During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson was regarded as a rare and strange creature by some of her biggest supporters. Others knew her as the brilliant recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts, who always wore white. History has repeated the view of Dickinson as a meek, inscrutable genius.
That view is incorrect, says Martha Ackmann, author of “These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.” “The conceit for this book – its focus on ten pivotal moments – originated in my teaching,” she explains in the author’s note. For nearly two decades, Ackmann taught a class at the Dickinson homestead, in the very space where the poet wrote. “Sitting around that seminar table, the students demonstrated that they understood Dickinson’s life and work more deeply when our conversation centered on an important moment in the poet’s life.”
Ackmann conducted extensive research and relied on Dickinson’s letters to create a sense of her interior life: “For America’s most enigmatic and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson left a trail of clues.” Ackmann weaves those clues together beautifully in prose that reads like page-turning fiction.
The opening vignette lays the groundwork and presents the first of many surprises about Dickinson. “Emily loved Sundays,” Ackmann writes, because she enjoyed the visits of friends and family who stopped by in the afternoon, and in the evening she attended Mr. Woodman’s Singing School – “everything about music enthralled her.” What Dickinson did not enjoy was attending church. On Sunday, Aug. 3, 1845, at age 14, she stayed home and wrote a letter to her friend Abiah Root. “Her words would be nothing so bold as a manifesto or even a declaration: they would be quieter, but no less convincing. Emily wanted to tell her friend that she could see her future and was ready for the days before her.”
The nine vignettes that follow develop and reinforce the idea that Dickinson was ambitious throughout her life and took a long view of her writing. Poetry would sustain and define her, she believed, despite life’s trials or what others thought of her need for quiet contemplation.
Ackmann’s prose is rich and intricate as she describes the poet’s experience at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (where she studied for 10 months), relationships that shaped her life and poems over the years, her distress about the Civil War, and multiple changes and losses. She captures the sights and sounds Dickinson experienced, as well as her daily duties and the simple pleasures that brightened her days, such as her love of botany and Carlo, her big dog. Ackmann builds slowly toward crucial moments and realizations, providing background and context along the way. She also includes wonderful insights about Dickinson’s artistic evolution.
By Section 6, when Dickinson establishes a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an esteemed critic and crusader for women’s rights, she is “singing” – her term for writing poetry – every day. Despite that pace, Ackmann notes that Dickinson’s work is taut, intentional, and controlled. “In many poems, a more forceful first-person voice emerged, as if she were squaring her shoulders and announcing who she was and what she believed. Often she presented herself as an outsider, especially when writing about religion, and in many poems she wore nonconformity as a badge of honor and insignificance a point of praise.”
Dickinson’s interactions with Higginson, through letters and later two meetings at her family’s home, influenced her thoughts about her work, even when she ignored his suggestions. Such was the case when he questioned her use of pronouns in one poem. “‘When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse,’ she declared, ‘it does not mean – me – but a supposed person.’ It was one of the most emphatic comments of her life.”
Several of Dickinson’s pieces were published anonymously during her lifetime, likely without her knowledge. Both Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood friend who became an accomplished writer and poet, urged her to publish a book of poems. She refused. “Her devotion was to the work itself, not the world,” Ackmann states. “It was not so much that Emily didn’t believe in publishing. She didn’t want to engage in the advertising that went along with it.”
Thus, the acclaim she deserved didn’t come until after her death in 1886. Her sister Lavinia found Emily’s cache of poems and did “not have the heart to burn them.” A few years later, Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd – the wife of an Amherst professor – brought hundreds of her verses to a publisher.
“These Fevered Days” is a wonderful biography that illustrates the complexity of Dickinson’s life, even though she rarely left the house. Her white dresses were an outward sign of her determination to live on her own terms. Ackmann’s distinctive approach achieves something similar, allowing readers to discover Dickinson for themselves.