Thursday, March 25, 2010

Was the famous poet Emily Dickinson autistic, epileptic, both or neither? One thing is certain, she had the gift of a finely developed sense of smell

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 An American poet regarded as one of the greatest poets. Her poems were in a number of ways unconventional for their time. Dickinson was a prolific poet but was not well known in her lifetime. She was very reclusive and considered eccentric but she had a good rapport with children. She had a habit of wearing white clothes, but also excelled at domestic work such as gardening and baking. Dickinson had a particular fascination for scented flowers. When she died she was buried in a white coffin and flowers used at her funeral included orchid, heliotrope and violets - flowers which have especially splendid fragrances. It has been written that Dickinson “saw things directly and just as they were”.

Dickinson is one of the writers discussed in the 2010 book Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing by literary academic Julie Brown. Dickinson’s biographer Lyndall Gordon has argued that epilepsy is the explanation for Dickinson’s reclusive life and her single status. Epilepsy had a huge social stigma during the time that Dickinson lived. There was a family history of epilepsy in the Dickinson family. Both explanations offered could be true – autistic people have an increased risk of also having epilepsy, and autism and epilepsy can both run in families.


Brown, Julie (2010) Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing. Jessica Kingsley, 2010.
[writers discussed in this book by a literary academic include Hans Christian Andersen, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson and Opal Whiteley.]

Gilbert, Avery (2008) What the nose knows: the science of scent in everyday life. Crown/Random House, 2008.

[an interesting description of Dickinson's fascination with floral fragrance on pages 137-139]

Gordon, Lyndall (2010) Lives like loaded guns: Emily Dickinson and her family’s feuds. Virago, 2010.

Gordon, Lyndall (2010) A bomb in her bosom: Emily Dickinson's secret life.
February 13th 2010.
[includes discussion of epilepsy]

Koval, Ramona (2010) Lyndall Gordon on Emily Dickinson. The Book Show. ABC Radio National. March 12th 2010.
[an interesting discussion, epilepsy is discussed, audio and transcript available]


Adelaide Dupont said...

I remember Lyndall Gordon as a biographer of Charlotte Bronte, and I don't remember the press impact of A PASSIONATE LIFE the way I remember LOADED GUNS.

I've enjoyed online valorium editions of her work in the recent past (June 2009).

Here are the Emily Dickinson electronic archives

There are 4 articles about 'unfastening the fasciscles".

It's interesting that Gordon thinks the dashes are deliberate.

Wow! More than a 150 years since Dickinson wrote her first fascicle.

And the Master may be a "composition exercise".

And, yes, she did have a great sense of smell.

Unknown said...

I love your blog! Julie Brown

Lili Marlene said...

Thank you for the kind words. I hope to be able to read your book some time.

I have a question - do you regard your ideas about Dickinson as conflicting with or compatible with Lyndall Gordon's theories about Dickinson?

Adelaide Dupont said...

Probably conflicting.

I don't know in which ways.

Lili Marlene said...

Thank you for letting us know about the Emily Dickinson archives, Adelaide. Its amazing the things that one can read online at no cost.