Author • Journalist • Keynote Speaker

Vesuvius at Home

Title: Vesuvius at Home: Ten Days in the Life, Loves, and Mystery of Emily Dickinson
Published by: W. W. Norton & Company
Release Date: Forthcoming 2019

The Story Behind Vesuvius at Home

I first encountered the poetry of Emily Dickinson when I was a junior at McCluer High School in suburban St. Louis. We read the poem, “After great pain a formal feeling comes.” To say I was a lucky teenager is an understatement: I had loving parents, a fun circle of friends, and an extended family that cared about me. At 16, I had not encountered “great pain.”

And yet that poem made a profound impression. While I did not completely understand it—perhaps even understand it all—it nevertheless registered on my mind. It hibernated there for years, perhaps waiting for the right time to present itself again, hovering over my consciousness like a ghost until I was old enough or had enough experience to understand.

From that moment on, Emily Dickinson has been a constant in my life. I went to graduate school in New England to study Dickinson, wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the poet, became president of the Emily Dickinson International Society, and for over a decade, taught a Mount Holyoke College seminar in the very rooms where the poet wrote her remarkable verse.

It took me nearly a lifetime to figure out what kind of book I wanted to write on Emily Dickinson. Not surprisingly, my students showed me the way. When I was teaching my Dickinson seminar, I discovered students came alive when I wrapped the lesson around a single day in the poet’s life. Take for example February 6, 1848. Emily then was a young student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (yes, the same institution that evolved into the college). In the 1840s, Mount Holyoke and other colleges across New England took religion seriously. The spiritual condition of a student’s soul was as important as her intellect. On that day in 1848, Emily went head-to-head over the question of faith with Mount Holyoke’s formidable founder, Mary Lyon. What Emily did (or did not do) during those 24 hours shaped her thinking for the rest of her life, and informed her poetry, too.

As I began to think about writing a book on Emily Dickinson, I recalled those times in the classroom when I focused the assignment on a pivotal day. It seemed a natural and engaging way for understanding Dickinson’s evolution as a poet. I also hoped a ten-day structure might offer readers a fresh framework for considering the shape of Dickinson’s life.

Vesuvius at Home: Ten Days in the Life, Loves, and Mystery of Emily Dickinson takes the reader inside ten dramatic days that changed the poet. From her precocious youth to her wildly creative adulthood to her final days with nearly 2,000 poems behind her--Vesuvius at Home reveals Dickinson at her most intimate and authentic. “The Brain--is wider than the Sky,” the poet once wrote. I hope Vesuvius demonstrates just how vast Emily Dickinson’s creativity continues to be.

Radio Commentaries, Columns and Dickinson Links

NEPR Commentary

NEPR Commentary

NEPR Commentary

San Francisco Chronicle

Lowell Sun


Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly (page 2)

Emily Dickinson Museum