January 29-February 4,1862: White

There is no color more connected to Dickinson than white—she was known as “The White Myth of Amherst” because at this time she began to dress in all white and wrote of many “white” things. We ask this week what the color stood for and how it reflects Dickinson’s position in society. White has many meanings, yet the implications were evolving as 1862 was caught in a debate over race and privilege.


There is no color more connected to Dickinson than white. And since we named this project “White Heat,” we feel duty-bound to interrogate the implications of that word choice.

The replica of Dickinson’s white dress at the Emily Dickinson Museum

Seeing the project’s title, a sympathetic colleague feared it invoked and, thus, endorsed the “myth” of Dickinson as the eccentric recluse in the white house dress she began wearing sometime around 1862, which is prominently on display at the Emily Dickinson museum at the Homestead (though that is a replica! the original is at the Amherst Historical Society Museum). This humble garment, called a “wrapper,” with buttons down the front so she could dress herself and a discreet pocket for pencil and scrap paper, has been described as “the T-shirt and sweatpants of its day.” In the hands of contemporary artists, like Lesley Dill, this dress becomes a kinetic sculpture that features the power of Dickinson’s words.

Lesley Dill, Dada Poem Wedding Dress, 1994. Made for Dada Ball, Webster Hall, New York, October 12, 1994.

Still, the white dress quickly became a symbol for Dickinson’s public myth around town as “The White Moth of Amherst” (St. Armand). As soon as Mabel Loomis Todd arrived in Amherst in 1881, she heard about this “myth” or “moth” and proceeded to expand on and spread it. And it stuck.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932); also an example of typical daytime dresses of the period.

What did this color choice stand for? Innocence or spiritual/sexual purity? Brides, bridal gowns and weddings? Coldness, snow, and the forbidding blankness of New England winters? Bones and marble, alabaster chambers, pearls, death shrouds and ghosts? Or renunciation of society: by 1869, Dickinson rebuffed an invitation to visit her “mentor,” Thomas Higginson, declaring, “I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.” (L330). As her assumption of white occurred during the years of the Civil War, we cannot ignore the meaning of white as a racial marker of class privilege and power, a category of identity that was undergoing cultural re-consolidation during this period. We have only to think of Herman Melville’s extensive meditation on “the whiteness of the whale” in Moby Dick (1851).

Smithsonian Magazine

Dickinson is also a product of her time, class and region. It would be surprising if she did not harbor attitudes of race and class superiority, though there is profound disagreement among scholars about what her attitudes towards race and class privilege actually were, and whether they evolved over the course of her life.

What we can agree on is that Dickinson uses white and its related imagery throughout her poetry and letters. We chose the term “White Heat” as our title, from  the poem,”Dare you see a soul at the ‘White Heat?'” (F401, J365) because it captured Dickinson’s intensity and the refining forge of creativity that characterized the year 1862 in her life. But that meaning does not cancel out the resonance of other meanings of white that appear her work. With her extensive knowledge of astronomy, Dickinson would have known that white is not so much a color as a compendium of the full spectrum of colors.

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