After leaving Montreal (with regret), we drove down through Vermont and visited Amherst, Massachusetts, where I finally got to see Emily Dickinson’s house. But first (the earliest tour was at 1 PM) I dropped in at the excellent Amherst Books, where I couldn’t resist buying Krazy & Ignatz 1925-1926, a wonderful Fantagraphics reprint of a year’s worth of George Herriman‘s Krazy Kat comics. Now, I’m going to make a wild leap here, and those of you with sensitive constitutions may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph, but I think Dickinson has far more in common with Herriman than with the lady poets she’s usually compared to (Sappho, say, not that we actually know anything about Sappho). Dickinson is perhaps America’s greatest pure poet (in the sense that she has no interest in propagandizing for religious or political sects or in telling stories) and Herriman is without question America’s greatest pure comic-strip artist (in the sense that he has no interest in writing for the market or in telling stories); her self-limitation to an apparently simple hymn form for her verse is as striking as his self-limitation to an apparently simple triangular structure for his strips (Ignatz heaves a brick at Krazy and is chastised by Officer Pupp), and both have been condescended to for these alleged faults, which in fact allowed them to refine their art and bring it to unmatched levels. The difference, of course—apart from medium, gender, era, and other trivia—is that Herriman found outside support and Dickinson did not. I quote from Bill Blackbeard‘s introduction to the Fantagraphics book:
[Herriman’s detractors] claimed (and claim) that the theme of Ignatz hitting Krazy with a brick was tiresome and that they could not understand most of the jokes; worst of all, they saw nothing engaging (i.e., cute) about the characters, as should damned well be the case with a funny animal strip. They were alienated. And because of this they could get angry and write blistering letters to the feature editors of the newspapers concerned. Most of these seemingly nervy journals were titles in the national chain commandeered by William Randolph Hearst, the fierce young publisher who ardently admired Krazy Kat, and who had to constantly fight with his editors, who begged for permission to drop the irritating strip. They claimed that they received endless letters about this mystifying comic, which they had difficulties in answering since they found it mystifying themselves. The letters went unanswered and Hearst’s edict prevailed; the kat comic stayed in his papers over the decades.
Whatever Hearst’s faults may have been, America (hell, the world) owes him a debt of gratitude for this. And I invite you to imagine the difference it would have made if there had been such a figure for Dickinson—if Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to take the obvious example, had had the quirk of taste that would have allowed him to be enthusiastic about her poetry instead of dumping cold water on her (not to mention Whitman: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards”) and to promote her with vigor and with the utter indifference to contrary opinion that Hearst showed. If American poets had been exposed to that blast of radically compressed language and imagery, those infinitely varied subtle rhythms, in the middle of the 19th century rather than decades later, perhaps two generations would not have wasted their time imitating Longfellow, Tennyson, et al, and the violent efforts of Ezra Pound to wrest American poetry from its long snooze in the 1910s would not have been needed. At any rate, she would certainly have been happier. Not to find reciprocated and continuing love is an all too common human lot; for a great poet not to find appropriate response to her greatness is a much rarer, and perhaps more tragic, fate.
To give an idea of Herriman’s inimitable way with language, I’ll quote the beginning of the Feb. 1, 1925 strip, whose first panel shows Ignatz and Pupp standing before a looming (and lovingly detailed) cliff:
There be kliffs in Kaibito wherein a thousand echoes dwell and “Ignatz” is getting a right, & left ear full of information about it, from “Officer Pupp.”
[I] But why, “Officer Pupp” when I yodel, or yell a yoohoo, these cliffs answer me back – is there some one among them doing it?
[P] Fool “Mouse”, there is no one there – it is but the sound of your own voice bouncing back at you – an echo – a mere matter of acoustics – if you know what I mean.
[I] Never have I thought it possible for “sound” to bounce back – is there not an element of mystery about it all?
[P] And yet it is but “sound” bouncing back, fool – “acoustics” lie behind it all – no “mystery” as it seems to your dull mind.
[I] I have a neat notion, “Officer Pupp” of tossing this “brick” at yon cliff to see if it too would bounce back, an “echo” – as would a yodel, or a yoohoo –
[P] It is no mean desire, “Mouse”, I must say – and I would urge strongly that you attempt the experiment – it were safer for your own welfare that you toss that “brick” at a cliff than at the noble noodle of that amiable “Krazy Kat” – and at the same time I deem it a not unworthy assay in “acoustics” – yeh-h-
Incidentally, E. E. Cummings’ “A Foreword to Krazy” is one of many Cummings links at yesterday’s wood s lot; I must point out that the poet did not spell his name with lower-case initials, and did not want others to do so)
Getting back to Dickinson, we were lucky enough in our tour of the house (and the adjoining one, The Evergreens, where her brother Austin and his wife Sue, one of Emily’s unreciprocated loves, lived and grew apart and suffered tragedy, the growing misery of the household still felt amid the gloom and mold) to have as our guide the very knowledgeable historian Ruth Owen Jones, who has published an article (described here) suggesting that Dickinson’s Master letters, copies of three letters to some unknown beloved, were intended for William Smith Clark, in a contemporary’s description “personally and socially attractive, a brilliant talker, a good listener too… the life of the social circle, the faculty meeting, the gathering at the corner of the streets, the legislative hall or the popular assembly”; Jones says “He was cocky, a bit conceited, yet a good listener, a gentle, sensitive, and educated man, a man who encouraged the women in his life to use their minds, and a man who was an aspiring writer himself… Emily’s Master figure was a person who knew and loved flowers, unusual for a man in the 1860s… The only other men besides Prof. Clark that Emily Dickinson knew who adored flowers were the nearly deaf Professor Tuckerman, and T.W. Higginson, and she knew Higginson only after April 1862, after she had written the Master letters.” (Jones pointed out in the course of the tour that the beginning of Dickinson’s famous 1870 meeting with Higginson, which involved her holding out two day lilies and saying “These are my introduction,” is not as odd or crazy as it has sometimes been made out to be, since she knew Higginson was an amateur of botany and expected him to appreciate the flowers she had grown in her conservatory.) I look forward to Jones’s forthcoming book.
To provide a linguistic hook for this long entry: Amherst is pronounced Ammerst (the h is silent), and Mount Holyoke (where Emily studied for a year) is HO(L)E-yoke, with the l barely audible in local pronunciation.