Thursday, December 10, 2020

Dickinson and the diary

Emily Dickinson, widely considered one of the greatest American poets, was born 190 years ago today. She was reclusive and largely unpublished during her lifetime, but left behind nearly 2,000 poems many of which she had compiled and bound in little notebooks. There is no evidence of her being a diarist. However, at least one literary academic has studied what she thinks are important links between Dickinson’s poetry and the diary genre.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on 10 December 1830. Her father was a lawyer and a trustee of Amherst College. She studied at the co-educational Amherst Academy, and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary but only for a year. In her twenties, after she’d moved back into the renovated family home (the Homestead) - she focused increasingly on writing, building on the poetry she had started composing when a teenager. By the age of 35, she written more than a 1,000 poems full of emotional content, many of which she bound into small notebooks, or ‘fascicles’. A few of her poems were published in magazines, but anonymously. Biographers suggests that during this period she had a serious and troubled romantic attachment.  

In the mid-1860s, Dickinson was treated for an eye disorder, and thereafter she seems to have settled into a reclusive existence, rarely leaving the Homestead, with her parents and sister. Though she did continue to write poetry she no longer bound this into booklets - thus what she left behind of her writing from this period is often on scraps of paper. She had a romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a friend of her father, for a while, but her later years were marked by ill health and sadness at the deaths of family members. She died in 1886. Subsequently, her fascicles containing some 1,800 poems were found by family members. A first selection of poems appeared in print in 1890, but a complete volume did not appear until 1955. Although little known during her own life, her stature has grown so much that she is now considered one of the most important figures in American poetry. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Poetry Foundation, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Emily Dickinson Museum

Dickinson left behind no diaries. Nevertheless, she has become the subject of so much literary and biographical investigation that one English academic - DesirĂ©e Henderson -  has written a paper entitled ‘Dickinson and the Diary’. This can be found in The New Emily Dickinson Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2019) - some pages available to preview at Googlebooks.  

Here are Henderson’s opening paragraphs.

‘In 1851, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to her brother Austin, who was teaching in Boston, in which she mischievously accuses him of murdering his pupils. She begs for the gruesome details of his reign of terror because she “[likes] to get such facts to set down in my journal,” adding, in the same mock-gothic vein, “I dont [sic] think deaths or murders can ever come amiss in a young woman’s journal”. Four months later, in another letter to Austin, Dickinson prefaces a detailed description of an ordinary day with the statement that “ ‘Keeping a diary’ is not familiar to me as to your sister Vinnie, but her own bright example is quite a comfort to me, so I’ll try”. In the first instance, Dickinson not only claims to write a diary but also indicates an awareness of the gendered conventions of diary writing. Dickinson transforms the domesticated diary into a blood-soaked record to extend, and to bring home, the image she has spun of a topsy-turvy universe in which teachers murder students. In the second instance, Dickinson denies writing a diary and displaces the practice onto her younger sister Lavinia; she describes diary writing as a method of representation she recognizes as having value but one she does not elect to practice - except, apparently, when she does. “I’ll try” to write diaristically, she states, and the letter that follows mimics a diarist’s close observation of the quotidian.

These references to diaries raise tantalizing archival questions. Did Dickinson keep a diary? If so, what happened to it? The archival record provides no evidence of such a diary, which, had it existed, almost certainly would have been destroyed along with Dickinson’s other personal papers after she died. Rather than presenting a research dead end, however, Dickinson’s epistolary statements raise an equally intriguing interpretative question: to what extent was Dickinson responding in her poetry to the culture of diary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century and was widely practiced by those around her, including her family members? In this essay I argue that Dickinson’s poems demonstrate that she thought about and positioned her writing against the prevailing conventions of the diary, including the gene’s association with memory. Dickinson’s depiction of memory and its material forms challenges the idea that a diary could function as textual receptacle for recording and preserving an individual’s memories. At the same time, in her skepticism about the diary’s functionality, Dickinson proves herself to be an insightful critic of the genre, mapping out key questions about the diary’s appeal and its limitations that may guide diary readers even today.’

A little further on, Henderson writes: ‘My analysis begins with the premise that diaries are complex works of literature whose historical marginalization is the result of gendered value systems that deserve to be dismantled. As a consequence, locating Dickinson within diary culture neither minimizes her work nor limits its expressive possibilities. Instead, this context provides a new framework for understanding the ways in which Dickinson responded to the prevalent literary practices of her day. In this essay, I introduce two communities of diary writers in which Dickinson was embedded: the schoolgirl diarists at Mount Holyoke Female Academy and Dickinson’s family and social circle in Amherst. Whether or not she wrote a diary herself, Dickinson would have been exposed to diary writing through these communities and would certainly have been aware of the conventions of the genre. While, as I show, there are formal characteristics that link Dickinson’s fascicles with the diaries written by her friends and family members, my focus is less on material form and more on the diary’s impact on Dickinson’s thinking about and representation of autobiographical memory.’

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