Book Review

Emily Dickinson wrote that “biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographed.” And, indeed, for a century and a half, the mystery of Emily Dickinson’s life has evaded many biographers. Her story has instead been hindered by countless myths and stereotypes. Emily the recluse. Emily the woman too shy to publish her work. However, Martha Ackmann’s refreshingly intimate and immensely readable biography about Dickinson doesn’t take the traditional cradle-to-grave approach, and thereby offers us a completely different way of understanding one of America’s most beloved poets. In Ackmann’s account, we are invited to live and experience life from Dickinson’s point of view through the lens of ten important days in her life. We see Dickinson’s ambition as a young girl, her rebellion against gender norms, her battle with blindness, and the important days of her literary career. Most importantly, we meet a woman who made decisions in her life (including her decision to not publish most of her poems) based on her deep and unyielding commitment to living her life as a writer.

Several of these “fevered” days stand out, including the first Ackmann writes about, when we meet fourteen-year-old Emily sitting at her desk writing a letter to her dear friend Abiah (one of the many friends Dickinson had as a young girl). As Dickinson writes, “I can hardly have patience to write. . . I have worlds of things to tell you, and my pen is not swift enough to answer my purpose at all.” We see how even at this young age, Dickinson felt she had a voice inside her that commanded her to write, which she called her “faithful monitor.” Later in the book, we meet Dickinson on a day after she has returned from the intellectual stimulation and freedom of studying at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to the Dickinson household, only to be yoked again with women’s duties. Dickinson loved her family, especially her brother Austin and her sister Lavinia (Vinnie); however, what she was reacting to was a larger issue, one much bigger than the gender dynamics of her household. Dickinson didn’t agree with the choices she had before her as a woman. Ackmann shows how Dickinson realized that if she married, she would be swallowed by the tasks that consume women’s lives: “God keep me from what they call households.” In a letter to a friend, she wrote about her realization that if she ran her own household, the workload and time spent on household chores would only increase. Dickinson refused to follow gender roles because they did not offer the life she wished to lead. “I really think it requires more discipline of mind and more grace to meet a lady’s duties than a gentleman’s,” Ackman quotes Dickinson. “. . . He has little minutia to attend to. He can rise in the morning and go to his business without hindrance, but it is not so with a lady.” Dickinson, we see, chose to stay in her family home because this choice afforded her the time she needed to write.

The structure of this biography also allows us to bear witness to Dickinson’s first publications and her meetings with some of the most important people in her life, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became her closest literary advisor, one of the few she trusted while she was alive. Ackmann uses the details found in Dickinson’s letters and Higginson’s many accounts of their first meeting to recreate the scene, one in which Higginson seems awed and aware that Dickinson is like no other poet he has ever met. He describes her russet hair, her plain looks and her striking white dress, but most importantly, he depicts the poet’s mind: “Emily was remarkable,” Ackmann writes. “Brilliant. Candid. Deliberate. Mystifying. After years of waiting, he was finally sitting across from Emily Dickinson of Amherst, and all he wanted to do was listen.”

Equally captivating are the chapters that follow Dickinson during challenging times in her life. We see the decline of her sight during her battle with iritis, when she worried she would go blind. Because we have experienced the world through Dickinson’s perspective throughout the book, we understand how devastating this loss would be. How could she observe the minutiae of the everyday in her garden without the ability to see? As she received treatments she lived in the “jail” of a boarding house away from Amherst in Cambridge. It’s from this vantage point that we see Dickinson experience the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Ackmann carefully weaves in the significant historical events that occurred during Dickinson’s lifetime, allowing us to perceive how integral these important events were to her as a poet.
It seems fitting that this book originated as a series of lectures that Ackmann gave in the Dickinson homestead, because Ackmann seems to know all the specific details about Dickinson’s home and hometown—what the view was outside Dickinson’s window in the room where she wrote, what bloomed in the garden each season, and what the weather may have been like on each of the significant days she chooses to feature in this book. And it’s these details that make us as readers feel that we are experiencing the world through Dickinson’s eyes. Instead of giving us a litany of facts, Ackmann immerses us in the natural environment where Dickinson told her own story through the images found in her poems.

Few know that late in her life, the poet Amy Lowell began writing a biography about Dickinson because she sensed (already in the 1920s) how misunderstood Dickinson was, how her known image was “fleeing the Biography.” In her poem “The Sisters,” Lowell addresses three female poets—Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson—in an exercise of understanding the influence that these three “sisters” (all of whom are historically significant sapphic authors) had on her development as a writer because she believed they were all of “one family”—a family of women whose lives hadn’t been properly remembered or understood. It’s a shame that Lowell wasn’t able to finish her biography while she was still alive, but I think she would have approved of Ackmann’s approach. These Fevered Days invites us into the world as Dickinson saw it, and we leave her work with a better understanding of a great poet whose influence has reached far beyond what she could have ever imagined.

About the Reviewer

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet. Her latest poetry collection West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing in 2021. Dunkle wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian London, Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2020. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry and Translation Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference.