If Frederick Tuckerman had been born a woman, you might think he was Emily Dickinson’s twin.
Like Emily, Frederick Tuckerman came from a well-to-do, public-spirited, intellectual family. He became a recluse in western Massachusetts, as did Emily. Frederick attended college (Harvard) only briefly, as did she (Mount Holyoke), and he wrote poetry. Like Emily, he published only a few of his many poems during his lifetime.
Unlike Emily, he didn’t have an adulterous neighbor who published his poetry posthumously and made him famous.
He was born Feb. 4, 1821 in Boston (Emily, Dec. 10, 1830) into the illustrious Tuckerman family. His brother Samuel Parkman Tuckerman composed sacred music for the Episcopal Church. His cousin Henry Theodore Tuckerman was a well-known critic and essayist.
Another brother, Edward Tuckerman, taught botany at Amherst College. He spent decades collecting lichens in the White Mountains, and Tuckerman Ravine is named for him. He and his wife also befriended the Dickinson family, and letters from Emily to Edward’s wife Sarah survive.
Frederick Tuckerman went to Harvard in 1841, but eye problems sent him home. He then returned to Harvard Law, graduated and gained entry to the Suffolk Bar. He found the law distasteful, though, and spent the rest of his time studying literature, botany and astronomy.
In 1847, then only in his mid-twenties, Frederick Tuckerman moved to Greenfield, Mass., just 20 miles north of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst. He married the gentle Hannah Lucinda Jones that same year.
Frederick Tuckerman spent his days walking the countryside around Greenfield and nights gazing at stars through a telescope. He made herbariums and read English literature, which he loved.
Unlike Emily Dickinson, though, he traveled. In 1851 he went to England and met and befriended Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson invited him to come back and stay with him, which he did three years later.
In 1857, Hannah died while giving birth to their third child. Frederick deeply mourned her loss and turned further inward. He wrote poem after poem to work out his guilt and his grief. One sonnet begins,
I leave the town; I climb the mountain-side, / Striving from stumps and stones to wring relief; / And in the senseless anger of my grief, / I rave and weep; I roar to the unmoved skies; / But the wild tempest carries away my cries!
Three years after his wife died, Frederick Tuckerman self-published his one and only book of poetry, called Poems. He then sent copies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They replied politely. Only Hawthorne seemed to appreciate his work.
(Emily Dickinson, too, had poems published during her lifetime, though probably without her authorization.)
Frederick Tuckerman spent the rest of his life in dignified privacy, dying at the age of 52 on May 9, 1873.
Emily died May 15, 1886 at age 56. Her late brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published her poems to wide acclaim.
Higginson, by the way, had attended Harvard with Frederick Tuckerman. As an old man, Higginson recalled Tuckerman, ‘as a refined and gentlemanly fellow, but I did not then know him as a poet.’
It would take decades for Frederick Tuckerman to win acclaim for his poetry.
In 1909, a wealthy poet named Louis How put together an anthology of American poems that included two sonnets by Tuckerman. Though the anthology never went to press, an article about it caught the attention of the poet and scholar Witter Bynner. He got in touch with Tuckerman’s grandchild, obtained a cache of his poems and published a new anthology of them in 1931. Another critic, N. Scott Momaday, brought out an edition of Tuckerman’s poetry in 1965.
However, a different kind of homage to Frederick Tuckerman took shape in 1912. Then, a sandstone observation tower called Poets Seat Tower was built in Greenfield to commemorate the spot loved by poets, especially Tuckerman.
Tuckerman’s biographer Eugene England noted another similarity between Frederick Tuckerman and Emily Dickinson:
Allen Tate’s comment on Emily Dickinson can be adapted to Tuckerman. All pity for his starved life is misdirected; his life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.
Images: Plaque By Jerry Dougherty – http://public.fotki.com/GCDOUGHERTY/miscellaneous/massachusetts/greenfield-ma/greenfieldpoetsseat-1.html, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7119511. This story was updated in 2022.