Tuesday, October 6, 2009

6: Amherst: The poet’s tempestuous teapot

I am glad there are Books. They are better than Heaven, for that is unavoidable, while one may miss these. – Emily Dickinson

Yes, books. Here’s a point where Miss Dickinson and I can see eye to eye. I’m glad of that. I’ve been looking for common ground, but it’s been a challenge.

Speaking of books, there’s one out there (published in 2007) called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. Fortunately for me, it’s a novel, because several of the locales I’ve been visiting are put in jeopardy in this book. Torching beloved literary landmarks may not sound like a funny premise for a book, but it really is. It’s Quirky—with a capital letter in Dickinson’s honor—and I think she may have liked it.

The Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s home) and the Evergreens (her brother Austin’s home next door), the properties that make up the Emily Dickinson Museum, are intact and, in fact, have just been given a fine new face on the world with a fence and hemlock hedge project to restore the properties’ nineteenth-century streetside appearance. Since we had some time before the scheduled house tour, Gail and I started our visit with an audio tour of the garden that perhaps seemed longer than it was because the narrator of the tour spoke so slowly.

Note to museums producing audio tour materials: A narrator who speeeaks toooo slooowly is just as bad as one who speakssofastyoucan’tunderstandhim.

The Homestead was built around 1813 for Emily’s paternal grandparents and was probably the first brick house in Amherst. Her grandfather, Fowler Dickinson, was a lawyer and one of the founders of Amherst College. Edward, his oldest son, moved into half of the house with his young family shortly before Emily was born in 1830. Three years later her sister Lavinia was born here, but her grandparents sold the house and moved to Ohio that same year. Edward’s family continued to rent their portion of the house for several years until he bought a house of his own half a mile or so down the road.

Edward, who followed his father into the law and into support for Amherst College (he served as its treasurer) seems to have been a bit clannish about family. When the new owner of the Homestead passed away, he bought it and moved his family back. And when his son Austin got married, Edward was afraid Austin would move west, so he built the newlyweds a home next door. (Austin then became a lawyer and later treasurer for Amherst College—sound familiar?) Considering this family history, maybe it’s not so surprising that Emily was an ultra homebody.

She attended Amherst Academy and was a good student, but she was often absent due to illness. She then went “away” to school—a whole ten miles away—to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she studied for less than a year. Whatever the reason—homesickness, physical illness, her father’s preference—Emily came home and stayed home.

In her early adulthood she did get out and about to town events, but then— Then what? This is my sticking point. How did she turn into the legendary recluse?

Was it her mother’s chronic illness (she was essentially bedridden from the mid-1850s until her death in 1882) that kept Emily (and her sister Vinnie) home? Was it her inability to deal with the deaths of several friends and family members that shook her? Was it some illness (physical, mental or emotional) of her own?

Back to the nagging questions later.

Our tour guide Jane took our group through a brief interactive lesson on Dickinson’s poetry—looking at the various word choices she had experimented with in an unfinished poem. She pointed out that the lyric structure Dickinson used makes it possible to sing her poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It works; I tried it—though I certainly haven’t tried them all. It definitely gives a whole new feel to:

            Because I could not stop for Death
                        He kindly stopped for me
            The Carriage held but just Ourselves
                        And Immortality. …

But it points out the sameness of the poems—and she wrote about eighteen hundred of them. She was quite a reader, both of classic literature and the writers of her day, so how is it that she didn’t experiment with some of the other forms of poetry she saw? It’s as though her poetry, like the poet herself, lived its whole life in its childhood home.

Dickinson’s family seems to have been protective of Emily and even supportive of her reclusive choices. Jane informed us that Vinnie actually stood in for her sister when measurements were taken for those famous white dresses she wore. Her father brought her books, but, she noted in a letter, “he begs me not to read them because he fears they will joggle the mind.”

I suppose that’s one possible answer to the mystery. (Even if it is, I’m not giving up my library card.)

Nowadays the town of Amherst as a whole seems protective of its poet, yet eager to celebrate her too. In addition to the Emily Dickinson Museum we found exhibits in both the Amherst History Museum and the Jones Library about Emily Dickinson. Oddly (at least I thought), the exhibits don’t attempt to explain and barely address her reclusive behavior. Gail and I speculated on it plenty on our walk from the Homestead to the center of town and over tea at Fresh Side on South Pleasant Street, and I couldn’t help but think that Emily’s odd ways must have been a topic of conversation—okay, let’s be blunt, gossip—among her neighbors.

A few days after our visit I treated myself to a viewing of The Belle of Amherst, a videotaped 1976 performance of Julie Harris’s one-woman show. (It’s available on DVD, and I highly recommend it.) I hope Emily would have considered herself lucky to have such a portrayal; Julie Harris is a wonderful actress. I was happy to hear mention in the play of neighborhood gossip and her perceived strangeness. I don’t know if those bits came out of Dickinson’s correspondence or the playwright’s head, and it doesn’t really matter to me which—just so long as someone else is acknowledging that stuff. Nothing makes me crazier than those elephants in the room.

In the overall Dickinson story, the major distraction from the poet’s quirks is the scandal surrounding her brother Austin and his long-time mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd. He was a middle-aged lawyer from one of the town’s most prominent families, married with children and treasurer of the college. She was twenty-five, also married—to the college’s new astronomy professor—with a young child. We discovered some tantalizing bits of this story on our travels (for more about it, read Polly Longsworth’s 1984 book, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd).

Mabel Todd was a very colorful fish in a small pond and the antithesis of Emily Dickinson. She bent the truth about her own family background and carried on a long affair with Austin Dickinson (whose wife had befriended her), yet later served as one of the first editor’s of Dickinson’s poetry and founded the Amherst Historical Society. She’s an irresistible, flamboyant character—at least in the poster we saw in the history museum. It advertised a lecture to be given by Mr. and Mrs. Todd on February 13, 1908. The topic: “A Message from Mars.” The Todds believed in Martians and apparently had worked out a method of speaking to them that involved ascending in a balloon.

(The day’s bitterest disappointment was that the T-shirts printed with the poster graphics came only in children’s sizes. What a mistake that is! Adults are in far greater need of “A Message from Mars.”)

We encountered another poet in our visit to the exhibits at the library. Robert Frost was a professor at Amherst College and lived here among a handful of other places around New England. (I’ve already written about my visit to Franconia, and more’s on the way.) There’s also a sculpture (by Michael J. Virzi) near the center of town acknowledging these two Amherst poets; it’s called “A Poetic Dialogue.”

We capped off the day with dinner at Tabella, a restaurant that gathers the ingredients for its menu mainly from local sources. Dickinson, homebody that she was, would have appreciated that. With all of our wanderings and wonderings, we had worked up an appetite. The meal started with a plate of camembert, from neighboring Vermont, with crusty bread and slices of colorful watermelon radishes, accompanied by a couple of microbrew beers (the selections change). We followed up with squash and pear bisque and split a plate (because we were running out of room) of short ribs with a sauce made of whiskey, maple syrup and caramelized onions.

The meal pushed all thoughts of recluses and reputations out of my head, and I enjoyed every bite.

            Fame is a fickle food …

No comments:

Post a Comment