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Art is Essential June 2021

Writers on the art that matters to them. #ArtIsEssential

Who Are You–in a Pandemic?

James Curtis

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you—Nobody—too?” Emily Dickinson defiantly asked. If there is one American artist who can help us understand ourselves during a pandemic, it’s Emily Dickinson. Like us, she lived in enforced isolation. (It’s not well-known that she suffered from epilepsy, and the family wanted to keep her out of public sight.) Unlike us, she was a genius, so she could articulate her (and our) dilemma “I’m Nobody!” and then follow it up with a friendly question, “Are you nobody too?”

To some extent all of us, even introverts like me, get our identity from other people, be they friends, spouses, lovers or family members. So who are we, if we see the people who create our identity are only as small boxes on a Zoom screen? Are we all nobodies—like Dickinson?

Isolation forces us to confront ourselves, to create an identity on our own, and nobody ever understood this better than Emily Dickinson, the high priestess of isolation. She wrote in the second stanza of this poem, “How dreary—to be—Somebody!” Given the radical density of her language, we understand that what she means here is that it’s dreary—superficial, unsatisfying—to have only an identity that other people give to you out in the world. “How public—like a Frog—“ she adds.

These days lots of people may be feeling like frogs as they find out just much of their identity was given to them in public. The pandemic has forced them to become aware of this fact, which in normal times might have remained comfortably ensconced in their unconscious. But these are not normal times, and in these non-normal times, no American artist can give us more aid and comfort than Emily Dickinson.

James Curtis has a PhD from Columbia University and taught for 31 years at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of several books and articles. After visiting Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, last year, he wrote three essays about her and her legacy.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet best known for her unique style and usage of slant rhyme. Her poems often centered around topics of death, immortality, nature, and spirituality.

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