Commentary Magazine

The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Richard B. Sewall

The Life of Emily Dickinson.
by Richard B. Sewall.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 2 vols. 821 pp. $30.00.

This work, which recently won a National Book Award, is biography on the grand scale—two volumes and over 800 pages. The publishers have made a very handsome job of it, and there are many photographs, of 19th-century Amherst as well as of all the principal people in Emily Dickinson’s life, and an inclusive chronology, bibliographies, and appendices. The author has taken full account of previous work on his subject, biographical and critical; this is in many ways a summation of other books. Of course Mr. Sewall has plenty to say for himself—he is personally very much involved with Emily Dickinson—and he even has some new material, but much of it bears less on Dickinson than on the Dickinson ambience, especially the very complex relationships between the poet’s survivors (her sister Vinnie, her brother Austin, his wife Sue, and their daughter Martha, who edited some of Dickinson’s poems) and two editors of her work, Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham.

The first sixty years of Dickinson scholarship were enmeshed in, and partly inspired by, quite lurid family feuds and intrigues: first Austin’s son, and then Austin himself, had an affair with Mabel, which was promoted by Vinnie, who, to spite Sue, gave Dickinson’s poems to Mrs. Todd. In his Preface, Mr. Sewall says that it was in 1946 that Mrs. Bingham first “breathed” to him the possibility of this work. It is an ominous verb, and though the book as a whole does not succumb to the arch familiarity it threatens, we are made very intimate with everybody’s first name, and don’t really gain much from our intimacy. Mr. Sewall’s feelings are affectionate, which makes his work pleasanter than most big biographies where one often feels the writer’s resentment of a subject that has exacted so many years of his life; but the sad truth is that good biography demands the sacrifice of all feelings, and this Mr. Sewall does not achieve.

Mr. Sewall’s attitude to Emily Dickinson, of course, is much more than affectionate, for he regards her as a very great poet. I have no quarrel with that opinion, but he derives from it tactics that seem to me unfortunate in a biography. Thus, we are told more than once that in some letter or remark she is only two steps away from one or another famous poem, which she would be writing in a year or two. Surely this falsifies both the chronology and the ontology of her experience, by implying that the poem was already there and that it was “successful” enough to have redeemed all the pain it derived from. Moreover, because she was successful as a poet, Mr. Sewall suggests, Dickinson could not have been the failure in life which she seems to have been, and which she would have been were she an ordinary person. Her self-seclusion, her refusal to travel or see people, were all calm, rationally chosen strategies for work, in his view. She was busy all the time. And if, for instance, her famous preoccupation with death was neurotic in origin, as a mature poet she treated it “as an existential phenomenon, and as the central religious mystery, to be probed and pondered with the objectivity, almost, of the clinician and the philosopher.” For all her rhetoric of humility, she “never underestimated herself”; she “never blinked the hard facts” and she “was honest every step of the way.”

These are acceptable, if rather emotional, phrases for paying tribute to the great poems, but in a biography they seem to me wide of the mark. Surely it is clear that Dickinson did blink the hard facts, did flutter and tremble, did play the child and the Queen Recluse, was “neurotic” right to the end. That she was also a great poet should not seduce us into tampering with those truths. Mr. Sewall’s approach leads him to read many of the poems as being about the vocation of poet, even when—as, for example, in “Because I could not stop for death”—they seem to be about other things. And the same bias leads him to deal harshly and satirically with the long-distance literary adviser to whom Dickinson sent her poems, Colonel Thomas Higginson, a “militant abolitionist,” who, Mr. Sewall remarks acerbically, “exuded health and buoyancy” because he knew that all his causes were just. I wouldn’t care to be put to the test of getting poems in the mail as odd by today’s standards as Dickinson’s were by those of 1862.

Mr. Sewall’s aestheticism matters most in his treatment of his main subject, whom he is determined to find always strong and cool and masterful. And the effect of this determination is to make Emily Dickinson a more paradoxical figure than she need be, for it disinclines the biographer to make use of the major clues to her personality. Thus, it is clear that she felt herself to be overexcitable in social situations, and so both wanted and did not want a lot of friends; this accounts for her self-seclusion, in which she suffered and rejoiced at once, as well as for her simultaneously desiring and not desiring publication. These are truisms about Dickinson, but irreplaceable as organizing principles in an account of her behavior. Yet Mr. Sewall does not make any real use of them, and we are left with quite unnecessary puzzles about her motives and with expressions of resentment against her contemporaries, who neglected her poems and ignored her loneliness. She, after all, constructed that image of herself they saw, and wanted the response they gave her; this—granted the shadowy and contradictory small print of all such contracts with the world—seems to me the case.

It is perhaps another consequence of his aestheticism that Mr. Sewall, though he gives us much detail about the Dickinsons, does not construct a model of that “Puritan” temperament which dominated all their lives in various ways. He points out that both Dickinson’s father and her grandfather were quite worldly as young men, and implies that the religious habits they developed in later life—their family prayers and Bible readings—were really elements of a social discipline. He could have gone further. “Puritanism” was surely an important characteristic of the family, a Puritanism of work and achievement at the expense of ease and enjoyment. What is notable in the pictures of all the men is the rigid fierceness, imperiousness, and love of power they all express; many of the women display a complementary sweetness, meekness, and compassion.

This dialectic of temperament (which has very little to do with theology) was even more marked in the Dickinsons than in other Amherst families, and it surely bore very powerfully on Dickinson’s identity. Her letters, and her other behavior as we know it, devote great energy to manifesting these feminine qualities—she played the role of daughter, sister, cousin, friend, with extraordinary assiduity, and also with ingenuity, whimsy, and oddity. She was sincere in those roles, sincere as she consoled, congratulated, sympathized, and thanked, but she was also clearly fitting herself to occasions and demands that were in some sense alien to her; the sign of this is her insistent playfulness, and her seclusion.

Playfulness was one of the great temperamental imperatives of Puritanism for women, just as humor was for both sexes. (These again are truisms, but when people write about Puritanism they tend to be forgotten.) And Dickinson was notably self-confident about her own playfulness. She remarked, as quite a portentous epitaph on her father, that he “never played”; she offered herself to Samuel Bowles as his “rascal,” and to her friends as “naughty.” Above all, in her letters and poems she treated the icons and formulas of Christianity with extraordinary jocularity. Since she certainly also brooded deeply and painfully over Christianity in general, and over the questions of immortality and redemption in particular, this playfulness is one of her most eccentric and disconcerting traits. The way to understand it, I think, is by understanding the temperamental dialectic of Puritanism.



Whatever one’s disagreements with Mr. Sewall, in the end one must have profound sympathy for anyone undertaking such a peculiarly difficult biography. After all these years, and all the research, it is still impossible to know—to take one obvious example of difficulty—what went on between Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth, and Samuel Bowles, and Judge Lord, and the Master (whoever he was). It is even possible that quite a lot went on, though it’s my guess that even the most passionate and erotic passages in her letters refer only to a man’s coming to tea or her going to his house. I’m not so philistine as to doubt that everything went on in Dickinson; just philistine enough to think the rest important. Surely no one has ever said so much and communicated so little—and to me (though not to Mr. Sewall) this casts some doubt on her claim that her Country was Truth. No use of language can so consistently avoid facts without also avoiding truth.

Mr. Sewall makes his largest claim for Dickinson in terms of Keats’s remark about Lord Byron, that he cut a figure in the world but was not “figurative.” Dickinson’s life was figurative, in a deeper sense, and she was quite conscious of that sense, says Mr. Sewall; meaning, I take it, that in her biography we see “the poet” finding herself. I suppose I disagree with this too, because I see so many other, and lesser, human types being achieved in her life, alongside the poet. But with all these disagreements, Mr. Sewall is owed a debt of gratitude for a large and handsome treatment of a major literary subject.


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