Four connections between Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka
At first, the poet Emily Dickinson and the novelist Franz Kafka might not seem connected. They are both influential writers to be sure, but beyond their general impact, the similarities seem to end. They wrote in different formats, addressed different themes, lived in different eras and geographic locations, and it is rare to hear them mentioned in the same breath.
It also seems that they did not influence one another. Dickinson lived before Kafka, and there isn’t a great deal of evidence that Kafka read Dickinson, let alone was impacted by her.
Perhaps most importantly, these two writers engender different sentiments in their readers.
Dickinson’s poems bring joy, Kafka’s novellas illustrate alienation and despair―albeit the kind that brings insight to his readers, and perhaps even joy as well.
But there were common threads that bound these two figures
If they were not connected by similarities of their prose, then they were bound by the threads of how they came to make their prose.
And the last common thread might give insight into both the human condition — and the foundation of art itself.
All right, let’s begin.
Commonality 1 — Both Dickinson and Kafka did not publish that much during their lifetime
And what is more — neither seemed particularly frustrated by this. They were frustrated by everything else in life perhaps, but securing a publishing deal was not one of their lifetime goals.
In fact, Dickinson overtly disdained public distribution of her work, and she expressed this contempt best in her poem Publication — is the Auction:
Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing
That phrase ― Publication is the auction of the mind ― does not align well with our modern understanding.
Hashtagged hot takes, Twitter insults, TikTok challenges and Social Media idea auctions for the lowest bidder aside, publication as a whole is certainly a good thing.
In fact ― what is the point of an idea if it is not shared?
And in the case of Dickinson’s poems ―
What is the point of very, very good poem-ideas that took a lifetime to make ― if they are not shared?
That question aside, we know how Dickinson felt. She only published a handful of poems in her life, because she saw publishing as something contemptuous, or perhaps ancillary at the very least.
He struggled with nearly everything―mood disorders, self-worth, the opposite sex―but he never seemed to complain that he wasn’t getting enough love from the publishers, let alone readers.
He did publish a handful of novels and short stories in his life, but with his last act, he put a request into his will that his friend Max Brod should destroy his unpublished work.
Which brings us to the second commonality between Dickinson and Kafka.
Commonality 2 — Both Dickinson and Kafka asked friends to destroy their work, their friends refused, and they became posthumously successful
This one, admittedly, isn’t quite as clean of an argument for Dickinson. Though Emily made little to no effort to publish her poems in her lifetime, her main posthumous request was that her sister Lavinia destroy her correspondences.
Lavinia fulfilled this request to some degree, and while doing so―found Emily’s poems.
Lavinia then had the poems, and some extant correspondences, published, and the rest is history.
Franz Kafka, on the other hand, was more direct.
He named his best―and perhaps only―friend Max Brod his literary executor, and demanded that Brod destroy Kafka’s unpublished works.
Brod refused this one request, and the rest is history.
Which brings us to our next commonality―
Did publishing-contemptuous Emily Dickinson and more-than-publishing-contemptuous Franz Kafka really want to go unnoticed?
The answer, with one point of circumstantial evidence, is an emphatic no.
Commonality 3 — Both Dickinson and Kafka didn’t really want their work to disappear
There is no evidence of either of them yearning for publishing acceptance―though they probably wouldn’t have minded acceptance in other regards―but there is one undeniable event in both their lives that suggested they wouldn’t mind their current outsized places in the literary canon.
And the event, or rather circumstance is this:
If Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka really, truly and absolutely wanted their works destroyed, they would have destroyed their works themselves.
And neither Dickinson nor Kafka had an entirely unexpected end. They both made wills of sound mind, and both had literary executors.
And both of them could have destroyed their own correspondences, poems, novellas, novels and everything else.
But they didn’t, and here we are.
And now, let’s go deeper―to one of the unsavory foundations of both Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka’s upbringing, a connection that is unfortunately all too common in this world―
An unsavory connection that might be a major pillar of art itself.
Commonality 4 — Both Dickinson and Kafka had a successful, but also domineering, narcissistic and abusive father
Franz Kafka wrote a more than a hundred-page-long letter to his father Hermann Kafka, and in it he describes a self-made patriarch who has found his place in a chaotic 19th century world, but did so at the price of becoming a brute, and a brute that was always right.
From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinion whatsoever about a matter and as a result all opinions that were at all possible with respect to the matter were necessarily wrong, without exception.
His father was right, always right, and every other opinion was either wrong or of a matter so unimportant that it was not worth having an opinion about it in the first place.
There was not physical abuse, per se, but the abuse happened on a verbal level, against young Franz and absolutely everyone else in this world.
Franz excelled at school, and of course, creative endeavors, but these attributes bore no weight in the Kafka household, and in fact brought young Franz only disdain.
What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that… At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement.
And what about Emily?
Let’s have Emily describe her father Edward Dickinson herself, from a letter to her friend, author TW Higginson:
His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.
Perhaps the most telling―no pun intended―tale of her upbringing was her relationship with timekeeping.
I never knew how to tell time by the clock till I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know.
So both Dickinson and Kafka had narcissistic, domineering brutes for fathers, and perhaps because of this, they became stunted humans but monumental writers.
Let’s explore this sentiment a bit deeper, and go beyond the conclusion that Dickinson and Kafka father = bad, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka themselves = good.
Exploring the, if not ‘perfect storm,’ then the ‘unique storm’ that brought Dickinson and Kafka into the world of literature
Both Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka had overbearing narcissistic fathers, but we can not ignore the fact that both their fathers were successful in their day and age.
Edward Dickinson was a statesman, and his stentorian, unflinching sense of the world might have kept Amherst college afloat. He was, after all, the college’s Treasurer during its early years.
Hermann Kafka was a well-to-do businessman, and though young Franz’s upbringing was undoubtedly lonely―his father and mother’s constant working did afford Kafka and his siblings governesses and servants to care for them.
In short, both Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka had more than their basic material needs met, and both of them received an education.
They were not in the streets, nor were they working in the fields.
Instead, they were in school, learning, or at the very least inside their own rooms, reading about other lives―or writing to help them deal with their own.
And perhaps―on a more dispiriting note―there is the cold fact that neither Dickinson nor Kafka married or had any publicly-recognized relationship in their lifetimes.
Their fathers might have stunted their capacities to marry into normal society, but their subsequent solitary existences may have given them the time to compose their anguish into something meaningful.
But let’s still go deeper, or rather broader―is there a link between bad fathers and artistic beauty?
There might be.
The scientific link between a bad childhood and intense creativity
A study showed that there is indeed a link between childhood trauma and intense creativity.
There are certainly a myriad of factors bringing this link―from children making a fantasy world to compensate for their dysfunctional reality―to having a wholly unique experience that grants a person a unique vantagepoint―
To perhaps a child taking a piece of their parent’s narcissism.
Creative projects often take a megalomaniacal level of focus to come into being, and if a child learns from a parent’s megalomaniacal behavior, that child might have an advantage when it comes to the nebulous, often unsupported and unpaid world of making art.
And of course, this is a grey, grey world of causation and correlation.
We all have the qualitative data of artist friends who had difficult childhoods, but we most likely also have a few artist friends who grew up just fine.
And when trying to explain figures from a century ago like Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, the grey world gets even greyer.
But still there are a few things we do know
Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka both had commonalities to their tales, and both had extraordinarily difficult fathers.
And one way or another, both of them turned their anguish into unpublished writing, and both had friends who published them after they left this mortal plane.
And if there is one thing we know most of all―
Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka are now very much here with us, and the world is better for it.