Encased for decades in Victorian stereotype as a wispy recluse in a white dress, Emily Dickinson was claimed by pop culture last year as a raging rebel against the patriarchy (“Dickinson” on television) and a liberated lesbian (“Wild Nights with Emily” on film), portraits in some ways just as reductive. Martha Ackmann, the author of two previous books about women ahead of their time (“Curveball” and “The Mercury 13”), takes a more nuanced approach in her fine new work, which reminds us that what’s important about Emily Dickinson is that she wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language.
Ackmann, who has taught a seminar on Dickinson at Mount Holyoke, makes good use of scholarship that has long recognized her as an unconventional, formally inventive artist. The subtitle’s “Ten Pivotal Moments” prove a useful organizing principle. Each chapter opens by identifying a particular date, complete with a weather report from a local meteorological journal, a nice way to underscore Dickinson’s immersion in the physical world around her hometown of Amherst. Granted, Ackmann often has to provide substantial background before she can elucidate the significance of the letter 14-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote on Aug. 3, 1845, to her friend Abiah Root (in Chapter One), or her fateful meeting with Mount Holyoke principal Mary Lyon on Feb. 6, 1848 (in Chapter Two). But she provides it with panache in a lucid narrative grounded in solid research colored by appreciative warmth.
Drawing on Dickinson’s 1845 letter and the history of her friendship with Abiah, Ackmann concludes that “Emily was coming to understand how to make ideas visible” (italics added). Having nailed a crucial aspect of her poetry in three pithy words, Ackmann closes Chapter One with a lovely passage pointing toward the polite confrontation with Mary Lyons. Dickinson’s goal for her writing, she argues, was “to understand the particles of moments that others could not see or grasped with a faith she found too easy.” Her friend Abiah and principal Lyons were among the many swept up in the evangelical Great Awakening, but Emily refused in 1848 — and throughout her life — to make a profession of faith she did not feel. “Amherst, her family, and the deep mud of March were more sacred to her than any religious doctrine,” Ackmann states, “It was the here and now she lived for, not the possibility of eternal salvation.”
While it’s unlikely that Dickinson ever uttered such thoughts so explicitly, they are resonant subtexts in her poems and correspondence. Ackmann discerns a joy in domesticity and nature that fed the central drama of Dickinson’s life: “She wanted her poems to translate all she saw and heard and felt, and not to be any earthly thing.” This drama, Ackmann reminds us, was almost entirely internal, a fact that makes Dickinson’s increasing withdrawal from society more explicable. Striving to bring her students to God, Mary Lyons sent Dickinson a different message when she warned about “interruptions to their thinking and drains on their time,” adding, “it requires more discipline of mind and more grace to meet a lady’s duties than gentlemen’s.” Despite the famous bread-baking and unquestionable devotion to her parents, Dickinson’s primary commitment was to her poetry; anything that interfered with it was evaded or ignored.
A particularly good chapter takes the March 1, 1862, publication of a Dickinson poem in the Springfield Republican as a springboard to examine her relationship with her sister-in-law Sue and her uncompromising commitment to poetry so radical even those who felt its power were disconcerted by it. Ackmann doesn’t care whether Dickinson and Sue were lovers (a topic of ongoing debate); she stresses Sue’s role as a trusted reader, recipient of more of Dickinson’s poems than anyone else, who nonetheless pressed for more conventional verse than Dickinson wanted to provide. The version of “Safe in their alabaster chambers” that Sue slipped to editor Samuel Bowles had the more conventional second stanza she preferred. But Ackmann believes that Dickinson, who frequently wrote and kept multiple drafts, favored another:
Grand go the Years—to the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of snow—
“The second stanza read as if the poet were standing on the edge of the universe and looking back at Earth,” Ackmann writes. “The planet was nothing more than a molecule and the dead merely atoms. It was the final image that encompassed everything Dickinson was coming to understand … abstract and astonishing — and as cold as ice.”
Ackmann’s insights are unfailingly fresh and vivid, evidence of a profound personal affinity for her subject. Subsequent chapters offer shrewd discussions of Dickinson’s interactions with literary lion Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the impact of the Civil War on Dickinson’s equivocal attitude toward being published, and many other topics. But Ackmann’s focus, always, is on Dickinson’s growth as a poet, and her cogent exegesis of the second stanza of “Safe in their alabaster chambers” foreshadows the book’s eloquent, elegiac conclusion on May 15, 1886, the day of Dickinson’s death.
She died in the family homestead she loved and rarely left, but Ackmann locates her true home elsewhere: “the wild terrain of her mind … to Emily Dickinson, home was consciousness itself — a continent of language where metaphor was her native tongue.” “These Fevered Days” makes Dickinson’s exploration of that wild terrain and that continent of language palpable, exciting, and accessible.
THESE FEVERED DAYS: TEN PIVOTAL MOMENTS IN THE MAKING OF EMILY DICKINSON
By Martha Ackmann
Norton, 278 pp., $26.95
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.