The Enigma of Emily Dickinson Still Alive and Well

Christopher Benfey’s article “Dickinson: Raw or Cooked?” in the New York Review of Books, revisits the long-standing feud between Harvard and Amherst Colleges over everything Emily Dickinson. The two institutions each own a sizable amount of Dickinson’s estate and effects. As Amherst Archivist Michael Kelly was quoted in the article: “They have the furniture, we have the daguerreotype; they have the herbarium, we have the hair.” But what Harvard and Amherst are essentially quibbling over is who has the right to characterize Dickinson. Which is a lucky situation for readers and fans of E.D. Harvard takes the traditional approach, defining Dickinson as a conservative poet who chose her meter and form and stuck to it. Amherst chooses to give us the ‘raw’ of the ‘raw or cooked’, posting Dickinson’s collection of splayed envelopes and paper scraps with scribbled-on bits of brilliance and cryptic three or four word phrases. Between Harvard’s dedication to upholding a view of the poet as tidy perfectionist and Amherst’s insistence on honoring the experimentalist Dickinson, I think we’re getting a surprisingly well-rounded view of a poet who hasn’t penned a word in nearly 130 years.

And Then It Was 7

but with no wind and a little bedding of snow to make walk-taking less threatening.

Tree doorway

Tree doorway

The grace of snow limned branches

The grace of snow limned branches

Mount Monadnock in the distance

Mount Monadnock in the distance

Bittersweet is invasive and thorny but so pretty against snow (hence the name)

Bittersweet is invasive and thorny but so pretty against snow (hence the name)

Last summer's sunflowers; even the birds have given up on them

Last summer’s sunflowers; even the birds have given up on them

Another naturally occurring  doorway. The tree rotted, hollowed out and split in the middle, but I can pretend fairies did it.

Another naturally occurring doorway. The tree rotted, hollowed out and split in the middle, but I can pretend fairies did it.

A little green amongst the white and brown

A little green amongst the white and brown

A basket of sky

A basket of sky

Some deer rooted this fern out of the snow and left it for me

Some deer rooted this fern out of the snow and left it for me

A nice perspective for a ground ward dwelling animal

A nice perspective for a ground ward dwelling animal

The weak winter sun can still make the snow sparkle and cast those bars on everything

The weak winter sun can still make the snow sparkle and cast those bars on everything

Tree trunk with birch paper scroll

Tree trunk with birch paper scroll

Yet another doorway. When they're large enough I walk through and make a wish.

Yet another doorway. When they’re large enough I walk through and make a wish.

The flaying bark on this birch reminds me of some mythological creature

The flaying bark on this birch reminds me of some mythological creature

Every year around this time, just when I can’t fathom why I live in one of the coldest parts of the country, I take a little ramble. When I headed out this morning it happened to be 12-degrees, ideal conditions for a little circular thinking, but I subverted that- like the trickle of water beneath the very solid-looking stream. Plus, I had my camera. If you’ve never experienced an early morning walk through woods and fields in a breezy 12-degrees (fahrenheit), here are a few photos to conjure the experience. I’ll add some ‘audio’: trees crack, pop, moan and cry at this temperature, as though they’re about to fall down on your head, the stream, which appears utterly solid is running beneath all that ice and its thin trickle gives you hope that the world hasn’t frozen over completely, a strong wind in the tops of trees in a quiet wood is a beautiful sound.



Twelve Degrees

Antique Diary Mysteries Last Installment

 This is the last installment of Esther Small’s 1886 diary. The diary ends with a surprise visit from Esther’s brother, wife and children. She mentions never having seen his daughter so the visit appears to be an unusual occurrence. I wondered if the visit was precipitated by their father’s death or impending death coupled with Esther’s pregnancy. Perhaps the family felt she needed a visit. Esther was 8 months pregnant when the diary ends. She doesn’t drop in to mention the birth or any other event in the last months of 1886. From what I have found in the census records, it appears that the last child, Anna, was the only Small child to marry and have children. I believe descendants are living in the Mexico/Dixfield area of Maine and would have the surname Mayhew somewhere in their line. I have begun the process of formatting the diary for publication and will be meeting with the owner of a small press next week to get the ball rolling. My plan is to include a dozen or so photographs of the diary entries along with my transcriptions. I’ll have the published diary available at my poetry readings and will post here when it’s available for all who have been following Esther’s story. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, June 6, 1886

Pleasent all day

Etta Morse down

here today. She came

to change papers.


Monday, June 7, 1886

Today I washed had

a two weeks one to

do. I had to do it alone.        

It was hard for me                                                        

to bring the water                                                         

and empty the tubs                                                      

but I did it. Got the                                                        

clothes out a little                                                          

after noon. They got                                                      

dry and at night

I fetched them in. I

did nothing but the

white clothes. Was

tired when I got

through at night. W

at work for R Wright

all day. At night he jawed

me and called me

all the names he could.


Tuesday, June 8, 1886

Pleasant all day

William to work again

today for Reuben Wright.

This afternoon his

father worked there

so I was alone with

the children. It seemed

like we had a pleasent



Wednesday, June 9, 1886

Today I finished the

rest of the washing.

Had a quite large one

for the colored and

flannells ones and the

coarse white ones.

Did not get done

till most four oclock.

William to work for

Elias Morse, his father

to work for Reuben

Wright. Did not expect

him home to supper but

he was. Did not eat till

late as I did not get time

to get it sooner. W jawed

and called me names

tonight as usual. I

am tired out I can tell you.


Thursday, June 10, 1886

Unpleasant all day.

Raining most of

the time. W did not

work any where today

at home all



(This Entry was crossed out)

 Friday June 11, 1886

Today they worked                 

on the roads. William

and his father out

working on the road

not pleasent

all day.


(Esther left a blank in place of her age. She was 42)

 Saturday, June 12, 1886

 Pleasant all day.

Today is my birthday

am    years old getting                                                          

on to old age. Not                                                                  

a pleasent one to me.                                                            

William jawing and                                              

calling me names

whenever he was in

the house. Had butter

to work over to night.

It was most dark as

I could not get William

to churn in the day

time and he was home

all the time doing

not much of anything.


Sunday, June 13, 1886

Pleasent all day

W at home all day.

Just night Huey

and Adeline Hoyt

stopped here a short

time. Edd Morse

here also.


Saturday June 26, 1886

To night Carrie

Morse, Sadie

Allen and the

teacher were. They

stayed a short

time. Pleasent

all day.


Monday, June 28, 1886

Today ripped up an

old shirt of

Williams to cut

out another one

by cut out the new

one but did not

sew any on it.

William to work

for Reuben Wright

today. Pleasent

all day.


Tuesday, June 29, 1886

Sewing on the

shirt when I could

get time and was

not doing the

other work.

Pleasent all day

William to work

for R Wright

again to day.


Wednesday, June 30, 1886

Pleasent all day

finished the shirt

to night William

to work for Mr.

R Wright again

to day.


 Thursday, July 1, 1886

Etta Morse and

Lonnie Wright

were here a short

time this afternoon.

Pleasent all day

and warm.

William to work

for R W again

today. He put on

his new shirt

this morning.


(The next three entries: July 5, 6, 7 which were crossed out, are almost exact duplicates of the three written on June 28, 29 and 30, with a couple variations. This may be evidence that Esther sometimes wrote entries from memory, perhaps because she couldn’t write freely with William or his father around the house.)


Monday, July 5, 1886

Today ripped up

an old shirt of

Williams to cut

another out by.

Cut out the new

one but did not

sew any on it.

William to work

for Reuben Wright

all day. Pleasent.


Tuesday, July 6, 1886

Sewing on the

shirt when I was

not doing house

work.  Pleasent

all day  William to

work for R.W. to

day again.


Wednesday, July 7, 1886

Finished the shirt

tonight I

made it all by

hand. Pleasent

all day. William

to work for Wright

again today.                                                                           

Still pleasent                                                                          

and was so all day.                                                                



Thursday, July 8, 1886

Pleasant all day

and warm.

                   Just at

night received                                                                  

a dispatch saying                                                             

that my brother &                                                           

wife and children                                                            

would be here the

next day on the                                                               

noon train.

We were up till

most midnight

did not get much



Friday, July 9, 1886

My brother and his

wife and two Children

came in on the noon

train. William met

them at the depot.

It was the first time

I had seen El

the girl. They brought

us all some preasents,

me a nice box of

perfumed soap, a book

and another small

preasent, Abbie a doll,

Garfield a ball, Warren

a knife, William a brush

broom. Got Mrs. Charles

Allen to help me as I am

not very well.





Antique Diaries; Part III

32nd Maine Infantry

32nd Maine Infantry

This is the third installment of entries from the 1886 diary of Esther Small. I mentioned in the first post that she was born in Sandy Creek, New York in Oswego County to the clergyman Hiram Waite. According to census records, he died in 1886 which, I believe, sheds more light on Esther’s homesickness during this year. I haven’t found much extra census  information on Esther’s father and mother, except for the fact that Hiram taught religious studies at the Antwerp Liberal Literary Institute in New York and that both Esther and her sister Julia attended as teenagers. The roster specified that they studied languages. Esther’s lineage goes back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony where one of her grandfathers served Governor John Winthrop and led troops against a Native American coalition in King Phillip’s War. Curiously, King Phillip’s War plays a part in my second collection of poetry. I didn’t know about Esther’s familial connection before writing it.  William’s family had been established in Maine for at least a couple generations. The only information I’ve been able to find for him is connected to his service in the Civil War. William began his service with the 31st infantry which was later absorbed by the 32nd infantry. He saw action in some pivotal and particularly bloody battles: The Wilderness, Spottsylvania Courthouse and the Crater among them. He was released from service due to injury less than a year before the war’s close. The injury is not specified. 


Friday, April 16, 1886

Today has been pleasent

and seems quite like spring.

Have not done much

but the housework today

as I have not felt like it.

Sent a letter to M G S(?)

Childs for some house plants

a (1.05) one dollar and 5 cts

worth. Had the letter registered.

William did it for me tonight.

He went after the mail.


Sunday, April 18, 1886

Pleasant all day

and quite warm.

After dinner and

I did the work up,

I took Garfield and

Abbie up to Edd Morses

to see some little pigs.

They have four.

Silas and Reuben Wright

here today.

Got some more papers

to read from Etta Morse.


Tuesday, April 20, 1886

Pleasant all day.

William started to

work for Silas Wright

but met his brother

coming here to help him

so he came back but                                          

sent up word he                                         

could not come.

Intended to have washed

today but did not

as I could not

and do the work too.


Wednesday, April 21, 1886

Washed today had

a four weeks wash.

Got through a little

past noon was

tired I can tell

you. William

worked for Silas

Wright today.

It has been warm

and pleasant all day


Monday, May 3, 1886

Pleasant and mild all day.

Elias H Morse worked

here with his oxen

this forenoon.

        This afternoon

Henry Morse worked

here with his horses

plowing for William


Tuesday, May 4, 1886

Unpleasant most of the day

this forenoon. It snowed

hard and it was cold.

Snowed by spells all day.

H Morse intended

to have worked here

again today but the storm

prevented.William went

to his good templars lodge

to night. He got me

a webb of sheeting 42

yds and ten yards besides.


Wednesday, May 5, 1886

Henry Morse finished

plowing for William

this afternoon. Did not

get through till late.

     This morning

after I done up the

work I tore off three

sheets commenced

sewing on one today.

Pleasant all day.


Monday, May 17, 1886

Today I washed the white clothes.

Did not get through (til) late

as I had no one to help me

and I had all my wood

and water to bring, the

children to look after,

the pigs to feed, lamb

and chickens also

as William worked for

Billy Bryant today.

Came home just as we

were going to eat our supper.

He was mad. He called me

a god damned son of a bitch

of a whore and hoped

every time he went away

he would come home

and find me dead.


Tuesday, May 18, 1886

Finished the rest

of the washing today.

Got through a little

afternoon. Did not

have much help today.

William home all day too

and not doing much

of any work either.

William went to his

good Templars lodge

to night. Finished another

sheet to night.        (my note** maybe sheets for the baby)


Monday, May 24, 1886

Pleasant all day.

I did not wash today

as I did not feel like it.

William at home today.

Antique Diary Mysteries Continued

 In my last post I introduced you to the diaries of Esther Small. As I wrote earlier, the black 1880 diary had only a scattering of entries and with three predated entries to a page, Esther didn’t have much space to write. The red 1886 diary was kept up more faithfully. Esther was in her early 40s during the writing of the diary and pregnant with her last child, a daughter she would name Anna. The pregnancy is never mentioned, but Esther does write about feeling tired or unwell in several entries. Her days were filled with chores as most working-class women of her day. Between churning butter, boiling and hauling water to manually wash every stitch of her family’s clothing, mending the clothes, cooking, and tending to the children and the livestock, Esther had little spare time. Her moments of leisure seemed to be spent reading ‘the papers’ and visiting neighbors. But with hard winters, no transportation but her own feet, a late pregnancy, and an abusive husband unpredictably storming in and out the house, Esther’s life appears bleak. 

As of 1886, we know that Esther had been enduring verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her father-in-law and husband for six years. The fact that her father-in-law threw a knife at her in the 1880 diary indicates that the abuse had reached a certain intensity and likely wasn’t a new occurrence. William worked off and on at a local quarry, clearing and maintaining town roads, farming their own land, and helping neighboring farmers with theirs’. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and was often around the house, burdening Esther with criticisms or downright abuse. A handful of entries follows. The misspellings, antiquated grammar and odd line breaks are Esther’s. I tried to stay true to her entries, especially where she breaks lines, as it shows how small and narrow the space she was confined to.  I will interject with (my note) where I have information or insight to give.


Thursday, February 11, 1886

Tonight received

a box of things

from Utica from

Julia and Warren

with lots of things

in it for me and

the children, also

some few things in

it for William

Pleasant but cold,

this diary in the

box a present

from Warren C

Rowley. Unpacked

part of the box tonight

(my note** Julia was Esther’s sister; her husband Warren Rowley was a lawyer of prominent lineage. It’s interesting that Esther includes his full name, almost as a point of pride.)


Friday, February 12, 1886

After I got the work

done up this morning

finished unpacking

the box. found some

toys and candy for

the children.

some nice ones

they were. they were

much pleased

with them.


Monday, February 22, 1886

Today pleasant but

cold. Did not wash

today. Alice Tufft was

here most all the

forenoon. she came

down to get me to

come up and stay

with her this after

noon as she was all

alone. Etta Edd

and Morris were

away. Could not go

for William went

to the Corner and

no one to stay in

with the children.

(my note** in the 19th century, Mondays were typically a woman’s day to wash clothes. Whenever Esther mentions not washing, she is referring to skipping the week’s wash)


Tuesday, February 23, 1886

Pleasant all day

but cold baked

a lot of pies this

forenoon. This

afternoon after I

did the work up

went up to stay

with Alice a spell but

found her gone. Etta

had come back. her

sister brought her

and took Alice back

with her. stay a

short time


Tuesday, March 2, 1886

This morning while I

was doing up the

work William got mad

put off up to Edd Morses

stayed all the forenoon

playing cards. He came

home mad and his

father commenced at

him about what I had

said to him and it was

all a lie. it made William

all the madder and

he up and kicked

me a few times as hard

as he could on my bottom.

it hurt so I could not set

down unless I had a cushion. 

Commenced to

break out the roads after

the storm.

(my note** in rural areas, men with oxen and sledges would literally have to break through several feet of snow to clear the roads.)


Wednesday, March 3, 1886

Blows and snows

some today. They are

out breaking roads

again,  Lester day, Reu

Morse and his man

helped in the afternoon.

This afternoon this

other and Walter with

them helped. Am

still lame cannot sit down

unless I have a

cushion in the chair.

(my note** this entry shows that William didn’t just kick Esther for show, to frighten or humiliate her. He likely bruised her tailbone with the power of his kicks. Remember that men didn’t wear the soft soled shoes of today. William was probably wearing a hard soled work boot; add to this the fact that Esther was a few months pregnant.)


Saturday, March 20, 1886

It has snowed

hard all day William

worked for

Reu Morse was

gone till most

night and then he

came home mad

and commenced at

me. I have been cross

with the children

most of the time as

this fortnight W has been

to the neighbors.

Most of time I enjoy

being alone

with the children.


Sunday, March 21, 1886

Snowed hard all

day and rather

cold no one here

today I have

been lonesome

and homesick

all day so much

that I had to

have a crying spell.

(my note** This entry is significant for the fact that Esther is still suffering homesickness after being married and living away from home for over a decade.)


Monday, March 22, 1886

Not very pleasant

this morning but

towards noon it cleared

off and was pleasent.

did not wash to

day have been trying

to churn. have been

at it most all day.

tonight got it up. William

got mad at me tonight

and threaten to

split my head open

I am tired and homesick tonight.

I have been crying again.

Oh how I wish I had

never come here in

the small family.


Sunday March 28, 1886

Pleasant all day.

William has been

off most of the day.

After dinner and I

done up the work I

Went up to Mrs.

Wrights stayed a

short had a pleasent

time while

there it seems like

going home to go

there. Came back

Just dark.

(my note** sometimes Esther’s succinct way of writing: ‘came back just dark’ creates more meaning than she likely intended; a kind of stark poetry that compelled me from the start.)


Monday, March 29, 1886

Have been mending

most of the

time today when

not doing the

house work. Have

been here alone

with children

as William has

gone to mill and

his father is off to

the neighbors

both gone most

all day. I enjoyed

being alone did

not wash today

It has been pleasant

all day. I am

tired tonight.


Tuesday, March 30 1886

Unpleasant all

day it has been thawing

all day and a

heavy fogg mist

almost a rain.

William off again today

most of the

time and when he

did come back he

commenced at me

called me all the names

you could think of

wished I was dead

Sewing and mending

all day so homesick

tonight I had to cry

am all beat out

and tired


Saturday, April 3, 1886

Pleasant all day

and warm. The snow

is leaving fast. William

off all the morning

and forenoon he did

not get back till

noon. He was up to the (?)

               He came

home mad he said

a person said if he had

me he would set me up

in the (?)  and (?)

I told William he

could do it as soon as he

pleased. Sat up till 12

O’clock mending have

been at it most of the day and

sewing and baking

(my note** I had trouble transcribing this entry and used question marks where I just couldn’t decipher. However, it’s clear that William was at a public place and spoke to someone who made a comment about Esther. What is also significant in this entry is that Esther appears to ‘talk back’. There are entries later in the diary where Esther’s obstinacy is clear in her writing. She may have been heartbroken and ‘all beat out’ but I wouldn’t question her strength.)


Sunday April 4, 1886

Pleasant all day

After I did up the

work this morning I

got ready and went

up to see Mrs. B Allen

walked up was some

tired when I got there

as it is up hill most

of the way and not

very good walking

at that. left there

about three Oclock

got home about

five had a pleasant time.


Monday April 5, 1886

Today washed I

had a three weeks

one. I only washed

the fine ones to

day and that was

as much as I could

do as I had the water

to bring, tubs to

empty, wood to bring

the children to

look after and the

meals to get. When

night came I was

so tired I had to

have a good cry.

Edd Morse here



Tuesday, April 6, 1886

Pleasant this

morning but about

noon it commenced

to storm and

by night stormed

quite hard It was

mostly hail. finish

the rest of the

washing the flannels

and colored

clothes got most

dry as I washed them

first but the rest

I had to put into

a tub of water

Silas Wright stopped

here and said I         

could have the molasses


Wednesday, April 7, 1886

Unpleasant all

day rain snow

and sleet done a

little of everything

to day no one

here worked over

a churning of butter

Was so lonesome and

homesick that

when night came I

had to have a good cry.


Stay tuned, more entries to come….




The Mystery of Two Antique Diaries

My interest in antique diaries began in 2008 with the discovery of two diaries; one black, one red, at an antique shop in Maine. They are what was known at the time as ‘pocket diaries’, made of pliable stuff, maybe 3 by 5 inches, with a little flap that secures the whole thing shut. There’s a loop for a small pencil in each and a couple pages of information on presidents, postal rates and the like. The diaries have predated pages, the black one, dating to 1880, with two to three dated entry blocks per day. Diarists of the day had to be brief and this economy of space did engender succinct descriptions of weather and chores. Not much extra for delving into the emotional landscape or the particular hue of a sunset. For these reasons, the black and red diaries, dating 1880 and 1886 were all the more fascinating. Both were written primarily in pencil with a few entries in ink, which had faded to sepia. The 1880 diary has only a handful of entries, the 1886 diary about half full.

Old diaries are notoriously hard to read and these were bearish to transcribe. During the initial reading I didn’t know the identity of the diarist. There was what appeared to be a name scribbled in the front cover but I couldn’t decipher it. There are plenty of names in the entries themselves and I quickly learned that the diarist was a woman, her husband’s name William and that he was abusing her, both physically and verbally. Thus began my sleuthing. The antique shop where I bought the diaries was 30 minutes from my house and the diarist wrote of local towns and landmarks. With the handful of names mentioned in the diary, including her husband’s and children’s names, as well as the name of her town, I began searching an online database of cemetery records. I found the diarist, her husband, and two children who died as infants, listed in a tiny cemetery. Her name was Esther Small. With this information I turned to census records and discovered that she was born in Sandy Creek, New York as Esther Waite, the daughter of a clergyman. She had three living children, had married William Small well into her twenties and moved to his hometown in rural Maine. William had served in the Civil War and worked as a tanner in Sandy Creek where he likely met Esther. Three of their children died as infants. Esther never mentions it but, according to the census, she was pregnant with her last daughter Anna throughout the 1886 diary. 

The funny thing about mysteries is that they’re never completely solved, or maybe the type of person who feels compelled to solve them is never quite satisfied. I’ve not seen a photo of Esther. I have a photo of the 32nd Maine Infantry which William served in for a few years of the Civil War, but he may not be in it, he was discharged due to injury a matter of months before the war’s close. What irks me most is the thought that there are other diaries written by Esther in the world somewhere. A woman doesn’t keep diaries for two years of her life and call it quits. Diarists have a need to archive their lives. I’d also like to know how Esther and William met, why she married him. Her family of origin seems to have been educated and kind and she bemoans the fact that she married into the Small family. But why did she? Unless I’m miraculously lucky to find another diary of Esther’s, I guess the rest will remain a mystery.

Excerpts from the 1880 diary of Esther Small


Monday, May 24, 1880

Washed Today. William’s

father got mad at me

called me a damned liar

a shitten one and a stinking

one also threw a knife at me

but did not hit me.



Sunday, May 30, 1880

Pleasant till this afternoon

when it rained most

of the time. I intended to

have gone to church this

PM if it had not rained. Silas

Wright here this PM.


Wednesday, June 2, 1880

Pleasant all day.                                                                            

Washed did not get                                                                       

through till night.                                                                          

Rev. Mr. Small of

Wilton made us a call

this PM.


Tuesday, September 14, 1880

W. has been accusing me of

being after every man in

town and called me a whore

and other names.


Saturday, October 30, 1880

Today W. has called me

all the names that he

could think of New York whore

son of a bitch she devil

a bastard bloody whore

and stick your nose

up my ass clear to

your eye brows

a damned whore and

a rotten one








In my next post, I’ll describe the red diary from 1886 and include a few entries. The 1886 diary has pre-dated, full-page entries and when writing on a particularly difficult or emotional day, Esther scrawled her words up both sides of the narrow page. That attempt to simultaneously purge and contain her feelings of frenzy and helplessness has, heartbreakingly, survived down the centuries.