Art Review: ‘I’m Nobody’? Not a Chance, Emily Dickinson


As the daughter of a lawyer-politician — her father, Edward, was elected to the United States Congress in 1853 — and a lifelong consumer of newspapers and periodicals, Dickinson had a good sense of what was happening in the world. She went to grammar school, and was a bookworm, but had friends and a poised, dry sense of humor, as some teasing early letters to her brother suggests.

In 1847, she spent a year as a boarding student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, her one stint in higher education. And from that time came what many devotees will consider the exhibition’s star attraction: the much-reproduced daguerreotype of the 16-year-old Dickinson with her pale skin and wide-spaced eyes. It’s another rare visitant — it last left home at Amherst College in 1986 — and it’s almost a shock to see how small it is: pocket-size, like a holy card or a talisman.

Dickinson said that she liked Mount Holyoke, but I don’t know. It had its stresses. Part of the curriculum was religious, with students expected to make a profession of faith before graduating. The school informally divided potential candidates into three categories: those who would readily comply; those who would needed some persuasion; and “No-Hopers,” to whom they paid special attention. Dickinson, who had developed an allergy to orthodoxy, was a No-Hoper, and proud.

It’s important, in presenting a revisionist view of her, especially a normalizing one, to note that from the start, resistance was her natural mode, and one that grew increasingly pronounced, and eventually acute. The end of her schooling signaled the start of a new phase of her life. She was again at home and beginning to work in a serious way on poetry, which required concentration and a degree of isolation: a commitment, the willingness, I guess you could say, to make a vow.

I think it wasn’t easy. The 1850s were a period of personal tumult. Her school friends had dispersed. Several had married. Among them was Susan Gilbert, with whom she had forged a tight emotional and intellectual bond, and who she relied on as a first reader and editor of her poetry. In 1856, Gilbert — there’s a picture of her here — married Austin and lived with him in the house next door to the family homestead.

By 1858, Dickinson had accumulated enough poems to begin collecting them in handwritten, thread-bound booklets known as fascicles. And from around this time comes what is thought to be another portrait, a daguerreotype that surfaced in 2012 and is on first-time public view at the Morgan. It’s a portrait of two seated women, the one on the left tentatively identified as Dickinson; the other one as her friend, and possible romantic partner, Kate Scott Turner.

In the show, it’s placed side by side with the earlier, authenticated photograph. The Dickinsons in each, with their candid, unguarded gaze, share a clear, if inconclusive, resemblance. And her pose in the dual portrait is extremely moving. Far from being the timid, removed figure of myth, she looks directly at the camera and reaches, in a half-embrace, to touch the back of her friend.

Much of Dickinson’s poetry from this time has an experimental, incendiary flair; images of combat and violence occur. It’s as if she were experiencing the Civil War before it happened. And when it did happen, her production soared. Oddly, in the midst of the conflict, war was rarely her active theme. But like Walt Whitman, who began working as the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse in a military hospital in Washington, Dickinson seems to have been caught up in the emergency-room atmosphere that gripped the nation, a mood probably not entirely different from the one found in a divided America now.

Whitman was permanently shaped by the war and its waste. Whether Dickinson was, I don’t know. But when it was over, her life changed. She began to withdraw. Communication was through writing: letters as intricately composed as puzzles, notes as brief as tweets, poems sent out like gifts. The primary relics from this time forward are her manuscripts of poems. Nearly 1,800 survive; 24 examples are in the show, organized by Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College, and Carolyn Vega, assistant curator in the Morgan’s department of literary and historical manuscripts.

The manuscripts come with questions of legibility. Dickinson’s penmanship grew eccentric over time, as did her compositional methods. Transcribing her work has become a complex science, particularly in the matter of rendering the alternative phrases and words she included in drafts. It was as if she were deliberately creating poems that demanded reader participation, poems that could be endlessly rewritten. And maybe as her conviction grew that she would always be her own best audience, she turned poems into art objects, sculptures and pictures: A draft of a poem that begins “The way hope builds his house” is composed on a bit of paper — an envelope flap? — shaped like a house.

In the show’s catalog, aptly titled “The Networked Recluse: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson,” the art historian Marta Werner analyzes the visual nature of the manuscripts. Yet what matters most in Dickinson is the element most easily passed over in an exhibition: words. And they warn us, whenever we focus on them, against trying to normalize Dickinson, against trying to make her acceptable and explicable.

She was an outsider, and as such a disrupter. Was she a feminist? Not in the modern sense, though an idea of female power as a protean force was central to her thinking, as it was to the writers she loved: Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Central, too, was her disdain for the false power of churches, fathers, governments, God, ego. Even her most trivial-seeming poems, like the one for which the show is named, slice away at that power:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

This little anthem to outsider solidarity, delivered with a gender-neutral lift, is both cute and furious, a joke and a call to arms. Some of its references translate neatly into the present of ethical bogs, Pepe the Frog, a new Somebody-in-Chief. Its paranoia is of the moment, too, for many with a grain of Otherness in their makeup. Dickinson did, as a woman who said no to a culture that wanted her to be a wife, a mother, a social creature on its terms, when she had other plans. And to pursue them she assumed the guise of a Nobody: invisible, independent, self-nurturing, ignoring the knock on the door.

The fringe for her was a position of strength, not deprivation. This truth should not be lost in the rebranding campaigns periodically conducted on her behalf. Nor should it be forgotten that defending difference took a lifelong fight, one which she was willing and able — supremely able — to wage.

How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I’d shoot the human race
And then to glory run!

That’s a revolutionary talking. And her voice carries, subaudibly explosive, through this show.

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