December 24-31, 1862: Winter

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness. It is part of her extensive seasonal imagery, which we will explore through her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry. This is also the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness, and also of Christmas, with its lights and evergreens and messages of peace despite its contemporary contamination by consumerism. It was heartening to hear several stories in the media calling for “giftless” holidays or giving the gift of presence and intimacy or homemade gifts. It’s a good time to think of renewing our commitments to making and nourishing connections and building bridges not walls.

Dickinson calls winter the “Finland of the Year” (J1696), and it is part of her extensive seasonal imagery. As we will see in our explorations of her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry, winter signals cold, deprivation, isolation and death. But it also suggests purity through the important image of whiteness, clarity, strength, independence and perseverance. As critic L. Edwin Folsom commented, “Winter, for Emily Dickinson, was a primary source of her realism.”

Winter is also the time in which we lay up the seeds and sources for next year’s resurgence. For those of us in the north, it signals the end of the year and also the return of the light after the Winter Solstice. Thus, it is fitting that this is the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

“Strong and Healthy as a Northern Breeze”

Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Public attention has been turned from the auxiliary situation for some days by an attempt of the majority of the Senate to force a reconstruction of the cabinet for the sake of dropping out Mr. Seward, which was temporarily successful, but terminated in the return of the secretaries to their previous positions. The first shock of the Fredericksburg disaster [the battle fought Dec 11-15] has been overcome, and since it is seen that the losses were less than at first supposed, that the army is not demoralized by the failure, and since Gen. Burnside assumes the whole responsibility of the experiment, hope begins to be entertained that the winter campaign in Virginia has not been terminated by it, and that some means of reaching Richmond may be discovered more hopeful than dashing our gallant army in places against impregnable fortifications.

Success of Physical Culture at Amherst College, page 2
“We are glad to receive from time to time favorable accounts of the working of the gymnastic system which has been adopted by the trustees of Amherst College. During the term, and indeed during the year, the health of the students has been remarkably uniform. Not a single case of fever has occurred in college during the year. Of 178 students who were present during the fall term, only five were at any time on the sick list for more than two days.”

Late from China and Japan: Russia sending troops to China—The Revolution in Japan, page 5
“It was rumored that a large body of Russian troops were coming from the Amoor to aid the Chinese government in the recapture of Ningpoo, and to put down the rebellion. James’ Herald of November says the revolution in Japan is complete. The tycoon [“taikun” or great commander] has been stripped of nearly all his special privileges.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“Of the remaining poems of [Bayard Taylor’s new volume], “Passing the Sirens” is the best. It is as strong and healthy as a northern breeze, and too full of life and power to be anything less than an offspring, most classically disguised, of personal experience. We trust the volume may find many appreciative readers, and that abundant room may be made for the author in the high place which belongs to him as an American poet.”

Original Poetry: Dying for Love, [by William Walsh (1662-1708) English poet and friend of Alexander Pope] page 7

William Walsh, Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

The Fossil Man, page 670 [by C. L. Brace (1826-1890), an American social reformer]
“What a mysterious and subtile pleasure there is in groping back through the early twilight of human history! The mind thirsts and longs so to know the Beginning: who and what manner of men those were who laid the first foundations of all that is now upon the earth: of what intellectual power, of what degree of civilization, of what race and country. We wonder how the fathers of mankind lived, what habitations they dwelt in, what instruments or tools they employed, what crops they tilled, what garments they wore. We catch eagerly at any traces that may remain of their faiths and beliefs and superstitions; and we fancy, as we gain a clearer insight into them, that we are approaching more nearly to the mysterious Source of all life in the soul.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Editor’s Easy Chair, page 134

"Titania and Bottom," 1790, artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

“The letter of Garibaldi to the British nation contrasts strangely in the purity of its appeal to the loftiest principle with the apparent character and conduct of the people to whom it is addressed. Yet the contrast is between the heroic faith of Garibaldi and the hesitating, treacherous timidity of the British Government, and not between the instinct of the Italian fils du people and that of the people of England. When you hear the high appeal, breathed in passionate music, it is impossible not to think of Titania and Bottom [from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV.1. An angry King Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania, so that she falls madly in love with Bottom, a weaver who has been given the head of an ass.] When you turn from English history, or the London newspaper of today, to listen to that clear Southern voice intoning the principles and ideas which it is the glory of men to have uttered centuries ago, it is almost if you have heard that voice itself out of history, vague, remote, illusive.”

"Better than a Summer"

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883
“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883

The last week in December was likely a cold and perhaps dreary time in the Dickinson household. The earliest New England Puritans were not keen on Christmas, which they claimed had no scriptural foundation and was celebrated in Old England by carnival-like activities they found reprehensible. They outlawed Christmas, but by the mid-eighteenth century, it had become a popular holiday in the US embraced by Congregational Churches as a time for formal observance. The December 27, 1862 issue of the Republican reported:

Here at home we see the usual demonstrations on the part of the whole people for a spirited and bona fide celebration of the holiday rites,

but we have no idea how the family of the Homestead spent the holiday, if at all.

Dickinson’s letters from this time indicate that she was preoccupied with Samuel Bowles’s return from Europe in mid-November, and her imagery sheds light on her broader attitude towards winter. After his return, Bowles visited the Homestead, but Dickinson refused to come down and see him, and sent this note instead:

Dear friend
I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And more to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird.
      Emily. (L276)

In a longer letter sent at the same time, Dickinson explained that,

Because I did not see you, Vinnie and Austin, upbraided me – They did not know I gave my part that they might have the more.

The rest of the letter is elliptical and ends on a note of shared suffering and renunciation with these two lines:

Let others – show this Surry's Grace -

Myself – assist his Cross. (L277)

Dickinson’s description of Bowles’s safe return as “better than a Summer” places it within her seasonal symbolism where she measures it against her favorite season of the fullest sun, light, warmth, life, even eternity. Evoking related symbolism in other letters, Dickinson associates winter with death, as in this (melo)dramatic outburst to the Hollands in November 1858:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week – our man, Dick, lost a little girl through the scarlet fever. I thought perhaps that you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! dainty – dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, – then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!

Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie – are they below, or received to nowhere? (L195)

Later in her life, Dickinson will reverse this symbolism, suggesting that it is death that brings winter no matter what season it is, as in this description of her mother’s death from 1882:

She slipped from our fingers like a flake, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.” (L785)

In her classic study of Dickinson’s imagery, Rebecca Patterson saved the last chapter for an explication of the symbolism of “The Cardinal Points,” which Barton Levi St. Armand expanded into what he calls “Dickinson’s mystic day.” Patterson argues that Dickinson learned the power of symbolism from Emerson, who asked in his great essay Nature (1836)

is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?

Patterson finds that Dickinson “was in fact a naïve symbolist who … used this symbolism like a second language, or a species of shorthand” but often diverged from Emerson’s ideas. For her, “North” and “northern” and its equivalents like “Arctic” and “Polar” are associated with night, specifically midnight, winter and elements like sleet, snow, frost, glaciers, freezing, icicles, darkness, blindness, death, and the color white “as an arbitrary (cultural) identification of chastity or virginity.” As we discussed in our earlier post on White, these cultural associations are hardly “arbitrary” at all.

In many symbol systems, including Dickinson’s, the north and winter have some positive attributes and are associated with masculinity, maturation, power, hardihood, independence, female virtue, and faithfulness. Patterson suspects Dickinson absorbed these ideas from the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent English art critic, which, in a letter from April of this year, she told Higginson she was reading.

Amherst in Winter (no date)
Amherst in Winter (no date)

In several of his works, Ruskin praises northern superiority, which flourishes in the cold and, like the hemlock trees surrounding the Homestead, is strengthened by the deprivations of winter. Not surprisingly, given her skepticism, the north is where Dickinson locates her God, but it is also the regions associated with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In several poems, she refers to winter and “snow” as a “Prank,” a joke God or Nature plays on humans (see "The tint I cannot take" (F696, J627) and "These are the days that Reindeer Love" (F 1705, J1696).

Finally, to bring this back to Dickinson’s relationship to Bowles, Patterson traces a set of poems and letters she wrote to him in 1861-63 beginning with “Title divine in mine” (F194 , J1027) in which Patterson surmises that “snow” refers to sexual purity and the martyrdom of renunciation. We might contest this biographical reading with its symbolic “shorthand” as reductive, though Patterson concedes:

These poems of northern cold and darkness always imply their opposites.

We have only to think of the “White Heat” of creativity that also characterizes this period in Dickinson’s life.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

(the last!) Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

It has been a year of unmitigated creative fun and revelations for me as I blogged every week of Dickinson’s life and writing in 1862!

I recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury of spending a year with one poet who so richly deserves and repays our closest attention. To be able to read extensively and deeply in the biographical materials has been essential. And to dip into the newspapers and periodicals Dickinson most likely read on a daily basis has sharpened my sense of the issues surrounding her, in the air and on people’s lips and minds. And not only the substance of the news, but its form: the large, packed pages of print, sometimes broken by a tiny square of poetry; reports of grisly war next to fluff pieces reinforcing Victorian sex-gender conventions about “the perfect girl,” “How husbands should act,” “How wives should act,” and so on. Serious news next to the latest in fashion, and in periodicals, now-famous writers published without by-lines.

Another absolute revelation was engaging people to reflect on the weekly posts and the range and depth of passion for Dickinson this unearthed. From the amazing 7th graders at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, to a poet and translator living and working under life-threatening conditions in Iraq, a translator of Dickinson in Germany wresting with diction choices, scholars and poets, friends and those who volunteered to respond whom I had not even met–Dickinson continues to be a comfort and confidante to so many readers around the world and across time.

While the project didn’t manage to include every poem Franklin dated to 1862, it included a good many from “around” that year and some that don’t often get anthologized or discussed. But then, this project reinforced for me the folly of getting too hung up on dates and dating. Dickinson’s canon is a floating, morphing, wonderfully organic landscape that benefits from less strictures and determinations rather than more.

If we can let go of our need to “know,” to figure out the riddles or fill in the omitted center, or “understand” and, thus, pin-down and lock in, then the poems have the leeway to work their magic on us more thoroughly. If I had to choose one major take-away from my year with Dickinson’s poetry, it would be:

ask questions rather than assert. Open up meanings rather than close them down. Bring a humility to our reading of the poetry–

–a recommendation academics have a hard time embracing. But as the Crossroaders titled their thank you note to me:

Crossroads Thank you, front cover
Crossroads Thank you, front cover

“In Poetry is Possibility.”

Though fun, it was not always an easy year and I was sometimes daunted by how the research and writing on a weekly basis expanded to fit the time. In November, I presented the project to Martha Nell Smith’s class on Dickinson and Whitman at University of Maryland, and one of her students asked me: what gives you the energy to go on every week? Without thinking, I replied: Every week there is a surprise, sometimes many surprises, which sometimes, for me ––a Dickinson dilettante––rose to the level of a discovery.

Crossroads Thank you, inside
Crossroads Thank you, inside

A few other take-aways I would pass on:

The letters. There is some wonderful scholarship on Dickinson’s letters but they are not read frequently enough as aesthetic texts in their own right alongside the poetry. And perhaps they require a different, and new methodology of textual reading. But read them we should be doing on a par with the poetry.

Speaker and Gender. I tried to honor Dickinson’s assertion in her letter to Higginson that her poetic speakers are “representative persons” rather than autobiographical, but then struggled with the presumption that her speakers are necessarily female or feminine or gendered at all! I loved the group of poems we found where Dickinson speaks not just in a masculine voice, but as a boy–a very particularly gendered and located voice. I found myself often reaching for a non-gendered pronoun with which to refer to Dickinson’s speakers. This is an area that needs so much more work and innovative thought.

The World. Finally, the extent and richness of the world Dickinson occupied and evoked. Reading in the Springfield Republican for July about the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet, I wondered if I could find poems that might touch on that event and was amazed to find a whole cluster of poems on Astronomy. Or the cluster of bloody poems on what fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier called “the battle autumn of 1862.” We are still discovering the many ways that Dickinson engaged with her world and turned it into poetry.

Crossroads Thank you, back cover
Crossroads Thank you, back cover

But this is not the end. Or rather, as Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater and a big fan of Dickinson, implies in his calendar for December: in ending are beginnings. We will probably run the blog again this coming year, so if you have missed any posts, you will be able to catch up. And look for White Heat 1862 in another guise in the coming year.

 

It has been an honor to share this project with you. Profoundest thanks to my students who worked to make this dream a reality, to my web designer and other tech wizards who lent their expertise, to my family who put up with my incessant monologues on things Dickinsonian, and to all the users, participants and fans who dared to "see a soul at the White Heat."

Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018
Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.

Sources
Overview
Folsom, L. Edwin. " ‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 376.

History
Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Biography
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Complete Works. RWE.org.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 185.

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December 17-23, 1862: Second Crossroads Collaboration

On Monday, December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus with Steve Glazer and his 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy. Our destination was Amherst, Massachusetts, where we would celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday in her home town. This week, we describe that visit, explore some children who were crucial in Dickinson’s life, and admire more of the students’ projects from their portfolios on Dickinson.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Eliot Cardinaux
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Dickinson Day!

On Monday, December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus to Amherst, Massachusetts, to celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday in her home town. It was a bright, cold day and, as we like to say in the “Upper Valley,” “at least it wasn’t snowing!”

 

 

 

The thirteen students in Steve Glazer’s 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy, in Lyme, New Hampshire, were restless with anticipation. As the Pioneer Valley opened up and flattened out, dotted with farms and old tobacco drying sheds, Steve tried to focus the students’ attention with his characteristic call and response: “Where was Emily Dickinson born?” he called through cupped hands to be heard over the rattling bus. “In Amherst, Massachusetts,” the children called back. “What year?” – “In 1830” and so on.

 

 

 

We stopped first at Special Collections in the basement of the Frost Library at Amherst College. Archivist Michael Kelly had a stunning display of objects and manuscripts laid out for us, including a lock of Dickinson’s hair, which is surprisingly ruddy. He showed us manuscripts of poems from early, middle and late in Dickinson’s writing career to illustrate the palpable changes in her handwriting. He was surprised and impressed when he held up the manuscript of a poem, announced its first line and, as if on cue, the entire class recited the poem with one voice. “I see I can up my game with this group,” he responded.

In Amherst College Special Collections
In Amherst College Special Collections

We then walked over to the Homestead for tours of the house and Dickinson’s bedroom. Perhaps the highlight of the day occurred next door at the Evergreens, where one of the students played her original piano composition inspired by the poem, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” The Museum graciously allowed her to use the Evergreen’s Steinway and we all crowded into Sue and Austin’s parlor to hear it. You can see a video of this performance and more of the students’ projects in the Poems section of this week’s post.

West Cemetery with Crossroads 7th graders

Then, back to the Homestead where students recited the poems they had memorized in the double parlor with the doors thrown open, under the watchful eyes of the Dickinson children’s group portrait. And, finally, a quiet walk through West Cemetery, flooded with winter afternoon light, to the Dickinson family plot, where we surrounded Dickinson’s gravestone and sang, “This is my letter to the World.” I think, I hope, Emily was listening.

“The Reverent Faith of Childhood”

Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862

Review of the Week, page 1
“Disappointment and disaster cover the week’s history. The march to Richmond by any of Fredericksburg has begun and ended. Our army is in camp again on the north side of the Rappahannock, but weaker by the loss of fifteen thousand men and by the consciousness that it has failed in one of its greatest efforts.”

The National Currency System—Its Advantages to New England, page 2
“[A currency] is designed as a medium of exchange to facilitate the business intercourse [of the people], enabling them to buy and sell, and to receive and make payments. The most indispensable qualities for this medium are, that it should be simple, uniform, and of undoubted value. The local paper currencies of the United States have not these qualities.”

The Reconstruction Puzzle, page 4
“The true way to settle the question as to how the South shall be got back into the Union is to destroy the rebel armies. When the rebellion is ‘crushed out,’ the theoretical difficulties of the problem will disappear. But the theoretical difficulties have very little reality to them. They are chiefly got up by those ingenious amateurs in state craft who think in some way to circumvent the stubborn facts of the situation and get rid of the hard necessity of fighting down the rebellion. The territorial lines, the constitutions and laws of the states in rebellion still exist. South Carolina is still a state, and her state officers elected legally are her rightful state authorities. The act of secession is null and void, and all the acts connected with it—if we can make it so by success in the war.”

Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind
Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind

Books, Authors, and Arts, page 6
“This is a literal age. While seeking to master material forces, they have well-nigh mastered us, leading us to rest content with physical facts, instead of regarding them as the lowest and coarsest forms of subtle spiritual truth. We have lost the reverent faith of childhood; we are like raw schoolboys, who, knowing a little, fancy they know all. Our juvenile libraries contain no fabulous legends or fairy tales; they seem to have been selected by clerical Gradgrinds and offer only ligneous lessons and ferruginous facts.”


Hampshire Gazette, December 23, 1862

Poetry, page 1 [Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) an American poet, literary critic, translator, travel author and diplomat.]

Poem by Bayard Taylor

A New Cabinet, page 2
“The entire cabinet of President Lincoln, with the exception of Secretary Stanton, is said to have resigned. It seems well established that Secretary Seward has resigned the position of Secretary of State, and his son that of assistant secretary. These statements will take the country by surprise, as there had been no previously well-founded rumors of any proposed changes in the cabinet.”

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

from Lyrics of the Street (Part III) by Julia Ward Howe [links to earlier parts of the series]

III.
The Charitable Visitor.


She carries no flag of fashion, her clothes are but passing plain,
Though she comes from a city palace all jubilant with her reign.
She threads a bewildering alley, with ashes and dust thrown out,
And fighting and cursing children, who mock as she moves about.

Why walk you this way, my lady, in the snow and slippery ice?
These are not the shrines of virtue, — here misery lives, and vice:
Rum helps the heart of starvation to a courage bold and bad;
And women are loud and brawling, while men sit maudlin and mad.

I see in the corner yonder the boy with the broken arm,
And the mother whose blind wrath did it, strange guardian from childish harm.
That face will grow bright at your coming, but your steward might come as well,
Or better the Sunday teacher that helped him to read and spell. …

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Love by Mishap, page 47 [by Edward Howard House]
“There is nothing in the world like the beautiful devotion of a woman to the sick. She feels no toil, nor pain, nor timid terrors. If she has grief, she hides it, lest it add one feather’s weight to the afflictions of her charge. Her courage rises as her hopes recede. The grim spectre that hovers and threatens may appall her, but she gives no sign. Her eye is clear and gentle; her voice soft and sweet as the breath of summer; her touch so tender that the simplest kindly office soothes like a caress. The dawn of her smile chases away suffering as light dispels the mists of the universe. In her weakness she is stronger than the strong.”

 

“This Slew all but Him”

Besides the neighborhood urchins, with whom (as we learned in the earlier post on Children) Emily Dickinson was reputedly a popular figure, she had a few young people in her daily world. Notably, the three children of Sue and Austin, who proved to be crucial to her life, writing, and reputation.

Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)
Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)

The eldest of these was Edward, called “Ned,” (image 1861-1898), a difficult child who was plagued with illness, eventually became a librarian at Amherst College, but died at age 37 of heart problems. Shortly after he was born, Dickinson sent this arch poem to Susan:

Is it true, dear Sue?
Are there two?
I should'nt like to come
For fear of joggling Him!
If you could shut him up
In a Coffee Cup,
Or tie him to a pin
Till I got in –
Or make him fast
To "Toby's" fist –
Hist! Whist! I'd come! (F189, J218)

But by early March 1866, Dickinson wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland:

We do not always know the source of the smile that flows to us. Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie (L315).

Despite Dickinson’s early fears of being displaced in Susan’s affections, she and nephew Ned became cheerful companions, sharing a love of words. Ned’s sister Martha recalled, in her soft-focus memoir:

His love of books kept him near her, and his sense of humor delighted her. He saved all his funniest stories, his gift of mimicry, his power of offhand description for her; and if his Aunt Lavinia went to a neighbor’s for an evening chat, Ned was usually to be found in front of the fire with his Aunt Emily, perched on the edge of a stiff-backed chair, the light of the flames flickering over her white dress, her hands crossed for permanence, but in easy position for flight should their talk be broken by an unwelcome knock.

Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)
Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)

Martha, called “Mattie” by her intimates, was the family memoirist, a poet and an early editor of Dickinson’s works. She was the middle child of Susan and Austin. In a letter to Susan away on holiday in Europe, Aunt Emily described her as “stern and lovely –literary they tell me–a graduate of Mother Goose and otherwise ambitious’” (L333, autumn 1869). Caught in the middle of her parents’ tumultuous relationship, Mattie was a staunch supporter of her mother. After her own failed marriage to an erstwhile “count” Bianchi and her mother’s death, Martha resided at the Evergreens and in 1913 began publishing Dickinson’s poetry and her reminiscences of Dickinson and the family. She eventually published eight volumes of Dickinson’s writings.

Although scholars have sharply criticized her editing of the poems and her sentimentalized recollections, which contributed to the myth of Dickinson as a woman in white who renounced the world because of frustrated love, Bianchi was the first editor to try to faithfully reproduce Dickinson’s original lineation as it appeared in the manuscripts. As Jonathan Morse notes in his helpful essay on the complicated publication history of Dickinson’s work, Bianchi was “ahead of her time” in this regard. The 1924 Complete Poems, which she edited, though in no way “complete,” brought more of Dickinson’s poetry into the world than ever before.

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and
Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and

Last but not least is the third child of Susan and Austin, Thomas Gilbert, called “Gib” by the family. Born to his parents in their middle years and much younger than his siblings, Gib was adored by all, especially his aunt. Biographer Alfred Habegger recounts this story about them:

Once, when little Gilbert was in kindergarten and boasted about a beautiful white calf that proved to be imaginary, his teacher reprimanded him for the sin of lying and made him cry. Sue tried to convince the benighted woman of the validity of the imagination, but Aunt Emily, as her niece [Martha Bianchi] recalled, was too indignant for reasoning and “besought them one and all to come to her, she would show them! The white calf was grazing up in her attic at that very moment!” A note she drafted for the wounded boy to take to his teacher had a poem on “The vanity . . . / Of Industry and Morals” (Fr1547B) and pointedly contrasted the punitive Jonathan Edwards with Jesus.

When Gib, barely 8 years old, died suddenly from typhoid fever, Dickinson reportedly rushed over to the Evergreens to be with the family, the first time she had visited there in fifteen years! She wrote to Elizabeth Holland about this death ( L873, late 1883) and wrote several poems and letters of condolence to Susan about Gib (see L886, F1624, F1666), one which asserted:

Some Arrows slay but whom they strike –
But this slew all but him …  (F1666)

Gib’s death deeply affected the family and apparently precipitated Austin’s affair with the young and alluring Mable Loomis Todd, who, with Thomas Higginson, was the first editor of Dickinson’s poetry. Their affair caused further divisions and enmity among the already hostile parties.

Although Dickinson would suffer other losses around this time–the death of her mother and Judge Otis Lord, a man whom she loved (but refused his offer of marriage) – it was Gib’s death that, some say, contributed to her final illness. There is nothing like the death of a child to reinforce the blighting existence of frost as perennial threat to the youth and innocence of the earthly garden.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Eliot Cardinaux

Have you ever come across an ED poem about Disillusionment? Anxiety? Reality? About how words themselves can be affected by life’s challenges, at least within us, as we grow into and out of and recede from them?

I wonder because her ideals were so wrapped up in her status as a woman at that time, there’s often a bite to what she says.

 

I was thinking of the way in which words can be struggled with, the way meanings wrap around their things, in language and without, how certain words can produce in us, personally, the need to grapple with how we live, the questions they provoke in us.

 

While their letters remain the same, each of these words, like tattoos, reel in the years or cause us to, in both senses of the word. A tattoo can change its meanings over time, acquire new ones, and shed those that life has caused us to question, their validity.

 

A tattoo of a gull caught by a fishing hook might be a good analogy, because to reel, to be struck, for example, like an eagle in flight by a crow, is to lose all sense of balance, and yet fishing for something down below the surface, we can never possess it — whatever mystery that fish holds, the weight of its bite, the force of its pull — without reeling it in. Some violence there, perhaps, in pursuit of the unknown.

 

Some thoughts on a cold, wet Monday as the snow thaws.

 

This ― Illusion― Meant

in the loop ― and out
it’s nothing ― personal if
you stay ― calm ― you
stay ― an anxious ― wreck

did you want me ― to scorn
the ear ― did you need
my throat ― to sing
did you want me ― here

to live ― in an unknown
word ― meanings coil ― around
their things ― havoc rings ― my head
a hydra’s ― lizard’s tail ― expendable

wrap ― your tongue ― around
a dash ― in the way ― I need you
there ― this way ― to go
did you want me ― dead

adapting ― hand in
hand ― with blindness
to the drug ― is the score
the truth ― that ― malleable

out the loop ― and in
it’s nothing ― special
you stay ― calm ― to
stay ― an anxious ― wreck

 

bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist

Sources

History
Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 23, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862

Biography

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences by Her Niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932, 169.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson New York: Random House, 2001, 548.

 

Morse, Jonathan. “Bibliographical Essay.” A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian Pollak .New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 255-83, 258-60.

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November 5-11, 1862: Death

This week in our time is Veterans Day on November 11, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served and died in the US Armed Forces and seemed a good week to explore Dickinson’s poetry of death. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Naseer Hassan
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week in our time is Veterans Day on November 11, an official holiday first known as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. It was then renamed in 1954 as a day to honor people who served in the US Armed Forces. It is a day to remember those who served and especially those who died. It seems a fitting week to explore Emily Dickinson’s many startling poems about death, written during a time of war. We also have a  special guest respondent, Iraqi poet and translator of Dickinson, Naseer Hassan, who has lived under the shadow of war and death for many years and finds consolation in Dickinson's words.

Dickinson wrote about death all through her life but many of her masterpieces cluster in the period of 1861-63, when the nation itself struggled to come to terms with the awful, mounting death toll of the war. Critics and readers agree that some of Dickinson’s greatest poems touch on death and the questions it raises: what is it and why is it? what does it feel like to die? how should we regard death? and especially, what happens after death?

Death touched Dickinson early in her life and frequently thereafter, affecting her deeply. Wendy Martin calculates that 31 of her friends and family died from tuberculosis during her lifetime. But she was not alone or idiosyncratic in her preoccupation. Puritan tradition has a long history of focusing on “making a good death,” and sentimental Victorian culture was obsessed with all the trappings of death, the stages of dying, the rituals of the deathbed and burial. This obsession was fed but also profoundly disrupted by the unprecedented carnage caused by the Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust demonstrates in her powerful study, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. This week, we explore how Dickinson borrows, adapts, and often subverts many of her culture’s attitudes and formulas in her wide-ranging and often surprising treatments of death.

“The Night is Murk, and the Stars are Dim”

The Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The advance of the army of McClellan into Virginia goes on steadily and with a good degree of speed. But the news from the front is so limited, from motive of obvious military prudence, that we know only a part of what has been accomplished and can only conjecture the plan of the campaign. Gen. McClellan seems to be endeavoring to close all avenues of escape against the enemy, and it is believed at Washington that he is conducting the campaign with great sagacity and energy, and that he will win a great success without any such terrible sacrifice of life as has attended most of our battles in Virginia.” [Note: McClellan’s caution and failure to act would soon drive President Lincoln to relieve him of his command.]

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The resignations of [M. Thouvenel, the French minister of foreign affairs, and M. Fould, the minister of finance] indicate a decided change in the policy of France toward Italy, and it is regarded as certain that the French will not evacuate Rome. The emperor of the French has lately become very pious, and all France looks on in amazement at the sudden ascendancy of the priests’ party.” [see The Second Italian War of Independence]

Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)

Souls Misplaced, page 6
“Mrs. Kirkland [Caroline Mathilda Stansbury Kirkland (1801-1864), an American writer]  writing of those men and women who seem to have got each other’s attributes—the men having the softness of woman, the woman the roughness of man, said, ‘In these cases the natural body has only to be laid aside by its decease for the spirit to assert its latent sexuality; so that many a woman who has gone to sleep on this side of Jordan in short gown and petticoat, will wake up by mere spiritual gravitation on the other side in corduroys and top boots; and many a man who has lain down in coat and pantaloons, will in like manner come to his true self-consciousness in petticoat and curl papers!’”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“A drop of the blackest ink may diffuse a light as brilliant as the light of day.”

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The pleasant newspaper essays with which Henry Ward Beecher [1813-1887]  has amused his own lighter moments and those of his friends during the last few years, have been gathered into a comely little volume with the somewhat repulsive title of Eyes and Ears. Let no one turn away from the work as a treatise on special anatomy. The myriad-minded pastor refers to eyes that see ‘the light that never was on sea or shore,’ besides a great deal that adds beauty and interest to both; to ears that catch the melodies in which ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’”

Hampshire Gazette, November 11, 1862

Amherst,page 3
“Monuments and gravestones have been defaced in the burying ground in Amherst, by certain evil-minded persons who have not the fear of the law before their eyes.”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)
Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908)

Buying Winter Things, page 803 [by Louise Chandler Moulton (1835-1908), an American poet, story-writer and critic]
“I have not realized the fact of suffering as I realize it now. It is the hour of darkness all over the land. The resurrection morning will come by-and-by, but now the night is murk, and the stars are dim. I have given more to my country than gold could buy. One I loved, and who loved me, went, in August, with the three-years’ men [men who enlisted for three years and often received a bounty]. He came to me with the light of eager courage and self-devotion in his eyes, and asked me to bid him God-Speed, and send him on his mission. Yes, I gave him up. He is gone. He will come again, perhaps; but I can never forget that other perhaps—that the mouth which kissed mine at parting may never kiss again, and the eyes at whose courage I lit the fire of my own resolve may look their last on the smoky sky of some Southern battle-ground.”

“Dying is a Wild Night and a New Road”

winged skull grave imager

“Even in an age fascinated by [death’s] every manifestation and trapping,” according to Judith Farr, Dickinson “showed exceptional curiosity about death.” Curiosity, indeed. In several letters throughout her life, Dickinson wrote to observers at the death beds of loved ones asking, “Was he/she willing to die,” since “making a good death” in the Puritan religious tradition gave some indication that one was predestined for salvation (see, for example, L153 to Edward Everett Hale on death of her father’s law clerk and her poetic mentor Benjamin F. Newton).

But the deaths of loved ones decimated Dickinson. When she was fourteen, her close friend Sophia Holland, “with whom my thoughts & her own were the same,” died. This  loss that affected her profoundly. Two years later, on March 28, 1846, she wrote about this death to her new friend Abiah Root:

I visited her often in sickness & watched over her bed. But at length Reason fled and the physician forbid any but the nurse to go into her room. Then it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even to look at her face. At length the doctor said she must die & allowed me to look at her a moment through the open door. I took off my shoes and stole softly to the sick room.

There she lay mild & beautiful as in health & her pale features lit up with an unearthly–smile. I looked as long as friends would permit & when they told me I must look no longer I let them lead me away. I shed no tear, for my heart was too full to weep, but after she was laid in her coffin & I felt I could not call her back again I gave way to a fixed melancholy.

I told no one the cause of my grief, though it was gnawing at my very heart strings. I was not well & I went to Boston & stayed a month & my health improved so that my spirits were better. I trust she is now in heaven & though I shall never forget her, yet I shall meet her in heaven. (L11)

As Farr notes, this early letter “contains some expressions common to sentimental Victorian death scenes,” but its suffering is real. Almost forty year later, the death of Susan and Austin’s third child, 8 year old Thomas Gilbert, nicknamed Gib, from typhoid fever in October 1883 devastated the family and caused Dickinson to have a breakdown from which she never recovered.

Thomas Gilbert
Thomas Gilbert "Gib" Dickinson (1875-1883)

Joan Kirkby outlines the larger cultural context for Dickinson’s attitudes. She notes that the 19th century experienced a “crisis of death” in which the new sciences and Enlightenment thinking severed death from its theological moorings, producing what theorist Roland Barthes calls “flat death,” demise without the assurance of an afterlife. People struggled with the notion of a “desacralized death” that thinkers, scientists and writers strove to explain.

At Amherst Academy in the 1840s, for example, Dickinson would have studied physician John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers (1849)  which declared:

our whole experience is opposed to the belief that one atom which ever existed has ceased to exist.

In the 1850s, Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave a series of lectures on spiritualism, a movement that had become wildly popular. They were printed as a track titled “The Results of Spiritualism,” and reported in the Springfield Republican on March 21, 1859. He concluded optimistically,

the principal results of the new phenomena, are the demonstrations of immortality and the removal of the fear of death and the terrors of theology.

Then, in the 1860s, the Civil War caused unforeseen and unprecedented death tolls. Drew Gilpin Faust explains that the war’s total fatalities, approximately 620,000,

is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. … The Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.

And that did not include civilians, women and children caught in the crossfire and chaos. Everyone was touched by the devastation.

One notable aspect of Dickinson’s “curiosity” about death was how it overlapped with her experience of love and passion, with the emotions of life in the body and in nature. In 1869, she wrote to console her cousin Perez Cowan on a loss and describes death in terms that echo one of her greatest erotic poems:

It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.

I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn – and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain  (L332).

Dickinson's graveDickinson planned out her own funeral down to the last details, requesting that her coffin be carried out the backdoor of the Homestead (not out the formal front door to a waiting, feather-bedecked, horse-drawn hearse, as was customary for people of her status) by six Irishmen who worked for her family, that they circle her flower garden, walk through the barn behind the house and down a grassy path across house lots and fields to West Cemetery and the family plot. For more details, See “Emily Dickinson and Death.” 

 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Naseer Hassan

A small story with Emily Dickinson

My attention to Dickinson’s poetry started with reading a translation of some of her poems in a chapter of Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience (1961). That was in the 1990s. I felt then, ambiguously, that there was something mysterious and exceptional in those translated poems, but I felt simultaneously that the translation couldn’t grasp the precious essence of them.

This motivated me to search and find Dickinson’s poems in the English version (this was not easy at that time, due to the many restrictions and obstacles on books and publishing under the Iraqi dictatorship). I could later find a couple of books that included some of her poems. And the unique mixture of psychological introspection, the contemplative air of questions about death, fear, hope, and time– all this in short pieces urged me to try translating these small beautiful sculptures, to see how they would look in Arabic.

In those years I could only translate a few poems and published only 3; several I didn’t publish. The hard circumstances of living, the heavy censorship under the dictatorship, as well as some personal life difficulties made me not only stop translating more of Dickinson’s poems, but stop writing and publishing my own poems for long years too.

My “projects” revived about a decade ago and completing a book of Dickinson’s poems was a major one. And, so it was that Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Articles was published first in Baghdad in 2009, then in Beirut in 2012. It included 51 selected poems and some critical articles on her poetry, to make it easier for the Arabic reader to approach this sort of unique, unfamiliar poetry.

In the past, there was perhaps only one book on Dickinson’s poetry in Arabic, as well as some translations of her poetry in magazines and periodicals. This reflects the profound cultural crisis in the Arab world, which affects many areas including the translation of foreign works into Arabic (and the statistics showing few translations of international works demonstrate this.) And as far as I know, my translation of Dickinson’s poetry is the first one in the current century, at least.

In the translation process, I faced exceptional difficulties. This kind of poetry, with its allusions, personifications, and interference of different levels in an integrated artistic context, needs special contemplation and an ability to “touch” the internal unity inside the rich variety. Without this, the hope of a successful translation will be in vain. Dickinson’s poems are almost like living tiny creatures, very sensible and rich, so the challenges of translation are naturally greater.

One of the important merits of great literature is that it can exceed limits of time and space. And Dickinson’s poetry has this merit; readers can see in its mirror the reflections of their own lives and contemplations, in spite of the huge distance in time and space from where the poems were born. Because we, Iraqis, passed through very hard conditions in the last decades–wars and destruction–questions about life, death, fear, hope, and the meaning of existence became more essential. All these elements exist in Dickinson’s poetry, so there is a sort of “spiritual kinship” with such poetry.

I love many of Dickinson’s poems, maybe most of all: “Because I could not stop for Death” and “I died for beauty,” which were two of the earliest poems I translated. Many questions and scenes that we pass through in our daily life make me go back to or remember this or that line of Dickinson’s poetry, and feel it again in a new way. For example, because our life in Iraq is almost like a continuous hurricane (with short intervals of peace), this makes it important to know how to restart again and again. And between each new start and another, there are spaces to stop and contemplate words like:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.

Editor's note: Many thanks to poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who brought Naseer's  wonderful work to my attention and helped me make contact.

bio: Naseer HASSAN is an Iraqi poet and translator of poetry and philosophy. He was born in Baghdad in 1962 and graduated with a degree in architecture from Baghdad University. He is a member of the Iraqi Writers Union and the Iraqi Journalists Guild and has published four poetry collections in Arabic: [The Circle of Sundial] (1998), [Suggested Signs] (2007), [Being Here] (2008), and [Dayplaces] (2010). Hassan's collected poems appeared in 2010 from the Arabic Publishing House in Beirut. He has translated into Arabic three books of poetry and one of philosophy: [Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Critical Readings] (the first book on Emily Dickinson in Arabic); [Luis Borges: 60 Selected Poems]; [Days of the Shore: Selections from the New American Poetry 1980-2010]; and [Asian Philosophies by John Koller]. In addition, he has several poetic and philosophical translations forthcoming, including [Kierkegaard: A Brief Introduction], [Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (Book 1)], and [House of the Star: Poems from Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes]

Sources:
Overview

Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 22.

History
Hampshire Gazette,
November 11, 1862

Harper's Monthly, November 1862

Springfield Republican, November 8, 1862

Biography
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 4-5.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Preface.” The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Kirkby Joan. “Death and Immortality.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-168.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 5.

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October 22-28, 1862: Queer Dickinson

This week’s post explores what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. Reading Dickinson through a queer lens involves suspending the gender binaries and oppositions that structure mainstream society, normative notions of relations and time, as well as foregrounding the qualities of her thinking and writing that unsettle stultifying Victorian values.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Victoria Corwin
Sources


In 1951, Rebecca Patterson published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson in which she proposed that Dickinson’s great love was not a man but a woman, Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, the “Katie” of Dickinson’s letters and poems. The protests were loud and strong. Apparently, few at that time wanted to acknowledge that the single canonized woman poet of the 19th century might be—a lesbian.

Elise Cowen (1933-1962)
Elise Cowen (1933-1962)

Except Elise Cowen, a Beat poet who briefly dated Allen Ginsberg  and also wrote lesbian love poems inspired by and addressed to Dickinson in the 1950s. Cowen sensed in Dickinson’s poetry what Patterson tried to prove with biographical and textual evidence.

Today, much has (mercifully) changed. But as much fun as it is (and also politically and personally consequential for occluded minority groups) to speculate about the genders and identities of Dickinson’s love interests, this week’s post explores more broadly what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. In 1995, Sylvia Henneberg rejected the

fruitless investigations aimed at calling the poet or her poetry purely heterosexual or purely homosexual. Instead, one does greater justice to Dickinson and her work by recognizing that her eroticism resists definition and by examining how it does so.

Reading Dickinson through a queer lens involves suspending the gender binaries and oppositions that structure mainstream society, normative notions of relations and time, as well as foregrounding the qualities of her thinking and writing that questioned stultifying Victorian values.

“Passing Through the Furnace”

Springfield Republican, October 28, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The war news of the week has been meager and unimportant. The expectation of an immediate movement has prevailed for several weeks, and the causes for delay are known only to the commander and the government. There have been fears that the army would go into winter quarters around Harper’s Ferry, but that is out of the question. There are all sorts of necessities—military, political, moral and financial—for an active and successful fall campaign, and we have no doubt we shall have it.”

The Morals of War, page 2
“War is a forcing process; it accelerates development and abridges time. It opens a briefer road to the goal of human life. It arouses thought, excites emotion, inspires action. We are all living faster and with fuller vitality than heretofore in times of peace. We are growing better or worse. We are passing through the furnace, to come out vessels of honor or dishonor. This war is stamping its impress upon all our hearts, and it rests with us to choose whether it shall leave a stigma or a crown.”

Poetry, page 6
“The Wife’s Song.” By Kate Cameron [Kate B. W. Barnes 1836-1873. See the chapter on her in Newspaper Poets: Or, Waifs and their Authors by Alphonso Alva Hopkins (1876)]

Poem: The Wife's Song
Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Thoughts for Young Men, page 1
“Costly apparatus and splendid cabinets have no magical power to make scholars. In all circumstances, as a man is, under God, the maker of his own mind. The creator has so constituted the human intellect that it can grow only by its own action and by its own action it must certainly and necessarily grow. Every man must, therefore, educate himself. His books and teachers are but helps—the work is his. A man is not educated until he has the ability to summon, in case of emergency, all his mental powers into vigorous exercise, to affect his proposed object. The greatest of all the warriors that went to the siege of Troy had the pre-eminence, not because nature had given him strength, and he carried the largest bow, but self-discipline had taught him how to bend it.”

page 3
“Eight thousand signatures have been appended to an appeal from the women of the loyal States, praying for removal of all negligent, incompetent, drunken, or knavish men, who, in the first hurry of selection, obtained for themselves posts of responsibility; and that the President will retain in the army only capable, honest, and trustworthy soldiers.”

 Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Plaque in Leamington, England
Plaque in Leamington, England

Preface to “Leamington Spa” by Nathanial Hawthorne, page 451 [an essay about his sojourns in Leamington, England.]
“My dear Editor—
You can hardly have expected to hear from me again, (unless by invitation to the field of honor,) after those cruel and terrible notes upon my harmless article in the July Number. How could you find it in your heart (a soft one, as I have hitherto supposed) to treat an old friend and liege contributor in that unheard-of way? Not that I should care a fig for any amount of vituperation, if you had only let my article come before the public as I wrote it, instead of suppressing precisely the passages with which I had taken the most pains, and which I flattered myself were most cleverly done. However, I cannot lose so good an opportunity of showing the world the placability and sweetness that adorn my character, and therefore send you another article, in which, I trust, you will find nothing to strike out!

Truly, yours,
A Peaceable Man.”

“Queer Desires”

There has always been a cottage industry in speculation about Dickinson’s sexuality and romantic interests. Now they include women as well as men, and a range of tendencies such as

Polymorphous Perversity! Lesbianism! Autoeroticism! Necrophilia! Cross-dressing! Masochism!

according to Suzanne Juhasz’s survey of the scholarship in 2005. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the homoeroticism of these lines that accompanied a pair of garters Dickinson knitted for Kate Anthon, who was visiting Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens:

In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.
In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.

When Katie walks this simple pair
Accompany her side, –
When Katie runs unwearied they travel on the road,
When Katie Kneels, their loving bands
Still clasp her pious Knee –
"Oh Katie, smile at fortune with two
so Knit to thee – (F49A.2, J222)

Although “lesbian” was not a category of sexual identity in Dickinson’s day, scholars like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Nancy Cott have documented an extensive culture of passionate female relations and “romantic friendships” or “Boston marriages” that flourished and were socially acceptable during the nineteenth century. Throughout her life, Dickinson had several passionate attachments to women, from her early relationship with Emily Fowler, her flirtatious friendship with Kate Anthon, her daughterly dependence on Elizabeth Holland and her life-long connection to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson. Her letters to Susan, especially the early ones before Susan’s marriage to Austin in 1856, are eloquent in their adoration. The many poems to and about these women record a pattern of passionate but frustrated love.

Since Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 biographical argument for Kate Anthon (1831-1917) as the object of Dickinson’s affections, which was largely ignored, other early scholars like Lillian Faderman and biographer John Cody identified homoerotic content in the letters and poetry. In 1990, Paula Bennett published her study, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, which argued for the poet’s lesbian sensibility and a “cliterocentrism” in some erotically charged poetic imagery of small round things. The work of H. Jordan Landry expands this approach, exploring Dickinson’s revisionary process as “Lesbianizing the Triangles of Puritan Conversion.”

Mutilated manuscript of
Mutilated manuscript of "One sister have I in our house" (F 5A, B, J14).

Other work reveals deliberate attempts to quash Dickinson’s affective orientation towards women. Martha Nell Smith’s reading of the original manuscripts reveals a systematic pattern of erasures and revision of female pronouns into male pronouns by editors, probably Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, in order to obliterate Susan Dickinson’s presence and disguise women as love objects in the poems and letters. Open Me Carefully, a collection of letters between Dickinson and Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, has brought to light the salience of this relationship and their correspondence for both women.

Cynthia Nixon in
Cynthia Nixon in “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

Then, there are scholars who argue for both orientations. Judith Farr’s study, The Passion of Emily Dickinson (1992) juxtaposes long chapters on Dickinson’s “Narrative of Sue” and “Narrative of Master.” Recently, actress Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson in the much-debated biopic A Quiet Passion (2016) directed by Terence Davies, and who came out as bisexual in 2010, spoke about her strong conviction that, like her, Dickinson also identified as bisexual.

Still another thread, advanced by Bennett who was following the lead of scholars like Susan Howe, Sharon Cameron and Cristanne Miller, argues that Dickinson’s embrace of indeterminacy in the form of textual variants and disrupted grammar is a revolt against the male domination of her period and creates a new form of femininity.

Queer theorists like Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam and Heather Love go further in their critique of opposed gender binaries and the reproductive and temporal expectations they imply. Likewise, those reading Dickinson through a queer lens. Suzanne Juhasz defines her approach this way:

“Queer” is a verb, an adjective, and a noun. The verb means to skew or thwart. The adjective means unconventional, strange, suspicious. Queer as a noun was originally a derogatory term for male homosexuals. It has been reclaimed in academic theory as a tool to question and disarrange normative systems of behavior and identity in our culture, especially as they regulate gender, sexuality, and desire.

Scholars are increasingly exploring this approach to Dickinson. In creating his archive of “queer” 19th century American authors, for example, Peter Coviello includes Dickinson and her relationship with Sue as part of a group who

worried over the encroachment of a new regime of sexual specification, and so placed a countervailing emphasis on the erotic as a mode of being not yet encoded in the official vocabularies of the intimate.

Michael Snedicker uses Dickinson as one of four examples of the resources in lyric poetry to argue against the dominant trend in Queer theory that privileges melancholy, shame and the death drive. Rather, Dickinson and other queer poets illustrate a radical form of “queer optimism.” Most recently, Benjamin Meiners finds “foreignness,” a category associated with regions in Latin America, things rich and exotic, and Susan Dickinson,

as a key element in Dickinson’s articulation of her queer desires.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Victoria Corwin

“Choosing all by choosing nothing”

My relationship with queer Dickinson studies is a complicated one. I do deeply appreciate the concept and consider it incredibly important work, even imperative in most cases. However, I have to say I disagree with most of what is out there.

In my other Dickinson work, the manuscripts and variants in Dickinson’s poems fascinate me. Two of this week’s poems stand out in this regard: “I/He showed her/me hights” (F346A, B; J446) and “If I may have it when it’s dead” (F431; J577). Both have such radically different readings with their fairly extreme variants, Dickinson going so far as to replace an entire line in the second case, and completely alter the identity of the speaker in the first.

But did she really alter the speaker at all?

This week emphasizes how queerness acts not just as a noun but also as a verb. To perform queerness, to be queer, to queer a concept, is to modify the basic norm in some way. I would argue that Dickinson indeed queers her poetry, modifying it in some ways, but in queering it, she also destroys the “original” poem, and the notion of “original” as well. Exactly which poem did she “mean” to produce when she created two versions of “I/He showed her/me hights,” and which poem is the “variant”? Of course, there are no such things as right or wrong versions in Dickinson, as her texts were always living documents, texts she would return to again and again over years and years of rethinking and reimagining certain aspects of her poetry.

In the case of “I/He showed her/me hights,” discerning which is the “original” and which is the “variant” becomes even more impossible when one takes into account that the earlier copy (A) was sent to Sue, but the later copy (B) was copied into a fascicle. Dickinson practiced both letter writing and fascicle production as modes of self-publication, and even within those parameters, nothing was permanent and she continuously revised. The quintessential Dickinson poem, then, can be collapsed in on itself, all forms existing simultaneously in one living document, all copies just as valid, all combinations readable.

If you take “I/He showed her/me hights” in this way as a living document and collapsible poem, the notion of queerness becomes even clearer. The speaker of the poem—every iteration of the poem—retains the same identity as the protagonist, so to speak, but performs themself differently each time. The speaker never uses gendered pronouns, but in each “version” the speaker equates themself with a specific role in the relationship, which does correspond with gendered pronouns. In A, the speaker takes the active masculine-aligned role (which uses he/him/his pronouns when not controlled by the speaker’s “I”), and in B, the passive feminine-aligned role (using she/her/hers when not controlled). Since Dickinson queered the poem, we can collapse it, therefore assigning both roles to a single speaker, rather than keeping the two roles separate and taking both copies as from separate speakers. A single speaker, in this way, encompasses both gender roles, both gendered pronouns, both active and passive stances, and therefore both genders and the spaces in between them, as an entity with vacillating pronouns. The speaker is genderfluid, an individual that occupies the space outside of the gender binary that Dickinson explores and breaks down both in this poem and in many of her others.

We know that Dickinson frequently plays in the liminal spaces that concrete definitions cannot reach. She “chooses not choosing” by self-publishing her work in fascicle form among other modes, as we’ve explored in past weeks. Here, she chooses all by choosing nothing. All versions and variations of her poems are legitimate, because none of them is ever specified as the “final,” “original,” or “correct” version.

This is why I disagree with queer Dickinson studies. Too often I find that we forget that choosing nothing is an option, and through making that choice, we open ourselves to all possibilities. Queer identities are much more extensive than scholars glimpse, and personally, I find Dickinson’s work leaning more towards the agender, aromantic, and asexual end of the spectrum. Dickinson frequently chose nothing in her life as a physical recluse and an unmarried woman, and also in her work, where she utilizes themes of emptiness, unattainable or overwhelmingly disturbing desire, and most relatably, the relief at this lack of a love object akin to the celebration of freely expressing a disinterest in love and sex.

“If I may have it when it’s dead” is a good example of this great sigh of relief at the prospect of a love object (the “Thee” and the “Lover”) becoming permanently unavailable, in this case, through death. The speaker laments how overwhelming the potential lover is as the “Bliss I cannot weigh” when alive and able to be interacted with, and instead wishes for a time to come when the lover lies still in a grave, quietly nostalgic for lives past, a time when the speaker could “stroke [the lover’s] frost,” which “Outvisions Paradise!”

Of course, “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” serves as a strong antithesis to an end-all be-all prescription of Dickinson’s sexuality, and indeed I do not think that we should prescribe at all. Merely, I want to propose opening up the definition of queerness in Dickinson to include the option of affection without immediate sexual connotations, the ability to choose nothing. For Dickinson, vague unanswered questions—or simply leaving a question blank, as at the end of “I/He showed her/me hights”—are some of the most powerful forces in the universe.

bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of ‘19 and a student of English and Classical Archaeology. She edits the Stonefence Review and writes fiction and poetry whenever the time is right. A voracious reader and a devout Dickinson scholar, she swears by adjectives, Open Me Carefully, and “One Sister have I in the house -,” and thinks words only grow more powerful when crossed out.

Sources:

Overview

Hennenberg, Sylvia. “Neither Lesbian Nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19, 4.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24.

History
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 25, 1862

Biography

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Coviello, Peter. Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America. NY: New York University Press, 2013, 4.

Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24-25.

Meiners, Benjamin. “Lavender Latin Americanism: Queer Sovereignties in Emily Dickinson's Southern Eden.” Emily Dickinson Journal 27. 1 (2018) 24-44, 24.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1.1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29.

Snedicker, Michael. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

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October 1-7, 1862: Sixth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Antietam

This week our post takes as its point of departure Dickinson’s 6th and final letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862, as he is preparing to lead men into battle. It is also the week when the media started extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly day that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history, and also the first to be photographed. This new technology brought the consequences of war into the homes of noncombatants and would change war journalism forever.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sarah Khatry
Sources

This week our point of departure is Dickinson’s 6th and final letter (L274) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862; they continued to correspond until the very end of Dickinson’s life. At this time, Higginson was busy recruiting and training troops from Massachusetts for the War, but in November would accept an extraordinary commission: command of the First South Carolina regiment composed of freed slaves. Even though Dickinson’s letter indicates a lull in their correspondence, which began in April 1862, her exchanges with Higginson will prove to be crucial in Dickinson’s life.

This week in 1862 saw the first extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly battle that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history. It also had the distinction of being one of the first battles to be extensively recorded by an emerging technology that would change the face of war journalism forever: photography. Matthew Brady sent two photographers to the battlefield who captured the battle’s horrifying aftermath. These images, as photographs and illustrations, circulated widely and contributed to a new, appalling recognition – reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickinson – of just how costly this fratricidal war was. For this post, we draw on work by Sarah Khatry, Dartmouth ’17, from an assignment she did for Ivy’s Dickinson seminar in Winter 2017.

“The Dead of Antietam”

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Another week of rest and preparation. There have been only preliminary reconnaissances towards the enemy either in Virginia or in Kentucky. But it is now evident that the enemy is checkmated and has reached the limit of his aggressive movements, and that is a great deal, when we look back a single month and see where we were then and what were our fears and forebodings.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 3

Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)

“A great rarity in the shape of coins has lately been sold at Paris—namely, a silver one struck off at Breslau in 1751. Among the persons employed at the time in the mint was an Austrian, who, out of hatred to Frederick II of Prussia, conceived the idea of revenging himself on that monarch in the following manner:—The motto on the coin, ‘Ein reichs thaler’ (a crown of the kingdom), he divided in such a manner as to make it read, ‘Ein reich stahler’ (he stole a kingdom). The king ordered those insulting coins to be melted down, but some few of them still exist.”

English Beauty, page 6
“I have heard a good deal of the tenacity with which English ladies retain their personal beauty to a late period of life; but (not to suggest that an American eye needs use and cultivation before it can quite appreciate the charm of an English beauty at any age) it strikes me that an English lady of fifty is apt to become a creature less refined and delicate, so far as her physique goes, than anything that we western people class under the name of woman. Yet, somewhere in this bulk must be hidden the modest, slender, violet-nature of a girl, whom an alien mass of earthliness has unkindly overgrown.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Position of McClellan’s Army, page 1
“Gen. McClellan still had his headquarters near Sharpsburg yesterday, when Gen. Sumner occupied Boliver Heights. It is evident to us that there will be a movement on Gen. McClellan’s part as soon as his army is properly supplied by the quartermaster’s department. Our troops are in the best possible spirits, and eager again to get at the rebels, who must be suffering dreadful torments.”

Getting Rich, page 1
“Men are never richer on their millions than on their thousands or hundreds—they are never satisfied, whatever they have; they are never blessed, but always to be blessed. We start out in the world without a cent, and think, while we toil for a mere pittance, that if we had a house over our heads we could call our own, we should be independent and contented; then we want five or ten thousand dollars; and by the time that has accumulated, the expenses of living have pressed upward so fast that we must double it to keep clear of absolute want.”

Harper’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, October 4, 1862

[from a full description of each stage of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, with illustrations.]"The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes… A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the corn-field began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods, which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day… But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further. Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away—a regiment where a brigade had been, hardly a brigade where a whole division had been, victorious. They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops—had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted…The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you can not guide your horse’s steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are every where upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one’s heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you can not stay to give."

“You Saved my Life”

Dickinson’s plaintive letter to Higginson this week (L274) indicates her increasing dependence on their epistolary relationship and her ostensible desire to “please” him. In fact, Dickinson usually argued with and ultimately ignored Higginson's advice on her writing. But as a figure in and of the world of letters and actions, he provided an important and invaluable contact. In a letter from June 1869, she confessed to him:

Of our greatest acts we are ignorant –
You were not aware that you saved my Life. (L330)

Still, it is no wonder that Higginson did not have time to write to Dickinson in the Fall of 1862. She last wrote to him in response to his letter sometime in August. By October 6th, she had not gotten a response from him and penned her plaintive inquiry. According to historian Ethan Kytle, during the fall, Higginson

was recruiting and then training boys from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., to serve in the [Massachusetts] 51st. . . After declining an officer’s commission in the early months of the Civil War, the 38-year-old Transcendentalist minister had decided that if “antislavery men” expected to influence the conduct and settlement of the conflict, then they “must take part in it.”

He thus accepted a commission as a captain and wrote in a letter about this company that he “already loved [them] like my own children.”

In a month, though, Higginson would be offered the command of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, which was comprised of freed slaves. According to Sage Stossel,

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. … [Higginson] kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal” (1864) and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Meanwhile, newspapers and journals began their detailed coverage of the horrific battle of Antietam. Because of the rather long news cycle (certainly longer than ours), this coverage would continue well into December. As Sarah Khatry notes: “The farther from the event itself, the closer and more detailed the coverage became.” In her exploration of this event in Dickinson’s life, Sarah focused

not so much on the immediate events of the Civil War during that week, but on their transmission and how Emily Dickinson would have encountered them … Through image–photograph and illustration–through prose–news, letters, narratives–and through personal connection.

From the coverage in Harper’s, we can infer that illustrations, often based on the new technology of photography, played a large role.

In fact, two days after the battle, Matthew Brady sent Alexander Gardner and James Gibson to Maryland to photograph the aftermath of the bloodiest battle in US history. A month later, Brady set up an exhibit of almost 100 pictures in his gallery on Broadway in New York City called, simply, “The Dead of Antietam.” The photographs were so sharp, viewers could make out faces, and so unfiltered as to bring the effects of the war, before remote and abstract, into unmistakable focus for the first time. Some of the illustrations Dickinson might have seen in Harper’s were based on Brady’s gut-wrenching photographs.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection: “Trauma and the Image”

Sarah Khatry

Sarah KhatryThe real-time scholarly project of White Heat invites not only engagement with the week-by-week experience of Emily Dickinson’s life in 1862, but juxtaposition with our own. This past week seems an appropriate one to reflect upon the real and traumatic individual impact of nationwide events, even those transmitted to us only through image.

The modes and means of transmission have changed. As this week’s poems demonstrate, Dickinson experienced the Civil War and particularly Antietam through personal impact on her family and community, the vivid magazine and newspaper reporting of the day, and also the then-developing technology of photography.

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl -
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked – has stopped -
And space stares – all around -
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool -
Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify – Despair.
(F 355)

In “Death’s Surprise, Stamped Visible,” Eliza Richards draws upon the poem above, finding in the third stanza a rather direct description of a famous photograph by Andrew Gardner and James Gibson of the bodies after the Battle of Antietam: “The Figures I have seen / Set orderly, for Burial”.

I will attempt to take this reading further, and argue an even stronger correlation. In the first two stanzas, Dickinson establishes a multi-fold disconnect between the experience the poem describes and the speaker’s subjectivity. “It was not Death” because the speaker is on her feet, not dead, and whatever it is she contemplates is not death itself, but something like it. That object or experience is also at a remove in time for her, for she hears the bells tolling noon, but she must remind herself it is not night. The sensory experience being conveyed, as described in the second stanza, is similarly disassociated from the speaker—

And yet, it tasted, like them all” (l. 5)

These first two stanzas could describe the experience of standing before a photograph, one of such power and visceral empathy that the speaker has to repeatedly emphasize to herself that she is not there. She is not one of “The Figures … Set orderly, for Burial.” It is not her life “shaven, / and fitted to a frame” but the lives she considers, quite possibly those belonging to the dead of Antietam.

In the word “Autumn” (l. 19), Richards argues phonetic similarity with Antietam, driven home by Dickinson’s poem below, evocative of the massacre and excess of a battlefield:

The name — of it — is “Autumn” —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —
(F 465)

No New England fall, I believe, clamors for such blood-filled celebration. But Antietam occurred in mid-September, the advent of autumn, and its traumatic bloodshed, spilling as if from an “Artery — upon the Hill,” traveled up the Veins, the roads, of the nation, spilled into alleyways and sprinkled Bonnets far from the battlefield.

The speaker in “It was not Death” feels, by the final line, despair. The figures set for burial are frozen equally by death and by the photographic medium. They are “Without a Chance, or spar – / or even a Report” (ll. 22-23), paralyzed and mute, unable to give voice or justification to the despair of the speaker.

It can feel almost without justification to despair over the trauma of a distant stranger. But in moments of national crisis and discord, the trauma comes home to the individual, if not in the form of a direct parallel experience, but in the mirror of empathy. We have seen that in recent events. During the day of testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford last week, the RAINN sexual assault hotline saw a 147% increase in calls, according to Abigail Abrams.

Far different events, more immediate modes of transmission, new lines of division … but still we and Emily Dickinson’s speaker must remind ourselves it was not me, and reconcile the reality of what did transpire, and to whom, and what it means.

Sources
Abrams, Abigail. “National Sexual Assault Hotline Spiked 147% During Ford Hearing.” Time, 27 Sept. 2018.

Richards, Eliza. ""Death's Surprise, Stamped Visible": Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Civil War Photography." Amerikastudien 54.1 (2009): 13-33, 27.

 

Bio: Sarah Khatry received a BA in physics and English from Dartmouth College in 2017. Her novella Ritual won the Sidney Cox Memorial Prize in 2015. Her nonfiction appears in 40 Towns, the Dartmouth, and elsewhere.

Sources:

History
Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

Biography

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web. November 16, 2012

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Leaves from an Officer’s Journal.” Introduced by Sage Stossel. Atlantic Monthly 1864.

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September 10-16, 1862: Higginson’s “The Life of Birds”

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are so pleased to welcome Christine Gerhardt author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014) as guest blogger this week.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christine Gerhardt
Sources

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is one of the many essays he published in the Atlantic later collected in a volume in called Out-door Papers (1863) and was inspired in part by his admiration for Thoreau.

According to Christine Gerhardt, author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014):

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures.

Birds Dickinson mentions by name are: bluebird, blue jay, bobolink, crow, hummingbird, lark, oriole, owl, phoebe, robin, sparrow, woodpecker and wren. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are fortunate this week to have Christine Gerhardt as a guest blogger !

Her book, A Place for Humility, is a revelation. Not just because it finds surprising and substantial links between the two major poets of the 19th century who are more often set in opposition, but on account of the exquisite and often surprising treatment of their nature poetry as poetry about real nature. We are so accustomed to reading Whitman and especially Dickinson as poets of self and consciousness using the world as metaphor that we sometimes forget they were also keen observers of the nature around them. Christine shows why this is important. She reads their work in the context of the emerging science of ecology and environmental sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, and the result is a model of eco-criticism that also highlights the growing, pressing concerns we face today in a world of headlong and devastating climate change.

“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebel armies still march on. There is no longer any doubt of their intentions. They have adopted the offensive policy, and are marching straight for the free states, hoping to do such damage and create such a panic before our new levies are brought into the field as shall bring us to their feet to accept peace on their terms. They have left their coast defenseless and have massed all their available force in Virginia and Tennessee, where they are moving northward and westward.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Birds are the poor man’s music, flowers the poor man’s poetry; and the rich man has no better.”

A Mad Poetess, page 7
“In that part of the Washington asylum which is still devoted to its insane patients, Dr. Nicholas showed me a sight which was particularly touching to me. Cross-legged upon the round table in the centre of the room was seated a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, who had the remains of remarkable beauty. Her long, gray hair was disheveled, and of her dress and appearance she evidently had not a thought; but, open upon her lap was a volume from which she was pretending to read aloud, making an unintelligible and incoherent gabble. By her side lay a volume of a novel of her own writing, with her own likeness as a frontispiece, and she had gone crazy as an authoress. But what a pity is such an apparently unnecessary wreck of a lifetime of a beautiful girl, for I am told that her recovery is hopeless. Alas for the head that is to go wild with over-endowing!”

Poetry, page 6

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

"Sketch of Troops Marching" in Middleton, MD, c. Sept 14 1862. Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891). Library of Congress

Glorious Victory!!: The Enemy Fleeing in Panic, page 2
“A very severe engagement took place on Sunday last, between our forces under Gen. McClellan and the rebels under Gen. Lee. The rebels were overtaken by our troops 3 miles northwest of Middleton. Gen. Lee was wounded, and Gen. Garland was killed. Our troops pursued the enemy as fast as possible. Gen. Hooker captured a thousand prisoners, and Gen. Lee, it is said, places his own loss at 15,000, and is represented to have said that he was shockingly whipped.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

The Life of Birdsby Thomas Higginson, page 368
“When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man’s secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting its tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions—although I have the power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mine than the remotest planetary orbit.”

“Small, like the Wren”

                                                                   by Christine Gerhardt

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures. In many of her letters, she identified with birds intensely, engaging some of her culture’s more conventional views of birds while also reshaping these views in provocative ways.

Consider, for instance, her famous epistolary self-portrait, sent to Higginson in the summer of 1862, close to the cultural moment that this week’s blog focuses on:

I […] am small, like the Wren; and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. (L268)

This snapshot echoes culturally condoned claims of female modesty, yet it also links being small to a transgressive sense of natural-cultural boldness. Just days later, she wrote to her friends the Hollands :

My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—‘My business is to sing’ – and away she rose! (L269)

Here, the common association between birds and delicate, humble song begins to suggest a somewhat precarious relationship to Dickinson’s own audience, and a necessary, albeit melancholy sense of artistic independence. And when she wrote to her young cousins,

I think the bluebirds do their work exactly like me. They dart around just so, with little dodging feet, and look so agitated. I really feel for them, they seem to be so tired (L339),

she merged a Victorian woman’s practiced compassion for the small with a subdued sense of crisis regarding women’s work, and, maybe, even with concern over the fate of birds in the increasingly cultivated landscapes of New England, undercutting her time’s widespread notions of birds’ cuteness and childlike innocence.

Thus, the numerous birds in Dickinson’s letters and poems form a nodal point of her deep connection with the world around her, from which she drew inspiration and to which she responded so intensely. Orioles and phoebes, hummingbirds and jays were among the many non-human creatures she frequently encountered during her explorations of Amherst’s fields and forests as a girl and young adult, and even when her outward life became more and more secluded, she kept meeting birds in the extensive family gardens.

Birds were also part of Dickinson’s life through various environmental discourses that intensified in the mid-nineteenth century, also and especially in her native New England. For one, the newly specialized natural sciences not only included astronomy, botany, chemistry, and geology, which Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, but also the somewhat younger discipline of ornithology, which her textbooks discussed under the more general rubrics of Natural Philosophy and Natural History. (More indirectly, birds were also discussed in her immediate vicinity when renowned geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College discovered thousands of fossil dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut valley, insisting they stem from flightless birds.)

"Red-tailed Hawk" from Birds of New England and Adjacent States by Edward Augustus Samuel, 1875

Second, Dickinson kept herself informed about the latest developments in natural history, including the emerging field of ornithology, through her avid readings of the Springfield Republican, Harper’s New Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly, and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly. These newspapers and periodicals carried not only reviews of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), with its massive notes on diverse bird populations of South America, and of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which was inspired by his discovery of the Galapagos finches, but also of Edward A. Samuels' Ornithology and Oölogy of New England (1867) and the popular field guide The Birds of New England (1869).

And third, Dickinson was deeply familiar with the time’s popular genre of natural history essays, dozens, if not hundreds of which focused on birds – from Wilson Flagg’s “Birds of the Night” (1859) to Olive Thorne Miller’s “A Tricksy Spirit” (1885). Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Life of Birds” (1862), which this week’s post focuses on, was among its most influential examples, and Dickinson probably read it in the September issue of the 1862 Atlantic Monthly and owned it in book form, as part of Higginson’s Out-Door Papers (1863).

These seemingly innocent, largely descriptive bird essays are noteworthy for their combination of detailed description, moral instruction, and spiritual reflections, and also for their early conservationist arguments – years before the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883) and the National Audubon Society (1886) emphasized the need to protect various bird species from the threat of extinction through hunters, farmers, and the millinery trade.                                                     

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Christine Gerhardt

New England Robin
New England Robin

It’s a fascinating exercise to go back and forth between Higginson’s essay and the bird poems Dickinson wrote around the same time. Dickinson knew the essay well, and critics have pointed out that she saw Higginson’s nature essays as a “firm bond between them” (Habegger 453). If her poems can be read as answers to his question about what literature could do “towards describing one summer day” (Habegger 453), these answers are much more unruly than they seem, especially regarding the earth’s smallest life forms.

More generally, the dialog between Higginson’s essays and Dickinson’s poems reveals noteworthy similarities in their proto-ecological attention to natural detail and the dynamic relationships between species and their environments, as well as a shared eco-ethical humility. It also highlights how boldly Dickinson’s poetic snapshots pushed beyond his learned, sentimental, moralistic prose, mediating between exultant gestures of identification and the recognition of nature’s difference without resolving the tension, and embracing scientific nomenclature and conventions without assuming interpretive control, even at moments of highest achievement.

Higginson’s bird essay accentuates a related but different quality of Dickinson’s ecopoetics, which has to do with their shared interest in birds’ large-scale, unsettling movement. I don’t mean their fluttering about, or their sheer ability to fly – of course birds are mobile – but movement of a different order. Higginson begins by stating that

so remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language,

viewing birds’ global, even cosmic motions as key to their life and tantalizing elusiveness. Just as remarkably, he casts New England as a hub of such wide-ranging movements:

[Migration] is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem. But in New England, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.

Yet in spite of his focus on birds’ migrations, and the recognition that one cannot “know” a single hummingbird (an “exiled pigmy prince, banished, but still regal”) or swallow (“the strange emigrant from the far West”), his text is driven by the impulse to grasp these “images of airy motion.”

Hummingbird
Hummingbird

Ultimately, he imaginatively contains all of his birds through detailed descriptions, “translations” of their song, and allusions to their good habits, monogamy, and parental instincts, claiming that “[a]mong all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.”

Dickinson’s bird poems turn this tension between birds’ mobility and their apparent domesticity on its head, most memorably, perhaps, in “A Bird came down the Walk – .” Initially, this genteel robin leisurely strolls through a garden, yields the right of way, and drinks delicately. Yet its final flight undoes all of this scene’s assumptions. In the speaker’s New England garden, this robin is increasingly out of place: “frightened” and nervous from the third stanza on, its flight, for all its ephemeral softness, marks an escape into an unbounded realm where it is actually at “home.” As the speaker’s attempt to care for and feed the robin fails, so does the poem’s effort to symbolically domesticate it: here, tame birds are not to be had, and even sharing a place with them is fraught with tensions.

Less directly, this inter-species encounter gone wrong also renders the garden and its boundaries fluid. Commonly idealized as delimited space where cultivation recreates heaven on earth, this garden is crossed by birds and other animals who will forever re-wild it. As such, this bird’s final flight also undermines humankind’s larger efforts to domesticate all that seems “too wild” in this world. In this, we can imagine Dickinson talking back to her naturalist friend Higginson, who would later remember his meeting with her by posing as an ornithologist yielding (at least some of) his systems of control:

I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun.

Sources:
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

bio: Christine Gerhardt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She is the author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (U of Iowa P, 2014) and Rituale des Scheiterns: Die Reconstruction-Periode im US-amerikanischen Roman (Winter Verlag, 2003). She is also the editor of The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century (2018) and one of the co-editors of Religion in the United States (2011). Her essays have appeared in Profession, ESQ, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Mississippi Quarterly, and the Forum for Modern Language Studies.

Sources:

Overview
Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.

History
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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August 20-26, 1862: Bowles and Bees

This week, we take our cue from a letter Dickinson wrote to the editor and family friend Samuel Bowles (L272), dated August 1862, while he is touring Europe for his health, in order to continue incorporating letters into our gathering of primary texts and to explore her use of bee imagery in this letter, the symbolism of bees in her writing, which can be quite racy, and the importance of anthropomorphism more generally in her writing.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Efrosyni Manda
Sources

During August 1862, Dickinson wrote only two letters that survive to give us a glimpse into her mood and concerns: her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L270), discussed in a previous post, and a letter to Samuel Bowles (1826-1878), owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican and family friend of the Dickinsons, who had been touring Europe for his health since the spring. This week, we take our cue from this letter to Bowles (L272), in order to continue incorporating letters into our gathering of primary texts and to explore themes Dickinson includes in that letter.

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878)

In her letter, Dickinson expresses her longing for Bowles in terms of the changing of the seasons, from late summer to fall, and through the figure of a bee and its clover. As arthropods, bees are part of a large trove of images Dickinson's drew on frequently. Medical Entomologist Louis C. Rutledge notes that 180 of Dickinson’s 1775 poems (according to Johnson’s 1955 edition)—more than 10 %—refer to one or more arthropods, including her first poem and her last.

As an important pollinator of plants, bees are under severe threat in our time because of environmental challenges, and we wanted to bring attention to that. We also nod to a whimsical essay in Harper’s Monthly for August 1862 about “a fairy that had lost the power of vanishing” and appears in the form of cheerful crickets, another prevalent arthropod in Dickinson’s writing. With this focus, we bring attention to arthropods, explore the role and symbolism of bees in particular for Dickinson, which can be quite racy, and suggest the importance of anthropomorphism more generally in her writing.

“Authors ought to be Read and not Heard”

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The great event of this week has been the transfer of Gen. McClellan’s army to Yorktown [end of the Peninsula Campaign]. Not the slightest molestation was suffered from the enemy during the perilous operation.”

How Do These Men Feel? page 4
“When a man is praised by a scoundrel he ought to suspect himself. The Memphis (Grenada) Appeal, the most malignant of all rebel sheets, praises Seymour of Connecticut, Wood of New York, Vallandigham of Ohio, and ex-president Pierce as the only true friends the South can count upon in the North.”

Mexico and the West Indies, page 4
“The steamer Columbia, from Havana, has arrived at New York. The yellow fever was decreasing, but for the past month had been very fatal.”

Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864)
Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864)

Poetry, “Ministering Angels” [by Adelaide Anne Procter], page 6


Conversational Powers, page 6
“The late William Hazlitt was of opinion that authors were not fitted, generally speaking, to shine in conversation. ‘Authors ought to be read and not heard.’ Some of the greatest names in English and French literature, men who have filled books with an eloquence and truth that defy oblivion, were mere mutes before their fellow men. They had golden ingots, which, in the privacy of home, they could convert into coin bearing an impress that would insure universal currency; but they could not, on the spur of the moment, produce the farthings current in the marketplace.”

Book, Authors, and Arts, page 7
“A French novel is often an odd compound of fiction and philosophy; but when it is the work of a master, like Victor Hugo, each of these qualities is admirable in its own way. His philosophy is always piquant and readable and raises a thousand questions where it answers one. He drops here a theory and there an epigram, here a sketch from fancy and there a photograph from life, and then puts them all aside for the moment, or rather mingles them all, as he plunges into one of the most exciting stories of the day.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

Literary: Poems of Mrs. Browning, page 1
“Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning ‘as a poet, stands among women unrivaled and alone. In passionate tenderness, in capriciousness of imagination, freshness of feeling, vigor of thought, wealth of ideas and loftiness of soul, her poetry stands alone amongst all that has ever been written by women.’ That opinion, comprehensive in its flattery, we readily adopt in lieu of any praises of our own.”

Amherst, page 3
“The enrolled militia of Amherst number a little more than 400, making the chance for a draft one in ten.”

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Tommatoo, page 325
“A fairy that had lost the power of vanishing, and was obliged to remain ever-present, doing continual good; a cricket on the hearth, chirping through heat and cold; an animated amulet, sovereign against misfortune; a Santa Claus, without the wrinkles, but young and beautiful, choosing the darkest moments to leap right into one’s heart, and drop there the prettiest moral playthings to gladden and make gay—such, in my humble opinion, was Tommatoo.”

“Jerusalem Must be like Sue’s Drawing Room”

Samuel Bowles
Samuel Bowles

 

Samuel Bowles was a handsome, charming and passionate man whose literary interests and public position appealed to Dickinson. He became friends first with Susan and Austin Dickinson, who hosted him many times at the Evergreens. In her “Annals of the Evergreens,” Sue wrote about him in glowing terms:

 

[He] seemed to enrich and widen all life for us, a creator of endless perspectives. … His range of topics was unlimited, now some plot of local politics, rousing his honest rage, now some rare effusion of fine sentiment over an unpublished poem which he would draw from his pocket, having received it in advance from the fascinated editor.

Dickinson met him in June 1858 at the Evergreens and immediately afterwards wrote him in passionate terms (apparently, “purple” was a color she thereafter associated with him):


Though it is almost nine o'clock, the skies are gay and yellow, and there's a purple craft or so, in which a friend could sail. Tonight “Jerusalem.” I think Jerusalem must be like Sue’s Drawing Room, when we are talking and laughing there, and you and Mrs Bowles are by. (L189)

Especially during the difficult period of 1861-62, Dickinson considered Bowles a special confidante and wrote him frequently, although the friendship suffered a breach which was not repaired until the death of Edward Dickinson, Dickinson’s father, in 1874. Some scholars consider Bowles a likely candidate for the person Dickinson addressed as “Master” during this period. Over the course of their relationship, she sent him 40 poems, and though he was a passionate supporter and publisher of women’s poetry, he never published any of them.

The letter Dickinson wrote to him this month in 1862 expresses her longing in revelatory terms. We focus on the allusion to bees, which comes at the end of the letter in a question:

Sue gave me the paper, to write on – so when the writing tires you – play it is Her, and “Jackey”- and that will rest your eyes – for have not the Clovers, names, to the Bees?

Dickinson refers to the special thin, air-mail stationery Sue gave her to write on. “Jackey” was the name Austin and Sue used for their first son Ned while still a baby. Dickinson suggests that if Bowles gets tired of her letter, he can “play” or pretend it is Sue and her son, comparing them to “the Clovers” that bees identify by name. This obscure reference gains clarity when we explore Dickinson’s wider use of bees in her writing.

Speaking broadly about Dickinson’s frequent references to animals and her attribution of subjectivity to them, Aaron Shakleford argues that Dickinson’s anthropomorphism

uncovers just how limited our own consciousness and epistemology really is, while also demonstrating how this shapes our knowledge of animals. … [Dickinson] demonstrates how to navigate both our inescapable reliance upon the human to "know" the external world and the limitations of our own ability to understand that world.

bee on cloverMore specifically, in her study of Dickinson’s gardens, Judith Farr notes the dual symbolic valence of bees. On the one hand, Dickinson

contemplated the sexual arena of her garden daily. There, the careers of flowers and the dramatic career of the bee as their lover/propagator commanded her attention, for “till the Bee / Blossoms stand negative” (F999).

Thus, bees often emblematize a promiscuous masculine sexuality, and the drama of active (masculine) bee and passive (submissive) flower figures a gendered human theater of love, intimacy, and desire. On the other hand, in her playful/heterodox revision of the Christian trinity dated to 1858, Dickinson prayed:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
(F23A)

Thus, as several scholars observe, Dickinson links the gendered sexuality figured by bees to Puritan doctrines of conversion and salvation as well as her own revisions of spirituality. According to Victoria Morgan,

Dickinson disrupts the industriousness culturally associated with bees by employing bee imagery in her depictions of physical and spiritual excess and pleasure. … Dickinson’s excessive bees emulate the “dangerous” sexuality that is forbidden, but also embody the rhapsodic spiritual pleasure which organized religion attempts to name and own.

Taking this one step further, H. Jordan Landry sees Dickinson’s bees as essentially “queer.” They are clearly marked as male and penetrative but engage in what can be read as the lesbianic sexual act of cunnilingus with the feminine flower. According to Landry, Dickinson’s bee imagery

aims at reorganizing the experience, perception, and value of the female anatomy and rewriting its capacities to be pleasured and give pleasure.

bee and cloverFurthermore, Landry argues that Dickinson overlays this rewriting onto Puritan conversion in which Dickinson felt women were regarded as secondary. Landry reads Dickinson’s bee imagery through her early letters to Sue and the queer desires that can be read there. In the letter to Bowles, the bee image is connected to Sue and her young son but directed at Bowles. Is he the “bee” who names, recognizes and pollinates specific clovers? Does this imagery signify differently when Dickinson deploys it to express her longing for Bowles? What queerness inheres in that relationship?

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Efrosyni Manda

A letter requires two communicating poles and its presence presupposes the absence of one of them. It is meant to efface the very gap that brought it to surface by drawing the poles together. Senders were advised to include trivial and gossipy details of their microcosm in their letter so as to relieve the recipient’s pain of separation. However, these moments gone away forever widen the gap since they accentuate absence and exclusion.

In her letter to Samuel Bowles, Emily Dickinson carries the macrocosm of Nature, the Hills, the flowers and the bright autumnal Skies, over to him in an effort to retain a shared referential point, a cosmos that, regardless of the seasonal changes, is permanent, always waiting for him to come back to her. Time is inextricably bound with space and it is chopped away through a peculiar countdown: its passing is not measured by the linear succession of days or months; rather, it’s the changes in nature that constitute milestones towards Bowles’ return. Time is too abstract and immaterial for her to handle; she has to materialize it in its concrete symbols. The Grape, the Pippin, the Chestnut, separated with dashes yet squeezed into the same sentence, resemble a rapid time lapse and constitute tangible proofs that time has indeed passed, that his coming back gets closer. Unlike time in the poem, “If you were coming in the Fall,” which opens up to infinity, in this letter, though painfully slowly, closes steadily in to his return, “[Him]self”.

The absence/presence of the sender/receiver of a letter is mutually interchangeable and negated; concurrence of the poles is impossible. Dickinson’s letter, a communicative device which relies on the metaphor, becomes the vehicle that brings her to Bowles. She carries her parousia over to him; her writing travels through time and space to meet and possibly tire him. Painfully aware of the “Sea” between them, she tracks the steamer that took him away in an attempt to wipe away the ocean that separates them. The projection of his spatiotemporal zone into hers makes them coincide, even apparitionally, and she constructs an a-temporal, a-spatial niche in which the epistolary displacement is annulled so that they can touch each other; he has already returned and rings her bell. Her attempt to coordinate their spatiotemporal zones obscures or even eliminates the boundaries of the epistolary cosmos and produces time textually, allowing Dickinson’s live streaming interaction with Bowles.


Bio: Efrosyni Manda holds a BA in English Literature and Culture and an MA in Translation Studies. She is a PhD Candidate at the University of Athens, Greece. She is working on Emily Dickinson’s Letters and focuses on the ways Dickinson employed the letter, a means of interpellation, to dodge interpellation as well as on the techniques she uses to set a time and place a specific document free from its spatiotemporal boundaries. She has translated Dickinson’s Letters in Greek: "Emily Dickinson: Επειδή δεν άντεχα να ζήσω φωναχτά. Ποιήματα και Επιστολές." I could not bear to live aloud. Translation of a selection of Emily Dickinson's Poems and Letters. Athens: Gutenberg Press, 2013.

Sources:

Overview
Rutledge, Louis C. “Emily Dickinson’s Arthropods.” AMERICAN ENTOMOLOGIST.  Summer 2003, 70-74.

History

Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862

Biography

Dickinson, Susan. “Annals of the Evergreens. EDA, 2008.

Farr, Judith, with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 146, 196.

Landry, H. Jordan. “Animal/Insectual/Lesbian Sex: Dickinson’s Queer Vision of the Birds and the Bees.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 9, 2, (Fall 2000): 42-54, 50-51.

Morgan, Victoria. “‘Repairing Everywhere without Design’? Industry, Revery and Relation in Emily Dickinson’s Bee Imagery.” Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Eds. Clare Williams and Victoria Morgan. Liverpool: Liverpool University Pres, 2008. 73-93, 84.

Shakleford, Aaron. “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism.” 
The Emily Dickinson Journal 19, 2 (2010): 47-66, 61.

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August 6-12, 1862: Fifth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sometime in early August, 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial developing friendship.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Jason Hoppe
Sources

Sometime in early August of 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). It is a long letter covering themes such as self-governance, waywardness, “Orthography,” seclusion, her dog Carlo, fraud and literary imitation, and ends with an offer to share with Higginson one of the three portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning friends have sent Dickinson. Apparently, every self-respecting friend of Emily must have a portrait of this extraordinary writer, who died in June 1861 — or is this offer meant as a substitute for the portrait of Dickinson  that Higginson requested in his last letter, which she said she did not have?

T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum
T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum

In her letter, Dickinson repeats many of Higginson’s questions and comments, giving us a fuller sense of his interests in her and their correspondence. She replies with alluring but enigmatic answers. This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it, and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial, developing friendship.

“Pure Christianity Never Was, and Never Can Be, the National Religion of Any Country upon Earth”

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The great event of the week is the call by the president for 300,000 militia from the states for nine months’ service. We have recovered from the failure of the second ‘forward-to-Richmond’ movement much quicker than the first, and the third movement is now in progress. The president has announced that Gen. Hallock has undivided control of the operations of the war.”

Do We Want Canada?, page 4
“Our British cousins evidently think we do. The revelations made in the latest debates in the British parliament as to the defense of Canada are curious and instructive. The idea that the United States’ desire to absorb the Canadas and other British American provinces, and will ultimately do so, manifestly accounts for much of the hostile feeling towards this country, and especially for the strong wish to see the Union broken under and our power thus crippled for generations to come.”

Stand by the Cause, page 4
“The day for petulant complainings and critical doubts is long gone by, and the hour come when every man should throw himself with complete sympathy and new enthusiasm into the spirit of every onward movement. Let us talk victory—think victory—dream victory—and it shall come.”

Poetry, page 6 [by Horatius Bonar]

Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822
Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“The seventh and eighth volumes of Lockhart’s Life of Walter Scott are books of personal history and charming literary gossip, being largely composed of extracts from the novelist’s diary and letters to eminent friends. Persons who have long had a satisfactory edition of the novels would find their value much enhanced by the comment furnished in these inviting volumes of the author’s life.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Christianity, page 1
“Pure Christianity never was, and never can be, the national religion of any country upon earth. It is a gold too refined to be worked up with any human institution, without a large portion of alloy; for no sooner is this small grain of mustard seed watered with the fertile showers of civil emoluments, then it grows up a large spreading tree, under the shelter of whose branches and leaves the birds of prey and plunder will not fail to make themselves comfortable habitations, and thereby deface its beauty and spoil its fruits.”

page 2
The New York Times has got to be the sensation paper of the day.”

Amherst, page 3
“The Amherst recruits, with others from neighboring towns, left for camp at Pittsfield on Monday, in charge of Lieut. M. W. Tyler of Amherst.”

“Syllables of Velvet / Sentences of Plush”

Grave of Eudocia Flynt
Grave of Eudocia Flynt

August 1862 was a time of waiting for Dickinson. The excitement of the Amherst Commencement on July 10, and all the events, visitors and entertaining that entailed for the Dickinsons, was over. Dickinson gives evidence of enjoying the hoopla, writing to her cousin Eudocia Flynt from Monson sometime before July 21,

Dear Mrs Flint

You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?

All the letters I could
write,
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of Velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

Emily. (L270)

She enclosed a flower with this lush letter-poem about her preference for talking face to face, which emerges as a theme in this week’s selections.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Then, in August, Dickinson wrote her long fifth letter to Higginson, who was busy at the time training raw recruits from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts to serve in the 51st regiment. “My company is admitted to be the best drilled & disciplined in the regiment,” he announced with pride in a letter of November 9 from a camp outside the town, as he waited for instructions about the regiment’s deployment. Five days later, he received a letter from Brig. General Rufus Saxton, another Massachusetts man with ties to the Transcendentalist circles of which Higginson was a member, who was enlisting freed slaves as troops for the Union army and offered Higginson command of this new regiment. Higginson left for South Carolina within days to take up this mission.

Another letter Dickinson wrote at about the same time to Samuel Bowles, still traveling in Europe, expresses her longing to have her friend back:

Summer a’nt so long as it was, when we stood looking at it, before you went away, and when I finish August, we’ll hop the Autumn, very soon – and ’twill be Yourself. … I tell you, Mr Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea – no care how Blue – between your Soul, and you. … It is easier to look behind at a pain, than to see it coming. A Soldier called – a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle. I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium.” (L272)

The last remark about the soldier has been cited as evidence of Dickinson’s aloofness, elitism, and distance from the Civil War and its ongoing death toll, and her remark about the aquarium, though opaque, does seem snarky. But in the context of a comment about the pain of separation, this comment can be read as a recognition of and sympathy with the Soldier’s approaching rupture from family and friends. Dickinson offers the Soldier as an example of someone who “see[s] the pain coming” by contrast with herself, who has already faced the pain of separation from Bowles, which is almost over, and is looking back at it as aftermath with some relief.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Jason Hoppe

 

Jason HoppeSeveral observations and themes in this post resonate with me, though I’m not yet sure how or whether to connect them. The post puts together such a provocative tapestry, for instance, of Dickinson’s varied interests in “faces”—in her preference for face-to-face meetings over correspondence, in the faces she makes of mountains in the poem about waywardness mentioned (F745), and even in how she insists in her fifth letter to Higginson on taking him at the very “face value,” as the post puts it, that she makes it quite difficult for him to reciprocate (in part by declining to send him any self-portrait other than a metaphorical one, or one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Maybe the first item that stood out to me in the post, though, has something to do with this too, albeit in a roundabout way: it was the brief newspaper poem, “Be True,” by Horatius Bonar.

I read it a couple times, increasingly bemused. Of course Bonar is writing in the same hymn meter that Dickinson drew from—and actually innovated. But how sententious and banal do Bonar’s lines read next to hers! I couldn’t help but wonder over how differently, how much more complexly, being “true” plays out in her early correspondence to Higginson. Bonar seems to take being “true” to be readily self-evident; thinking and living “truly” is rather a simple affair and, ultimately, the solution to global hunger. It’s a sentimental vision for which I think Dickinson would have little regard, though she might have delighted in parodying it.

When she first writes to Higginson, of course, Dickinson asks him to “tell me what is true” (L260). She counts herself among the “True” in her third letter to him (L265), and in her fourth verifies that he does “truly consent” to the relationship she establishes between them while also congratulating him for being “true” about an earlier judgment (L268). And she opens the fifth letter by thanking him, in advance, for the “Truth” of his judgment about her poems (L271). However, given their context, nothing about these moments of indexing what is “true” and "truthful"—which, for Dickinson, raise hard, intersecting questions about loyalty, accuracy, insight, and honesty—is simple or straightforward. But while there is coyness and uncertainty in these letters to Higginson, they also do not lack for sincerity. Dickinson is nothing if not ingenuous when playing with the truth. But she also evinces a more realistic understanding of the difficulty of getting at what is true, performing the same, and the consequences of such performances.

Take “I cannot dance upon my toes ”(F381A). As the post notes, the deeply performative nature of this poem only further complicates the ostensibly tutorial relationship that Dickinson establishes with Higginson. How is he to “tell [her] what is true,” when she (or her surrogate speaker) needs no man’s instruction to access the “Ballet Knowledge” within the mind? In this poem, though, Dickinson also relentlessly distinguishes what is true, and “full as Opera,” in the self and what is outside of it, at least so far as the “placards” of publics go. The majority of the poem renounces the latter—that’s quite different than the lockstep relationship of true self and world imagined, say, in Bonar’s hymn. This is not to declare, as critics of old, that Dickinson abandons the world, but it is to make clear that, following fascinating interpretations like Runzo’s, she realizes that facing it requires more deftness and nuance for some than others.

bio: Jason Hoppe is an Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He is working to complete a book on how a number of major nineteenth-century New England authors brought together their lives and literary achievements. Articles from the project on Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller have been published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, respectively.

Sources:

History
Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862

Biography

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 414.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinion Pages, November 16, 2012.

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July 30-Aug 5, 1862: Wealth, Class, and Economics

This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette on “Power and Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth and class in relation to Emily Dickinson and her use of economic imagery in her poetry.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christian Haines
Sources

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 (1782-1862) c. 1857
Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) c. 1857

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.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

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.

Dickinson's house on North Pleasant Street (photo ca. 1870). Jones Library Special Collections
Dickinson's house on North Pleasant Street (photo ca. 1870). Jones Library Special Collections

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.

The Evergreens
The Evergreens

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.

Margaret Maher, Tom Kelley and Margaret's sister Mary, who married Tom.
Margaret Maher, Tom Kelley and Margaret's sister Mary, who married Tom

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.”

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Christian Haines

Christian HainesIn 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 [1972], 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” [1957].)

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.

Sources:

Overview

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.

History
Atlantic Monthly, August 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862

Biography

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.

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July 23-29, 1862: School

This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. Dickinson’s experience there was mixed; she flourished at the private Amherst Academy. This week we look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Tom Luxon
Sources

“Emily Dickinson: a Mo Ho”

This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. It would eventually become Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Hampshire Gazette noted the significance of this event:

At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.

In fact, higher education and, thus, most professions in the United States, were closed to women until Oberlin College in Ohio began to admit women, as well as African Americans, in 1833. Although attitudes favoring women’s education and, thus, their full civil rights, were still the minority at this time, Enlightenment thought and Republican ideology encouraged educating women who would then pass on Republican ideals to the next generation. Mount Holyoke was the first seminary established exclusively for women, but it awarded only a certificate not a baccalaureate.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for two terms in 1847-48 but it was a mixed experience for her. For one thing, the curriculum repeated many of the texts and subjects Dickinson had studied at Amherst Academy, which she attended from 1840-47 and was a more progressive institution that nurtured and even shaped her growing literary gifts. Dickinson was also extremely homesick and uncomfortable with the religious revival occurring at the time at Mount Holyoke, in which she was classified with several other girls as “a No-Hoper.”

In her second letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson answered what we can infer as his question about her education with this remark:

I went to school – but in your manner of the phrase – had no education (L261).

We have seen that Dickinson often minimized her situation to Higginson, in order to create the illusion of him as “Preceptor” and her as “scholar.” In fact, she had quite a good education at Amherst Academy, which Dickinson’s father Edward, her brother Austin, and Susan Gilbert attended, and whose curriculum, as well as the curriculum at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, was shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the noted Professor of Geology and Theology and President of Amherst College (1845-54). This educational influence helps to explain the remarkable range of scientific knowledge, especially in botany, astronomy, and geology, in Dickinson’s writing. This week, we will look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

“The Christian World is Indebted … Most of All to Mary Lyon”

Springfield Republican, July 26, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The prospect brightens, and popular confidence has been greatly reinforced by the appointment of general-in-chief [Halleck], virtually vacant since Gen. McClelland went into Virginia. He has command of all the land forces of the United States and will direct the general movements of the war.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The new tariff, with its increased duties upon [British] goods, and the impediments placed in the way of trade, seems to have filled the cup of English bitterness to the brim.”

The Want of the Hour, page 2
“White men, we say, are the want of the hour, and white men must be our reliance. Is it to be so supposed that a negro will fight for his liberty more readily than a white man? Is it to be supposed that the poor African, after generating in bondage for centuries, will find in the prospect of liberty a greater incentive to fight for the suppression of the rebellion than the white man finds in the considerations that are thrust upon him? We have nationality at stake; we have our own political freedom at stake; we have personal and national honor at stake; we have the interests of republican liberty throughout the world at stake. The negroes of the South—‘our natural allies’—are unorganized, unarmed, ignorant and inaccessible.”










Poetry, Page 6


Books, Authors, and Art, page 7
“The time has gone by when cheap novels in paper covers could be safely thrown aside as the merest literary trash. We have now in this form the most unexceptionable fictions, correct, sensible and entertaining.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 29, 1862

Pleasant Neighbors, page 1
“One’s pleasure, after all, is much affected by the quality of one’s neighbors, even though one may not be on speaking terms with them. A pleasant, bright face at the window is surely better than a discontented, cross one; and a house that has the air of being inhabited is preferable to closed shutters and unsocial blinds, excluding every ray of sunlight and sympathy.”

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, page 1

Mary Lyon (1797-1849)

“For the foundation of institutions to give thorough intellectual training to women combined with the best religious influence, the Christian world is indebted to a very few persons, and most of all to Mary Lyon. At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.”

“You are to Watch, and Water, and Nourish Plants”

At age 5 Emily Dickinson attended the local “primary school.” From ages 9-16, she studied at the private Amherst Academy, a school her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson helped found in 1814 to improve the level of education available in the area. The Academy was closely associated with Amherst College, employed many of its graduates as teachers and preceptors, and had a curriculum shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the inspirational man of science and religion who dominated the educational scene in Amherst and attracted many eminent scholars to the faculty of this small town in Western Massachusetts.

Amherst Academy
Amherst Academy

When Dickinson and Lavinia entered in Fall 1840, they joined a group of about 100 girls, supervised by a “preceptress,” who oversaw their academic as well as moral and religious development. Over her seven years’ attendance, Dickinson studied Latin, History, Ecclesiastical History, Botany, Mental Philosophy, Geology, Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry, English, Rhetoric, Composition and Declamation.

Although most nineteenth-century education was based on rote learning, repetition, and an enforced distance between teacher and student, Amherst Academy was, by comparison (not current standards) a model of progressive thought. First, there was the influence of Edward Hitchcock, the eminent Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College, who emphasized the importance of the sciences, even for young students. Then, as Erika Scheurer argues,

the influence of Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and his disciples became more widespread, setting the stage for John Dewey’s more radical and celebrated reforms in the early twentieth century.

Pestalozzi, and his New England followers Samuel Read Hall and Richard Green Parker, stressed what Scheurer identifies as a “student-centered approach” that resembles the “liberation pedagogy” of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. In this approach, students and teachers are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.

Dickinson flourished in this environment in which Hall counseled young, well-educated teachers: “You are to watch, and water, and nourish plants.” Biographer Richard Sewall and Jack Capps, who has written an important study of “Emily Dickinson’s Reading,” discuss the beneficial effects of Amherst Academy’s progressive curriculum, especially in terms of Composition, on Dickinson’s development as a writer.

Schuerer explores this influence in detail, noting that Pestalozzi recommended “object teaching,” where “students learn to observe concrete objects from their lives, and then write about them in descriptive and analytical ways.” Hall encouraged ungraded informal personal writing and private letter writing, both of which Dickinson honed to a fine art. Parker took a “loose approach to questions of genre and form,” defining poetry by content (imagination and feelings) rather than form, embracing half-rhymes, the use of the dash as an expressive form of punctuation, and the use of capitalization to emphasize “[a]ny words when remarkably emphatical, or when they are the principal subject of the composition.” Dickinson clearly took these lessons to heart.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Although Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was a ground-breaking institution, it was a mixed experience for Dickinson academically and socially. She attended from September 30, 1847 to August 3, 1848, with several weeks at home in March and April with a bad cough. At the time of her enrollment, the Seminary had 235 students and 12 teachers. Mary Lyon encouraged a home-like atmosphere of cordiality between teachers and students, who all roomed together and did the household chores in a large brick house that combined living and academic spaces.

Still, the Seminary was bound by 70 rules for living, learning, and visiting, including an injunction to turn in rule-breakers. The day began at 6 am and was divided into half hour segments closely scheduled with times for academic studies, private meditation, prayer, calisthenics, chores and meetings. Dickinson chafed against the lack of privacy, lack of connection to the outside world and current affairs (she wrote a letter to her brother Austin jokingly asking: Who are the presidential candidates and is the Mexican War over?), the repetition of textbooks and subjects she studied at Amherst Academy, and the limited opportunities to visit her family just nine miles away.

And then there was the religious revival that started in December 1847 and lasted until May 1848. Biographer Alfred Habegger narrates the details of the “well-coordinated campaign” for Dickinson’s soul, and though Dickinson seems to have resisted in a particularly noteworthy way, at the end of the year, 30 of the 235 students  at the Seminary were also “No-Hopers.” This failure left Mary Lyon sick and depressed, and she died seven months later at age 52, at the height of her career.

From a poor background, Lyon used the meager schooling and connections available to her to become an expert in women’s education and the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she taught Chemistry and often cooked for the school. A student of Edward Hitchcock’s, she shared his passionate commitment to evangelical Christianity. Although she told young women they could do anything and opened her Seminary to the young working women from the Lowell Mills, the mission of her school was to produce women who would become devout wives and mothers and spread the word of Christ. Habegger notes with some irony that during Dickinson’s summer term at Mount Holyoke, on July 19-20, 1848, a small convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, kicking off the “first wave” of women’s rights. But that seemed worlds away from South Hadley.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Tom Luxon

I am intrigued by Erika Scheurer’s description of the educational philosophy that underpinned the curriculum at the Amherst Academy Emily Dickinson attended from 1840 to 1847. Scheurer describes it as a “student-centered approach” to education that anticipated Dewey and even Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy. “Teachers and students,” she writes, “are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.” Based on my more than thirty years in higher education, including nine years as the founding director of a teaching and learning center, I consider the Academy’s practice progressive even by today’s standards. Today, lectures, quizzes, and exams still dominate the practice of teaching in higher education. Students no longer copy notes with slate and pencil, but power-point presentations are just as teacher-centered and content-centered as the typical 19th-century classroom. Learner-centered education has long been recommended by education experts and researchers, but largely ignored in US colleges and universities.

I can just imagine Pestalozzi, Hall, and Parker running exciting workshops at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, championing “object teaching” and ungraded analytical essays. The dozen or so participants would listen with fascination; half of them would try to adopt such methods; half of those would stick with it. But the teaching awards and major institutional recognition would continue to reward the clever lecturer and his power-point slides.

bio: In teaching and scholarship, I have focused on literature of the English Renaissance and Reformation, with a particular interest in John Milton, John Bunyan, John Dryden, and 17th-century English religion and politics. I am keenly interested in technological innovations for teaching and learning. I served from 2004 to 2013 as the inaugural Cheheyl Professor and director of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. For more, see my website.

See my most recent articles: from Milton Studies, volume 59: “Heroic Restorations: Dryden and Milton,”

and in Queer Milton, edited by David L. Orvis: 
https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783319970486

 

Sources:

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 29, 1862

Biography
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 15-26. See Appendix B for a list of Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke textbooks.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 139-66, 191-212.


Porter, Amanda. Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries. Religion in America Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Scheurer, Erika. “‘[S]o of course there was Speaking and Composition –’: Dickinson’s Early Schooling as a Writer.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 18, 1 (2009): 1-21, 3-4, 6-7, 11-18.


Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 337-57.

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