Biography and Mystery

How can one person ever know another’s heart, especially long after she’s dead? Emily Dickinson’s a mystery, and so are her poems, and because she devoted her life to them, she and her poems are almost inseparable.

When I write my book, I want to spend a few pages talking about biography. It’s all conjecture, no matter how much “evidence” we may find. How close is the “I” in the poems to ED herself? It’s bound to be a continuum, and because she definitely had a flair for the dramatic (those white dresses!), what seems to be ED herself could still be an exaggeration, especially in the more forceful poems.

And then there are the letters, which are by their nature at least partly a performance, since when we write letters to other people, we want to hold their attention. And since her letters became her primary way of talking to people, and since she was a poet, we have to expect them to be more than everyday correspondence.

Plus there’s the character of the biographer. I’m not the first to claim that all writing is in some way autobiographical, so when someone writes a biography, we have to expect to find at least as much of her in the book as the subject. No two people interpret any encounter in the exact same way, so when you’re dealing with the life of another person, you can be sure that no two biographers will interpret that in the same way, not even close.

One of the reasons I decided to write my book for kids twelve and up is because I can talk about matters that become assumptions for adults. I can discuss the difference between primary and secondary sources, the effects of literary executors and editors on the writing, and–especially–the need for us readers to keep enough of a distance to be able to form our own judgments.