Everybody loves ... Emily Dickinson

From billboards to mugs, the poet is more visible than ever

She is America's most famous reclusive poet. And she's giving Cher and Madonna some competition in the pop-culture and sartorial-awards game.

At the edge of a new century, the world finds itself once more in the grip of a full-blown love affair with Emily Dickinson.

More than a hundred years ago, Dickinson - who legend says always wore a white dress - sat at her little writing desk, penning some 2,000 gem-like poems in her bedroom on the second floor of her family home here, across the street from Amherst College.

"Miss Emily" as neighbors knew her, shunned the world, rarely setting foot off family property. Only 10 of her poems are known to have been published before her passing. Recognition hit once the rest were published in the 1890s, fame surging in the 1930s and 1950s.

Today, she's more visible than ever. Her words appear on tea bags and greeting cards; her image on T-shirts and mugs. Scholars convene to debate her life and artists write plays about her. Dozens of new songs use her poems. She pops up in paperbacks and a recent movie. Oh, and a scholarly work is just out.

"She's become quite the movie star," says Lesley Dill, a New York artist who took Dickinson poetry and put it on billboards in California, Florida, and Massachusetts. One featured a hand with flowers sprouting at the wrist and Dickinson's words: "Estranged from Beauty - none can be -/ For Beauty is Infinity -"

Dress reception

Her clothes haven't been forgotten, either. On a recent winter evening at Dickinson's 19th-century homestead, appreciators gathered to welcome a new $5,000 reproduction of the poet's famous white dress. Amherst College, which owns the home, helped pay for it.

"I've never been to a reception for a dress before," whispered one visitor to another, looking back and forth at the original and the very light vanilla-colored reproduction that had to be hand-sewn from custom-made cloth.

Scholars say Dickinson probably wore white frequently, if not all the time, in her later years. Yet her reasons for doing so remain unknown. This and other mysteries about her make her an enigmatic figure that continues to fascinate. But Dickinson's enduring allure lies in her words.

"I think Dickinson is amazingly contemporary because she skews the world - she's austere, ragged, and quite raw actually," Ms. Dill says. "Yes, she did those birds and bees poems, but there's something tough and gritty about her too that appeals in this era."

Dickinson is proving to be a modern muse for artists of all kinds, who are promoting the poet to a new generation.

One local song writer has used her poems as lyrics for dozens of new songs. William Luce's one-woman play "The Belle of Amherst," performed regularly since the 1970s, has helped popularize the lead character. And others, like the 1995 "Emily Unplugged," take a more radical view, depicting her as "an angst-ridden teenager listening to grunge rock," Kate Nugent, the play's co-author, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette recently.

Scholarly momentum

Academic interest in the Amherst poet is big and getting bigger worldwide as scholarship grows. Nowhere is this more evident than in western Massachusetts where she went to college and later quietly wrote alone at home about life, death, love, and pain with few the wiser.

In August, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley hosted a conference of the Emily Dickinson International Society, with more than 150 scholars from around the world meeting to debate such issues as why the poet chose to remain aloof - and whether or not she had a lover.

"Dickinson is front and center in any American literature class across the country," says Martha Ackmann, who teaches a course on Dickinson at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson's alma mater. Her class met this month for the last time this semester seated on the floor of Dickinson's bedroom at the Amherst home, reading their favorites to let the poet "have the last word," she says.

"We claim her as our own," a Mt. Holyoke spokesman says, referring to the gentle rivalry with Amherst College.

But Dickinson also pops up in many literature courses at Amherst. And the school in recent years has devoted energy and dollars to memorializing the celebrity poet, whose father was a school officer. It held a 1997 showing of artists inspired by Dickinson. The college also hired a full-time curator to make the homestead a full-time museum.

It caters to school groups and sightseers who just wander in off the nearby highway. And for some of those, Dickinson's bedroom and her dress - especially the dress - are a big deal.

"We often get women coming here who played the role of 'the Belle' [in Luce's play] and they always linger just a little longer ... and just stare at the dress," says curator Cindy Dickinson, who coincidentally shares the poet's name. "There's just something about that white outfit."

Ruth Owen Jones, a former guide at the homestead, agrees there is a pilgrimage. "They want to touch the dress - and I even had one who wanted desperately to put it on," she says. But for those who want to get close to her, there's a solution.

Just down the street, at A.J. Hastings Inc., a local shop, Emily Dickinson dolls are for sale, part of a "Brainy Beanies" series. One key feature diverges, however: her dress is blue.

Yet the real reason a 19th-century recluse spans the century so effortlessly is her enigmatic quality. Though her works have been scoured by scholars, they remain open to interpretation because so little is known for certain about her life and motives. Also, her tight little poems lend themselves to a sound-bite age, yet somehow plumb the depths: " 'Hope' is the thing with feathers -/ That perches in the soul -/ And sings the tune without the words -/ And never stops - at all -"

Kate Flewelling, a senior majoring in history at Mt. Holyoke who took Ms. Ackmann's course says for her the poems are always fresh. "I've probably read at least 400 of her poems," she says. "But I'm never quite done discovering her. I'll read those later in my life - like the one about shifting from being a girl to being a woman - and I know that poem will have a different meaning for me."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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