By

by Terry Y. Allen

The house that Samuel Fowler Dickinson built in 1813 on Amherst’s Main Street still stands. A handsome mansion house in the Federal style, it was probably the first brick house in Amherst. And although over the years The Homestead, as it is known, has been tastefully modified by the addition of a cupola, a veranda, and an Ionic portico, it impresses the viewer foremost as a solid, upright dwelling. Obviously the house of persons of consequence, it bespeaks Congregationalist restraint. The Homestead is, bar none, Amherst’s most famous dwelling.

Its notoriety, of course, has nothing to do with its modest architectural interest. Rather, its notoriety derives from its most celebrated occupant. For it was in this house that Samuel Fowler Dickinson’s brilliant, peculiar, never-married granddaughter Emily was born in 1830, lived for the better part of her life, and died at age 55.

Unusually for her era, Emily Dickinson was well-educated. She was schooled at Amherst Academy – an academically rigorous preparatory high school for girls and boys that was the precursor of Amherst College – and she spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She read books from The Homestead’s well-stocked library – the library of her Yale-educated father Edward, who was a prominent lawyer and for one term a U.S. Congressman.

 

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard –

Till morning touching mountain –
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast – to return –

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me” – Stranger!
The which acceded to –

Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Poem reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Illustration by Elizabeth Pols. The poet’s image is derived from the original Emily Dickinson daguerreotype in Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.


As an adult woman, Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of short poems – 1,775 are known – that she secreted away in a locked chest in her bedroom. All the while she was writing poetry, she capably managed the domestic life of her father’s house. Eventually, she became a recluse, never again venturing beyond The Homestead. After her death in 1886 and with the posthumous publication of her work, her reputation as a poet sputtered to life. In time critics began to recognize her genius. Today she is assigned to the very first rank of America’s poets.

Hers is a wonderfully elusive and evocative story – as elusive and evocative as her poetry. Literary pilgrims come from all corners of the world to The Homestead, now a National Historic Landmark, to pay homage to a poet whose work – on the surface as disarmingly simple as hymn lyrics – continues to evade analysis. Each year sees the publication of scores of scholarly works, in many languages, that attempt to tease out the meaning of Dickinson’s poetry. And each year, in secular late twentieth-century Amherst, May 15, the anniversary of her death, is celebrated as reverently as if it were a saint’s day.

For over 20 years, Professor. Richard S. Ellis was, for all practical purposes, oblivious to the world of Dickinson. He drove by The Homestead several times each week without once venturing inside. A distinguished mathematician who studied literature at Harvard (he even wrote an honors thesis on the work of the German poet Rilke) and who has written poetry and a novel entitled Blessings from the Dead, Ellis was, in his words, “untouched by Dickinson; I had not opened myself up to her poetry,” until a break in his busy professional life provided a fortuitous opportunity.

Ellis joined the faculty of mathematics and statistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1975. He is known as a devoted teacher and a prolific scholar who has broken new ground in probability theory. Since the publication of his acclaimed monograph Entropy, Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics in 1985 (Springer-Verlag), he has been a central figure in the field of large deviations. In fact, his name is part of a key theory – the Gartner-Ellis Theorem – used by mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists in their research. Ellis has co-authored a sequel to his monograph – A Weak Convergence Approach to the Theory of Large Deviations (John Wiley & Sons, 1997) – and has published over 50 papers in mathematics, physics, and engineering journals.

Three years ago, Ellis was completing his second book. Writing a research-level mathematics book is exacting and exhausting work, and he was absorbed in the last major task, preparing an index. “I’ve noticed this about myself,” Ellis mused recently to a visitor at his office in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower. “When I come to the end of an intellectual project that has required me to focus intensely, I often experience a huge release of energy.”

And thus fortified with new stores of energy and in an expansive frame of mind, the mathematician agreed to teach an adult education class in the Torah – the Hebrew Bible – at his synagogue. (It happens that Amherst’s synagogue, the Jewish Community of Amherst, is housed in what was once the town’s Second Congregational Church, a half-mile down Main Street from The Homestead.) Some years ago, on an academic leave in Jerusalem, Ellis reconnected with his Jewish heritage, and has since become a serious student of the Hebrew Bible.

In thinking about the class, Ellis decided to focus on the Jacob cycle from Genesis. Most readers will remember the story of Jacob cheating his twin brother Esau in order to obtain their father’s blessing, and the episode of Jacob wrestling all night with an Angel. In Hebrew “The language in which the Jacob cycle is told is relatively simple,” Ellis said. “I knew it to be rich, enigmatic, paradoxical material.”

At the same time, and propelled by the same burst of intellectual energy, Ellis began to attend an informal Emily Dickinson poetry seminar being taught at The Homestead by a friend, the poet and Dickinson scholar Jay Ladin. One of the several poems Ladin and his 16 adult students examined in the weekly course was the 70-word “A little East of Jordan,” which treats Jacob’s encounter with an unknown adversary at Peniel – pney el in Hebrew, translated as Face (or Faces) of God.

“Jay was talking about Dickinson’s ambiguous use of language,” Ellis said. “And in a flash I saw the connection between Emily Dickinson and the Jacob story in the Hebrew Bible. Dickinson’s poetry is very dense,” he continued. “You can’t unpack it. Those 70 words are a universe. The language is gorgeous. And it resonates with the language of the Hebrew Bible.”