An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.
On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready” and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was hesitant about publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.
In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, which prefigured her lifelong ambivalence toward organized religion and her deep, private spirituality. We see the poet through her exhilarating frenzy of composition, through which we come to understand her fiercely self-critical eye and her relationship with sister-in-law and first reader, Susan Dickinson. Contrary to her reputation as a recluse, Dickinson makes the startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, writes anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” and keeps up a lifelong friendship with writer Helen Hunt Jackson. At the peak of her literary productivity, she is seized with despair in confronting possible blindness.
Utilizing thousands of archival letters and poems as well as never-before-seen photos, These Fevered Days constructs a remarkable map of Emily Dickinson’s inner life. Together, these ten days provide new insights into her wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.
Journalist Ackmann (Curveball), expanding on her Mount Holyoke seminar on Emily Dickinson, recounts 10 days in the poet's life in this excellent literary study. Some of the days covered initially seem trivial as when, on Aug. 3, 1845, 14-year-old Dickinson wrote a letter to her school friend Abiah but Ackmann excels at revealing her subject's passion and vibrant imagination even in innocuous moments. Others are more distinctly significant, such as Dickinson's first meeting with longtime correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson on Aug. 16, 1870. (Fortunately, Higginson wrote down every detail he remembered, including Dickinson commenting "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.") Ackmann freely draws from historical records, poems, and letters, sampling some of Dickinson's best bon mots, as when, complaining about her chores, she implores, "God keep me from what they call households." Though far from comprehensive, Ackmann's account gets to the core of her subject with remarkable clarity. Though the book's Dickinson can be odd, ethereal, and contradictory, other qualities emerge as well her humor, charm, and unwavering confidence in her own work. The result is a remarkably refreshing account of one of America's finest poets.