Neither Mad Nor Motherless: On Emily Dickinson’s Self-Creation
Of Mothers and Daughters and Not-So-Crazy Poets
In 1956, R.P. Blackmur, who was as much of an autodidact and outsider as Emily Dickinson, and grew up less than fifty miles from where she was born, wrote about her in The Kenyon Review: “One exaggerates, but it sometimes seems as if in her work a cat came at us speaking English.” This is what Colonel Higginson (an early mentor of Dickinson’s, and frequent correspondent) must have intuited, without ever being able to articulate it—this strange woman, who had “the playful ambiguity of a kitten being a tiger,” according to Blackmur. She must have scratched Higginson many a time with her “claws,” while she called herself his Scholar and his Gnome; she crawled right under his skin. She bombarded him with letters and poems, even while he was away at war. He returned from battle like a wounded ghost, settled in Newport, had to take care of his sick wife. He tried three times to lure Emily out of her carapace and have her come to Boston, where she could listen to him lecture, converse with other poets, and attend meetings with other women at the aristocratic and exclusive Women’s Club. And Dickinson refused him three times. “…I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,” she wrote to the colonel in 1869. It’s Dickinson’s credo of defiance and probably her most famous line. (Letter 330, June 1869)
Dickinson scholars love to toss this credo back at us as hard evidence of her growing agoraphobia. But it’s evidence of nothing more than her swagger, her delight in shocking the colonel. Meanwhile, she plotted in her own way, kept inviting Higginson to Amherst. Finally, after corresponding with her for eight years, he did go to see his half-cracked poetess, in August 1870. The death of an older brother, who had lived nearby, gave him the excuse to visit. It was one of the great encounters in American literature. A gentle soul who swore he loved danger walked right into Emily Dickinson’s lair and met the Satanic, catlike sibyl whom R.P. Blackmur would write about almost a century later. She glided down the stairs of her father’s house and said, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say—” (Letter 342a, Higginson to his wife) and talked continuously for an hour, sucking all the energy out of the colonel.
And when Higginson finally got a word in and asked the reclusive sibyl “if she never felt want of employment, never going off the place & never seeing any visitor,” the sibyl said, “‘I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time’ (& added) ‘I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.’” (Letter 342a)
That sounds more like a poet plucking her feathers and pruning her resources than an agoraphobic who was careening out of control.
And then she uttered something that was even odd for a sibyl. She asked Higginson if he could tell her what “home” is. “I never had a mother,” she said. “I suppose a mother is one who to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” (Letter 342b) She was thirty-nine years old. And in not one of her previous letters—to Higginson or any other correspondent—had she ever spoken of herself as a motherless child. Nor had she said anything unkind about her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson—Emily Sr., as some scholars call Mrs. Dickinson to distinguish her from her poet daughter. She appears in one of Dickinson’s very first letters, where she helps save Austin’s sick rooster from oblivion. She’s a whirlwind of activity—cooking, sewing, gardening, and going off to “ramble” with her neighbors, bringing them crullers or another delight, and “she really was so hurried she hardly knew what to do.” (Letter 52, September 23, 1851) Sometimes she suffers from neuralgia, where one side of her face freezes up. And in 1855, after Edward Dickinson moved his family back to the Homestead, his father’s former house, she fell into a funk that lasted four years. But her daughter was just as uneasy about the move. “…I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” (Letter 182, about January 20, 1856)
Both mother and daughter had frequent bouts of melancholy. Both took part in Amherst’s most publicized event, the annual Cattle Show, where they baked pies and bread and served on committees. And even after her sibyl-like remark to Higginson, she still recognized the presence of her mother, as she wrote to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross: “…Mother drives with Tim [the stableman] to carry pears to settlers. Sugar pears, with hips like hams, and the flesh of bonbons.” (Letter 343)
Then, in 1874, she wrote to Higginson:
I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none. (Letter 405)
Here she was doubly unkind. Not only didn’t she have an anthropomorphic mother, but the mother she did have—Awe—had a male identity. She was now forty-three, long past her most productive period, as most Dickinson scholars believe. And why did she suddenly parade in front of Higginson with one of her letter bombs and annihilate her own mother? But it wasn’t only Mrs. Dickinson who was in her line of fire. In 1873, while both her parents were still alive, she wrote to Mrs. J.G. Holland, one of her most trusted friends:
I was thinking of thanking you for the kindness to Vinnie. She has no Father and Mother but me and I have no Parents but her. (Letter 391)
It had to have been more than some momentary crisis. She adored her father—and feared him. He was constantly present in her mental and material life. She’d become a creator in her father’s house, in that corner room, with her Lexicon, her lamp, and her minuscule writing desk.
Sweet hours have perished here, This is a timid [mighty] room—
But the two biting remarks to Higginson about her mother would have a scattergun effect. In 1971, psychoanalyst and Dickinson scholar John Cody published After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, a five-hundred-page study that presents Dickinson as a mental case whose only manner of survival was writing her cryptic and very private poems. Cody argues that Dickinson could never have become a poet without her delinquent mother—she was indeed a motherless child, emotionally abandoned by a woman who was “shallow, self-centered, ineffectual, conventional, timid, submissive, and not very bright.” Mrs. Dickinson was utterly responsible for her daughter’s “infantile dependence . . . and compulsive self-entombment.” And, says Cody, “one is led to conclude that all her life there smoldered in Emily Dickinson’s soul the muffled but voracious clamoring of the abandoned child.”
Cody isn’t the only culprit. For many critics, Dickinson has remained the madwoman entombed in her own little attic. Even Alfred Habegger, one of her most subtle biographers, believes that Dickinson’s “great genius is not to be distinguished from her madness.” And for Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Emily Dickinson may have posed as a madwoman to insulate herself, but became “truly a madwoman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).” Whatever theories we may hold about madness and art, or about some great psychic wound Dickinson suffered—a relentless blow that Dickinson herself described—
A Death blow— is a Life blow— to Some
Who, till they died,
Did not alive—become—
her letters and poems are not the work of a madwoman, or someone trying to cover up her own debilitating tremors and attacks. In a letter to Colonel Higginson, Sue wrote that Emily “hated her peculiarities, and shrank from any notice of them as a nerve from the knife.” Why don’t I believe her? Dickinson’s entire life was a singularity; she could have been one of Melville’s “isolatoes,” living in the interior continent of her own mind. How else could she have thrived? But Sue had a terrifying need to normalize her sister-in-law, turn her into one more village poet, scribbling about unrequited love. She couldn’t bear to look at Emily’s deep rage and urge to destroy. Dickinson never shrank from any knife—she loved knives. It was her task at Mount Holyoke to clean the knives and collect them, like some kind of knife thrower in the making. She could wound us all with “Dirks of Melody.” Mutilation had become a central motif in her letters and poems. “Here is Festival,” she wrote to Sue in 1864, exiled in Cambridge for nearly eight months while a Boston ophthalmologist dealt with her irritated eyes. “Where my Hands are cut, Her fingers will be found inside—” (Letter 288)
It’s one of Dickinson’s most disturbing images, as if Sue and Emily were sisters bound together by mutilation, but where had this mutilation come from? Had Emily cut herself, or had Sue crept inside her like some ghoul, with a dirk of her own? There’s a lot of bile and savagery in that image. And perhaps it might help us understand her own sudden, brutal remarks to Higginson about her mother, like Blackmur’s cat breaking into English. Dickinson wasn’t a madwoman, but she was maddened with rage—against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and will. Yet that annihilation of Emily Sr. was also about something else. Dickinson had to reinvent herself, or be stifled and destroyed by all the rituals around her—she was the daughter of the town patriarch. Cody believes that Dickinson was doomed to become a spinster because she was “too uncertain of her attractiveness and too fearful of heterosexuality to consider marriage.” That hardly stopped most other women of her class, and it wouldn’t have stopped the Belle of Amherst. I suspect that what disturbed her more than giving in to the “man of noon” was the notion of having to give up the Dickinson name. She could only become “The Wife—without the Sign!” Her brother was the adored one, the pampered one—he would perpetuate the Dickinson line. Emily and her sister were household pets. Edward would school the girls, send them both to a female seminary, but he never mapped much of a future for them. Born into a genteel caste, the two sisters “suffered the tormenting paralysis of women deadlocked by a culture that treated them as both servant and superior,” according to Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson, a kind of love song from one poet to her nineteenth century sister. And so we have the picture of Emily Dickinson as the perpetual child, a pose she often adopted with Higginson and others as one of her many masks. But that childish whisper of Emily’s wasn’t her natural voice—her own hoarse contralto wasn’t a whisper at all. She was, as Howe insists, a woman “with Promethean ambition.” She would remain a Dickinson, but parent herself, become a creature of both sexes, defiantly original and androgynous.
A loss of something ever felt I—
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was—of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect
A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out—
And it was as “the only Prince cast out” that she lived her life, searching for the “Delinquent Palaces” of her childhood—and her art. We can feel that streak of rebellion when she unconsciously sympathizes with a maverick student at Mount Holyoke. She had only been there a little longer than a month and was still homesick when she wrote to Austin:
A young lady by the name of Beach, left here for home this morning. She could not get through her examinations & was very wild beside. (Letter 17, November 2, 1847)
It was this wildness that frightened and attracted Emily, a wildness that would haunt the dreamscape of her poems. We never learn what happened to Miss Beach, whether she settled down with some “man of noon” or remained a maverick—another “Prince cast out.” But Dickinson had to rebel in a much more secret and convoluted way, as the village Prometheus, who stole whatever she could from her Lexicon and the local gods of Amherst, and manufactured her very own fire.
Self-born, self-tutored, she had to tear apart all ties to her mother, the one creature who had done the most to shape her sensibility. Emily Dickinson’s own elliptical songs are like a hymn to her mother’s repeated silences and melancholy. But who was Emily Norcross Dickinson and why do we know so little about her?
Part of it is Emily Sr.’s own fault. She suffered all her life from logophobia, a fear—and distrust—of the written word. Vinnie, the daughter who was closest to her, who could knit and sew and clean the house like a dervish, suffered from a bit of the same fear.
. . . though I’ve always had a great aversion to writing, I hope, by constant practice, the dislike will wear away, in a degree, at least.
But Vinnie wasn’t shy, the way her mother was. Vinnie loved to flirt. She was also a mime and a reader of books. And she overcame her word blindness enough to write seventeen poems that still survive.
The fire-flies hold their lanterns high
To guide the falling star,
But, if by chance the wicks grow short
The stars might lose their way
Vinnie has almost a kind of fictional glow; we can imagine her fat little fingers, her brown hair and brown eyes, her plump arms, her growing army of cats, her waspish tongue—she assumes mythical proportions and powers in the eyes of her poet sister. Vinnie could be “full of Wrath, and vicious as Saul—” (Letter 520, September 1877)
And during the presidential campaign of 1880, Emily wrote to Mrs. Holland:
Vinnie is far more hurried than Presidential Candidates—I trust in more distinguished ways, for they have only the care of the Union, but Vinnie the Universe— (Letter 667, 1880)
Emily hurls a lot of her own Promethean fire on Edward, Vinnie, Austin, and Sue. We can recall her father stepping like Cromwell, or wandering in his slippers after a storm, to feed the hungry birds; and Dickinson scholars have examined and reexamined Austin, who would become a sad clown in purple pantaloons and coppery green wig; Sue remains the Dark Lady of Dickinson scholarship—volatile, complex, and ultimately unfathomable; we follow her tracks and can only find more and more mysterious lines. It’s hard to determine what she really thought about anything. She excites us, as she excited Emily. We can imagine her dark, smoldering face, masculine and feminine at the same time. But we cannot imagine the least wisp of Emily Norcross Dickinson. We have her daguerreotype and a silhouette of her, but she still remains invisible, as if her steps can never be traced.
This was true of most women in the nineteenth century, privileged or not. But in 1975, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg published a controversial essay, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” which revealed that women had their own remarkable and secret history. Smith-Rosenberg believes they “did not form an isolated and oppressed sub-category in male society. Their letters and diaries indicate that women’s sphere had an essential integrity that grew out of women’s shared experiences and mutual affection. . . Continuity, not discontinuity, characterized this female world.”
Women had their own signs and symbols, their own love codes. “Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged each other,” and they continued to kiss and hug even after they were married. Men made “but a shadowy appearance” in this landscape of women, if they ever appeared at all. But Smith-Rosenberg seems to oversimplify the almost mystical power that women shared among themselves. Men intruded everywhere, before and after marriage. “Women of Dickinson’s class and century existed in a legal and financial state of dependence on their fathers, brothers, or husbands, that psychologically mutilated them,” according to Susan Howe. After their father died, Emily and her sister went around like paupers and could hardly make a purchase without Austin’s approval. They were wards of a male world.
But there’s another distortion in Smith-Rosenberg’s study of female friendship and ritual. She writes about women who were highly literate and could articulate their wishes and their woes, thus giving them a power and a perspective that many men and women did not have. There must have been a far greater unwritten record—of women who never mastered the art of writing. They might have been part of the same society that Smith-Rosenberg writes about, kissing, exchanging secrets, and trooping from home to home in an endless social knot as they presided over births and deaths. But they cannot share their pain, their joy, and their melancholy with us. They are the invisible ones, and Emily Norcoss is among them.
She was born on July 3, 1804, in Monson, a rural community twenty miles south of Amherst. Her father, Joel Norcross, was a rich farmer who helped found Monson Academy, a school that admitted females as well as males. Joel believed in the education of his daughters—he had three of them and six sons, several wiped out by consumption, a disease that plagued the family. His wife, Betsy Fay, would die of it at fifty-one. Emily was the eldest daughter. She was attached to her one surviving sister, Lavinia, born in 1812, a feisty girl who loved to scribble letters and poems.
Rich as her father was, Emily Norcross didn’t have an easy time at home. Joel had only one servant to care for an enormous barnlike house that had once been a tavern. Most of the chores fell on Emily. Joel took in boarders, and Emily also had to care for them. Her mother couldn’t do very much; she was sick a good part of the time. And we can imagine how erratic Emily’s schooling must have been. She still managed to attend a fancy girls’ boarding school in New Haven for several months when she was nineteen. There’s no record of her having met Edward Dickinson, who was also in New Haven at the time, about to graduate from Yale.
Emily returned to Monson, her education over. She would meet Edward three years later at a “Chemical” lecture on January 1, 1828—it happened to be his birthday. Edward had just turned twenty-five; she was twenty-three, practically an old maid in Monson. Edward was a law student who had to struggle, since his father couldn’t seem to juggle his own accounts. Samuel Fowler Dickinson was still one of the most prominent men in Amherst. Cofounder of Amherst College, he had run—unsuccessfully—for Congress. He wanted to bring a law school to Amherst. He would claim that Edward had been the valedictorian of his class at Yale. It was a bald lie. Samuel had to yank his boy more than once from New Haven, and Edward barely had enough time and money to graduate. The “Squire,” as Samuel was called, continued to remain involved with Amherst College, and he sank whatever small fortune he had into paying the school’s bills. He lived on loan after loan, until there was little left to borrow.
Meanwhile, Edward was now a major in the Massachusetts militia And he hadn’t come to Monson to study chemistry, but to preside over a military court. He had to pass judgment over a reckless lieutenant colonel who had vanished from camp. And we have to wonder if Edward was wearing his uniform, with it ceremonial sword and sash, at the lecture. Is that what caught Emily’s eye? And what did Edward see in this silent girl? He must have been bewitched by her. He wrote his first letter to her on February 8 and never stopped writing. But he realized soon enough that Emily Norcross wasn’t much of a correspondent. She didn’t answer him until March. He had made her aware that he was looking for a bride. He proposed marriage on June 4—marriage by mail. He received no reply. He wrote to her father, who was just as silent. Joel Norcross wasn’t that eager to relinquish a daughter who had become the workhorse of his family. This accumulation of silences couldn’t discourage Edward, who continued to press his case, like a lawyer and militiaman. But Emily wasn’t unmoved. She must have been fond of her suitor’s red hair and barrage of long letters. Finally, at the end of October, she agreed to marry him, more or less.
Excerpted from A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Copyright © 2016 by Jerome Charyn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org.