the american introvert

Posted by on September 19, 2012

I took my Power in my Hand –
And went against the World –
‘Twas not so much as David – had –
But I – was twice as bold –

I aimed my Pebble – but Myself
Was all the one that fell –
Was it Goliath – was too large –
Or was myself – too small?

by Emily Dickinson

* * *

I have always loved Emily Dickinson, but two things recently have stoked a more brightly burning ember in my heart for her. One was a news piece which announced that a newly discovered photograph of her is believed to have now surfaced in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Until this time, only one photograph of her has been known to exist. 

Not long after I saw this news and ogled the photo, I also came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates entitled The Woman in White: Emily Dickinson and Friends, published in her book In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews. Both the emergence of a new photo and reading this essay turned my thoughts and curiosity toward Emily Dickinson. I am considering her poetry and her life more consciously than I ever have before.

It just so happens that in our house we also have a really wonderful children’s book entitled Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and a little girl who visits her from the house across the street. I bought it initially because I admire the illustrator Barbara Cooney, but of course everything about the book appeals to me, and when the miracle occurs that my girls request this over the lower caliber, accidental acquisitions in our house, like Pinkalicious, I relish the opportunity to read it.

There are people who have lived and died on this earth who keep me company. I am sure that others, especially people who love to read, can relate to this experience. I collect people into a circle of significance in my consciousness, and once they are taken in, their place there is usually permanent and becomes a part of my own identity and also a part of the way I perceive life and the world. I think that Emily Dickinson just made it into this circle.

This is at least partly because she was, in her lifetime, an oddball. She was reclusive to the point of hardly seeing anyone or having any worldly occupation or real interaction with the world, except for a few people with whom she corresponded. It is clear in her poetry and in biographical accounts that she was so highly sensitive that she could not handle very much human interaction. People, and her feelings for people, overpowered her.

This creates a picture of someone who is exceptionally frail, weak, and nervous, and yet, what I love is that her language is utterly fearless and her disclosures are courageous. And her poems are quirky. Devoting ones life to writing quirky poems in a small, Puritanical, New England town–1,775 of them– would have had to take a rare kind of artistic energy and courage. In another essay by Joyce Carol Oates, she says,

If anonymity is the soul’s essential voice—its seductive, mesmerizing, fatal voice—then Emily Dickinson is our poet of the soul: our most endlessly fascinating American poet. As Whitman so powerfully addresses the exterior of American life, so Dickinson addresses—or has she helped create?—its unknowable interior.

American public life is never more obnoxious than during the presidential election year. People are cleanly polarized, and the two sides are biting and scratching and eating each other alive. And everyone is so loud, drenched in cynicism, and deeply embittered. Mitt Romney keeps getting roasted for the stupid things that come out of his mouth, as, for example, this article relates (one of many I have seen lately). Well, the article is one thing, and of course not everyone agrees that the things coming out of his mouth are stupid, which is just part of the baffling nature of the entire thing. But just take a look at the comment section of any one of these articles for a peek at all the embittered, loud, bombastic people.

I understand where this is coming from, and why it is just inevitable and necessary. Regrettably, I cannot participate because I would probably just, literally, land myself in bed with a cold. The few times I have posted something slightly political or controversial on Facebook (a relatively safe, protected place since it is made up of strictly those who are, technically speaking, friends) I sorely regretted it. I can articulate a defense of my position if someone challenges it, but the energy it takes depletes me and robs me of my peace. It actually ruins my day. I have no choice but to opt out of throwing my little stones.

This is why I so relate to this poem above. Whenever I have tried to go in the direction of the activist and assert my opinions publicly in any form, I ultimately regret it because putting myself out there in such a vulnerable way is unsustainable for my poor nervous system. I am always so fascinated and amused by people who seem to enjoy controversy and debate, and even provoke it deliberately and welcome it into their lives. Such a lifestyle would be the death of me.

I think of America as the quintessential nation of extroversion. The personality traits of externally oriented, bombastic, loud, expressive people–artists included– are understood, accepted, esteemed, and rewarded. Can America even be said to possess an “endlessly fascinating” soul–that is, a mysterious and hidden side–at all? We are also a nation obsessed with work as identity. It is hard to explain who you are outside of what you do, and I think that it is very hard for a lot of people to imagine a hidden internally adventurous life ever being as rich as one that is externally adventurous. Emily Dickinson wrote:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

It is hard to believe that America produced an Emily Dickinson, so unAmerican is she, and yet she is also nothing if not American. She is a paradox, and embodies a remarkable argument for the value of the internal, sequestered life. And she is not a nobody. As far as I am concerned, she is the patron saint of the American introvert and I will keep reading her poetry and pairing off with other nobodies for as long as I live.

Posted in: Poetry Wednesday
  1. A M B E R
    September 19, 2012

    Oh dear old Emily! I fell in love with her in college and, like you, will love her to my dying day. Wearing all white for years like that, it does my heart good to think about.

    I like your name for her, the patron saint of American introverts.

    And as far as politics goes, I am just so tired. While I do tend to lean left in my politics, really I dislike both sides. I dislike it all. Would I prefer a monarch, I ask myself? Somebody who just shows up from time to time and is intolerable, but I don't have to pretend to be interested in them or their views? I won't have to listen to people trying to persuade me to agree with one argument or another? How un-American of me to suggest this.

  2. Manuela
    September 20, 2012

    Well, I don't even know where to begin. I just read this for the third (or was it fourth) time. I actually just read it out loud to Brad as well. This just means so much to me.
    I guess it relates somewhat to the email I wrote to you the other day, but also the poem itself, oh the poem, especially the line "I took my Power in my Hand- And went against the World", sounds like music in my ears.
    Well, you know how I feel most of the time.
    Thank you for this. I will definitely pick up more Emily Dickinson books next time I will go to the library.

  3. Christy
    September 23, 2012

    Visiting her house was truly one of the highlights of my life. But there are very few people I can tell that to, for fear of sounding just plain weird.

    Have you read Susan Cain's Quiet? She explores the extroverted American ideal a lot. It's fascinating and a bit depressing, what we introverts have to put up with.