NEW YORK — There are three Emily Dickinsons: the woman who lived, the woman who wrote, and the woman who gets reflexively clucked over. The first two neither can nor should be separated. As for the third, she’s now hard to keep separate from the other two. That’s a shame. The popular imagination long ago put Dickinson on a cozy domestic shelf. A writer of poetry equally given to ferocious intensity and deadpan wit is reduced to the role of sedate, if slightly unsettling, versifying recluse.
William Luce’s one-woman play, “The Belle of Amherst,” is the best-known example of this reduction, though far from the only one. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the English director Terence Davies takes in “A Quiet Passion.” The film opens April 14. Any Dickinsonian who’s seen Davies’s “The Long Day Closes” (1992) or his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” (2000) knows there’s reason to hope.
Among the many merits of the Morgan Museum & Library’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson” is its helping us see the relationship between life and writing and how little either squares with the image. The show, whose title comes from a Dickinson poem, runs through May 28.
Miles Davis once said that you could state the history of jazz in four words: “Louis Armstrong” and “Charlie Parker.” Four words could also suffice for 19th-century American poetry: “Walt Whitman” and “Emily Dickinson.” Whitman is the poet as orator: epic sweep, public performance, “buffalo strength” (Emerson’s phrase). Dickinson is the poet as diarist: inward, a miniaturist, so intent on precision, emotional as well as verbal, as to sometimes occlude meaning.
“I contain multitudes,” Whitman famously boasted of his poetry. In its very different way, Dickinson’s does, too. It’s just that the multitudes have nothing to do with crowds and gesture and everything to do with feeling and insight.
Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote nearly 1800 poems, none of more than a few stanzas. A handful appeared in print during her lifetime. Among the 89 items in the show are four of the poems as published. It’s a shock to see “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” — retitled (not by Dickinson) as “The Snake” — all but lost amid the good gray news columns of a vintage copy of the Feb. 14, 1866, Springfield Daily Republican.
Other than a year in South Hadley, studying at what is now Mount Holyoke College, Dickinson spent her entire life in Amherst. Her grandfather was a founder of Amherst College, and her father served as its treasurer for four decades. The Morgan organized the show with the college.
The Dickinsons were prominent in Amherst; and as numerous items in the show bear out, she was far from a recluse — or anti-social. More than a thousand of her letters survive.
The show is very good at placing Dickinson in context, familial and cultural as well as social. Among the homelier items on display are a sample of the floral wallpaper in her bedroom and a lock of Dickinson’s hair (keeping a snip of hair as a family keepsake was a common practice). Its striking russet shade is evident in a family portrait, c. 1840, painted by Otis Allen Bullard. (Might that color add another layer of meaning to Dickinson’s “Of Bronze — and Blaze”?) There’s even a musket, from the Springfield armory, a reminder of the impact of the Civil War on life far from the battle front.
It’s the writing that matters, of course, and that’s the show’s primary focus. On display are several of the poems in Dickinson’s distinctive slanting cursive. Some are in the fascicles, or hand-sewn booklets, she assembled. An audio component offers 24 of the poems read by poet Lee Ann Brown. In addition to manuscripts, there are Dickinson letters, first editions, her Bible, and works by authors she admired, including Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charlotte Brontë.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is not unlike Dickinson’s poems in being compact in size yet extensive in reach. It lets us see that a life most lastingly lived in the imagination was by no means lived there alone. True of any great writer, that hardly needs saying — except with Dickinson it does.
I’M NOBODY! WHO ARE YOU? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson
At Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., New York, through May 28, 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.