By Helen Epstein
From the first page of Martha Ackmann’s new book on Emily Dickinson, you know you’re reading something entirely different.
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann, W.W. Norton & Company, 278 pp.
As a writer of nonfiction, I’m always interested in structural innovations, especially in biographies, that most formulaic of literary genres. We’re all familiar with the conventional route: intro; flashback to family and cultural background; then a chronological slog through the life and work. Many rigorous biographers and literary historians have examined Dickinson’s life and writings, but from the first page of Martha Ackmann’s new book, you know you’re reading something entirely different: a set of evocative yet grounded-in-detail essays, each of which recreate one of Emily Dickinson’s days, yet range freely over her writing, thoughts, horticulture, religion, current events.
Ackmann’s introduction credits one of Dickinson’s poems for her method of “concentrating, extracting, and distilling” Dickinson’s life (1830-1886). Though the chapters of These Fevered Days are roughly chronological, the volume does not seek to be a cradle-to-grave biography. Rather it seeks to shed light on 10 significant turning points in the poet’s life and the people and events that were part of them.
The focus on these particular 10 moments (recreated and amply contextualized) originated in Ackmann’s teaching Dickinson’s work for nearly two decades to Mount Holyoke students in the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, “in the very rooms where the poet created her work. Sitting around that seminar table, the students demonstrated that they understood Dickinson’s life and work more deeply when our conversation centered on an important moment in the poet’s life.… Each chapter revolves around a specific day and a particular change: a day when the poet was different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning.… after forty years of teaching and studying the poet, this set of ten makes the most sense to me.”
In the absence of a diary (Dickinson didn’t keep one), Ackmann chose her 10 moments on the basis of decades of research and regular immersion in Dickinsoniana — steeping herself in the world of her subject. The author lives in western Massachusetts and, in addition to using the biographer’s usual toolkit and reading all the poems, letters, archival documents, and dozens of secondary sources, she relied on a near-mystical technique of reenactment and communion that provided her with sensory experiences of what Dickinson did on the days she brings to life.
Ackmann wrote some of the book sitting in Emily’s bedroom. Because the poet — who suffered long, scary eye ailments — described returning from a medical appointment and going up into the family attic to read Shakespeare’s Henry VI out loud, Ackmann did the same. Dickinson often walked between her home and her brother’s home next door; Ackmann did that both in fair weather and in snowstorms, like the ones Emily described.
Other biographers may have done similar things, but none to my knowledge has made the ingenious choice of beginning each chapter with a meteorological epigraph so that the reader could have a sense of the weather on a particular day.
Ackmann discovered that one of Dickinson’s neighbors, Amherst math professor Ebenezer Snell, began recording daily temperatures, precipitation, cloud formations, and atmospheric phenomena a few years after Emily was born. “Friday, February 20, 1852 2 p.m. Thermometer 18.2 degrees. Barometer mean 30.38b. Wind NW 2. Humidity 44. Cloudiness 0. Snow 0. Remarks: Clear and pretty cold. Faint Streamers.” Ackmann uses these notes not only to provide the micro-climate in Amherst for that day, but to introduce each essay, binding the 10 like the string Emily used to bind her poems into fascicles.
Ackmann typically begins her set of essays quietly, with no clear announcement of what a particular chapter will contain: “The family cat had been missing for a month, and in its absence Emily became the house mouser,” begins chapter three. The chapter heading, as in all the chapters, is drawn from one of Emily’s elliptical lines, “I’VE BEEN IN THE HABIT MYSELF OF WRITING SOME FEW THINGS.”
Some of Ackmann’s essays are, of course, better than others. There are few dramatic encounters and the author must rely mostly on letters to reconstruct the poet’s many elusive relationships with family members, friends, and correspondents. The first chapter, built around 14-year-old Emily in the act of writing a letter to her best friend Abiah Root, is so quiet and meandering that, had I not been a reviewer, I might have stopped reading the book right there. But I found Ackmann’s insistence on proceeding in her own eccentric style audacious and fascinating. Sometimes I was fully conscious of authorial intent; other times I felt lost. But I trusted Ackmann, stuck with her, and found myself immersed in Dickinson’s world — far more than in the recent films about the poet.
Dickinson is an anomaly: an acquired taste as well as an international icon and, like her mid-19th century contemporaries Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller, a subject of extreme interest to generations of American poets, actors, and artists of all kinds. For New Englanders, she is a local great who once walked through the neighborhoods of Boston and Cambridge, Deerfield, South Hadley, and Amherst. For 21st-century readers inured to celebrity and endless self-promotion by writers, she is the enigmatic poet who did not pursue publication let alone notoriety, yet became a legend while still alive.
In one of Ackmann’s best chapters (Tuesday, August 16, 1870) “YOU WERE NOT AWARE THAT YOU SAVED MY LIFE,” Emily is close to 40. The Civil War has resulted in the deaths of many of Amherst’s men and the assassination of President Lincoln. Repeated treatments with an ophthalmologist in Boston have saved her vision; she has, for several years, been corresponding with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist activist, minister, author, and editor, one of her most sustaining relationships. Higginson had written to her, “The more bent any man is upon action, the more profoundly he needs the calm lessons of Nature to preserve his equilibrium.” Ackmann adds, “Literature kept him balanced and Emily Dickinson kept his mind on literature.”
Ackmann sets up their meeting in her slow, indirect, deliberate way, with lots of digressions before getting to her bottom line: “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much,” he admitted. “Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson is the antithesis of a fast read. But its slow, eccentric way of trying to draw nearer to this most enigmatic of poets is admirable and, ultimately, rewarding.
Helen Epstein has been reviewing for The Arts Fuse for well over a decade. She is the editor of Franci Rabinek Epstein’s Franci’s War, her mother’s 1974 memoir, which is now being published in seven countries.