my friends have said that they like the feel and smell of books too much to get an e-reader. I have to say that just because I bought a Kindle doesn’t mean I gave up print books. In fact, according to an infographic in the latest issue of Newsweek, only 15% of Kindle users stop reading print books.

In other news, I thought this podcast about Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was interesting. Give it a listen.

Anniversaries and birthdays this week:

August 3: Birthday of Leon Uris (1924), death of Joseph Conrad (1924), death of Flannery O’Connor (1964), death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (2008).

August 4: Birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792), death of Hans Christian Andersen (1875).

August 5: Birthday of John Hathorne, hanging judge in the Salem witch trials and ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1641); birthday of Guy de Maupassant (1850); birth of Conrad Aiken (1889); birth of Wendell Berry (1934).

August 6: Birthday of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809); birthday of Piers Anthony (1934); death of Ben Jonson (1637).

August 8: Death of Shirley Jackson (1965).

August 9: Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden (1854), birth of P. L. Travers (1899), birth of Philip Larkin (1922), birth of Jonathan Kellerman (1949), death of Hermann Hesse (1962).

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