Claire Harman

The Belle of Amherst?

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds

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Posterity hasn’t had much trouble knowing what to do with Emily Dickinson; it has revered her as a poet and sentimentalised her life. The reclusive spinster published fewer than a dozen of almost 2,000 poems she had stashed in her room and after her death it was easy to mythologise her as an unworldly, unrecognised genius, an image that persisted right up to and beyond the 1976 stage show The Belle of Amherst. This view of Dickinson as the ultimate amateur predisposed the public to think well of her and to attend sympathetically to works of challenging unconventionality: the first selection of Dickinson’s verse that appeared posthumously, in 1890, was reprinted eleven times in its first year and by 1914, when almost all her poems and many of her letters were in print, she was firmly established as an American classic.

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