Today, some of our classmates (myself included) went on a tour of the Emily Dickinson museum in Amherst. Spoiler: it was fantastic. This was my second tour, and I was still awed at Emily’s genius and strangeness. I call her Emily now, as if we’re the best of friends. That was how the tour made me feel – like we got to see sides of her that most people aren’t aware of.
I won’t say anything too specific about these sides, except that there are many, and that you ought to take a trip to the museum to find them out for yourself. Instead, I’d like to talk about Emily’s relationship to MHC.
But first, an anecdote.
Three years ago, I purchased my beloved purple glasses at a high-end optical store, during which time, this conversation happened.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: What’s the occasion?
Me: I’m going off to college and I want to change things up a little bit. And my current glasses are like disgusting. They have like all this green stuff in them like slimy stuff…? [I’m an oversharer.]
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: [smiles indulgently, ignores oversharing] Where are you going?
Me: It’s this tiny private college in Massachusetts called Mount Holyoke.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: I haven’t heard of it. What’s its claim to fame?
Me: Well, it’s a women’s college. And Emily Dickinson went there. I guess she’s a pretty big deal.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: [is impressed] Really? That’s fascinating.
Me: But she dropped out. She’s like their most famous dropout.
Impeccably dressed employee: [laughs indulgently] [wonders if this wee lout in a too-small T-shirt can afford the expensive frames he has to offer]
Me: [affords frames] [but is broke forever]
Now, after three years at Mount Holyoke, I wonder how much we can actually lay a claim to our most famous dropout. We advertise Mount Holyoke as the college that bred one of the most famous minds in the history of literature. We put up posters of her in our library. We claim her as part of our legacy, and ourselves as part of her legacy.
But, as I (re)learned at the museum today, she hated Mount Holyoke. Its rigorous schedule felt confining. Mary Lyon was, apparently, a tyrant who neglected students with “no hope” of religious salvation. It was far away from Emily’s home, where she enjoyed herself most – and after a semester and a half, she left Mary Lyon and her (un)saved brethren behind to return to her quiet, solitary life, without the nagging of Ms. Lyon and the paradoxical chaos of the strictly ordered life.
She spent only months of her fifty-odd years at Mount Holyoke. Her experience here was a blip in her otherwise somewhat homogeneously private life; Mount Holyoke was a footnote in a half-century of other (presumably more positive) experiences. After a couple of years, I’m sure she rarely thought of the college at all.
Still, when the Impeccably Dressed Salesman called two weeks later, he remembered Mount Holyoke, and he remembered her.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Is this Ms. Dickinson?
Me: [eternally clueless] Um, no, I think you have the wrong number.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Are you sure?
Me: Um, yes?
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Actually, this is [Impeccably Dressed Salesman] from Cascade Optical.
Me: Really, I think you have the…oh wait. Are you calling for Emily Oxford?
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Yes.
Me: Then why did you…oh, I see, Emily Dickinson, right. Ha ha, ha ha, ha…ha…how amusing of you. [is decidedly unsettled]
The Impeccably Dressed Salesman remembered Emily Dickinson’s name better than my own. And, when I went back to get my glasses cleaned a year and a half later, Impeccably Dressed Salesman said, “Yes, I remember you! You go to Emily Dickinson’s Alma Mater.”
Me: She dropped out.
Emily Dickinson is what many remember about Mount Holyoke—an otherwise obscure institution in an obscure corner of the world—but she left here as soon as she could. The place made her skin crawl. We claim her as ours, when really, she wanted to be no one’s. Especially not Mary Lyon’s. Especially not Mount Holyoke’s.
And probably not mine. But I still call her “Emily” instead of “Ms. Dickinson.”