The New York Times' veteran critic Holland Cotter says that the exhibit, which opened Friday, seeks to dispel the perception that Dickinson spent her life as a recluse.
Cotter in his review cites her active social life in the Amherst community until the Civil War. Afterward, she withdrew more and more into her private world of poetry.
The exhibit encompasses photographs, including the famous daguerreotype portrait of her at age 16, art such as a painting of her and her two siblings in childhood, and manuscripts of 24 poems, many of them unfamiliar. Amherst College, located in the small town in which she lived, contributed to the exhibit. The portrait of her at around 10 with her brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia, comes from Harvard's Houghton Library for its first showing outside of there since 1950, Cotter reports.
I was struck that Cotter's piece ran alongside a review of the annual outsider art show also opening in New York City this weekend. Despite Dickinson's standing as one of our seminal major poets, much of her work has an outsider artist's wildness and originality.
Scribbling her often fragmentary verses on whatever scraps of paper she found at hand, Dickinson broke away from 19th century poetic conventions while still paying heed to them. Her metric patterns can seem forced, her rhymes arbitrary. Many of her poems are rough and unfurnished, momentary impressions rather than fully conceived works.
But even her most rudimentary musings make us look again. Her most brilliant poems retain that deceptive simplicity with the astonishing authority of genius. In gathering her poems in packets known as fascicles, she showed an outsider artist's sensibility. The Morgan exhibit might bring new understanding of her life, but she'll remain a mystery to us.