Friday, February 27, 2015
February 27, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Belle of Amherst
[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On why we shouldn’t limit Emily Dickinson to her hometown, and why the connection still matters.
When it comes to American authors who are associated with prominent and very specific images of them and their work, I would put Emily Dickinson on the short list, right alongside Poe and his Raven and Twain and his white suit (and maybe Plath and her Daddy issues and suicide). Most of the authors whom I include on my American Lit survey syllabi are unfamiliar to the majority of my students, but these are the exceptions, Dickinson among them; they do have a sense of the poet, one entirely tied to biographical details such as her lifelong seclusion within her Amherst home and her unwillingness to publish the poems that she obsessively wrote in that space. The latter stereotype is easy to push back on—I just share with them Dickinson’s conversations with Thomas Wentworth Higginson about publishing her poetry. But the Amherst connection? That’s a harder nut to crack.
After all, Dickinson’s biographers and historians have confirmed that (to the best of our knowledge) she never left her family’s property for the last two decades of her life, leading to the local descripton of her as “the nun of Amherst” (one often revised in the 20th century to “the belle of Amherst”). One of her most famous poems open with the lines, “This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me,” amplifying that sense of separation and seclusion. Yet as a number of recent scholars have demonstrated, during precisely that era of increasing seclusion Dickinson was profoundly engaged with and impacted by the Civil War, to cite only one example of why and how her interests, imagination, and writing ranged far beyond her home and town. Indeed, if we flip the reading of the “letter to the world” lines, we can remember that just because illness and family issues and other factors limited Dickinson’s mobility and ability to travel, that doesn’t mean she was not deeply engaged with varied and widespread histories, stories, and communities; her poetry, like her letters, consistently reflects such broad and deep engagement.
But if we can and should take the poet out of Amherst, we can’t and shouldn’t take the Amherst out of the poet. Which is to say, there are many ways in which the identity of this small Western Massachusetts town can be connected to the work and perspective of its most famous resident. For one thing, Amherst has as longstanding a history of higher education as any small American community—Amherst College was founded in 1821 (9 years before Dickinson’s birth) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1863, meaning that Dickinson did her artistic and intellectual work in a hotbed of such activity. For another, the town is also a hotbed of political activity and activism—throughout the 19th century, as illustrated by local products such as Helen Hunt Jackson, Chief Justice Harlan Stone, and Congressman Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father; and into the present, as demonstrated by the saying “Only the ‘h’ is silent” to describe the town. And for a third, the town has as deep and complex a relationship to American history and identity as did Dickinson, having been named after a hero of the French and Indian War who was also one of the first to recommend the use of smallpox-covered blankets in conflicts with Native Americans. A town that is as complex, engaged, and intelligent as Dickinson herself—not a bad fit after all.
February Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?