The life of Emily Dickinson continues long after her death on more than the sustaining breath she's given by every literary anthology in a college bookstore. Her pointed little poems, which are never little, are reason enough; but her life is a novel in and of itself, even though--and maybe because--she really never left Amherst, Massachusetts. I don't know that anyone has ever argued it, but at first glance Miss Dickinson could well have been agraphobic, afraid of leaving the house.
Still, her poetry sails through time as if time timelessly. She is profoundly religious, even though she once swore religion off. Some call her the quintessential Calvinist poet, not because she loved or even reinvented Calvin, but because God's presence in her life was so behomoth that she could neither quite love him nor leave him. Flannery O'Connor's characters, some like to say, are God-haunted. Dickinson is no O'Connor-type creation, but there is something ghastly about the God she can't simply tolerate.
That she never married doesn't mean she was never in love. Late in her solitary life, she and a man, another senior citizen, carried on a torrid affair, if torrid can be said to be operative in old age. And when she was much younger, when she answered an essay in the Atlantic Monthly and sent a handful of her poems to the author of the essay, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she seems to have given her heart away, even though it was only on-line, so to speak. Higginson's appreciation of those poems lit some fires in her soul that Higginson, to his honor, never tended or intended.
"Wild nights--wild nights,/Were I with thee/Wild nights should be/our luxury" is a famous Dickinson poem her critics largely assess as borne out of her passion--vastly platonic--for any bit of attention from Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. And there's more. But enough of that.
If teaching early American literature for a quarter century allows me any authority, I'll have to admit, grudgingly, that Ms. Dickinson is an acquired taste. Few students found her as shimmering as I did through those years, although I hope after the week I could give to her in a survey course, some few found her fascinating. Not a year went by without our reading "Wild nights" with at least a snippet of her biography, her passionate (and somewhat silly) regard for Higginson.
I admit it. I've disliked the man for all these years. He either didn't pick up her regard or else he simply turned the other way because he certainly didn't become what she would have liked him to be in her life. Truth? I've always considered him a chump.
What did I know? I'm reading a biography of an obscure character named, enchantingly, Silas Soule, one of the few white men of the Colorado brigade who dared to call what John Chivington, one-time Methodist pastor, did to the Cheyenne at Sand Creek in 1864, an outright massacre. Soule's life crosses paths with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and "crosses paths" is understatement.
Both were firebrand abolitionists at a time when firebrand abolitionists went to war with pro-slavery types, especially in Kansas, "bloody Kansas," once Washington determined that the people of that new state could decide whether they'd be slave or free. What happened was a civil war that predates Fort Sumner. Blood flowed on both sides.
Today, of course, the issue has been long settled--slavery is abolished. But back then, bible-thumpers on both sides burned each other's houses and more than occasionally slew each other. Think John Brown, whose body was a' moulderin' in the grave even though his spirit lit up all kinds of conflagration.
There, in Kansas, amid all the fighting, was the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, fighting to keep Kansas "free," one of the "sacred six," who financed people like John Brown, a man his enemies would have called--and not without some right--a terrorist. If Higginson didn't correspond, say, weekly, with Ms. Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Mass, he wasn't just doodling. He was making war with the institution of slavery--and, not incidentally, with those who would keep human beings in chains.
So I looked up Thomas Wentworth Higginson, someone I thought a prig for not regarding this immensely talented young poet whose heart he set aflame. Turns out that once the nation went to war, so did Higginson, commanding the first company of freed slaves, the First South Carolina Volunteers, even wrote a book about it and recorded their spirituals for publication.
Turns out that in the 1850s Rev. Higgenson got fired from the church he'd served for his firebrand abolitionist views, his touting women's suffrage and the rights of workers. Turns out prohibition lit him up too. Turns out, years later, he took a significant part in editing Ms. Dickinson's initial book of poems, long after Ms. Dickinson's mortal coil was a'mounderin' in the earth at Amherst.
Turns out that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who I regarded--and probably treated, in class--as some prissy literary gadfly who had no idea what kind of wild nights he awoke in Ms. Dickinson, was busy doing other things in those years she panted for his every word. Turns out he was at the forefront of just about every major social issue of the time.
Turns out I didn't know the whole story. Turns out the whole story is much, much bigger than the story I thought so much worth telling for 25 years. Turns out my students should ask for their money back.
Still, it turns out all of that makes Ms. Dickinson even more mysterious, even more other-worldly, even more incredible, because none of that, not a bit, not an iota of Higginson's ardent fervor for major historical events and causes ever made an appearance of any kind in her poems. She wrote hundreds of poems during the American Civil War, but no mention really exists. It's as if it didn't happen. She may well have fancied Thomas Wentworth Higginson's favor, but what he was up to in the history of this nation never got a dime's worth of ink in the thousands of poems she wrote.
I don't know--I just find all of that incredible. There's just no end to the mysteries of life, is there?