Yesterday, I finished reading a selection of letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). I read some of her best poems in my latest podcast episode, but really, her letters are even more interesting, showing us a glimpse of one woman’s life in mid-19th-century America. Here are some of the most memorable quotes from those letters.
|This picture is unauthenticated but believed to show Emily Dickinson (left) and one of her friends, Kate Scott Turner, to whom some of the letters were addressed|
How do you enjoy your school this term? Are the teachers as pleasant as our old school-teachers? I expect you have a great many prim, starched up young ladies there, who, I doubt not, are perfect models of propriety and good behavior. If they are, don’t let your free spirit be chained by them.
Many of the girls have received very beautiful ones; and I have not quite done hoping for one. Surely my friend Thomas has not lost all his former affection for me! I entreat you to tell him I am pining for a valentine.
When I know of anything funny I am just as apt to cry, far more so than to laugh, for I know who loves jokes best, and who is not here to enjoy them. We don’t have many jokes, though, now, it is pretty much all sobriety; and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life. Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision but as yet escape unhurt…
…I thought of you all last week, until the world grew rounder than it sometimes is, and I broke several dishes.
[Father] gave me quite a trimming about “Uncle Tom” and “Charles Dickens” and those “modern literati” who, he says, are nothing, compared to past generations who flourished when he was a boy…so I’m quite in disgrace at present…
We have at present on cat, and twenty-four hens, who do nothing so vulgar as lay an egg, which checks the ice-cream tendency.
And so much lighter than day was it, that I saw a caterpillar measure a leaf far down in the orchard; and Vinnie kept saying bravely, “It’s only the fourth of July.”…Vinnie’s “only the fourth of July” I shall always remember. I think she will tell us so when we die, to keep us from being afraid.
The last April that father lived, lived I mean below, there were several snow-storms, and the birds were so frightened and cold, they sat by the kitchen door. Father went to the barn in his slippers and came back with a breakfast of grain for each, and hid himself while he scattered it, lest it embarrass them.
Your bond to your brother reminds me of mine to my sister – early, earnest, indissoluble.
We pray to Him, and He answers “No.” Then we pray to Him to rescind the “no,” and He don’t answer at all, yet “Seek and ye shall find” is the boon of faith.
Though I’ve read a fair bit of 19th-century literature, Emily Dickinson’s letters showed me another side of it, through one woman’s life challenges and her own inner struggles. Some of it made me smile, and some of it was heartbreaking.
I’m again reminded what a blessing the internet can be and is for those of us who live more introverted lives. The ability to communicated with like-minded people across timezones and geography is so powerful. It staves off some of the profound loneliness which people, especially women, have endured in times past, while bringing more perspective to our own ideas of the world.