“The playthings of her life…”: Upon the Occasion of Emily Dickinson’s Birthday

a fictional ad for "The EMily Dickinson Action Figure," along with descriptions of (fictional) available accessories
Kung fu grip optional.

Usually, I celebrate Emily Dickinson’s birthday by making her coconut cake recipe, or, you know, by putting on a white dress, sequestering myself in my study, and writing short, intense poems reflecting my views on nature, love, and the human soul.

(Well, okay, not that second thing so much, but the coconut cake is fantastic.)

But this year, the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA announced they were celebrating the poet’s birthday by inviting the public to send in tributes to, and thoughts about, Dickinson via postcards, I thought back to something I wrote on this blog a couple of years ago:

“…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.)”

In that post, I mused about how Dickinson –because she was socially reclusive– is often reduced to overly simplistic components. People glom onto the commonly known facts about her life, and widely known imagery from her poems, but don’t delve much further. (One delightful exception to this: the film Wild Nights with Emily, which did both, with an affecting and surprising mixture of broad humor and aching sensitivity.)

Like everything else these days, Emily Dickinson is subject to commodification and marketing.  I’m absolutely not immune to the appeal of that, and come to think of it, it’s really nothing new. Dickinson is the most famous student to have attended my alma mater, and as I was applying to and attending college, their marketing campaign prominently featured one of her poems, to the point where I fear my sister students and I made copious fun of it.

In short, I fret about Dickinson’s being reduced and commodfied to her most basic elements, and yet I would completely love to own an Emily Dickinson action figure.

This illustration — a slightly different and improved version of the postcard I sent to the Emily Dickinson Museum — based on the ads from 1970s comic books, reflects my ambivalence on the topic — and serves as a wish for the happiest of birthdays to Miss Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts.

I like to imagine that she had a terrific sense of humor.



–“The playthings of her life

–“one white dress

–“buzzing fly

–“fainting robin

–Carlo the Wonder Dog; more on Carlo himself here

Mount Holyoke pennant

–“glass of sherry that the guest leaves”

–“I’m nobody” nametag

–Microscope (“prudent in an Emergency!“)

–Emily’s Adventure Frigate


Mighty Zeo 2 and BadaBoom fonts courtesy Blambot Comic Fonts and Lettering.


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