Emily Dickinson's secret lover.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 9 2008 11:43 AM

Emily Dickinson's Secret Lover!

Why the big news is being ignored.

(Continued from Page 1)

It wasn't that George was poor, Taggard maintained; it's that Edward Dickinson wanted Emily for himself. Asking Emily to play the piano "was Edward's way of bringing Emily back when she escaped." When it became clear, at a graduation party in 1850, that Emily and George were in love, Edward declared "that the affair must end." Taggard suggested that Emily and George continued to meet despite the ban, hooking up secretly in Philadelphia and New York as well as in Amherst until a final break in 1862, when George, who had trained for the ministry, married and settled in Worcester.

It's startling to go back to Taggard's nearly forgotten and rarely read book and find how much evidence she tracked down for her tale of star-crossed lovers. She quotes several sources, including a friend of Lavinia's, all of whom requested anonymity but confirmed the basic details of the affair. So, why wasn't her story believed?

Advertisement

Once again, it was the popular image of shade-seeking Dickinson holed up in her father's house that prevailed. As Andrews argues, there was a concerted effort to suppress Taggard's findings, led by Susan Dickinson's daughter, Martha, and Amherst College professor and biographer George F. Whicher, who announced that he intended "to terminate the persistent search for Emily's unknown love." Whicher attacked Taggard's book as "untrustworthy" and suggested that its plotline was derived from the "stale formula of Hollywood romance and Greenwich Village psychology"—a sly dig at Taggard's bohemian and socialist convictions.

There is more to this tale, including some pretty convincing evidence that three mysterious love letters Dickinson drafted in the late 1850s—passionate, masochistic, and lyrical texts referred to as the "Master Letters" for their unknown recipient—were actually addressed to Gould: "I've got a Tomahawk in my side but that don't humor me much, Her Master stabs her more—Wont he come to her." After Dickinson's death, Mabel Todd began collecting her letters for publication and wrote to Gould. He responded that he had "quite a cherished batch of Emily's letters myself kept sacredly in a small trunk … which some 15 years ago mysteriously disappeared."

If there's a surprise in all this, it's an ordinary one. It turns out that Emily Dickinson had the kind of early romantic entanglement and disappointment that so many young people have. They find someone congenial; they exchange gifts and promises; their parents intervene for various acknowledged and unacknowledged reasons. If such ordinariness seems somehow beneath the dignity of one of our supreme poets, that's probably why even this latest challenge to the image of isolated Emily has gotten so little attention. Alas, there's nothing mysterious or mystical here except what Emily Dickinson made, in her extraordinary poems, of her all-too-human disappointment.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.