Studying to become an English teacher, I’d read Emily Dickinson’s poems 100’s of times. They were . . . fine. I . . . liked them . . . I guess? But honestly, I didn’t really “get” most of them and found Dickinson herself to be B.O.R.I.N.G. There was this whole backstory about her being painfully shy and reclusive and spending most of her adult life up in the attic writing poetry about what she wished her life was like – the desperate dreams of a lonely spinster. No thanks, Em.
So when I started teaching American Literature, it was with a heavy spirit that I set to the task of planning my Emily Dickinson unit. Who wants to teach poetry about a boring spinster who’s been dead for more than a century? Hoping to find a way to make the lesson a little more bearable for my 11th graders and for me, I turned to Google and came across a book about Dickinson’s life called Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. The book was full of mushy-gushy letters Emily had written to HER BROTHER’S WIFE.
Wait . . . had I read that right? Love letters to her sister-in-law? That didn’t sound very spinster-y! That was actually super cool! I vetted the authors of the book; they weren’t quacks but actually highly respected academic researchers and authors. Hours spent down the rabbit hole later and I pieced together the story. Everything I’d been fed about Emily Dickinson was a lie sold by her family, who were also the executors of her estate and the “owners” of much of her work after her death. BUT IT WAS MOSTLY POPPYCOCK. She wasn’t a lonely, sad, attic-dweller! She was lively and passionate, and had a decades-long relationship with her brother’s wife – who lived next door – which is why, though she had many suitors she never married.
I was so excited to tell my colleagues of all these findings! We HAD to tell Emily’s story truthfully – and the American Literature textbook was not doing the job. I was disheartened though, the next day, when I rushed to my friend’s desk to share my discovery and his reply was: “I don’t know if I believe all that.”
“What’s to believe? It’s all here! It’s been researched by credible academics for years! It took decades to find enough documentation from all the parties involved and check and cross-check sources, but finally – “
“Nah,” he said. “I’m just going to stick with what’s in the textbook.”
I was disappointed. Heartbroken, really. I knew we owed it to Emily to let her story be told. Eventually, though, something far more critical occurred to me.
I have gay students.
I also have bisexual students, trans students, queer students. Students who fall anywhere and everywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum who have a right to see themselves in the literature they study. Why should they be denied the experience of reading and interpreting a poem in class featuring a relationship that might look like their own? LGBTQ inclusive curriculum should not be a luxury or a “sometimes” treat but a common, everyday occurrence in every classroom.
These days when we read Emily Dickinson, she is paired with Walt Whitman (whose writing is pro-gender fluidity and was a rumored bisexual himself) in a segment called “Poetic Rule Breakers.” I show my students what the textbook says about Emily’s life but also show them Open Me Carefully, and other contemporary cultural portrayals of Dickinson, including a feature film in 2018 called Wild Nights with Emily and Apple TV’s fictional imagining of her teenage years, titled simply Dickinson. Gathering all of this evidence, the students are left to interpret her poems for themselves, as either the desperate dreams of a lonely recluse or the coded messages of a wild, passionate lover living a secret but fulfilled life with the woman she loved.
I’ve never had one student put Emily back in the attic.
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