Emily Dickinson's secret lover.

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Oct. 9 2008 11:43 AM

Emily Dickinson's Secret Lover!

Why the big news is being ignored.

Emily Dickinson. Click image to expand.
Emily Dickinson

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."

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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.

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?

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.

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