Nevertheless, She Persisted: Emily Dickinson

“There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self and not somebody else.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ca. 1873.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Here’s the thing.

We simultaneously know everything about Emily Dickinson, and nothing about Emily Dickinson.

We know that she withdrew completely from the world …except, you know, when she wrote hundreds of letters, and when she sent boxes of her homemade chocolate caramels to friends, family, and neighbors, and when she lowered baskets full of cookies and gingerbread for the neighborhood children out of the window in her second floor bedroom, where she spent most of her time in seclusion.

We know that her heart was broken. By a man. Or a series of men.

Unless, of course, she was gay.

Or unless she preferred being alone, and never had a romantic relationship.

She was plain. Unless she was beautiful.

All the things we know. And yet don’t know.

That white dress she always wore. (Unless she didn’t.)

Her only known photograph.

Except for maybe this photo, which could be her.

Um … or this one?

Or this photo, which is almost certainly, definitely, positively not her … unless it is, which it might be.

Her green thumb.

Her famous recipe for a truly gargantuan cake.

Her recipe for cookies –maybe the ones she made for the neighborhood children (added bonus: the recipe card has a poem written on the back).

The color of her eyes.

And for the things we don’t know, there have been plenty of opportunities for people to fill in the blanks, or to use the outlines of Emily Dickinson’s life to create … other things.

The Broadway play.

The movie.

The murder mystery.

The doll.

The finger puppet.

The candle.

The fact that you can sing nearly all of her poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Or the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Your choice, really.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for anything, however unlikely, that brings Emily Dickinson to a wider audience. (I’m looking forward to the day when there’s an Emily Dickinson action figure, and I’ll be the first one in line to buy it.)

It’s just that, in the end, what we truly know of Emily Dickinson is … her poetry.

Isn’t that all we need?

The Heart is the Capital of the Mind —
The Mind is a single State —
The Heart and the Mind together make
A single Continent —

One — is the Population —
Numerous enough —
This ecstatic Nation
Seek — it is Yourself.




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