The reclusive American poet emerges vividly in an imaginative examination of her life.
The subject of many biographies, critical studies, and a one-woman show, as well as the protagonist of several novels, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has remained an enigmatic figure: a shy wraith, dressed in white, refusing to allow publication of her poems—nearly 2,000, discovered after her death. Guggenheim fellow Ackmann (Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, 2010, etc.), who has taught a Dickinson seminar at Mount Holyoke College, persuasively counters that view with a fresh approach to Dickinson’s life and work. Focusing on 10 turning points, she creates in each chapter “a snapshot” of that moment “with the past in dissolve like a multiple exposure.” Drawing largely on Dickinson’s poems and letters, the author portrays the young Emily, surrounded by family, corresponding with friends, growing into self-awareness of her creativity. “She wanted to understand the particles of moments that others could not see or grasped with a faith she found too easy,” writes Ackmann. When she was pressed about her religious conviction, Dickinson admitted doubt: “I both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour.” Her poetry, though, probed the ineffable, aiming for “evanescence like the brilliance of lightning, the flash of truth, or a transport so swift it felt like flight.” By the time Dickinson boldly sent four poems to Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she was composing nearly a verse a day: “My business is to sing,” she announced. Even more than her sister-in-law, among the few with whom Dickinson shared her poems, Higginson recognized, admired, and nurtured Dickinson’s “strange power.” Perhaps, he wrote to her, “if I could once take you by the hand I might be something to you.” After eight years of corresponding, when they finally met, Dickinson effusively confided in him intimate details about her family, poetry, and dreams. Afterward, she felt “elated, emboldened, and slightly off-kilter.” As for Higginson, her intellectual intensity exhausted him.
Radiant prose, palpable descriptions, and deep empathy for the poet’s sensibility make this biography extraordinary.