This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette titled “Power of Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth, class, and economics in relation to Emily Dickinson.
Martha Nell Smith notes:
In studies of Emily Dickinson and her family, class is one of the most underinvestigated topics.
The essay in Atlantic Monthly suggests a reason for this:
in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.
It is important to note that this essay, part of a series about the changes wrought by the war economy on the American household, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe under the pseudonym “Christopher Crowfield.” And that even in progressive outlets like the Atlantic Monthly, women writers still felt it necessary to publish under male pseudonyms—perhaps especially when they were discussing economics.
Dickinson came of age during a period of shifting economic and social trends, what Robert Merideth calls “The Age of Enterprise [and] the Rise of Finance Capitalism.” Her grandfather, father, and brother were each known as the “Squire” of Amherst, a recognition of their active involvement in the town’s development and membership in New England’s conservative political and social elite. Dickinson and her sister Lavinia were not expected to work, have a profession or earn money. But the Dickinson family’s financial history was fraught with instability. The small town community, in which their status harked back to earlier pastoral forms of social hierarchy, was changing and, as we will see, those changes register in Dickinson’s experience of class and economic necessity, inflected by her gender and her racial identity.
Economic changes also register in Dickinson’s poetry. Merideth estimates that at least 10 % of Dickinson’s poems employ “the language of economics,” but scholars are divided on how she used this discourse and to what end. Famous poems like “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –” (F788, J709, 1863) and her refusal to enter the print publication market of her day bolster the view of Dickinson as an elitist and Romantic who placed herself and “art” above the worldliness of commerce. Other approaches explore her investment in and commentary on economics, her evolving class consciousness, and her commitment to democracy’s notion of the sovereign individual.
“Power of Money”
Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“There is now a prospect of immediate activity in Virginia. Gen. Pope has taken the field with the intention to find Jackson and compel him to fight, or to push on directly towards Richmond on the north. Some movement to be made by Gen. McClellan’s army, but in what direction is not yet apparent.”
Martin Van Buren, page 2
“The death of the ex-president has been mentioned by telegraph. He died on Thursday morning at Lindenwold, his homestead, near Kinderhook, N.Y.”
Poetry: “The Water Drinker’s Song,” page 6
I drink with a noble company—
With all the stately trees
That spread their leafy shade abroad,
And flutter in the breeze;
The playful breeze,
That loves to please
My comrades great and small;
I’ll drink at ease|
Pure draughts with these—
They’re water-drinkers all.
Aimless Lives, page 7
“There are the most unfortunate persons, who are by their parents’ wealth released from their responsibility of industry—the spoiled children of the rich. Wealth in parents’ hands may enlarge the bounds of opportunity without destroying the motives in the child of industry and sagacity and perseverance; but he is a wise parent who knows both how to earn and how to hold the administration of his wealth in such a way as that he shall not destroy by these motives in his child.”
Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“The world never admits a writer is inspired till he has expired.”
Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862
Power of Money, page 1
“The power of money is on the whole overestimated. Riches are oftener an impediment than a stimulus for action; and in many cases they are quite as much a misfortune as a blessing. The youth who inherits wealth is apt to have life made too easy for him, and he soon grows sated with it, because he has nothing left to desire.”
The Atlantic Monthly, August 1862
“Headquarters of Beer Drinking,” page 185
“Besides the four elements known to us as air, fire, earth, and water, there is a liquid substance not entirely unknown in our country, which, in the kingdom of Bavaria, is sometimes called the fifth element, under the specific name of beer.”
House and Home Papers: “Economy,” by Christopher Crowfield [pseudonym for Harriet Beecher Stowe], page 230
“I think there is a peculiar temptation in a life organized as ours in America. There are here no settled classes, with similar ratios of income. Mixed together in the same society, going to the same parties, and blended in daily neighborly intercourse, are families of the most opposite extremes in point of fortune. In England there is a very well understood expression, that people should not dress or live above their station; in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.”
“‘The Almighty Dollar’”
There is little doubt that Dickinson occupied a privileged class position and knew it. She also likely perceived how unstable and threatened that position was.
Edward, Dickinson’s father, struggled in his early years to make up for his father Samuel’s financial insolvency, caused largely by his investment in the establishment of Amherst Academy and Amherst College. Samuel built the imposing “Homestead,” also known in town as “the mansion,” but Edward had to move his family out while he established his law practice. He lost money in the Panic of 1837, but eventually recouped his losses with investments in land. The Dickinsons did not move back until he could repurchase the house in 1855 and expand and refurbish it. Strongly civic-minded, Edward served as treasurer of Amherst College and helped bring the railroad to Amherst, which increased mail service.
His first born son, Austin, also became a lawyer and civic leader in Amherst. When Austin married Susan Gilbert in 1856, Edward insured their proximity by building them the Evergreens, a distinctive Italianate villa next door, which they furnished with contemporary art work. When drafted during the Civil War, Austin purchased a substitute for himself at the price of $500. Both Dickinson families hosted many famous guests and held annual social events like the Amherst College Commencement Day dinner and Sue’s famous evening salons and musicales.
Dickinson’s consciousness of class was shaped by her family’s position and what biographer Richard Sewall refers to as the family’s tendency to snobbery and satire, but also by her experiences of her gender and race. She had an observant and satirical eye for social mores, and her comments in her letters, especially to Austin, are often biting and condescending. She makes disparaging remarks about Irish immigrants, soldiers who come to the house, African Americans who worked for her family, the working poor, the girls at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary who weren’t quite up to the “Amherst standard,” and, in fact, anyone not in her intimate circle. In June 1853, she complained to Austin about the many visitors her father entertains brought by the new railroad to Amherst and characterizes them as:
the high and the low, the bond and the free, the “poor in this world’s good,” and the “almighty dollar” and “what in the world are they after” continues to be unknown – But I hope they will pass away, as insects on vegetation, and let us reap together in golden harvest time —t hat is you and Susie and me and our dear sister Vinnie … (L 128 )
Dickinson probably quotes the arresting phrase, “the almighty dollar,” from Charles Dickens, an author she read and loved and mentions earlier in the letter. From this desire to flee the growing diversity and commercialism of Amherst and withdraw into a pastoral “golden harvest time,” many scholars depict Dickinson as a critic of this enterprising age, of the literary marketplace, and “the almighty dollar.”
For Betsy Erkkila, however, Dickinson’s critique of commercialism was made possible by her elite status. In perhaps the most condemning reading of Dickinson’s class consciousness, Erkkila argues that
Dickinson was in some sense the spokesperson and representative of older ruling class interests, [who] returned to a pre-Revolutionary and aristocratic language of rank, titles, and divine right to assert the sovereignty of her self as absolute monarch.
In Erkkila’s view, Dickinson thought herself above politics and social causes, including abolition and women’s rights, did not make common cause with other women writers, feared the body and sexuality (the democratic masses), and ridiculed the fame and commercial success of sentimental writers. About Dickinson’s resistance to Victorian gender conventions, her refusal to marry and publish, Erkkila observes that “from the point of view of class that refusal was paradoxically grounded in the privilege of her status as the daughter of a conservative Whig squire.” Even Dickinson’s radical poetics are compromised by her privilege:
If on the level of language Dickinson might be celebrated as a kind of literary terrorist — a "loaded Gun" and dancing "Bomb" — who blew up the social and symbolic orders of patriarchal language, it is also important that we recognize that her poetic revolution was grounded in the privilege of her class position in a conservative Whig household whose elitist, antidemocratic values were at the very center of her work.
Although Domhnall Mitchell recognizes that Dickinson did engage with political and social issues of her day, he comes to a similar conclusion about her elitist and conservative positions. For example, both Erkkila and Mitchell read “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (F260, J288) against the conventional grain. Mitchell argues:
Rather than expressing sympathy for the disenfranchised, the speaker expresses both anxiety and contempt for the democratic system that gives "bog-trotters” [Irish immigrants] access to political and cultural influence.
Erkkila’s central claim that “Dickinson was the
“lady” and the intellectual whose leisure, freedom, and space “to think” were made possible by the manual labor and proletarianization of others
has been differently inflected by a ground-breaking study of Dickinson’s relationship with the Irish servants in her household. Aife Murray points out that domestic arrangements in the Dickinson household were unusual for that class. Emily Norcross insisted on doing most of the domestic tasks, with the help of her daughters, but as they became more socially engaged, they persuaded Edward to hire a full-time live-in “maid-of-all-work.” Margaret O’Brien served in this capacity from 1850 until she married and left in 1865. Then there is a three and a half year gap before Margaret Maher is hired in 1869 and remains until well after Dickinson’s death in 1886.
Murray acknowledges that these women were “critical to [Dickinson] defining herself as a poet,” but not merely as nameless, faceless laborers or proletariats. She notes that Dickinson begins creating the fascicles when O’Brien arrives and stops during the period between her departure and Maher’s hiring, when she–Dickinson–took on so much of the household chores, even her letter writing flags. Editor Thomas Johnson comments about this period, “Psychologically she was dormant. The great poetic drive was suddenly at an end,” while Murray counters by saying, “Dickinson was busy”–with housework.
Murray also paints a very different picture of Dickinson’s class consciousness, arguing for her awareness of the significance of these privileges and her recognition of the contributions of the Irish servants in her household to the often occluded “social context of the artwork’s production.” She even argues that Dickinson stored her fascicles in Maher’s trunk and abjured her to burn them after her death. But recognizing their worth, Maher disobeyed and moved them into Dickinson’s dresser where Lavinia “found” them.
These two approaches to Dickinson and class show how “facts” can be differently interpreted and valued. For Erkkila, the fact that Dickinson had six Irish workmen as her pallbearers reinforces her elite class status and conservative politics. For Murray, the same fact was “an unusual choice that appears to have broken class and cultural taboos” and that spoke “to the Irish immigrant and poor community of Amherst, in an unambiguous gesture of honor and recognition.”
In her brilliant book, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Sara Ahmed asks us to consider everything that goes into the activity of writing – not only the time and energy of the author, nor merely her influences, talents, skills, and education, but also her material support. Without time and space, without food in the belly and a roof over one’s head, writing becomes difficult, if not impossible.
Sitting down to write is never simple, for in clearing a space to write, one is inserting oneself into a specific position within a material economy. Unless one is a professional writer, writing is a leisure activity – testimony to the margin of freedom allowed by capitalism. Part of the difficulty of reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry in class terms is that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Dickinson suffers from too much leisure, that the formal inventiveness of her poetry betrays a certain elitism. It’s easy to disdain the commodification of social life – “the Auction/Of the Mind of Man” – when one doesn’t have to worry about paying rent.
Part of Ahmed’s point, however, is that writing orients us towards objects in certain ways, that writing has its own efficacy, its own ability to move us in specific directions. It’s undeniable that Dickinson’s class position – her belonging to a bourgeois family of politicians and entrepreneurs – is the material condition of possibility of her poetry. At the same time, I’m not so sure her poetry orients itself towards the social reproduction of capitalism.
I should explain: Social reproduction – the object of a great deal of Marxist Feminist criticism (by Selma James, Silvia Federici, and Maya Gonzalez, among others) – describes the labor that goes into reproducing labor-power. In other words, it describes the housework, the childcare, transportation, and all of the other kinds of activities that maintain a work force. Without a work force, after all, capitalism cannot exist, and part of how capitalism secures its profit margins is by not paying for the maintenance of its work force. Imagine, for instance, if businesses had to pay wages for the housework supporting their workers or, given that the two-income household has become the social norm, imagine if workers received a stipend for their meals, their childcare, and their transportation over and above their wages/salaries. (By the way, these proposals were circulated by the Wages for Housework Campaign , organized by the International Feminist Collective.)
So, when Dickinson’s poetry uses economic language to describe the emotions of a household, or when it frames the value of poetry and love in terms of their irreducibility to financial calculations, what’s at stake is not only class position in the conventional sense (workers versus capitalists; the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie; etc.). It’s also about everything that goes into reproducing a household, including the emotional labor or care labor so often expected from women. Dickinson’s poetry speaks to the intersection of gender and class, specifically, to the ways in which patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia align with capitalism to burden women with the task of reproducing the workforce (and with a smile).
We might pose a few questions, then: How does Dickinson’s poetry represent capitalism not only as class conflict or as the privilege of the elite but also as the general commodification of the household? How might the formal strategies of her poetry suggest alternatives to the capitalist value-form? How might her poetry cultivate social norms, affects/emotions, and even forms of life that differ from bourgeois possessive individualism?
I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing poems such as “I gave Myself to Him” and “I’m ‘wife’- I’ve finished that,” and one of the consistent refrains in these poems is an anxiety regarding private property. To paraphrase Marx, Dickinson worries about what happens when everything gets reduced to the sense of having. I read this same anxiety in “Reverse cannot befall.” The retreat of value into the bowels of the earth constitutes a utopian demand for a life beyond the capitalist cycle of booms and busts. One might say that the poem becomes a placeholder for, if not a guarantee of, the invaluable. It makes a place for that which remains untouched by the endless reversals of the market.
Interiority – the geological interiority of the poem’s extended metaphor; the psychological or emotional interiority associated with lyric poetry – is therefore a social matter, because it implies a resistance to capitalism’s tendency to reduce everything to a commodity. No doubt, such interiority is a far cry from the poetic activism of, say, a Bertolt Brecht, an Adrienne Rich, or a Claudia Rankine, but it nonetheless suggests that even bourgeois personhood can remind us that keeping society running doesn’t have to mean reproducing a docile population of workers. (By the way, this emphasis on the utopian power of the bourgeois lyric poem is not unlike Theodor Adorno’s argument in “Lyric Poetry and Society” .)
Of course, none of this erases the privilege Dickinson derives from her class position, but in the midst of a household that could not help but reflect and reenact the commercial desires of capitalism, her poetry did not so much serve capitalism as do a disservice to its entrepreneurial schemes. One could perhaps do worse than seeing her poetry as a reminder that not everything has a price.
bio: Christian P. Haines is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University. He's recently finished a book, A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons, which will be published by Fordham University Press in 2019. He also co-edited and introduced a special issue of Cultural Critique, "What Comes After the Subject?" (Spring 2017). Essays by him have appeared in journals including Criticism, Genre, Cultural Critique, and boundary 2. He has work forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly and Postmodern Culture and in edited collections including The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics (Routledge) and The Next Generation: Emerging Voices in Utopian Studies (Peter Lang). He serves as a contributing editor for Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities.
Merideth, Robert. “Emily Dickinson and the Acquisitive Society.” The New England Quarterly 37.4 (1964), 435-52, 437.
Smith, Martha Nell. “The Dickinsons & Class.” The Civil War, Class, & The Dickinsons.
Atlantic Monthly, August 15, 1862
Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862
Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862
Erkkila, Betsy. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” American Literary History 4.1 (Spring 1992): 1-27, 3, 13, 15, 21, 23.
Mitchell, Domhnall. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 191-214, 197-99. See also, Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
Murray, Aife. “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson.” Signs 24, 3 (Spring 1999): 697-732, 729. See also Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New Hampshire, 2008.