You are here

Lundin, Roger: "Vicariously from Vesuvius: Dickinson Meets the World"

Vicariously from Vesuvius: Dickinson Meets the World

Roger Lundin, Wheaton College

There is a paradox, of course, built into the very idea of Emily Dickinson as a world citizen. Although she has acquired a worldwide audience in the 125+ years since her death, throughout her lifetime Dickinson treasured her anonymity and increasingly protected her hard-won isolation. She traveled infrequently as a child and young adult, and for the last two decades of her life, she left the grounds of her parents’ home but once. At the same time, she strictly regulated the access others might have to her if and when they came to her home.

Yet no matter how complete her physical seclusion became, it was hardly a bar to her engagement with the world. She grew up in a cultural milieu that had only recently been transformed by the concept of “the news.” (The phrase appears sixteen times in her poems.) Even in her isolation the world poured in at her door, the widespread circulation of books and periodicals having made her withdrawal from society much different than it would have a scant fifty years earlier. In the early 1860s, the Dickinson family subscribed to fifteen magazines and newspapers, far more than most families in Amherst. As Daniel Lombardo notes, even as Emily withdrew from the world, the world nonetheless “arrived for the Dickinsons at Box 207, Amherst.”

To supplement what print could not provide, Dickinson relied upon a varied cadre of influential men to serve as her vicarious representatives in the world and as couriers who faithfully came, on occasion, to her door. When Samuel Bowles traveled to England in 1862, he did so with this instruction: “Should anybody where you go, talk of Mrs. Browning, you must hear for us – and if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson became her chosen “Preceptor” and “the Friend that saved my Life” through the mediating role he played by connecting the anonymous Dickinson with the public world of letters.

These two and several others, including Charles Wadsworth, were granted rare access and occasional interviews in the Dickinson home, and the pattern here and elsewhere in Dickinson’s interaction with the world was rooted in her psychologized appropriation of her religious heritage. That is, Dickinson’s model for negotiating with the world was patterned in good measure after the Calvinist tradition’s image of God as a predestining, electing power. According to the doctrine of double predestination, God elects from all eternity those bound for eternal bliss as well as those condemned to everlasting torment. For Dickinson, the idea becomes secularized as the “Soul selects her own Society” and then closes “the Valves of her attention - / Like Stone - .”

In times of strength, this Calvinist psychology served Dickinson well, as she drew to herself those she needed and wished to see. In times of difficulty and doubt, however, she turned to what one would have to call a quasi-Lutheran psychology that drew upon the doctrine of the incarnation in ways that the Calvinist tradition rarely did. In this mode, Jesus Christ becomes for the poet the “Tender Pioneer” who has already traversed the vast void between heaven and earth or the “docile Gentleman” who has “leveled” the “billion Mile. . .Road to Bethlehem.”

Dickinson’s use of these particular traditions and their tropes may not tell us anything definitive about her own religious beliefs, but they do provide us with key insights as to how it was that a brilliant woman who chose to “contemplate / Vesuvius at Home” also managed to live such an intensely rich and passionately vicarious life as a citizen of a vastly expanding world.