Feminist theory and queer studies have contributed to reshaping her personality profile. A shy, passive, recessive figure has been transformed into an active, mettlesome, gender-challenging presence, a poet in control of her art and environment, and fully conscious of the mechanics of personal myth. True, the distance between fact and fiction remains hazy, with the perky Belle of Amherst on one end of the spectrum and an agoraphobic basket case on the other. The portrait of Dickinson as a sexually precocious schoolgirl in the picaresque Charyn novel is almost total fantasy with a few grains of truth.
The Dickinson I first knew and grew up with also came from a pair of books.
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Published in , it consisted of brief, chronologically ordered, determinedly upbeat biographies of popular writers from Clement Clarke Moore to Carl Sandburg with Dickinson right in the middle. And a very s Dickinson this was, starting with the portrait used as an illustration. Only one verified photograph of Dickinson exists, a daguerreotype made when she was 16 or It shows a slender girl in a dark, drop-shoulder dress that left her neck bare.
Her hair is pulled back from her large pale face.
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Her exceptionally wide-set eyes look, without particular focus, straight ahead. Her lips are slightly parted. Dickinson now wore a white dress with a frothy neck-covering lace collar. She had been given a fluffed-out girlish hairdo and her facial features had been softened. This altered image dated back to And it was of a piece with changes made to the poetry by its editors, who normalized her expressive punctuation, smoothed her rhythms and held back certain types of poems, notably those angry or erotic in content.
Her life of Dickinson was the story of a well-bred young woman who, after a single disappointment in love, took the genteel option of retiring to her home, where she wrote, raised flowers, addressed a Calvinist deity and died content with her lot. That Dickinson was a useful figure to two American eras with much in common. In the s a rich nation unnerved by urbanism, immigration and racial violence was looking back with nostalgia for a simpler, whiter, rural version of itself. Dickinson, sold as a kind of village folk figure whose withdrawal was a rejection of the modern world, became a spokeswoman for that past.
She played a related role in the cold war years. As paranoia about Communism and nuclear destruction grew in lockstep with expanding American might, the country again dreamed up a yesterday, this one peopled by God-fearing pioneers. Dickinson, the nunlike individualist, again filled the bill. View all New York Times newsletters.
My town library acquired a copy, and I pored over it.
At her most extreme, she was a terrorist:. Had I a mighty gun. My hero had appeared. I took the book home and was stunned by what I read. But she proposed that the love object was a woman. The revelation, true or not, was explosive for a teenager who knew he was gay and was still isolated in that knowledge.
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She spoke as a woman, a man, a little girl, a little boy, a lover active and passive. Suddenly she was throwing out a power-of-example lifeline.
Not only was she an outsider, she was also, so it seemed, an outlaw, on the margins, where I felt I was too. Patterson, who died in the , took a lot of heat for her book. Scholars demolished its thesis; critics scorned its True Romance style. But the real problem, I suspect, was that no one in that blacklisting era wanted to hear about same-sex love, particularly in connection with a writer enshrined as an American Classic.
Various men have been assigned a heartthrob role: from village beaus to an elderly family friend. But why do we so badly need to have this poet paired off with someone? Why do we need to make a failure in love — and because Dickinson was single, failure is always assumed — the explanation for her art? I never saw it that way. From the start I thought of her Homestead bedroom as an empowerment zone.
She knew the work she wanted to do; there were serious odds against her doing it, social and personal.
At some point she realized, emphatically, that she had to create a place of absolute concentration, where no distractions stood between her and her work, where no talk interfered with the new language she was inventing; where she could ignore the knock on the door, refuse the callers, control access. She was well aware that she was putting herself outside the range of normality.
But I never had the impression that she yearned to be inside it. Just the opposite. Some people who encountered her in person found her challenging and demanding company. She is that way as a writer too.
She insists on having conversations about subjects most of us steer clear of. Death, for example. She has been described as morbid, obsessed with mortality.
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