I’ve never been a big fan of Emily Dickinson, so I’m not sure why this newly discovered photograph of her has been on my mind since I stumbled across it a few days ago. I’ve taught her poetry for years (she is a lot of fun to teach because of all that easy-to-mark meter and slant rhyme), and not without interest, but I’d never really sat down and thought about her much past what I was supposed to know as a teacher and writer. She’s part of the laundry list of writers every American is supposed to know and admire, along with Whitman, Emerson, O’Connor, Steinbeck, etc.
I suppose I stayed away, too, because I understood that dubious scholars had tried to make a lesbian out of her. Even I know that trying to make a lesbian out of a long dead historical figure is fruitless. Retro-fitting language and identity seems clumsy and useless, a shorthand put in place to avoid the more arduous process of understanding how the complexities of homosocial human relationships worked back then. For what it’s worth, historical fiction often strikes me as just as arbitrarily translative, unless it’s got some awesome time travel element to it (Kindred, Octavia Butler).
When I was afraid to come out in small town Texas, the language around lesbian identity was different (nonexistent in some cases). Hushed and angry, couched in suspicion or defiance, the language was ours alone. Now, 20 short years later, it’s a whole different ballgame. Even the most sheltered closet case can now get to the free internet at a public library, look up the word “dyke,” and see that it’s been reclaimed by proud butches and queers all over America. 20 years can do this. 160 years? We can guess, but I really don’t believe we could have any fucking clue what was going on 100 years ago in the hearts of those who dared not speak the truth.
Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 The Riddle of Emily Dickinson makes a valiant attempt to read those very hearts, but Patterson has woefully little evidence to support her claims. Her 400 page tome angered and alienated the very community she sought to embolden, and failed to capture the imaginations of the straight fan (who did wish to know more about Dickinson – just not that). Bishop’s assertion that literary biographies too reliant upon Victorian sentimentality (the very same that Dickinson’s lesser works fall prey to) make for tawdry, insipid reading is one with which I’d generally agree.
However, the raw lines of loss and pain that are threaded through Emily’s letters to Kate had a surprising effect on my skeptical, somewhat embittered heart. I stared at the new photo. I thumbed through my copy of selected poems and letters. I read these lines: “Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart? Had not its heart been torn enough but you must send your shred?” and promptly succumbed to my own fervent wish that they might, in fact, just be in love.
I don’t know how this happened – I’m afraid that in a month or so I might just as likely assert that The Notebook deserved an academy award.