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As a child, Manhattan native Judith Farr would travel with her parents to Amherst, Mass., and visit the home and grave site of Emily Dickinson. It was a regular ritual, but one fueled by the desires of a child rather than the educational demands of her parents. Even at the carefree age of 10, Farr’s attraction to Dickinson was intense, even obsessive. “I used to sleep with grass from her grave under my pillow,” Farr says, laughing enthusiastically at the creepy revelation. “I used to go to her house before it was a shrine, and the owner allowed me to sleep in Emily’s bed and dream what it was like to be her.”
Forty years of study, research, and, as Farr puts it, “friendship” have drawn the Georgetown English professor and the enigmatic poetess even closer together. Farr has authored two books on her heroine, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, a nonfiction work awarded a “Notable Book” designation by the New York Times, and the new I Never Came to You in White, an epistolary novel spanning Dickinson’s brief, bittersweet life. When asked if it was difficult imagining the poet’s behavior and dialogue for fictional purposes, Farr cuts off the question in a huff: “Oh, no. She seems very real to me.”
“She’s always been my best friend. I’ve been so immersed in her for so many years, I really feel like I know how she would think about something.”
Farr receives fan mail each week from Dickinson groupies as varied as “nuns, truck drivers, lots of medical people, and, of course, writers. [Dickinson has] become a cult figure. I recently had an old man at a lecture ask me, ‘What does she eat for breakfast?’ As if Emily Dickinson is still alive.” No one, however, will ever be as fanatical a fan—or even as loyal a posthumous friend—as Farr. She still visits the grave each year (I didn’t have the nerve to inquire if the spooky grass-under-pillow routine persists), and Farr dreams about Dickinson on a regular basis. “I have one dream that is, I think, very Freudian. We’re walking together down a corridor, almost touching,” Farr says quietly, obviously taking the night trip very seriously. But then, Farr adds, her voice suddenly hushed, Dickinson begins “to move ahead of me…turns a corner…and is gone. After that dream, I have a feeling of terrible loss.”—Sean Daly