Guest Blogger Christine Byl | Investigating Emily

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“Guess what, Auntie C?” my niece tells me on the phone. “My class visited Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst! We saw her room—her bed and her desk and everything. It was amazing.

Tamar is 13, an avid reader, and one of my favorite people. I ask her if she’ll go again with me when we visit at Thanksgiving. I’d heard of the Dickinson house museum, but never realized it was only 20 minutes from my sister’s house. Tamar agrees, I have to see it.

On the drive to the museum a month later, Tamar talks to me animatedly, the way kids from big families do when they get one-on-one time with their adults. “Aurelia and I have this fantasy,” Tamar says. She and her best friend made up an imaginary game that entails time travel back to investigate past mysteries, with elaborate rules (“If we go back to a time when we were alive, we have to be careful not to change things, but if we go back to a time before we were alive, we are ghosts and we just watch or take notes to bring back for proof”). Tamar dreamed up the game when wondering what happened to Theodosia Burr (of Hamilton fame), Aaron Burr’s bright, feminist daughter who mysteriously disappeared at sea. Was it pirates? A shipwreck? Why was the boat never found?

Tamar is astute in explaining the allure of the overlooked: “You know, lots of interesting things happen in history that nobody noticed if they weren’t paying attention to certain people.” Along with Theodosia, Lewis & Clark and Pocahontas garner high curiosity. It’s no stretch for me to connect this game with one of her other imaginings, a private eye persona named Francis Hot Pretzel the 3rd. We share a love for Harriet the Spy, and Tamar knows she can count on me to assign cases to Francis at family reunions (“Who ate the last piece of apple pie?”) or over the phone (“Find out if your Mama already has a copy of a book I want to give her for her birthday.”)

In the car, I note the overlap. “So, Tamar, this is reminding me a bit of Francis Hot Pretzel.”

“Yep,” she confirms, at once matter-of-fact and childlike. “It’s kind of like a historical detective.”

We arrive at the Dickinson museum in time to join a guided tour of the Homestead, where Emily spent her childhood and later adult years. The docent is a cheerful, dramatic college student whose rapt tenderness for Emily Dickinson is palpable. She peppers her tour with fragments of poems, and anecdotes about the poet culled from her extensive letters. For example, Dickinson had a close and playful relationship with her nieces and nephews (Tamar and I arch our eyebrows at each other meaningfully), who called her “Uncle Emily” because of her penchant for gardens, walks, and pranks over housekeeping and entertaining. “I am of the fields, you know,” Dickinson wrote to her friend and sister-in-law, Susan, a renowned hostess, “while quite at home with the dandelion, make but a sorry figure in a drawing room.”

Tamar and I delight at frequent evidence of Emily’s kindred spirit-ness. We are both eldest sisters, the most introverted sibling in boisterous families, and understand Emily’s tendency to retreat from large gatherings. From college, she wrote to her sister, “Almost all the girls went [to a party], and I enjoyed the solitude, finally.” Tamar and I both love animals, and afterward we agree that Emily’s phrase describing her beloved Newfoundland—“my shaggy ally”—is henceforth the best way to refer to a dog.

When we reach Emily’s bedroom on the top floor of the house, we are back in time. The southwest corner room is sunny and sparely furnished, with a washstand, bureau, woodstove, and her actual bed and writing desk, the latter positioned below a window facing the great lawn. Despite her aversion to homemaking, Emily was a talented baker, the docent tells us, and often lowered a basket of her fresh gingerbread out the windows to the playing children below; other adults had forbidden them from ruining their supper. (Emily took effusive pride in her baking, once writing in a letter that she was “pleased that the gingerbread triumphed.”)

In the middle of the bedroom, a replica of the iconic white housedress stands propped up as if on a human form. Hovering between the foot of the bed and the desk, it suggests Emily’s presence at the cusp of wake and write. I can almost see her crouching to jot a line at the tiny desk—a small one, the docent says, enabling her to move it around the room easily. I imagine her positioning the desk to take advantage of a certain angle of sun or breeze.

Although Dickinson is famously known as a recluse, her bedroom gestures toward connection. Framed pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hang on the wall corner near her desk. A large portrait of her dear friend and romantic interest, Judge Otis Lord, gazes out from above the washstand, where a mirror might hang. Though they never married and no real affair is confirmed, his portrait’s prominent position would have ensured daily eye contact when Emily lifted her face from washing. On the bureau sits a small framed photo of her nephew, Gib, who died at age 8 of typhoid fever, one of the great losses of her life. His likeness connotes the presence of his siblings on the lawn awaiting their lowered treats. Amidst all these loved and admired ones, Emily’s life feels large.

Our tour moves to the Evergreen house across the lawn, a bigger, darker, more ornate home (spooky, says Tamar) that belonged to Emily’s brother Austin and his wife, the aforementioned Sarah, a gracious entertainer. We stand in an art-lined drawing room that hosted social whirls, and though Emily rarely attended, the docent tells us that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe visited, along with Francis Hodgson Burnett. Her name prompts more meaningful glances between Tamar and me; we both love The Secret Garden.

The docent concludes the tour in the dim front hallway with the end of Emily Dickinson’s life. She describes the further contracting of Emily’s final two years, as she retreated even from her loved ones and correspondents. Historians posit different explanations for this diminishment, including failing health; a social or physical trauma (“I had a terror—I could tell to none,” she wrote); and deep grief at the loss of many of her significants, including her parents, Gib, and Judge Lord. Dickinson wrote around that time, “The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” Our docent finally comes up short for words, and wistfully says, “We may never know why she retreated from the world.” Her words prick Tamar’s detective ears—we may never know—and I watch her face register a new mystery.

Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55, leaving behind nearly 1800 poems and fragments, as well as around a thousand letters. Most were never published during her lifetime, only a few anonymously. (“Publication is the auction of the mind,” she wrote.) Still, Dickinson is widely considered one of poetry’s great early innovators. She died of health complications, perhaps from high blood pressure, or a kidney disease; the docent describes the end of Emily’s life as tenderly as if reliving the loss of a close friend. Our small group stands quietly for a few moments in the gloomy foyer, contemplating a remarkable life. Then Tamar and I depart into bright sunlight and walk back across the lawn.

“I could stay here for another couple of hours,” I say.

Tamar’s words follow mine fast—“I wish I could spend the night here.” We imagine what we’d see in those rooms, overhear at the parties. What it would be like to go back to Emily’s time, invisible, listening for answers.

“I’d love to stand in her room and watch what she does, like if she scribbles down those little notes at her desk,” Tamar says.

“Or if she stands up from writing and looks out the window,” I say, projecting my own distractible process, sometimes grounded by an outward gaze.

“Yeah, maybe at the nieces and nephews,” Tamar says.

After, as we rejoin the rest of the family in Amherst, I feel a knotted excitement in my chest. A writerly malaise has weighed me down for months as I struggle with a late draft of a novel, feeling impatient at the process even while I crave more unbroken time to invest in it. I’ve felt aesthetically adrift, isolated and a bit at a loss for why—even whether—I’m a writer at all.

Now, though, walking in the cemetery to visit Emily Dickinson’s grave, the kids sprint along the path ahead and I feel that heaviness lift, as imperceptibly but sure as morning fog off a body of cold water—rising, growing indistinct, until it’s hard to remember it was there at all. I’m not exactly sure why. The novel remains resolutely unfinished, the months ahead full of travel and work and no time at the desk, the needling self-doubt never entirely quelled.

Still, after the past few hours in the company of a driven, eccentric writer whose private compositions would change the face of American poetry and my vibrant young niece whose thirst for words and hunger for open questions will carry her into far worlds, I am reminded what I love about the writing life. The messy, never-finished quest to tell it slant. The cast of characters united toward that end—from Alexander Hamilton to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harriet the Spy, George Eliot to the ardent docent. I am reminded that the heart of literature, and indeed, all the stories of our past, is in the end a mystery.

Some days invigorating, some days mundane, being a writer is mostly quite simple: we follow the trails left by other probing minds, the rhythm of words, and the visceral clues littering the physical world—a white dress, a crumbling scrap of envelope, treats in a wicker basket. Across a century or two, I taste the triumph of gingerbread.

This month’s guest blogger Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train StoriesCrazyhorse & Brevity, among other journals & anthologies. A recipient of grants from the Rasmuson Foundation & Alaska State Council on the Arts, she teaches classes on subjects from haibun to chainsaw mechanics. Christine lives in Interior Alaska where she is at work on a novel.

2 Comments on “Guest Blogger Christine Byl | Investigating Emily”

  1. There’s a lovely new (2016) film about Dickinson’s life, called “A Quiet Passion.” I saw it recently and recommend it.

  2. This is a wonderful piece. I have a small cookbook that is published by the ED House, and have several times made her Black Cake for Christmas. (It’s a Caribbean-style fruitcake.) I need to make her Coconut Cake next; the Black Cake is extremely tasty. I grew up in MA but never made it to Amherst. More’s the pity! ED was a marvelous poet…is still a marvelous poet.

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