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LOADED GUN: Life, and Death, and Dickinson

The Poet

Portrait of Emily Dickinson

(updated for modern kitchens)

2 cups sugar
1/2 pound butter
5 eggs
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp mace
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 ground nutmeg
1/4-1/2 cup brandy
1 pound raisins
2/3 pound currants
2/3 pound citron

Place a shallow pan of water at the bottom of the oven (keep this pan one inch full, or else you'll have a black brick instead of a cake.) Preheat oven to 225°F.

Gradually add sugar to butter and blend until light and creamy. Add unbeaten eggs and molasses and beat well. Resift flour with soda and spices. If you're using unsalted butter, add 1/2 tsp salt. Beat sifted ingredients into mixture, alternately adding brandy. Stir in raisins, currants and citron.

Pour batter into two loaf pans lined with waxed paper. Bake at 225°F for three hours. Remove the pan of water for the last half hour. Let loaves cool before removing them from pans. Remove paper and wrap in fresh paper.

Source: Emily Dickinson Page

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 to a prominent Amherst, Massachusetts family. Her father, a politically active lawyer, was stern and authoritarian. According to Emily, her mother "didn't care for thought." Emily was nevertheless educated at Amherst Academy and then at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, where she resisted enormous pressure to join the Calvinist church.

Dickinson wrote the first of her nearly 1,800 poems when she was about 20 years old. Although she shared them with her sister Lavinia, her brother Austin and other family members and close friends, only a handful were published during her lifetime. She often wrote in the meter of hymns about her vexed relationship with God, her fascination with death and immortality, her delight in nature and the power and limits of language to express her ecstasies and terrors. Her unusual use of dashes, sporadic capitalization of nouns, off rhymes and eccentric metaphors made her one of the most innovative 19th-century American poets.

Although she read widely, Dickinson began to withdraw from the world outside her home at the age of 23. She dressed only in white, spent most of her time in her room and rarely saw visitors. At some point she may have had a disappointing love affair. With whom? Nobody knows, but speculations include the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a famous Philadelphia preacher with whom Dickinson corresponded; Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, to whom she addressed many poems; Judge Lord, a widowed friend of her father's; and her sister-in-law and Austin's wife Susan, who lived next door. In any event, biographers believe that Dickinson suffered an emotional trauma in her early thirties, some psychological crisis that resulted in the writing of more than a third of the total output of her compact, candid and enigmatic poems.

After Dickinson's death in 1886 at the age of 56, her sister Lavinia discovered an astonishing number of poems assembled in packets of "fascicles," which Emily Dickinson had bound herself with needle and thread. Lavinia co-edited three volumes between 1891 and 1896, the first of which became a popular publication. In the early nineteen hundreds, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's niece, transcribed and published more poems. Bolts of Memory appeared in 1945.


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