Emily Dickinson: Genius Baker?

When I read that the opening reception for a Poets House exhibit of Emily Dickinson manuscripts would focus on her baking, I was disappointed. As a Texan, I came by my feminism the hard way, through years of being told that girls couldn’t do this or that, and years of proving that they could. I wanted to focus on Emily Dickinson genius poet and iconoclast: on the Emily Dickinson who skipped church to worship with the bobolink, who wrote love poems addressed to both men and women, who tore American poetry open so exquisitely that any poet practicing today owes her a debt.

To say she was a genius baker seemed a step backward.

I experienced a similar moment of disillusionment as an MFA student, when another student and I spent a day entertaining poet Adrienne Rich. For the first two hours we simply drove around Austin while seventy-one-year-old Rich discussed feminism, writing programs, politics, and poetry in a breathtakingly articulate fashion. It was only over lunch that she leaned forward conspiratorially to ask, “So, do either of you cook?”

My first thought was, how could Adrienne Rich love cooking, or any activity so stereotypically feminine? But when my fellow student sat up with matching
enthusiasm, my disappointment gave way to envy. Not only was I missing out on bonding with a groundbreaking feminist icon, but apparently I was also missing out on a fun activity.

As Rich and other old-school feminists had figured out long before, feminism does no one any favors by limiting women’s options. And the pursuit of traditionally feminine occupations doesn’t preclude others. It’s a truth Emily Dickinson lived, in the quiet town of Amherst, a hundred years before modern feminists even began to raise the issue.

As I browsed through the collection, pausing to read her coconut cake recipe — and then sample some concocted by a local poetry collector — I allowed my own stereotypes of Dickinson to relax. Yes, Emily Dickinson wrote groundbreaking verse, questioned religion, loved women — and, yes, she lowered baskets of sweets down to children, cared for her sick mother, gardened, and baked. She was not just genius poet, not just caregiver and baker, but all of those things.

Even, I discovered, an imbiber of sherry. Which, I’d forgotten, can pack a punch. Two small glasses (for dipping the cake into), and I was buzzed. Emily Dickinson could drink? Who knew?

But I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. I’ve always known that Emily Dickinson was hard core, just not in how many ways. – G.W.

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