The Ghosts of Emily...

Search form

"Dickinson-core" by Jeannette Schollaert

[1]

I gathered something for you, because you were not there, an acorn, and some moss blossoms, and a little shell of a snail, so whitened by the snow you would think ’twas a cunning artist who had carved it from alabaster – then I tied them all up in a leaf with some last summer’s grass I found by a brookside, and I’m keeping them all for you. 

Emily Dickinson to Susan Dickinson, Late April 1852 (OMC 26)

Figures in long white dresses, slim spray of narcissus in hand, meandering down a dirt road or wading through the long weeds of a meadow towards some brightly painted home. This could describe a scene from a #cottagecore page on Instagram or tumblr just as well as a scene from any recent screen adaptation of Emily Dickinson’s life, or the scene Emily herself describes in her letter to Susan in late April of 1852. The cottagecore aesthetic can be described briefly as an aestheticized, nostalgic yearning for a life of contained coziness, accented with vases of wildflowers, doilies, long flowing dresses, and delectable desserts. Cottagecore is but the most recent iteration of an erstwhile yearning for “the simple life,” not unlike, for example, Marie Antoinette’s decision to build a farm getaway on the grounds of the palace Versailles, where she and her children could play pretend, wearing the straw hats and white peasant dresses of agricultural laborers but without needing to do any of the labor (“The Queen’s Hamlet”).

The phenomenon of idealizing and romanticizing an aestheticized version of quaint cottage domestic life is not new, but the most recent #cottagecore trend bears striking similarities to the life and leisures of Emily Dickinson. While cottagecore existed in online circles in the year 2019, it gained mainstream media attention during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, as shelter-in-place and quarantine orders forced our attentions inside or to the confines of what small backyards, neighborhood parks, or nearby vegetation were available to us. This blunt, forced confinement to the domestic sphere resulted in a spike in interest in cottagecore, evidenced by its coverage in a March 10, 2020 article in The New York Times. 

Fig. 1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's watercolor, "Lady Lillith" (1867). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Painting depicts a white woman relaxing in a loose, off-the-shoulder white dreess, holding a comb and a mirror. The woman absentmindedly combs here long, wavy red hair in a room with many flowers and one window in the top left corner.

The conditions of the pandemic-related shelter-in-place restrictions are not dissimilar to those Emily Dickinson chose to adhere to as she got older. Dickinson’s domestic tasks included gardening, baking bread, writing, reading, and not traveling farther than the sphere of her hometown. Interestingly, one of the core garments in the cottagecore/quarantine capsule wardrobe is the long, flowing white dress, also dubbed “the nap dress.” Rachel Syme writes about the Nap Dress for The New Yorker, and her article includes an interview with the designer of the most Instagram-popular of the Nap Dresses, Nell Diamond of Hill House Home. Diamond reports to Syme about some of the images that inspired her design, all from the mid-nineteenth century and most from Pre-Raphaelite artists: “John William Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” (1888), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” (1867), John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia” (1851)” (Syme). Syme’s own take on the Nap Dress is as follows: 

We are used to seeing women in white nightgowns as haunted, anxious, sulking around with unfinished business. But there is also the figure of the innocent child in white, a kind of prelapsarian state of guilelessness and imagination. The Nap Dress combines these associations into a single garment; it is children’s clothing sized up for adults, or creepy, adult ghost clothes festooned with sweet and approachable details. (Syme

Swap the focus of Syme’s description here from the Nap Dress to Emily Dickinson, and the description remains equally accurate. Syme could very well be describing the poet here, the haunted woman who continues to haunt us, who nevertheless possesses a uniquely playful tone of inquiry in her delightfully mysterious, whimsically biting poetry.

Fig. 2. Emily Dickinson’s white dress, on display at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA. Image depicts Emily’s floor length, long-sleeved, almost Peter-pan collared white dress alongside her wooden writing desk in her second story bedroom. Image courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Seemingly, our extended time working from home has primed Americans as consumers and various fashion brands as designers to embrace Dickinson’s most memorable wardrobe choice: her white dress. Finally, her ghost might say, we too can appreciate the comfort of working from home in a formless, colorless, dress – light enough for summer turns about the garden (or, more realistically for the present moment, the neighborhood block), but formless enough to slip into sleep in between Zoom calls from the couch. Of course, the conditions of such a dress rely on privileges like those Dickinson enjoyed – a profession that allows working from home, like that of a poet or university instructor, as well as the ability to launder such bright whites so they keep their crisp state. 

The hallmark of the cottagecore aesthetic, even more so than the flowing bright dresses, are the florals -- the houseplants, the wildflowers in vases, the blooming wispy meadows. Gardening and flowers were perhaps Dickinson’s most beloved household interests. Dickinson’s connection to her garden was so remarkable that her lover and sister-in-law, Susan, writes about it at length in Emily’s obituary:

There are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those evidences of her unselfish consideration… One can only speak of ‘duties beautifully done’; of her gentle tillage of the rare flowers filling her conservatory, into which, as into the heavenly Paradise, entered nothing that could defile, and which was ever abloom in frost or sunshine, so well she knew her subtle chemistries…  (Smith)

Susan’s elegy foregrounds Emily’s knowledge of and care for her garden and conservatory, populated with “rare” flowers. Susan foregrounds not only Emily’s knowledge of aesthetic nineteenth century garden tastes, but also a more scientific knowledge – “subtle chemistries” – that allowed her to treat the sick and the well from her home space. Dickinson’s love of gardening has been an area of scholarly interest in recent decades, as ecocriticism, new materialism, and critical plant studies concretized into fields of study. The connection between Dickinson’s poetry and her knowledge of plants has been explored in works like Judith Farr’s classic 2004 The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, as well as more recently in Christine Gerhardt’s 2017 article “Emily Dickinson Now: Environments, Ecologies, Politics: Commentary” and Mary Kuhn’s 2018 article, “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” As Farr writes in The Garden of Emily Dickinson

Indeed, during her life Emily Dickinson was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet. Susan Dickinson’s unfulfilled plan for a memoir of her sister-in-law listed “Love of flowers” as Emily’s first attribute. (3)  ,

Farr’s The Garden of Emily Dickinson is regarded as the first major study of Dickinson’s gardens alongside her poetry, as Farr uses botanical knowledge of each flower’s tending and care to better illuminate Dickinson’s poetic meaning. Kuhn’s work introduces a consideration of colonial bioprospecting to her study of the political history on display in Dickinson’s gardens – what routes of trade are evident in the rows of Dickinson’s flowerbeds?  

Before she gained her reputation as either a gardener or a poet, when she was a teenager, Dickinson created an herbarium – a book of pressed flowers and plants, arranged artistically on the page and identified by their formal Latin names. Dickinson’s herbarium is a fascinating archival object in its artistic arrangements, the variety of plants contained in its pages, and as a feat of preservation. Herbaria, too, made for a cottagecore-adjacent trend in these contemporary pandemic times. Historian of science Dr. Elaine Ayers began her “Quarantine Herbarium"; project in early quarantine of 2020. Organized in a Google Drive – the erstwhile tool of pandemic file sharing – Dr. Ayers included a project introduction, sample photos, and guides for how best to curate an herbaria of one’s own. Media coverage of Dr. Ayer’s project referenced the ease with which any individual could begin their own herbarium. The materials necessary to build an herbarium are quite simple: access to wildflowers and foliage in one’s local environment, paper, and an adhesive like tape or glue. Of course, any herbarium is only as complicated as one makes it, and the examples included in Dr. Ayers’ Google Drive exemplify quarantine creativity, not unlike the blossoming of botanical focaccias or intricate sourdoughs. 

Fig. 3. Screenshot of some of the entries in Dr. Elain Ayers’ “Quarantine Herbarium” Google Drive project. Screenshot includes three rows of four image preview squares, all of which depict plants and flowers mounted on white or beige paper. 27 April 2021.

Outside of academic publishing, in the commercial press, Maria Popova considers Dickinson’s herbarium at length in her meandering and insightful book, Figuring. Figuring grew out of Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings. The book form allows Popova to wander through time and space, drawing connections between Margaret Fuller, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, and Emily Dickinson all in the span of a few pages. Popova takes archival, academic, and literary material about these figures and poses questions of them, making connections and links all the while. Popova’s questioning is less in search or support of a single answer to an academic argument, and more of an open inquiry, as she draws connections through time and space, as people entered and departed life, and books and ideas solidified into publications. 

Popova spends a significant amount of time wandering through Emily Dickinson’s poems, correspondence, and memory. Of interest to Popova is Dickinson’s herbarium but also the language of flowers that Dickinson employs in her work at large. Popova’s interest in the poetry of science and the scientific aspect of poetry finds the perfect artifact in Dickinson’s herbarium, which she describes as: 

a masterpiece of uncommon punctiliousness and poetic beauty; four hundred and twenty-four flowers from the Amherst region, arranged with a remarkable sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across sixty-six pages in a large leather-bound album. (318)

Popova quantifies and enlivens Dickinson’s herbarium, giving insight into the care that teenage Emily must have taken in compiling her book. Popova also notes that “botany was the back door through which Victorian women entered the scientific establishment formally closed to them,” an idea that resonates with the on-screen version of Emily as imagined by Alena Smith and Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson, an Emily whose interest in science and disgust at the sexism she sees in education inspires her to dresses in men’s clothing to sneak into an Amherst lecture on volcanoes.  

Popova’s inquiry into Dickinson’s flower imagery continues the scholarly inquiry begun by Farr regarding the degree to which flowers operated as a supplementary vocabulary to Dickinson’s life and lyrics. If we consider the inspiration for cottagecore in a “simpler” aesthetic of nineteenth century white leisure class, we must also attend to the trappings of empire that accompany such an aesthetic. It is in this way that scholarship such as Karr’s on the colonial legacies of plants, herbs, and flowers contained in the gardens in Amherst is most relevant. Dickinson’s garden was one of her passions, and her garden provides a map of sorts to the colonial legacies that allowed her to indulge in her aesthetic and her passions. Beyond her garden, Dickinson sent clippings from her carefully cultivated to her own correspondents, further circulating and widening the botanical map of Amherst. Dickinson’s correspondence participated in a gift exchange, as she was known for sending various poems  with pressed flowers as gifts for special occasions as well as for more quotidian exchanges (Smith “Suppressing…” 105). Emily’s correspondence with her love, Susan, makes mention of her thought process about including pressed flowers with her letters: 

Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you – I at last saw my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are – and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them – they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of the something faithful, which ‘never slumbers nor sleeps’ – Keep them ’neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the ‘blessed countrie’! 

11 June 1852 (OMC 34) 

Here, Emily works through what to send Sue, referring to the violets as her “Instructor,” capable of communication on both an earthly plane and in a dreamscape. Emily sees the pressed flowers as utilizing a language of their own, capable of expressing themselves – “they begged me to let them go, so here they are” – but also influencing dreams. Along with an interest in quarantine herbaria, pressed flowers had their own time in the media spotlight, covered at length in a late November 2020 piece in The New York Times. Just as herbaria offered an activity to pursue on routine walks, pressed flowers offered a way to communicate the local natural world with loved ones separated by distance and various pandemic restrictions.      

Fig. 4. Dickinson, episode 8, “There’s a certain Slant of Light.” Image depicts a close up shot of a dried plant, its wrinkled green leaves, and the adhesive that binds the pressed plant to the white page of an herbarium. The adhesive is a small strip of what appears to be tape, with a script written on it in black ink that appears to read “Narcissus -- 6.2.”

The language of flowers in Dickinson’s poetry and correspondence allows further insight, Farr would argue, into Dickinson’s gardening processes, and vice versa. This investment in floral signification is not unusual in nineteenth century Romantic sensibilities or Victorian manners, both of which work as adjacent to the cottagecore aesthetic. Cottagecore as a concept and an aesthetic incorporates elements from the Romantic, Victorian, and other eras, playing fast and loose with historical contexts and rigid definitions of eras all the while taking inspiration in vibes and leaving the details to the history books. Complementary to this cherry picking of Victorian and Romantic sensibilities is the desire to escape into a more simple, less distracted frame of mind, where one’s tasks include gardening, letter-writing, and simple domestic tasks. Following this line of thinking, cottagecore could be read as a kind of wish-fulfillment aesthetic of resisting the “attention economy,” a term Jenny Odell works with at length in her 2019 book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. If Popova is interested in using Dickinson’s herbarium to gain insight into Dickinson’s use of the language of flowers and interest in science, Odell focuses on how Dickinson’s poems encourage a more direct interaction with members of the “more than human world.” [2] Odell reads Dickinson’s “A Bird came down the walk” as part of her meditation on “I-Thou” encounters, following philosopher Martin Buber’s framework for perceiving the world. According to Odell, Dickinson’s poem allows for a recognition of how “that which cannot be understood… demands constant and unmixed attention, an ongoing state of encounter” (107).  Odell’s book offers an array of inquiries into resisting the demands placed on our attention by late-stage capitalism in the United States. A throughline of Odell’s book is a reconsideration of our relationships with the natural world, and she uses various nineteenth-century literary figures like Dickinson and of course, Henry David Thoreau, to trace the histories behind an anti-capitalist turn to nature. 

There are many aspects to Odell’s book, but the chapter that introduces Dickinson’s role in her argument is primarily preoccupied with a bioregional understanding of the world around us. Odell defines bioregionalism as follows: 

Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving onesful into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem. (122) 

As Odell notes, bioregionalism as a concept has existed in ecocriticism and place studies scholarship, in addition to being very similar to indigenous understandings of the land.[3] Yet here, it’s worth pausing to consider how bioregionalism, hyper-awareness of locality, and the contemporary rise of the cottagecore aesthetic are intertwined. In our pandemic walks, our gathering of local wildflowers, and our new or re-acquaintance with our local pathways, we are primed to be more aware of the everyday actors around us, especially as the racial justice movement of summer 2020 prompted an increase of signage in some locales explaining to passerby that they walk on, live on, and occupy the unceded land of indigenous peoples. What claim does cottagecore in the United States, after Dickinson’s example, make on a colonized and occupied land? Just as Romanticism and Victorianism emerged in conjunction with the British imperial empire, how might we read Dickinson’s cottagecore as emblematic of an investment in American empire? In an embrace of the simple beauties of the natural world, cottagecore offers a much needed escape, but it is worth noting which comforts rely on casual erasures. Retreating into the natural world and appreciating its beauty does not mean retreating from the complex histories that structure our relationships with the natural world, much less the ways in which indigenous ways of knowing have been repackaged for the white leisure class across history. 

The cottagecore aesthetic, in its embrace of the natural world, its Romantic sensibility, and its wanderlust implicitly focused on the privilege of leisure, is embodied in the ease of a nap dress, the meandering walk through a meadow, the cultivating and careful sharing of pressed flowers. Dickinson’s circumstances, though difficult and challenging in their own right, afforded her the luxury of living the cottagecore aesthetic to its fullest. As we daydream now of a time when pressing flowers was an activity divorced from the necessity of pandemic-safe distance, we might feel the slightest envy for the woman who did such activities by choice, uninfluenced by global catastrophe. Despite the troubled background of the current rise in cottagecore’s popularity, set against the pandemic, as we appreciate the small delights of collecting and arranging local wildflowers for safe passage to a dear friend, we can also benefit from the lessons that accompany our contemporary walks around our neighborhoods in the form of racial justice protest signs and land acknowledgements. As #cottagecore as an aesthetic continues to operate as a dominant cultural aesthetic of the current moment, it is worth learning more about the occupation of the land that serves as such an active part of the cottagecore aesthetic. The popularity of cottagecore could serve to inspire a more just relationship between the human and more-than-human world, but also, an deeper consideration of cottagecore and its historical inspirations could prompt a more thoughtful analysis of the current occupation of this land and the work yet to be done to right the historical wrongs of empire. 

Fig. 5. Still from AppleTV+ Dickinson, episode 8, “There’s a certain Slant of Light.” Image depicts the herbarium from above, looking over the shoulder of Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), who is in the right hand corner of the screen and whose face is barely visible. Emily’s left hand turns a page of an herbarium, and we see flowers and plants mounted on a white page of a bound book.

 


Notes

 

 [1] Title credit for term “Dickinson-core” to tweet by Alison Herman, @aherman2006, 7 April 2021. Herman’s tweet features link to Rachel Vorona Cote’s article, “Tell It Slant: The Rise of the Feminist Anachronistic Costume Drama.” VQR, vol. 97, issue 1, Spring 2021. Accessed 27 April 2021.

 

 [2] Odell uses David Abram’s term “more than human world” to refer to the multitude of organisms that exist in the natural world, and to destabilize the human as the center of the natural world in the way that terms like the “non-human world” imply (Odell 145-6).

 

 [3] For more on bioregionalism in the ecocritical tradition, see The Bioregional Imagination (2012), ed. Glotfelty, Armbruster, Lynch. Odell also discusses Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, as Kimmerer offers her view on interrelationships between people and the land from her perspective as a Native woman and a botanist. For more work troubling posthumanism and new materialism from an indigenous perspective, see Kim TallBear’s “An Indigenous Reflection on Working Beyond The Human/Not Human,” GLQ, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2015.