While taking my morning walk, I found my mind turning to the Dickinson poem that I chose as the epigraph of my Autobiography. I have always been fascinated by those transcendently great creative artists who masquerade as commonplace folk and, by refusing to proclaim themselves, are persistently underestimated by those who know them personally. Jane Austen and David Hume come to mind. It always astonishes me that even their biggest fans sometimes imagine that the artists themselves are unaware of their own true quality. As though one could actually write Pride and Prejudice and yet not be certain whether it were any good.
As I walked, I tried to conjure up a scene -- quite imaginary, of course -- in the Amherst of the 1870's, let us say. The Editor of the Springfield Republican, Samuel Bowles, has gathered a group of literary types to an afternoon tea in honor of a visiting poet from Boston who has lately been much praised in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly. Bowles has persuaded his friend and correspondent, Emily Dickinson, to make the long trip down to Springfield for the event. Dickinson is dressed plainly, and contents herself with standing quietly at the margins of the room while the guests swirl around her, chattering and gossiping about writers and publications.
One of those present is an eager ambitious young man, just launching himself into the literary world, who very much wants to be sure that he has met every important person in the gathering and has made an impression. After thrusting himself into each cluster of conversation, he notices Dickinson sipping her tea. Although he doubts that she can be very important, inasmuch as no one is talking to her, he decides to take no chances, and walks up to her boldly. "Who are you?" he asks, rather impertinently.
Dickinson smiles shyly, takes another sip of tea, and replies: "I am nobody/who are you/are you nobody too?/Then there's a pair of us/shh don't tell/they'd banish us you know/How dismal to be somebody/how dismal like a frog/to tell your name the live long day/to an admiring bog"