Emily Dickinson was engaged at college. She had a lover later on, perhaps a judge? But no one wants to talk about it, argues Christopher Benfey, because we like our story better.
We tend to reserve special roles for our favorite writersâ€”sepulchral Poe; sardonic Mark Twain; sexy, world-embracing Walt Whitmanâ€”and resist evidence that contradicts our cherished images. Emily Dickinson in this constellation is forever the lovelorn spinster, pining away in her father’s mansion on Main Street in Amherst, Mass. We assume that the grand passion behind her poems (“Wild nightsâ€”Wild nights! Were I with thee”) must have had a commensurate inspiration, whether imaginary, superhuman, or divine. Evidence that Dickinson’s love life was fairly ordinary, with ordinary temptations and disappointments, doesn’t quite fit the bill. Her exile on Main Street has seemed a necessary part of the Dickinson myth, so necessary, indeed, that contrary informationâ€”which happens to have been piling up latelyâ€”has often been discounted or ignored.
If there’s a surprise in all this, it’s an ordinary one. It turns out that Emily Dickinson had the kind of early romantic entanglement and disappointment that so many young people have. They find someone congenial; they exchange gifts and promises; their parents intervene for various acknowledged and unacknowledged reasons. If such ordinariness seems somehow beneath the dignity of one of our supreme poets, that’s probably why even this latest challenge to the image of isolated Emily has gotten so little attention. Alas, there’s nothing mysterious or mystical here except what Emily Dickinson made, in her extraordinary poems, of her all-too-human disappointment.
Read all the scintillating details at Slate.