Emily Dickinson as featured on The Writer's Almanac and in 'Living with Limericks'
December 10th is the birthday of Emily Dickinson (books by this author), born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She lived in a brick house known as the Homestead, and took great pleasure in tending the gardens and growing all kinds of plants in the glass greenhouse that her father built for her and her sister, Lavinia. Emily received a good early education, attending Amherst Academy for seven years, and then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. While there, she was terribly homesick for Amherst, and she rebelled against the school’s strict rules. She returned home to Amherst after her first year, never to go back to Mount Holyoke.
She started writing poetry in her teens, but most of her writing at that time was in the form of letters, many of which have survived. Her mother was stricken with a mysterious illness in 1855, and Emily and Lavinia were homebound for several years while they took care of her. And as her 20s wore on, Emily became more and more reclusive anyway, preferring to interact with people through letters and keep company with her family and her gardens.
Dickinson was a prodigious writer, and wrote nearly 2,000 poems, but she only published about 10 of these in her lifetime. She would send poems to friends, or include them with gifts of baked goods, and even her close family was unaware of her output. There’s one person who did know, and that was the Dickinsons’ Irish maid. Margaret Maher had been born in Tipperary and had immigrated to the United States in around 1855. The Dickinsons hired her in 1869. Maher originally intended it to be a temporary position, because she was planning to move to California to join her brother. Instead, she ended up working for the Dickinson family for 30 years, and she became part of the family. The two women got on very well, even though they were quite different in temperament; Emily described her as “good and noisy, the North Wind of the Family.” The poet would spend hours in the kitchen with Margaret, baking breads and cakes, and scribbling poems on chocolate wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Maher was literate and she even dabbled in poetry herself now and then; the two women wrote poems back and forth to each other. Some scholars believe that Maher’s Irish syntax made it into some of Dickinson’s work. In any case, Dickinson trusted Maher with her poems — literally. She stored them in the trunk that Maher had brought over from Ireland.
Dickinson left strict instructions for Maher to burn her poems after she died, but when the time came, Margaret couldn’t bring herself to do it. In a quandary, she brought the poems to Lavinia, Emily’s sister. Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters, but she agreed with Maher that the poems should be published. Maher also supplied the only daguerreotype that we have of Emily Dickinson. The family didn’t like the picture, but Maher kept it, and gave it to the publisher to include with the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.
When Emily Dickinson died, her surviving family honored one of her last requests: her coffin was carried not by Amherst’s leading citizens, but by six Irish farmworkers — all employees of the Dickinson family. Thomas Kelly, Maher’s brother in law, was the chief pallbearer, and they carried her coffin out through the servants’ door.
Garrison Keillor wrote about Emily Dickinson and her influence in his collection 'Living with Limericks' dedicating a full chapter to her. Here is Chapter 13 entitled Me and Emily:
The Nobel Prize in Literature will not come my way. I know this. (Men who write poems that sell are unlikely to win the Nobel and I'd rather peddle than win a gold medal. Tak sa mycket, Swedes, go to hell.). But posterity make its own choices. Many are the medal winners who sank in the swamp of obscurity, while oddballs rose to posthumous fame - - Edgar Allan Poe --Thoreau -- Emily Dickinson. Legions of her admirers make pilgrimages to her gravesite in Amherst and leave pebbles or poems in homage. My gravesite is out in the middle of nowhere, much harder to find than hers, which is well-marked and in all the guide books. She lived in one house for most of her life where now docents lead tour groups up the stairs to her bedroom. I've lived in several dozen houses: no museum for me. And she lived a simple straightforward life, thanks to remainng single, wheras my life is a tangle of relationships, some of them bewildering even to me. She is so much what I am not --- or is it the other way around? ---and right there is the basis of my love affair with her, the most famous shy person in American literature, who wrote in a small precise hand dazzling poems, many of them tiny, that I now look and see were attempting to be limericks. Look at this one:
She was heading toward limerick, then lost her way.
Emily was a witty and sociable young woman pressed hard by religious bullying, who retreated to her bedroom and garden to write her eggshell poems and live within a small circle of sister Lavinia, brother Austin, and sister-in-law Sue. She reached out to a schollar and critic named Higginson for encouragement, a man who wrote thirty-five books that nobody reads today except out of morbid curiosity. He didn't get Emily. He tried to make her sound more like John Greenleaf Whittier. It's painful for me to read her letters to him, pleading for his support. It should have been me. I understand her. He was clueless.
Dear Emily D. of Amherst
Seldom shouted or cursed
Except when the birds
Dropped little white turds,
She said, "Shit," but that was the worst.
And when Thomas Higginson sneered
At her poems and said they were weird,
She said "Screw you, Tommy,
With a giant salami!"
And she put chewing gun in his beard.
"Hope is the thing with feathers,
But she preferred zippers and leathers
And she like to wear a
Lot of mascara
To Saturday night get-togethers.
Her "Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun"--
She kept it hidden in her bun.
And she shot the ass
Off a snake in the grass
And blasted at Stars just for fun.
No one attempted to date her
But it was discovered much later,
The "fly" she heard buzz
In reality was
A little whindup hand vibrator.
Whenever she shook someone's hand,
It buzzed and just as she planned,
They let out a shriek
And were dizzy and weak,
And wept and barely could stand.
She said she was crazy for me
And loved me passionately.
"I'm yours," said Emily,
"Let's make a family."
And perhaps we shall, in Eternity.
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