Emily Dickinson, the most famous resident of Amherst.

Anguished in Amherst

This essay channeling Emily Dickinson in Amherst is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.

Emily Dickinson: Anguished in Amherst

One of the Master Letters written by Emily Dickinson.
One of the Master Letters written by Emily Dickinson. 

Emily Dickinson was presented to me in such one-dimensional terms in high school, I ignored her as an undergraduate in poetry. Lines that could have been powerfully explored were presented only as proof that the poet was talented at personifying nature. The dull myths underpinning those assignments stayed with me until a few years ago when I found Cristina Nehring’s book A Vindication of Love. In it, the author explores the poet’s Master Letters, which were drafts Dickinson wrote that were found among her possessions when she died in 1886. I was reading the book on the train to Amherst, the poet’s home town, when it became clear that I had been duped all those years before. With a new concept of her swirling in my mind, I reached for the slim volume of her poetry I had tucked into my purse and began to see her words with new eyes. 

The shiver I felt when I read line after line of brilliance was only partly due to my change in attitude. When I left my Brooklyn apartment that morning, I slogged through one of the worst downpours I’d ever experienced. The deluge was so offensive that my small rollerboard suitcase, which had poured a stream of water the entire 40 minutes I sat on the subway bound for Penn Station, was still dripping on the carpeted spot near my feet on Amtrak’s Vermonter. The purpose of my trip was to end a love affair, the town chosen because it was halfway between my locale and his. The dousing to which I had been subjected and the crimp in my heart gave new meaning to Dickinson’s lines “You cannot fold a Flood— / And put it in a Drawer.” 

Reading the words, I felt a protracted spasm that was still with me when I checked into my hotel room. Doing my best to spread my clothes and shoes around the room in hopes they would dry, I approached the dresser and received a shock—there she was, those dark eyes leveled on me from the front page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I stared back at the girl, her dark visage forever trapped in that haunting photograph I’d come to know from the cover of the book of poems I read in high school. The article was announcing the possibility that a new image of the poet had been found, which has since been vetted and proven to be her and her friend Kate Turner. 

The 1859 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and Kate Turner beside the only image of the poet that had existed before this image was discovered. Image courtesy Amherst College Library.
The 1859 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and Kate Turner beside the only image of the poet that had existed before this image was discovered. Image courtesy Amherst College Library. 

It gives a fuller view of the poet’s physicality because the earlier one was taken in 1847 when she was 16 and the recently discovered one is dated somewhere around 1859 when Dickinson would have been 28. The formal pose, severe dress, and prim hairstyle in the earlier image, along with the shroud of a dress she wore in the latter, set her firmly in the Victorian era that encompassed most of her life. How odd, I thought: Here I am, less than a mile from that rambling yellow house where she sequestered herself her day-in and day-out, reading the article and coming to terms with the fact that this woman was far from dull!

On the surface, I had picked Nerhring’s book because I was visiting Dickinson’s home town, but the emotional landscape the author presents of the poet was hitting far too close to home for me to believe that’s all there was to it. Nehring demeans Dickinson’s attempts at emoting, which I found to be harsh. Writing that the letters show a “towering artist at her most groveling and pathetic,” Nehring declares Dickinson is “raising humility and timidity into an art form.” 

Closeup of the 1859 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and Kate Turner. Image courtesy Amherst College Library.
Closeup of the 1859 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and Kate Turner. Image courtesy Amherst College Library.

She says the missives written by the “fragile little recluse” could have been meant for any of three men she believes Dickinson might have loved. Given that no one knows for certain whether finished versions of the communications were ever sent and no one can confirm that any of the men Nehring named in her book had romantic relationships with Dickinson, identifying her suitors seemed fruitless to me. In my mind, the men were irrelevant because I was enjoying hearing the poet flex so much muscle with her words. 

She opened the second letter, “Master, if you saw a bullet hit a Bird—and he told you he wasn’t shot—you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word.” The strong image of blood bursting from a bird’s breast as it denies being wounded makes me feel quite sure that Dickinson knew firsthand how it felt to be a woman scorned. The anger in her reprisals and my shredded heart kept the poet eerily around during my Amherst apocalypse, a haunting shadow that pulled at the edges of my being the entire time I was in town.

The Amherst train station that opened in 1853. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Tom Walsh.
The Amherst train station that opened in 1853. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Tom Walsh.

As painful a trip as I imagined it would be, I was relieved it had come to an end. I swallowed the hurt as I boarded the train bound for New York City, easing into a seat from which I could see the little Amherst train station that first opened in 1853. I wondered if Dickinson ever stood on the small patch of grass spreading out around it with her pride as quashed as mine was. Several lines of her poetry led me to believe she could have: “He put the belt around my life / I heard the buckle snap.” How could she not have known a thing or two about the power relationships have to cripple?

Anguished in Amherst © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns

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