We tend to reserve special roles for our favorite writers—sepulchral Poe; sardonic Mark Twain; sexy, world-embracing Walt Whitman—and resist evidence that contradicts our cherished images. Emily Dickinson in this constellation is forever the lovelorn spinster, pining away in her father's mansion on Main Street in Amherst, Mass. We assume that the grand passion behind her poems ("Wild nights—Wild nights! Were I with thee") must have had a commensurate inspiration, whether imaginary, superhuman, or divine. Evidence that Dickinson's love life was fairly ordinary, with ordinary temptations and disappointments, doesn't quite fit the bill. Her exile on Main Street has seemed a necessary part of the Dickinson myth, so necessary, indeed, that contrary information—which happens to have been piling up lately—has often been discounted or ignored.
For example, when Mabel Loomis Todd, the vivacious and talented wife of Amherst College astronomer David Todd, was invited to play the piano for Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, in September of 1882, she received a startling warning from their sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, next door. The Dickinson spinster sisters, Sue informed her, "have not, either of them, any idea of morality." Sue added darkly, "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man."
It's now widely assumed that that man was Judge Otis Lord, a widower of her father's generation who proposed marriage to Dickinson late in his life and hers (she died in 1886 at the age of 56) only to be affectionately rebuffed. "Don't you know," she wrote coyly but decisively, "that you are happiest while I withhold and not confer?" Yet the notion of Emily Dickinson making out in her living room is so foreign to our conception of her that her autumnal tryst with Judge Lord has never become part of the popular lore about her.
The discovery that Dickinson did not have to wait until her dotage to experience some of the pleasures of ordinary romantic companionship has so far sunk like a stone, too. A carefully argued scholarly article titled "Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information About Emily Dickinson," published this summer in the staid New England Quarterly, has caused not a ripple.
The author, Carol Damon Andrews, is an independent scholar who has worked at the Worcester Art Museum in central Massachusetts. She told a reporter for the Amherst Bulletin that she was pursuing some family history among her Penniman ancestors when she stumbled across two intriguing entries in the diaries of Eliza Houghton Penniman, a music teacher who gave piano lessons in Amherst before settling in Worcester.
The first entry reads, in part: "I commenced teaching vocal & instrumental music when I was 16. My first pupils were Fanny Sellon daughter of Dr S. of Amherst … & lawyer Dickinson's daughter Emily." This was in 1839, when Emily Dickinson was 8 years old. Part of the understated charm of Andrews' article is that she gives as much attention to her discovery that Dickinson's musical education began six years earlier than had previously been supposed as she does to the bombshell that follows, in a later diary entry:
In Amherst … I had a class in music: … Emily Dickinson, daughter of lawyer Dickinson, to whom Dr. George Gould of Worcester, was engaged when in college there. Lawyer Dickinson vetoed the whole affair, the Rev. George being a POOR student then, and poor Emily's heart was broken.
The name George Gould is not new to Dickinson scholars. An Amherst College graduate of 1850 and a close friend of Dickinson's brother, Austin, Gould has long been identified as part of Emily Dickinson's youthful social circle. In Brenda Wineapple's new book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, he makes a cameo as one of the young friends "to whom she seems to have shown some of her early work" before finding a more sophisticated mentor in Higginson.
In fact, the possibility that Gould might have been more than a friend isn't new, either—but, as Andrews shows, it received a notably cool welcome.
Andrews does not pretend to be the first person to claim that Gould was Dickinson's secret lover. Genevieve Taggard, a leftist poet best known for her Depression-era populist verse, published a vividly written biography of Emily Dickinson in 1930 after teaching for a year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson's alma mater. Taggard discovered what she called the "purloined valentine," sent by Dickinson in 1850, inviting a mysterious someone to "meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon." Subsequent scholars have assumed Gould was a likely recipient but left it at that. Taggard, however, built her narrative around the youthful love affair of Emily and George, blaming the breakup of the engagement on Dickinson's father but ascribing a different motive, one more in line with her proto-feminist approach.