- "The House Encore Me So":Emily Dickinson and Jenny Lind
On July 3, 1851, in what Thomas Johnson describes as the poet's only encounter with any "singer or instrumentalist of note," Emily Dickinson crossed paths for a moment with the most vaunted public female of nineteenth-century America, the singer Jenny Lind (Letters 122). Dickinson witnessed Lind perform in one of two concerts held near Amherst a year before Lind married and settled in Northampton for her honeymoon. News of the concerts and of Lind's marriage dominated the Springfield Daily Republican, the newspaper of choice in the Dickinson household. The concert Dickinson attended took place in a large church in Northampton on a night that in addition to being memorable for Lind's performance was remarkable for foul weather.1 Torrential rain apparently did little to deter the arrival of ticketholders who, according to the Republican, came from Brattleboro, Greenfield, Amherst, Easthampton, Holyoke, Deerfield, Springfield, and Chicopee. The Republican enthused:
The beauty, the gallantry, the grace and the sturdiness of the Connecticut Valley were there. Sixteen to seventeen hundred pairs of eyes beamed a welcome to the Swedish songstress, and she warbled back her richest tones.("Jenny Lind at Northampton")
Surprisingly little attention has been paid to an event in Dickinson's life that rivals her famous encounter with Thomas Higginson in importance and [End Page 1] suggestiveness. Given the fascination with Lind that Dickinson expresses in her letters and the fact that Dickinson witnessed the singer just as she was on the brink of her own poetic career, I am certain Lind made a decided impression on this singular member of her listening audience. Jenny Lind, as the most public of public women, served for Dickinson as both an intriguing and troubling example of the female artist in the marketplace.
The Jenny Lind phenomenon provides a rewarding context in which to place Dickinson's performance poems, suggesting a highly theatrical Dickinson whose refusal to place her poems before a broad audience had more to do with the vagaries of the marketplace than with a reluctance to perform. Lind provided Dickinson with an important—if ultimately disappointing—model of female self-fashioning. The several ways in which Lind's public persona and Dickinson's private and poetic ones coincide suggest that Dickinson's relatively brief encounter with Lind had a complex and enduring impact on her conception of herself as an artist.
Even disregarding Dickinson's firsthand experience with the singer, Jenny Lind was in the air to so great an extent in 1851 that Dickinson could not possibly have ignored her presence. To attempt to envision the frenzy created by Lind's tour of America, it may be necessary to imagine a contemporary Beatles tour with John Lennon restored to life—and quite possibly even this impossible media event would not duplicate the hysteria wrought by Lind. Brought to America by P. T. Barnum, a man whose reputation up to then had rested on displays of such improbable creations as a "Feejie Mermaid" (made from a fish body and a monkey head) and an elderly woman he ballyhooed as "George Washington's one-hundred-and-sixty-one-year-old-nurse," Lind proved to be among the most successful of Barnum's commercial ventures (Hume 98-107). Adoring crowds greeted her at every American stop, and every branch of American mercantilism scrambled to make a profit from her name. Among the commodities a Jenny Lind devotee could hope to acquire at mid-century were Jenny Lind gloves, bonnets, riding hats, shawls, mantillas, robes, sofas, pianos, teakettles, water carafes, cigars, pancakes, and sausages. She received a vote for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts and several votes for mayor of New York. Newspapers all around the country devoted regular space to "The Movements of the Swedish Nightingale," and a vast mythology of Lind lore spread around the country. Among the more intriguing rumors was a widely held belief that she [End Page 2] wore her hair in rolls on the sides of her head because she had no ears (Wagenknecht 4). Dickinson's New England, which received Lind fairly late in her American junket and after she had...