Early Feminist Essays: Home
Growing up with Emily Dickinson
A Remembrance by Emily Fowler Ford (1826-1893)1
(pub. 1894, Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd)
My remembrances of my friend Emily Dickinson are many and vivid, and delightful to me personally, yet they are all of trifles in themselves, and only interesting to the general public as they cast light on the growth and changes in her soul.

Our parents were friends, and we knew each other from childhood, but she was several years younger, and how and when we drew together I cannot recall, but I think the friendship was based on certain sympathies and mutual admirations of beauty in nature and ideas. She loved the great aspects of nature and yet was full of interest and affection for its smaller details. We often walked together over the lovely hills of Amherst, and I remember especially two excursions to Mount Norwottock, five miles away, where we found the climbing fern, and came home laden with pink and white trilliums, and later, yellow lady's-slippers. She knew the wood-lore of the region round about, and could name the haunts and the habits of every wild or garden growth within her reach. Her eyes were wide open to nature's sights, and her ears to nature's voices.

My chief recollections of her are connected with these woodland walks, or out-door excursions with a merry party, perhaps to Sunderland for the "sugaring off" of the maple sap, or to some wild brook in the deeper forest, where the successful fishermen would afterward cook the chowder. She was a free talker about what interested her, yet I cannot remember one personal opinion expressed of her mates, her home or her habits.

Later we met to discuss books. The Atlantic Monthly was a youngster then, and our joy over a new poem by Lowell, Longfellow, and Whittier, our puzzles over Emerson's "If the red slayer think he slays," our laughter at Oliver Wendell Holmes, were full and satisfying. Lowell was especially dear to us, and once I saw a passionate fit of crying brought on, when a tutor of the College who died while contesting the senatorship for Louisiana [2], told us from his eight years of seniority, that "Byron had a much better style," and advised us "to leave Lowell, Motherwell and Emerson alone." Like other young creatures, we were ardent partisans.

There was a fine circle of young people in Amherst, and we influenced each other strongly. We were in the adoring mood, and I am glad to say that many of those idols of our girlhood have proved themselves golden. The eight girls who composed this group had talent enough for twice their number, and in their respective spheres of mothers, authors or women, have been noteworthy and admirable. Three of them have passed from earth, but the others live in activity and usefulness.

This group started a little paper in the Academy, now the village High School, which was kept up for two years. Emily Dickinson was one of the wits of the school and a humorist of the 'comic column.' Fanny Montague often made the head title of the paper -- Forest Leaves -- in leaves copied from nature, and fantasies of her own penwork. She is now a wise member of art circles in Baltimore, a manger of the Museum of Art, and the appointed and intelligent critic of the Japanese exhibit at the Exposition in Chicago. Helen Fiske (the 'H. H.' of later days) did no special work on the paper for various reasons.

This paper was all in script, and was passed around the school, where the contributions were easily recognized from the handwriting, which in Emily's case was very beautiful -- small, clear, and finished. Later, though her writing retained its elegance, it became difficult to read. I wish very much I could have found a copy of Forest Leaves, but we recklessly gave the numbers away, and the last one I ever saw turned up at the Maplewood Institute in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they started a similar paper. Emily's contributions were irresistible, but I cannot recall them. One bit was stolen by a roguish editor for the College paper, where he touch was instantly recognized, and there were two paragraphs in The Springfield Republican.

We had a Shakespeare club -- a rare thing in those days, -- and one of the tutors proposed to take all the copies of all the members and mark out the questionable passages. This plan was negatived at the first meeting, as far as the girls' spoke, who said they did not want the strange things emphasized, nor their books spoiled with marks. Finally we told the men to do as they liked -- "we shall read everything," I remember the lofty air with which Emily took her departure, saying, "There's nothing wicked in Shakespeare, and if there is I don't want to know it." The men read for perhaps three meetings from their expurgated editions, and then gave up their plan, and the whole text was read out boldly.

There were many little dances, with cake and lemonade at the end, and one year there was a valentine party, where the lines of various authors were arranged to make apparent sense, but absolute nonsense, the play being to guess the names and places of the misappropriated lines.

Emily was part and parcel of all these gatherings, and there were no signs, in her life and character, of the future recluse. As a prophetic hint, she once asked me if it did not make me shiver to hear a great many people talk -- they took "all the clothes of their souls" -- and we discussed this matter. She mingled freely in all the companies and excursions of the moment, and the evening frolics.

Several of this group had beauty, all had intelligence and character, and others had charm. Emily was not beautiful, yet she had great beauties. Her eyes were lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head and her skin and teeth were fine. At this time she had a demure manner which brightened easily into fun where she felt at home, but among strangers she was rather shy, silent, and even deprecating. She was exquisitely neat and careful in her dress, and always had flowers about her, another pleasant habit of modernity.

I have so many times seen her in the morning at work in her garden where everything throve under her hand, and wandering there at eventide, that she is perpetually associated in my mind with flowers -- a flower herself, -- especially as for years it was her habit to send me the first buds of the arbutus which we had often hung over together in the woods, joying in its fresh fragrance as the very breath of coming spring.

My busy married life separated me from these friends of my youth, and intercourse with them has not been frequent; but I rejoice that my early years were passed in scenes of beautiful nature, and with these mates of simple life, high cultivation and noble ideals. In Emily as in others, there was a rare combination of fervor and simplicity, with good practical living, great conscience and directness of purpose. She loved with all her might, there was never a touch of the worldling about her, and we all knew and trusted her love.

Dr. Holland once said to me, "Her poems are too ethereal for publication." I replied, "They are beautiful -- so concentrated -- but they remind me of air-plants that have no roots in earth." "That is true," he said, "a perfect description"; and I think these lyrical ejaculations, these breathed-out projectiles, sharp as lances, would at that time have fallen into idle ears. But gathered in a volume where many could be read at once as her philosophy of life, they explain each other, and so become intelligible and delightful to the public.

The first poem I ever read was the robin chorister which she gave my husband years ago. I think in spite of her seclusion, she was longing for poetic sympathy, and that some of her later habits of life originated in this suppressed and ungratified desire.

I only wish the interest and delight her poems have aroused could have come early enough in her career to have kept her social and communicative, and at one with her friends. Still these late tributes to her memory are most welcome to the circle that loved her, even though they are but laurels to lay on her grave.


1 "Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford (1826-1893) was the daughter of William Chauncey Fowler, professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and English Literature at Amherst College (1838-1843), and a granddaughter of Noah Webster. She attended Amherst Academy with ED in the early forties. She left Amherst, 16 December 1853, when she married Gordon Lester Ford, a promising lawyer and (later) successful business executive. They made their home in Brooklyn, New York. Herself an author of poems, stories and essays, she was the mother of two well-known writers, Paul Leicester and Worthington Chauncey Ford."-- citation from The Letters of Emily Dickinson (p.943), ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Theodora Ward, Belknap Press, 1958, 1986

2 The Hon. Henry M. Spofford, Justice of the Supreme Coourt of Louisiana, a graduate of Amherst College in the Class of 1840, and brother of Mr. Ainsworth R. Spofford, the Librarian of Congress.

Illustration (top): detail from a 1926-36 sculpture by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), thought to represent Mary and Dickon, the main characters in The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Central Park Conservancy Garden
Emily Dickinson: Early Feminist Essays