Posted by: emilyobedilio | December 12, 2014

College Dropouts, Unsettling Salespeople, and Advertising Emily Dickinson

Today, some of our classmates (myself included) went on a tour of the Emily Dickinson museum in Amherst. Spoiler: it was fantastic. This was my second tour, and I was still awed at Emily’s genius and strangeness. I call her Emily now, as if we’re the best of friends. That was how the tour made me feel – like we got to see sides of her that most people aren’t aware of.

I won’t say anything too specific about these sides, except that there are many, and that you ought to take a trip to the museum to find them out for yourself. Instead, I’d like to talk about Emily’s relationship to MHC.

But first, an anecdote.

Three years ago, I purchased my beloved purple glasses at a high-end optical store, during which time, this conversation happened.

Impeccably Dressed Salesman: What’s the occasion?
Me: I’m going off to college and I want to change things up a little bit. And my current glasses are like disgusting. They have like all this green stuff in them like slimy stuff…? [I’m an oversharer.]
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: [smiles indulgently, ignores oversharing] Where are you going?
Me: It’s this tiny private college in Massachusetts called Mount Holyoke.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: I haven’t heard of it. What’s its claim to fame?
Me: Well, it’s a women’s college. And Emily Dickinson went there. I guess she’s a pretty big deal.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: [is impressed] Really? That’s fascinating.
Me: But she dropped out. She’s like their most famous dropout.
Impeccably dressed employee: [laughs indulgently] [wonders if this wee lout in a too-small T-shirt can afford the expensive frames he has to offer]
Me: [affords frames] [but is broke forever]

Now, after three years at Mount Holyoke, I wonder how much we can actually lay a claim to our most famous dropout. We advertise Mount Holyoke as the college that bred one of the most famous minds in the history of literature. We put up posters of her in our library. We claim her as part of our legacy, and ourselves as part of her legacy.

But, as I (re)learned at the museum today, she hated Mount Holyoke. Its rigorous schedule felt confining. Mary Lyon was, apparently, a tyrant who neglected students with “no hope” of religious salvation. It was far away from Emily’s home, where she enjoyed herself most – and after a semester and a half, she left Mary Lyon and her (un)saved brethren behind to return to her quiet, solitary life, without the nagging of Ms. Lyon and the paradoxical chaos of the strictly ordered life.

She spent only months of her fifty-odd years at Mount Holyoke. Her experience here was a blip in her otherwise somewhat homogeneously private life; Mount Holyoke was a footnote in a half-century of other (presumably more positive) experiences. After a couple of years, I’m sure she rarely thought of the college at all.

Still, when the Impeccably Dressed Salesman called two weeks later, he remembered Mount Holyoke, and he remembered her.

Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Is this Ms. Dickinson?
Me: [eternally clueless] Um, no, I think you have the wrong number.
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Are you sure?
Me: Um, yes?
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Actually, this is [Impeccably Dressed Salesman] from Cascade Optical.
Me: Really, I think you have the…oh wait. Are you calling for Emily Oxford?
Impeccably Dressed Salesman: Yes.
Me: Then why did you…oh, I see, Emily Dickinson, right. Ha ha, ha ha, ha…ha…how amusing of you. [is decidedly unsettled]

The Impeccably Dressed Salesman remembered Emily Dickinson’s name better than my own. And, when I went back to get my glasses cleaned a year and a half later, Impeccably Dressed Salesman said, “Yes, I remember you! You go to Emily Dickinson’s Alma Mater.”

Me: She dropped out.

Emily Dickinson is what many remember about Mount Holyoke—an otherwise obscure institution in an obscure corner of the world—but she left here as soon as she could. The place made her skin crawl. We claim her as ours, when really, she wanted to be no one’s. Especially not Mary Lyon’s. Especially not Mount Holyoke’s.

And probably not mine. But I still call her “Emily” instead of “Ms. Dickinson.”


  1. I think your point is a really great one that doesn’t get talked about enough. Claiming Emily Dickinson as an alum does feel disingenuous, and what we learned on the tour about Mary Lyon’s professorial attitudes towards the “no-hopers” honestly took me aback.

    Part of what drew me to Mount Holyoke, as a young queer girl who wrote too much bad poetry and was constantly overcommitted to community-building events, was Emily Dickinson’s (I’m afraid I’m not quite so comfortable with her as you) legacy and the spirit in which I believed Mount Holyoke was founded. I remember hearing on one of my first visits to the campus that the entire conceit of Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon’s governing philosophy, was to educate young women so they could return to their communities and contribute positively to them with the skills they’d honed at the seminary. That dedication to community service — one which I believe the college today embodies passionately — seems wholly absent from Mary Lyon’s original philosophy, which, insofar as I can tell, is more interested in the salvation of the individual than it is the cooperation of humankind. Maybe from Mary Lyon’s perspective, the two were the same, or at least not mutually exclusive; only the saved could save, or something to that effect.

    That still doesn’t solve the Emily Dickinson problem, though. However, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Mount Holyoke grew into the type of institution she would have been happier at — one that was interested in the bright broader world, in remaking and reinterpreting literature, in connecting minds to one another from across the globe; in respecting differences. There is, of course, no way to know for sure, but I think perhaps she may have stayed longer than just a semester.

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