Sitting at Emily’s Desk

Martha Ackmann taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson for nearly two decades at Mt. Holyoke College. The seminar took place in the poet’s home, The Homestead, located in near the college in Amherst, Massachusetts. As Ackmann describes it, the class took place on the 2nd floor of the house in a bedroom across the hall from Emily’s own bedroom, around a smallish table that could only accommodate ten students at a time. What an experience to study the poet’s work in the place where she wrote it! And not only that, they had the run of the house during the class, while the house was closed to visitors. Ackmann says the class was easy to to teach: “The walls did everything.” She describes teaching one particular poem – “There’s a certain Slant of light” – and timing it to have the students read it on a November day when she knew the angle of light in the poet’s bedroom would be as she described it in the poem.

Ackmann is very familiar with The Homestead, having taught there for 20 years and having lived in the area for 40. She talked about her experience when she joined us on the evening of May 6 for a talk about her new book, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.  She told a story about how she was there when they were renovating Dickinson’s bedroom and, when they removed the molding around a door, they discovered layers of wallpaper underneath. Experts were called in and they got down to the oldest layer and dated it around 1880, during Dickinson’s final years. They then replicated the pattern and repapered the room. Amazing, isn’t it? That wallpaper is the design used on the cover of Ackmann’s book and it can also be seen in the photo above. She told us how the previous wallpaper was more monochromatic, which went along with the myth that Dickinson was sterile and austere. The walls are now much more vibrant and reflect the poet’s energy!

These Fevered Days tells, in ten chapters, of ten pivotal days in the life of Emily Dickinson. Ackmann told attendees at our event about how she asked friends and Dickinson scholars what their top ten moments would be, and then chose her own, including a day in Dickinson’s youth when she wrote that “all things are ready,” the time in her 20s when she decided she wanted to be distinguished in her life, and all the way through to the day of her death.

Ackmann worked hard and did tremendous research to make the town and the world around Dickinson come alive in her storytelling, from the weather to the sights and sounds of Amherst in the poet’s time. When Dickinson returned from a trip to Cambridge to treat eye trouble, she went to the attic of her house to read Shakespeare aloud. To tell this story, Ackmann got permission to go to the attic of The Homestead and there she too read Shakespeare aloud so she could hear how it sounded in that space. And, while writing, she put a card table in Dickinson’s room so she could watch the light and see the view from the windows under different conditions. Ackmann mentioned how Hemingway spoke of writing being like an iceberg: the reader only sees the tip, but there is much more underneath. What is underneath in this book is the author’s vast research. 

So much is challenging about studying Dickinson’s work, which is comprised of nearly 2000 poems she wrote that were not published during her lifetime, poems with no titles and no dates. But they are poems that are rich in image and imagination, poems that understand the world even if their author was a recluse who traveled and socialized very little (although she had many dear friends and family members and a wide circle of correspondents). It was likely her choice to withdraw from society that enabled her to dwell in her imagination and devote her energies to her poetry.

Ackmann’s book is a beautiful piece of storytelling that brings us vividly into the poet’s life, engages us with her story, and deepens our understanding of her poetry and her primacy among American poets. Whether you already know a great deal about Dickinson and her work, or you are a newcomer, this is a valuable book to read. As Publishers Weekly says, it is “…a remarkably refreshing account of one of America’s finest poets,” and Kirkus tells us: “…the reclusive American poet emerges vividly in an imaginative examination of her life.”

Buy the book HERE

Author: Lynn Rosen

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