Critics have been trying to rescue Emily Dickinson from her Amherst attic for a long time. Over the past half-century, scholars have sought to debunk the characterization of Dickinson as New England’s most notorious spinster, shrouded in her white dress. One strategy in these “Emily Dickinson wars” is to refabricate the poet’s life in all its minutia. These days, there are discussions of everything from her black cake recipe to her carefully culled herbarium. You can now read about the Dickinson family’s souvenir spoons and their installation of a state-of-the-art Franklin stove. There are books on Dickinson’s needlework and speculation as to what she and her sister Livinia might have been up to on an otherwise poorly-documented trip to Philadelphia in 1855.
The curators at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts are especially keen on this sort of thing. Visitors will find the homestead sparsely decorated, as its keepers painstakingly reconstruct the parlors and bedroom according to their original floorplan. Somewhat awkwardly for a museum obsessed with material culture, the Houghton Library at Harvard hasn’t relinquished Dickinson’s writing desk and chair. The homestead tour guides, however, boast of their exact replica of Dickinson’s 1830 cherry pine writing table. From marks in the floor planks, archeologists confirm that her desk is situated at the exact angle as the original.
Given that much of the house sits bare in the meantime, this level of precision seems overwrought. Yet the initial interest in Dickinson’s physical world was motivated by an understandable desire to highlight the materiality of Dickinson’s poetic “fascicles.” These hand-sewn manuscript books, with the poet’s own rounded handwriting, word variants and page-pairings reveal the extent to which her male editors altered the poems after her death. Most scandalously, Thomas Wentworth Higginson rewrote Dickinson’s slant rhymes and regularized her meter in the name of cleaning up her “uneven vigor.” His 1890 edition disbound the fascicles to introduce the poems to the public with superimposed titles and thematic headings (tritely labeled “Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity”).
Even in the twentieth-century, after Dickinson had blossomed as the most celebrated female poet in the American canon, editors still imposed themselves on her work. Thomas Johnson’s issue of The Complete Poems in 1955 preserved Dickinson’s rhymes yet continued to alter her line breaks, ignored her word variants and “silently corrected obvious misspelling.” And R.W. Franklin’s now-authoritative 1998 edition of Dickinson’s Poems has not put an end to scholarly quarrels over Dickinson’s line and stanza divisions. Cleaving to the Dickinsonian idea that “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man – ,” purists like Susan Howe and Martha Nell Smith believe we cannot read justly except in manuscript form. Although such academic infighting reveals a great deal about American publishing history and the politics of the archive, those most loyal to preserving Dickinson’s materiality seem to forget that poems—even, and perhaps especially, unpublished poems—are meant to be read aloud.
This is why the Court Theatre’s staging of William Luce’s Belle of Amherst is so remarkably refreshing. The play, which opened in Chicago on November 2nd and is directed by Sean Graney, dedicates just under two hours to Dickinson’s poetic voice. Much of it is fictional, of course, but the script draws upon a rich sampling of the poems and letters, as we listen to Dickinson think and dream and sound out her stanzas. If a one-woman production based on the words and ways of Emily Dickinson sounds a bit staid, you haven’t seen Kate Fry. In between baking rhubarb cupcakes, quoting from the Springfield Republican, and gossiping about her schoolgirl days at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Fry recites Dickinson’s own words with unfailing gusto.
Luce’s script shifts between the more sorrowful monologues of old age to scenes of a sprightly childhood. Lest we mistakenly picture “a pint-sized little Emily, dressed all in white, lisping riddles and aphorisms in baby talk,” Luce wants us to imagine Dickinson in her youth: she chases her brother Austin, mocks her boy-crazy sister, and composes valentines of her own. Quoting from an 1845 letter to a classmate at Amherst Academy, Dickinson proudly pronounces: “I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my seventeenth year.”
With a sardonic twinkle in her eye, Fry reminds us how uncommonly funny Dickinson’s observations can be:
How dreary—to be Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell your name—the livelong day—
To an admiring Bog!
Fry makes it seem perfectly plausible that Dickinson would have delighted in the lewder lines of Shakespeare’s Tempest. In like manner, she refers to her schoolmarmish seminary instructor as “the Dragon.” On opening night, after a cellphone rang and a woman in the middle rows succumbed to a coughing fit, Fry spontaneously chastised the audience with the sort of wry Victorian harangue that seemed thoroughly characteristic of Dickinson.
In chatty but cryptic monologues, the play also alludes to more serious topics, including Dickinson’s lesbian attraction to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Dickinson’s writing contains an undeniable homoeroticism; however, Luce chooses to pair Dickinson’s most titillating poem, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” with Charles Wadsworth, the Presbyterian minister whom Dickinson met briefly in Philadelphia when she was 24. Wadsworth has long been a rumored addressee of Dickinson’s mysterious “Master” letters, although we cannot be sure she ever posted them or had a specific lover in mind. Regardless, the play doesn’t linger here. The fervor of the scene has less to do with biographical conjecture than it does with Dickinson’s confession of passion. With her back arched atop her single bed, she shouts:
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
Fry’s fiery recitation starts with a smirk but soon becomes despondent. We come to realize that the sort of life which lends itself to a one-woman play has experienced a fair deal of unrequited love.
A strength of The Belle of Amherst is its ability to draw upon the quotidian aspects of Dickinson’s life that have so interested critics in recent decades, without over-theorizing them. Moments of sharp psychological pain are balanced with Dickinson bragging about the second-prize ribbon her rye and Indian bread won at the Cattle Show. She casually leafs through her Webster’s dictionary and explains her father’s role in bringing the first railroad to Amherst. These bits and pieces of her routine provide detail, rather than distraction, for Fry to deliver Dickinson’s poems in a manner that does justice to their odd and particular candor.
Luce’s script, originally written for Julie Harris in 1976, is thus a welcome compromise between two camps of readers, who have often taken a more heavy-handed approach to Dickinson’s home economics. In the generation before Luce, traditionalists treated Dickinson’s disdain for the world’s “broken mathematics” as yet another reason to shut her up in the homestead. According to her more conservative critics, Dickinson retreated from the marketplace because she rejected “the counterfeit values of her time.” Depressed to be living in an Age of Acquisition, Dickinson, in this view, opted for “That fine Prosperity/ Whose Sources are interior—”. At home in Amherst, Dickinson supposedly shored-up a certain pricelessness and avoided the booms and busts of America’s nascent industrialism. John Merideth, for instance, argued that the sort of financial knowledge Dickinson might have gleaned from the “Money and Business” column of the Springfield Republican was enough to disenchant her; she sought to separate herself from the acquisitive public realm, and her reclusiveness should be read as an implicit critique of American economics, launched from the safety and interiority of the family home.
But while this argument tends to imprison Dickinson in a secluded domesticity, more recent materialist critics have gone too far in foisting Dickinson into a public arena she often consciously chose to avoid. Prominent among the materialists is Betsy Erkkila, who insists we cannot let Dickinson off the ideological hook: “The metaphysical and linguistic space of her poems,” Erkkila writes, is nonetheless traversed by her ideological assumptions and presumption as a member of New England’s political—and Whig—elite.” Likewise, Domhhall Mitchell highlights letters in which Dickinson expressed classist condescension toward servants, blacks and Irish immigrants. He argues Dickinson’s high-minded retreat from the world was in fact financed on the backs of others’ labor. Hence, for Mitchell, architectural poems like “I Dwell in Possibility—” become a problematic celebration of the independent aesthetic space that the family’s economic prosperity afforded.
Erkkila reads Dickinson’s decisions not to marry, bear children or publish her writing as exercises in “class privilege.” This prompts her to interpret “The Soul selects her own Society—/ Then—Shuts the Door—” as Dickinson’s conscious, elitist choice to “resist the forces of democratic, commercial, industrial and nationalist transformation by enclosing herself in ever smaller social units—first within Amherst, then within her house, and ultimately within her room and the space of her mind.” Oddly enough, by holding Dickinson accountable for America’s nineteenth-century classism, Erkkilla ends up relegating Dickinson to the same narrowness that cultural materialists set out to refute. An excessively broad interpretation of Dickinson’s economics, paradoxically, winds up shutting her up in the same upstairs bedroom.
The Belle of Amherst, in contrast, never takes for granted that Dickinson shared her father’s or brother’s Whiggishness, nor does it assume that a poet as unorthodox as Dickinson would have unthinkingly assented to the views of her friends and neighbors. When she speaks of her father, who served Massachusetts’ Hampshire district in the U.S. Congress, it is with a sense of mournful distance: He was stern, unaffectionate and disapproved of her writing. Taking his daguerreotype off the wall, Dickinson jokes, “He looks like a bear.”
Scholars of the past decade have admirably sought to situate Dickinson’s poems in the context of the American Civil War. But before we lump her with her father and the antebellum Whigs, we might note that the bearish Edward Dickinson was a prominent New England Congregationalist, whereas few would take Emily to be an uncomplicated Calvinist. The fact that Dickinson’s references to the war are so oblique (consider “Of Bronze—and Blaze,” or “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain”) doesn’t give us permission to ascribe others’ politics to her. Her mind was forever her own.
In an interview in the Court Theatre’s program, Fry explains how she prepared for her role as Dickinson: “Months before rehearsals began, I didn’t read letters or biographies—I started with the poems, just her words and her thoughts, without other people’s lenses.” Fry’s faithfulness to Dickinson’s voice certainly shines in her performance. You don’t have to be a fusty New Critic to think that the poems themselves reveal more than Dickinson’s recipes, floorplan, or plant collection ever can.
Our investigation into the everyday objects that once surrounded Dickinson shouldn’t blind us to the poet’s own sense of radical finitude:
The House of Supposition
The Glimmering Frontier that
Skirts the Acres of Perhaps—
To me—shows insecure—
The Wealth I had—contented me—
If ’twas a meaner size—
Then I had counted it until
It pleased my narrow Eyes—
Better than larger values—
That show however true—
This timid life of Evidence
Keeps pleading—“I don’t know”—
Although Luce’s script doesn’t cite this poem, The Belle of Amherst does an admirable job of reconstructing Dickinson’s “House of Supposition,” without forgetting that we are always skirting her “Acres of Perhaps.” The play does so without overburdening our experience of Dickinson with editorial controversies or privileging domestic details over her own words. It stages a Dickinson who is sometimes somber, often whimsical and always likable. If we can’t quite befriend her outside the homestead, we can at least pay a visit to Amherst and let Dickinson speak for herself.