Doors onto Childhood
They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet—
Because they liked me “still”—
In this well-known poem Emily Dickinson dramatizes childhood’s vulnerability, as a means of accessing childhood’s imaginative freedom and delight. These are familiar constructions of childhood. Both the vulnerability and the imaginative glee had by the mid-nineteenth century grown central to the middle-class American idea of the child, and of what makes childhood precious. I have become increasingly interested not just in the discursive adult practices that produce such a “little Girl,” but also in the ways in which actual nineteenth century children participated in these discursive shifts.
Emily Dickinson’s niece and nephews, Matty, Ned, and Gib, lived next door to their aunt. The children decorated four nursery doors with a collection of illustrations cut from nineteenth-century books, magazines, and greeting cards. Like more traditional scrapbooks, the Dickinson children’s decorated doors testify to the ways in which public print culture could be put to individual, personal uses, literally cut-up and re-fashioned. Thus these doors share much with more general accounts of children as cultural scavengers, and of course with Emily Dickinson’s late habits of writing poetry on scraps of discarded paper. But that the Dickinson children felt empowered to paste pictures on their doors in this way, and that the adults in the household allowed those images to stand, points to a broad family acknowledgement of the children’s control over at least the nursery’s circumscribed space. The child’s door with its classic capacity for punishment is here blazoned in play.
This paper will center on an analysis of the images the Dickinson children pasted on nursery doors, but will draw too on Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s memoirs, Emily Dickinson’s poetry and her letters to her nieces and nephews, as well as other Dickinson family writings. I hope to draw from this mesh a richer understanding of children’s own engagement with the idea of the imaginative child.
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