by Sandra Gilbert

Page 1

I want to begin by saying that Emily Dickinson was an artist, an artist of metamorphosis who located herself quite consciously in a female world of myth and magic, of empowered domesticity, of powerful difference, and of poetic self-dramatization. I'll tell you two stories about her that seem to me to explain just how mythical and how magical she made herself. The first little story that I want to read you, in case you haven't already heard it in the last day and a half, is a little comment made in a letter by Mabel Loomis Todd who was later to become one of Dickinson's editors. It's a very famous comment, actually, and one that was often misinterpreted by people, but one I think is crucial in understanding Dickinson. Having just arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her husband is the director of the observatory, Mabel, in a letter to her parents, writes:

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom people call "the myth." She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, and seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night and viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her, no one who ever calls upon her mother and sister, ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, and one at time, to come in, when she gives them cake and candy or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often, she lets down the sweetmeat by string out of a window to them. She dresses wholly in white, and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. Her sister, who was at Mrs. Dickinson's party, invited me to come and sing to her mother sometime. People tell me "the myth" will hear every note; she will be near, but unseen. Isn't that like a book? So interesting.

Well, there is some way in which Dickinson is making herself like a book. The story has often been used against her to suggest how she's just this charming recluse, this peculiar, poetry-writing homebody. But in fact, this is one of the ways in which she transformed herself into a myth and into an acolyte of a kind of female magic. The other story that I want to tell you is one that also comes from a letter, written by her cousin, Clara Newman Turner. She says:

The poet's little nephew, Ned, boy-like, had a way of leaving anything superfluous to his immediate needs at Grandma's. After one of these little stints of omission, over came his high-topped rubber boots, standing erect and spotless on a silver tray, their tops running over with Emily's flowers; and another time, the little overcoat was returned with each velvet pocket pinned down, and a card with "Come in" on one, and "Knock" on the other. The "Come in" proved to be raisins, the "Knock," cracked nuts.

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