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GoNOMAD Book Excerpt:

A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England

By Robert Todd Felton

This work examines the major figures of the Transcendentalist movement and explores the places that inspired them. Beginning with Transcendentalism’s birth in Boston and Cambridge, the book charts the development of a movement that revolutionized American ideas about the artistic, spiritual, and natural worlds. The following excerpt is from the chapter on Amherst.

Amherst’s recollections of its most famous Transcendentalist seeker are tantalizing and mysterious: the reclusive poet in her white dress tending her gardens; neighbors catching no more than a glimpse of the ghostly lady among the trees; bundles of poems wrapped with twine and stuffed into drawers; children eagerly watching for the wicker basket of gingerbread to be mysteriously lowered from a second-story window; unverified stories of unrequited passion for her sister-in-law.

Although this eccentric and talented poet was quiet and demure while alive, she has since become the center of attention for countless scholars and visitors.

Emily Dickinson was called the “myth of Amherst” even during her lifetime, but it is not just the stories about her that spark wonder and fascination. It is the nearly eighteen hundred poems she wrote over the course of almost forty years.

Only eleven of those were published in her lifetime; it wasn’t until her friend Mabel Loomis Todd (who also happened to be her brother’s mistress) took on the project of editing and publishing Dickinson’s work after her death that the public began to catch a fuller glimpse of the striking talent of the woman who is now known as the “belle of Amherst.”

In the ensuing years, Dickinson has grown into a full-blown industry. The house that served as her home, along with her brother’s house next door, is now the Emily Dickinson Museum. Mabel Loomis Todd’s home has been made into a bed-and-breakfast, and the town library has a special Emily Dickinson collection with an international reputation.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, "The Belle of
Amherst"

At least four literary journals are dedicated to examining her work, and a Google search of her name yields nearly two million hits. Her poetry is a staple of literary anthologies and appears as often in elementary schools as it does in graduate courses. Both Amherst and the literary world continue to take Emily Dickinson very seriously.

Although Dickinson never attended the meetings of the Transcendental Club or discussed utopian visions in Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, she clearly sought to develop her own relationship with the universe. Her poetry sits within the broad confines of the philosophic ideals set out by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work she much admired and who came to her brother’s home, the Evergreens, for a visit.

In addition, Dickinson’s subjects and language have much in common with those of Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden was published just as Dickinson was beginning to write poetry seriously. Emerson has the “transparent eye-ball” (his concept that when a person is out communing in nature, he takes everything in because he is both part of and a microcosm of what he sees—see chapter 4); Dickinson has the soul. She also wants to clear away everything that stands between her and whatever it is that is out there:

Poem #327

So safer — guess — with just my soul
Upon the Window pane —
Where other Creatures put their eyes —
Incautious — of the Sun —

It is through this “window pane” that the reality of the outside world floods into Dickinson’s consciousness and permeates her poetry. It is because she is open to the ideas and feelings that flow into her soul through the “window” that she is able to see the world with new eyes. And through this window, we can catch a glimpse of the Amherst of Emily Dickinson, her paradise that allowed her to look within for a poetry of possibility — poetry that is not limited by sensory experience but moves wherever her imagination and experience can take her.

 

“Home Is the Definition of God”
Poem #657

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —

One way into Dickinson’s world, both figuratively and literally, is through the front door. While the other writers in the Transcendentalist movement gathered, lectured, and worked in very public places, Dickinson traveled only within her imagination, and her poetry remains firmly rooted in her life at home.

As she wrote to her friend Perez Cowan in 1870, “Home is the definition of God.” For her, home was a miniature world—a Transcendentalist notion that allowed her to plumb her daily life for the larger meanings that Emerson and Thoreau sought in nature.

Amherst Today: “Plain and Whole and Permanent and Warm”

In the nineteenth century, the Dickinson name was connected primarily to the social and business interests of Amherst. Today, however, the name lures writers of all types—poets and novelists, the famous and the unknown, the practiced and the practicing.

(To be fair, a good chunk of the credit for attracting the literary set must also go to Amherst’s other famous poet, Robert Frost.)

Statutes of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost in a park in Amherst
Statues of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost in a park
in Amherst

Amherst boasts perfect spots for sipping a cappuccino and writing in a journal, and wonderful bookstores for browsing. To nourish the soul and intellect, the town provides a wide array of writing groups, lectures, performing arts, and political events.

And to nourish the body, it offers a wide variety of good places — much frequented by the local student population — to eat for only a few dollars.

Amherst is a wonderful town for spending a morning working hard on a novel, working hard at pretending to work hard on a novel, or working hard at nothing much at all.


Poem #215

What is —“Paradise” —
Who live there —
Are they “Farmers” —
Do they “hoe” —
Do they know that this is “Amherst” —
And that I — am coming — too —

Do they wear “new shoes” — in “Eden” —
Is it always pleasant — there —
Won’t they scold us — when we’re homesick —
Or tell God — how cross we are —

You are sure there’s such a person
As “a Father” — in the sky —
So if I get lost — there — ever
Or do what the Nurse calls “die” —
I shan’t walk the “Jasper” — barefoot —
Ransomed folks — won’t laugh at me —
Maybe — “Eden” a’n’t so lonesome
As New England used to be!

—Emily Dickinson

Buy This Book From Amazon A Journey into the Transcendentalists' New England (ArtPlace series)

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