Following the lamentable events in the town of Amherst last night, and as the community awaits an estimate of the damages and the full list of casualties, we felt that it would be appropriate to take a look back at the history of Emily Dickinson related violence in Amherst.
The earliest destruction associated with Emily Dickinson is, alas, confined mainly to conjecture. Following a series of mysterious nocturnal fires in the town of Amherst in the late 1870s and early 1880s, rumors began spreading of sightings of a white clad figure in connection with the blazes. The complete destruction of the college’s Walker Hall on the night of March 29, 1882, one of this series of fires, was linked with Dickinson some decades later. In a deathbed confession, mathematics instructor Fred A. Gaylord revealed that he had been maintaining a passionate correspondence with a mysterious and poetical local lady with dreadful penmanship; days before the blaze he had threatened to publish her letters if she continued to refuse to meet him in person. Her letters were, of course, completely destroyed in the conflagration.
Some fifty years later, in 1925, Amherst College students were holding their annual declamation contest in the College Grove. Unrest began during the event when factions supporting Arthur J. White, who recited Wordsworth, and Elmer P. Hurst, reading Emily Dickinson, began to deride one another’s literary discernment. Violence erupted after the judges unanimously chose White. The brawl quickly spread through the crowd leaving a large portion of the student body nursing injuries to body and dignity.
President Olds remonstrated the students the following day and officially banned both Dickinson and Wordsworth from campus.
In April of 1956, as news of Millicent Todd Bingham’s donation of her Emily Dickinson manuscripts to Amherst College spread throughout the town, a large group of passionate supporters of Amherst’s Jones Library gathered on the town common. Already nettled by the donation of Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s manuscripts to Harvard, this latest news was unbearable insult to the loyal library patrons who felt that Dickinson’s works belonged at the public library. Torches were lit and as the angry mob grew, groups of torch bearing citizens roamed the campus terrorizing undergraduates and professors alike. Late in the evening the mob reconvened in the town common and burned both institutions of higher learning in effigy while chanting, “Emily for the People! Emily for the People!”
In 1989, the renowned expert in early photographic portraiture, G. D. Anderson, offered a rare opportunity for the public to bring possible daguerreotypes of Emily Dickinson to him for assessment. Much to his astonishment, 126 individuals attended the event, held in the Masonic Lodge in Amherst. In order to keep the crowd amused during the long wait for individual consultations, Anderson made the short-sighted suggestion that attendees form small groups to discuss the merit of the images they had brought. Tragically, all 126 daguerreotypes were destroyed in the resulting melee. Following the incident, Anderson removed himself entirely from public life and is rumored to now be a llama farmer in northern Vermont.
In 2008, in a carefully hushed incident, Amherst College Physics Professor Dr. Johanna Ehrikson pursued her Emily Dickinson research to the near annihilation of the planet. Dr. Ehrikson was exploring the hypothesis that Emily Dickinson had embedded the Theory Of Everything (TOE) in her written works (specifically the fascicle books). Intending to publish the TOE in a paper jointly authored by herself and Dickinson, Dr. Ehrikson fed Dickinson’s works into a secret algorithm to begin the process of decoding. To her astonishment, the overwhelming weight of the profundity of Dickinson’s poetry caused a very small black hole to form. It was only the quick action of student assistant Emma Rahlsten, who recognized the danger and quickly hit the kill switch, that stopped the black hole before it became large enough to be self-sustaining. The black hole evaporated, life on earth continued as we know it, and Professor Ehrikson decided to pursue other avenues to tenure.
Most recently, as I’m sure we’re all aware, was the pub fight at the 2011 Emily Dickinson International Society conference. A heated debate between opposing camps of scholars on the meaning of Dickinson’s dash lengths escalated to nose tweaking and ear pulling and quickly developed into an all-out brawl that caused significant property damage to the now defunct Groan & Quail and changed the course of a number of scholarly inquiries.
All of us at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections offer our sympathies to those affected by last night’s incident and our sincere hope that we can finally all come together and stop the violence.
Edit: Happy April Fools Day!
With gratitude for the research assistance of Dr. Theresa J. Brandt and Margaret Dakin.