This week is Halloween, a celebration of everything ghoulish and frightening. The holiday came to the United States with Irish and Scottish immigrants, who came over in several waves in the nineteenth century (the great potato famine struck in 1845). Their Celtic ancestors had an ancient tradition of Samhain, a festival that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. At this liminal time, the boundary between this world and the next was more permeable. People believed the ghosts of the dead would revisit their homes seeking hospitality, and other mischievous or evil spirits needed appeasement with fires, feasts, and disguises. Eventually, this festival merged with the Christian Church’s Eve of All Hallows (Saints) Day, which became a day of prayer for all souls in Purgatory.
Although the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries abandoned the celebration of All Saints Day, the English celebrated Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, a commemoration of foiling a plot by Roman Catholics, angered by King James I’s refusal to grant then greater religious tolerance, to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. The English brought that celebration to the North American colonies. All of these traditions, and even some Native American customs, fed into Halloween, which, by the late 19th century became a popular holiday with some of the same rituals as we have today, such as bobbing for apples. In honor of Halloween and the dwindling of the light, this week we explore the “Poe-side” of Dickinson’s poetry of haunted things.
“The Air is Full of Farewells”
Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“The grand advance of the army of the Potomac has at length commenced. There have been many rumors of the retreat of the rebel army southward, but they are not confirmed, and Gen. Lee shows a conscious strength of some undiscovered depth of strategy by remaining between Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, while he must be aware that he is exposed to flank movements.”
Amusements and the War, page 2
“During this critical period in the nation’s history, when ‘the air is full of farewells’ for the departing and the dead, many people turn from all amusements as from things inappropriate and forbidden. Of course, some allowance must be made for individual tastes, but a general asceticism would be a grave mistake. We need some innocent reaction against the pressure of deprivation, anxiety and sorrow.”
Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The American public is at length consoled by the advent of the fifth and last installment of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables,have a reproduction in masterly literature of the artistic device, a wreath of passion-flowers about a cross. But the book is something more than a novel; it was written with a purpose and designed to exhibit the lower strata of social life in France, as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Among the Pines’ [popular novel of 1862 by James R. Gilmore] expose the carboniferous strata in America. The author is a social anatomist; he throws apart the integuments of custom and convention and lays bare the human heart that beats everywhere in the masses, in the schools, in the workshops, in the gutters.”
Hampshire Gazette, November 4, 1862
The Increase of the Russian Empire, page 1
“The celebration of the Thousandth Anniversary of the Russian Empire took place on the 20th of Sept., with imposing ceremonies in all the principal cities as a national festival. The principal celebration took place at Novogorod, whence the empire, it is claimed, has radiated to its present vast dimensions. Here the Emperor and the great officers of state assembled and witnessed the uncovering of the great bell of the place, which is regarded with superstitious veneration as the memorial of former freedom and glory.”
Maimed Soldiers Belonging to the New England States, page 3
“Soldiers who have lost their legs will be glad to learn that the Surgeon General of the United States has authorized Pulmer & Co. of Boston, the justly celebrated artificial leg manufacturers, to furnish legs to all who elect to accept ‘Palmer Legs.’”
Harper’s Monthly, November 1862
The First Colonial Congress, page 769
“Although the Congress at Albany failed in efforts to establish a national government, and the bright visions of the people faded into dim dissolving views for the moment, their hopes and resolution were not diminished. The foundations of a future independent State were laid deeply in the minds and hearts of all thoughtful men. The idea of nationality was one of immense power, and it began a revolution which took no retrograde step.”
“Her Goth(ic) Persona”
It is a bit of a stretch to connect Dickinson and Halloween. Protestants in the United States eschewed Christian church festivals like All Saints’ Day. Dickinson grew up in a Puritan Congregational household, and a fairly dour one at that. But the town of Amherst was flooded with Irish immigrants, and by 1862, Dickinson’s family had several Irish servants working in the home. They may have brought a Samhain spirit with them, the ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of the agricultural season. And Amherst was an agricultural town. Dickinson would have been in tune with those rhythms, as her poetry and letters affirm.
What we can link Dickinson to is the literary tendency we call “the gothic,” which had also come over from England, where novelists like Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794) were concocting a heady brew of villains, maidens, secrets, and threats that proved wildly popular. There is no evidence that Dickinson read either of these writers, but she certainly adored their inheritors, novelists like Charlotte and Emily Brontë. In an earlier post, we explored the homegrown New England version of the gothic among women writers of the “Azarian School,” who developed a heated, lush style of writing about intense emotional states, intoxication and ravishment. Critic David Cody has nominated Dickinson as an honorary member of this school.
According to Daneen Wardrop, who studies Dickinson’s use of the gothic, "Gothicism saturated Dickinson's culture,” which was obsessed with death and “apparitional” experiences. Dickinson herself was no stranger to death and loss. In a letter to her Norcross cousins written around this time, she describes the “general” sorrow caused by the war and says that she also “sang off the charnel steps” (L298).
Wardrop outlines what she calls “a feminine gothic,” which we will explore in the poems for this week. She argues that Dickinson’s early letters reveal that she was developing “her gothic persona” early on with accounts of strange noises, “boogey men” and binge reading of scary stories on sleep-overs with Sue (see note to L157). One hallmark of this genre is the fetishization of a manuscript often secret and sacred to the family–secret manuscripts not lacking in Dickinson’s world. Dickinson “reveres and apprentices herself to women gothic authors but also reads widely the work of American male gothic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving.”
As “the shadow-text” or “dark twin” of Romanticism,” gothicism is, according to G. R. Thompson,
the drama of the mind engaged in the quest for metaphysical and moral absolutes in a world that offers shadowy semblances of an occult order but withholds final revelation and illumination.
As Wardrop notes, that is the central promise of religion. Gothicism explores the liminal spaces between the “sacred and profane” and “provokes the reader to a simultaneous yearning for and renunciation of that illumination.”
There are other “ghosts” in Dickinson’s world as well. For example, what Aife Murray calls the “specter of slavery.” Apparently, in 1839 Amherst was the location of “a highly publicized case of 11-year old Angeline Palmer,” a free Black servant in a white family who conspired to take her south and sell her into slavery. Dickinson’s “lawyer father represented three African-American men who staged a daring stagecoach rescue of Angelina.” They refused, under oath, to reveal her whereabouts and were thrown into jail. In 1851, a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave act, Dickinson wrote to her brother Austin about the disappearance of their stableman, Wells Newport, “great-grandson of a former slave, who, in the 18th century, successfully sued for his freedom in a Springfield court.” Murray argues that in a poem dated to 1861, Dickinson registers “the pervasive injustice of legalized human trafficking, north and south:”
The Lamp burns sure – within –
‘Tho’ Serfs – supply the Oil –
It matters not the busy Wick –
At her phosphoric toil!
The Slave – forgets – to fill –
The Lamp – burns golden – on –
Unconscious that the oil is out –
As that the Slave – is gone. (F247, J233)
Rena J. Mosteirin
My poems depict ghosts I’ve seen and dreamed. After my grandmother died, I slept in my childhood bed in the room next to her bedroom. That night, I dreamed my grandmother, as I had never seen her: she was young, wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and running down a beach. She was beautiful and she was happy. This was a ghost of her from a time before World War II had turned her out of her home and destroyed her country. She was young and running down the beach and there was nothing that could hurt her anymore, now that she was dead.
Dickinson’s ghosts also appear in old-fashioned clothes. Dickinson is also more aware of ghosts when she is near to the things they left behind. In the poems we take up this week on White Heat, Dickinson describes ghosts in varied ways. The only Ghost I ever saw is concerned with the ghost walking. Walking is distinctly human, so Dickinson must show us how a ghost does it. She gives us this gem of a line in the beginning of the poem: “stepped like flakes of snow” to show the sub-humanly soft tread of the ghost. Where is the ghost going? The line “And God forbid I look behind” suggests the ghost is following her.
“The Mouldering Playmate” is a description that stands out in Of nearness to her sundered things, a poem that smells of mold and dust. “Looking at Death, is Dying –” Dickinson writes in 'Tis so appalling it exhilarates. I felt a funeral in my brain takes up Dickinson’s own funeral and plunge downward into death until she is “Finished knowing.” Taken together, we might assume some rough shape for Dickinson’s philosophy of death: to know death is to die, but it is also the end of knowing. Yet if ghosts come back to tell us things, and to be with us—the living—then death cannot be the end of knowing. Dickinson’s poems behoove us to sit with that contradiction.
That same grandmother I dreamed in her bathing suit the night she died, later appeared to me in the spray of a whale while I was whale watching off Provincetown, Massachusetts. On the boat I was very near a grandparent (not one of my own, but an extremely comforting figure) and my grandmother’s message from beyond the grave was consoling, while taking into account the fear that her ghostly visitation would provoke. Here’s a poem I wrote about that experience:
Do Not Be Afraid
Two little girls, braided and brown
sat beside me hugging their grandfather
next to my husband as the boat pushed
through the froth toward the swells
that might be whales but weren’t, not yet.
Their grandfather wore a thick sweater
like my husband did that day and they
nodded at each other as if to acknowledge
that out of all the things in this great world
to wake up early for, whale watching
wasn’t even in the top ten. Then the whales
started leaping two by two, beside the boat,
under the double rainbow, the grandfather
started hollering and pointing—suddenly the whales
were all around us—the little girls shrieked,
and I began to cry, I didn’t know it until
I turned my face to my husband’s chest
and I was wiping good wet tears
and salt on his sweater, then I pulled away—
More whales had arrived and in their spray
was my dead grandmother, yes, I saw her—young!
Using the breath whales shoot above the surface,
she said, Do not be afraid. She said,
You’ve been grieving long enough.
Rena J. Mosteirin is the author of Nick Trail’s Thumb (Kore Press, 2008), selected for the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award by Lydia Davis, and the co-author of Moonbit (punctum books, forthcoming) with James E. Dobson. Mosteirin edits BloodrootLit.org, is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Writing Seminars at Bennington.
Hampshire Gazette, November 4, 1862
Harper's Monthly, November 1862
Springfield Republican, November 1, 1862
Murray, Aife. “Emily Dickinson’s Poems reflect Specter of Slavery.” Baystate Banner. 2/28/2012.
Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996, 4-11.
Thompson, G. R., ed. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman: Washington State, University Press, 1974: 6.