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 only 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 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, Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson in the much-debated biopic A Quiet Passion (2016)directed by T erence 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. As Smith argues, in Dickinson's case, we cannot separate sexuality and textuality.

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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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.” Although, as Dickinson would have known, worker bees are all female, she clearly marks them as male and penetrative. Still, they 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 discerned 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, time moves painfully slowly, closing 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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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 title that recognizes 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

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

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

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

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 —that 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 (and, thus, 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 their father 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

Murray acknowledges that these women were “critical to [Dickinson] defining herself as a poet,” but not merely as nameless, faceless laborers or proletarians. 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 that 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.

Reflection
Christian Haines

"ChristianIn 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 2-8, 1862: Marriage

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Lisa Furmanski
Sources

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work. We also take inspiration from the publication in this month’s Atlantic Monthly of Julia Ward Howe’s tonally ambiguous poem, “The Wedding,” the second in her series titled Lyrics of the Street, reproduced in “This Week in History.”

For a woman of Dickinson’s time, region, and class, marriage was the acme of a female life. Such women were not considered “complete” without it. In 1966, historian Barbara Welter described what she called “the cult of domesticity” or “cult of true womanhood,” a set of ideas purveyed by sermons, how-to books and women’s magazines for middle and upper-class white Protestant New-Englanders, in response to a range of social developments: the disappearance of the family farm, where everyone worked together; new professions located outside the home; and the flood of immigrants crowding cities and even small towns like Amherst, MA. She titled her book on the subject, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, taking her opening phrase from Dickinson's condemnatory poem, “What soft – Cherubic Creatures–/These Gentlewomen are –" (F675).

At the same time, in legal terms, when a woman married, she moved from the legal category of feme sole (single woman) to the legal category of feme coverte (covered or protected woman), where her identity merged with that of her husband and she, essentially, had no rights apart from his protection. Reform of these laws in the form of the Married Women’s Property Acts began in the mid-nineteenth century but was not fully accomplished nation-wide until the early twentieth-century.

This new vision of femininity reflected what scholars identified as an ideology of “separate spheres” for men and women, based on biologically determined gender roles and part of a complex system of “sex-gender conventions” that prevailed in the northeast US in the 19th century. It rested on four central “virtues:” piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. Recently, historians have challenged and amplified Welter’s definition. For example, Susan Cruea identifies four evolving and overlapping images of women in the nineteenth century: not only True Womanhood, but Real Womanhood, Public Womanhood and New Womanhood.

While the reality and effect of the beliefs in True Womanhood  are palpable in Dickinson’s circle, as we will see in the poems for this week, there were also palpable tensions in this ideology and strong resistance to it. In her poem, “The Wedding” published in July 1862, for example, Julia Ward Howe characterized the “the wedded task of life” as “Mending husband, moulding wife.”

Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections
Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections

A salient site of Dickinson’s desire and resistance to this ideology is her extensive series of poems that explore marriage in all its dimensions, often highly metaphorical and “mystical.” These poems explore betrothal, the bride and bridegroom, the wedding and its aftermath of consummation, the wife’s experience and entitlement, and the frequent renunciation that accompanies love and marriage. Although Dickinson never married, she had several proposals, one as late as 1882 from Judge Otis Lord when she was in her early 50s. Some scholars read her marriage poems biographically, but we will approach them as complex explorations of female identity. For models, Dickinson could draw on several very different types of marriages among her circle of intimates. We will look at these marriages, the current attitude towards marriage in the press, and Dickinson’s extraordinary poetry of marriage.

“They Will all Have to Die Old Maids”

Springfield Republican, July 5

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the midst of the great struggle before Richmond, with only imperfect accounts of the events that occurred last week. The prominent and most important fact is that Gen. McClellan has changed his entire line in the face of the enemy, and while a severe battle was raging, and that his army now occupies the region between the Chickahominy and James river, that his base of operations at the White House landing is abandoned and his supplies and reinforcements now go up the James River. A series of great battles has been fought commencing on Wednesday of last week and continuing until Sunday, possibly until the present hour, and there is no reason to expect and further lull in the storm till the fate of Richmond and of the rebel armies that defend it is decided.”

From Washington, page 1
“No one can think of anything but the great battle at Richmond and the gigantic movements of the last few days. Is McClellan whipped? Is our army in danger of immediate destruction? Can McClellan still evolve victory from apparent disorder? Great battles have been fought—and the war department pretends it has no news.”

Poetry, page 5

General News, page 5

“English antiquarians are much exercised over the identity of a human skeleton just discovered at Leicester. It is supposed that the remains are those of King Richard III.”

“The reason the southern women are so bitter in this rebellion, against the people of the North, is that the southern men prefer the northern women to them, and they are afraid if the war ceases they will all have to die old maids.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Some married folks keep their love, like their jewelry, for the world’s eyes; thinking it too precious for everyday wear at the fireside.”

“Men love women for their natures—not their accomplishments. More men of genius marry, and are happy, with women of very common-place understandings, than ever venture to take brilliant wives, and enjoy a showy misery.”

The First Death, page 7
“It is wonderful how a war like this ennobles death. Once it was only sad to think of the first death, and no subsequent bereavement seemed quite like that. The heart was not accustomed to chastening when the first blow fell, nor the home used to such visitants when the destroying angel first crossed its threshold. That house of mourning may become again a house of feasting, but the memory of the darkened chamber and vacant chair below survive all change.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“There are certain books which are not what we wish they were, because we are confident they are not what their authors are capable of producing—books of promise—books which betray a nature kept by circumstances from a free and full development—books which impress without satisfying—books which please moderately, yet yield us no full throb of pleasure—books with musical threats and warm bosoms and fine plumage, but no wings, no faculty of flight to take us up through the ether. One of these books is “Home, and other Poems” by A.H. Caughey of Erie, PA.”

Woman and Chivalry, page 7
“A man should yield everything to a woman for a word, for a smile—to one look of entreaty. But if there be no look of entreaty, no word, no smile, I do not see that he is called upon to yield much.”

Atlantic Monthly, July 15

Originality, page 63

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

“A great contemporary writer, so I am told, regards originality as much rarer than is commonly supposed. But, on the contrary, is it not far more frequent than is commonly supposed? For one should not identify originality with mere primacy of conception or utterance, as if a thought could be original but once. In truth, it may be so thousands or millions of times.”

Lyrics of the Street II [from a series of 6], page 98
“The Wedding” by Julia Ward Howe

In her satin gown so fine
Trips the bride within the shrine.
Waits the street to see her pass,
Like a vision in a glass.
Roses crown her peerless head:
Keep your lilies for the dead!

Something of the light without
Enters with her, veiled about;
Sunbeams, hiding in her hair,
Please themselves with silken wear;
Shadows point to what shall be
In the dim futurity.

Wreathe with flowers the weighty yoke
Might of mortal never broke!
From the altar of her vows
To the grave’s unsightly house
Measured is the path, and made;
All the work is planned and paid.

As a girl, with ready smile,
Where shall rise some ponderous pile,
On the chosen, festal day,
Turns the initial sod away,
So the bride with fingers frail
Founds a temple of a jail,—

Or a palace, it may be
Flooded full with luxury,
Open yet to the deadliest things,
And the Midnight Angel’s wings.
Keep its chambers purged with prayer:
Faith can guard it, Love is rare.

Organ, sound thy wedding-tunes!
Priest, recite thy wedding tunes!
Hast no ghostly help nor art
Can enrich a selfish heart,
Blessing bind ‘twixt greed and gold,
Joy with bloom for bargain sold?

Hail, the wedded task of life!
Mending husband, moulding wife.
Hope brings labor, labor peace;
Wisdom ripens, goods increase;
Triumph crowns the sainted head,
And our lilies wait the dead.

Reviews and Literary Notices, page 124
“‘Fantine,’ the first of five novels under the general title of ‘Les Misérables,’ has produced an impression all over Europe, and we already hear of nine translations. It has evidently been ‘engineered’ with immense energy by the French publisher. Every resource of bookselling ingenuity has been exhausted in order to make every human being who can read think that the salvation of his body and soul depends on his reading ‘Les Misérables.’”

“That Great Blessedness”

Dickinson’s feelings about marriage emerge early in her writing. In a letter to Susan Gilbert, dated early June 1852, Dickinson recalls a walk with her friend Mattie, how they talked about “life and love, whispered our childish fancies about such blissful things” and

wondered if that great blessedness which may be our’s sometime, is granted now, to some. Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly, beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it’s own, and we shall not run away from it, but lie still and be happy.

It is not clear whether Dickinson refers here to heterosexual marriage or, as some commentators argue, a great love she feels for Sue. What is clear is that she is looking at this rapturous state from the outside and has some fear of it. The phrase, “but lie still and be happy,” echoes the advice about unwanted marital sex purportedly given to women at the time, sometimes attributed to Queen Victoria: “close your eyes and think of England.” Women were not supposed to have or feel or own up to sexual desires.

Dickinson goes on in the letter to chide Susan for being “strangely silent on this subject,” asks her if she has a “dear fancy, illuminating all your life … one of whom you murmured in the faithful ear of night,” and insists

when you come home, Susie, we must speak of these things. How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but – dew? No, they will cry for the sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho’ it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace – they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up. (L93; her emphasis).

From this “amatory strain,” we can draw several inferences. On the one hand, Dickinson feels that non- or pre-brides and unplighted maidens have dull lives, although the phrases describing brides as “fed with gold,” and gathering “pearls every evening” verge on the melodramatic and ironic. On the other hand, “the wife forgotten” is pitiful, and the scorching of delicate female flowers by burning “men of noon” is dangerous and threatens to consume women. Dickinson fears being “yielded up,” a doubling of the passive construction.

Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)
Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)

We know that Susan also feared marriage and put hers to Austin off for several years, mainly because of the sexual component. There is speculation that she had several abortions before her first child was born in June 1861, and that she may have tried to terminate that pregnancy as well. This resistance occurred, perhaps, because, by all accounts, her marriage to Austin was miserable. While Susan was a close school friend of Dickinson and was, at first, adored by the Dickinson family, she and Austin had very different expectations of their union. From a less stable background, Sue wanted financial security and improved status. Austin, by contrast, had a romantic streak and craved affection he did not get from his stern father and distant mother.

Although they eventually had three children together, Austin felt exiled from the family and spent much time at the Homestead next door with his two unmarried sisters. Unable to divorce Susan, Austin eventually began a passionate, long-term affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, a much younger woman.

Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd
Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd

Dickinson’s biography contains several types of marriages that might have colored her feelings about the state. Her parents’ marriage was steadfast but featured a controlling husband who exacerbated the fears and dependencies of his much frailer wife. Austin’s marriage to Susan was a dismal failure that caused much pain to all involved. By contrast, Austin’s lover Mabel was married to David Todd, a young professor of Astronomy, who joined the faculty at Amherst College in 1881, and who seems to have known about and even approved of (and participated in) his wife’s liaison—offering a very different model of an “open” marriage from the very “closed” Victorian model advocated by the reigning sex-gender conventions. A happier version of this ideal was epitomized by Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, friends of Dickinson discussed in last week’s post. As we noted there, Josiah was large, imposing, and intellectual and Elizabeth was small, doting, and warm-hearted. He had a public profile as a writer, lecturer and literary editor of the Springfield Republican while she maintained their busy and vibrant home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Lisa Furmanski

No more families torn apartHow to Be Wife at the End of the World

Inside me is a scarlet feather, clenched
With gauze, it takes my mind abroad
Where I risk the end of our children.
Wed me not to bells, clanging knots,
Their sound is an eclipse of the spirit
Doming a lead gown. I can protest
A bare sun but no way to bear its melt,
Thus I am alone, that is, being a bride.
Night rites blue and our bed plumbs
What the radio said about loneliness.
Wife weeps. Wife pulls at her feather.
Fierce, a woman with such tiny wrists.
I am dogged enough to choir, to carry
Signposts, memes of sickness and vow.

— June 30th, the day of the March for Families, was unbearable in many ways. The incredible heat was ominous, and the speakers invoked the long, long arc of resistance, nothing near or soon. Is my marriage and wifehood in these times beyond the political, or can it strike a chord of protest? Proof and risk, defiance and intimacy, I want my shared life to be all of these. The
poems for this week’s blog, like much of Dickinson’s work that I depend on, are a “puzzle”: of faith and nature and relationships, and inspired this attempt to speak as a wife in these terrible times.

bio: Lisa Furmanski is a physician and writer living in New Hampshire. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, Hunger Mountain, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere.

Sources:

Overview

Cruea, Susan. "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement. ATQ: 19th century American Literature and Culture. Vol. 19, Issue 3, 2005: 187-204; General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 1. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/gsw_pub/1

Gerdes, Kirsten. “Marriage and Property Rights.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Greenwood Press, 2014, 564-68.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18 (2, 1966): 151-74.

As complication and challenge, see:

Davidson, Cathy and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds. No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

History

Atlantic Monthly, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 5, 1862.

Biography

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

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 186-96.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983.

June 25-July 1, 1862: Mothers

This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationship to mothers–—her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson, mother figures in her life, and with the theme of mothering more broadly in her poetry and in her letters.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Marianne Hirsch
Sources

Exploring Dickinson’s literary foremother, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two weeks ago reminds us of the importance of mothers more generally in her life. We recall Virginia Woolf’s famous comment in A Room of One’s Own, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” Then, a column in this week’s Springfield Republican for 1862 on “The Influence of Mothers” contextualized motherhood in Dickinson’s historical moment. The nineteenth-century US idealized motherhood as a sacred duty to nurture and spiritually uplift, to be a self-less, shining beacon in a rapidly changing and war-torn world. All of this suggested this week’s focus on Dickinson’s “mothers.”

Emily Norcross Dickinson
Emily Norcross Dickinson

We use the plural to indicate mothering in a broad sense. Dickinson's biological mother, Emily Norcross (1804-1882), was a disappointing figure for most of her daughter’s life. There is evidence in Dickinson’s writings that she felt “motherless.” Most of the poems she wrote containing the word “mother” are about “Mother Nature” or “Mother Eve.”

Elizabeth Holland
Elizabeth Holland

But there is also evidence that she found a mother figure in the woman who was one of her closest friends throughout her adult life, Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland (1823- 1896). In a move to perhaps divert attention from her emotional dependence, Dickinson called Holland “Little Sister,” despite the fact that Holland was seven years her senior. By all accounts, Holland perfectly exemplified the Victorian mother, who excelled in the domestic sphere of nurturing and support. This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationships with her mothers and with the theme of mothering through her poetry and letters.

“The Influence of Mothers”

Springfield Republican, June 28, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We have again reached a moment of silent and anxious suspense. Gen. McClellan has crowded the rebel lines close up to Richmond, and there can be no further advance without a great battle, unless the enemy abandon the position, which is not probable. Everything is ready on our side, the last parallel is completed, the siege guns are in position, and probably before what we write is printed the country will be startled with news of the most terrific battle yet fought. If our arms are successful, as we confidently expect, the war is substantially at an end; if otherwise the struggle will be still further prolonged, and we may be embarrassed by foreign intervention. Everything depends on success at Richmond.”

The Emancipation Bill, page 2
“The bill to free the slaves of rebels that passed the House on Tuesday provides for the emancipation of the slaves of all persons holding civil or military office in the confederacy after the bill becomes a law, and of all others who shall not return to their loyalty within sixty days after a proclamation to that effect to be issued by the president. The bill also disqualifies all the classes named from ever holding office under the United States government. The president is authorized to negotiate for the acquisition, by treaty or otherwise, of lands or countries in Mexico, Central America or South America, or in the islands in the Gulf of Mexico, or for the right of settlement upon the lands of said countries for all persons liberated under this act, to be removed with their own consent.”

Western Virginia, page 2
“Two bills are before Congress for the admission of Western Virginia as a state into the Union.”

Influence of Mothers, page 6
“Love as we may other women, there stands first and ineffaceable the love of ‘mother;’ gaze as we may on other faces, our mother’s face is still the fairest; bend as we shall to other influence, still overall silent but mighty, reaching to us from long gone years, is a mother’s influence. In scenes of sin and shame and license come that pure, that holy, that ever-loving presence.”

The Power of Music by Augusta B. Garrett, page 6
“It happened one day that the evil ones were all assembled together. They issued from hell to conquer the souls through all the earth. Lucifer left the minstrel to take care of the infernal regions and promised, if he let no souls escape, to treat him on his return with a fat monk, roasted, or a usurer, dressed with hot sauce. But, while the fiends were away, Saint Peter came in disguise, and allured the minstrel to play at dice, who, for lack of money, was so imprudent as to stake the souls which were left under his care. They were all lost and carried off by St. Peter in triumph. The devil returned, found hell empty and the fires out, and very unceremoniously sent the minstrel away; but he was generously received by St. Peter. Lucifer, in his wrath, threatened with severe punishment any fiend who should again bring there a minstrel’s soul; and thus, they ever after escaped the claws of the evil one.”

Poetry, page 7

The Contented Robin poemBooks, Authors and Art, page 7
“A monthly magazine for business men is published in Philadelphia, with the title of the American Exchange and Review. But it must be true that businessmen are slower than their wives and daughters, for side-by-side with the American Exchange for June lie the fashionable monthlies of Godey and Peterson for July. It will be a great convenience to the ladies to receive these numbers in advance of the date.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

The Crops, page 1
“Vegetation of all kinds was never more promising at this season of the year than it now is in this region.”

Influence of Women in Secessia, page 1
“Secession went in among the daughters of the South just as a contagious disease would, or a new style of bonnet. It wasn’t urged into them. They took it. They liked it. It made the amiable angry, the sweet sour, the attractive repulsive, the handsome ugly as sin. It made havoc of all female charms and graces. It muddled the female moral sense and sense of honor. You can’t answer or argue with a woman. There is but one weapon left us in combat with these secesh: their own—insult. General Butler was right in using it.”

page 2
“The rumor of a repulse of our forces before Charleston, first announced from rebel sources, proves too true. Reinforcements will be needed in considerable numbers before the city can be captured.”

William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876
William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876

Amherst, page 3
Col. W. S. Clark arrived in town Wednesday evening. Notwithstanding the pouring rain, a large number of citizens turned out to welcome him, and he was received at the depot with three times three rousing cheers. His stay will not be long. The rebels are to be whipped and he means to have a hand in it. The ladies of Amherst are busily engaged in procuring articles for the comfort of our wounded soldiers.”

“I Never Had a Mother”

In his first letter, Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson about her “companions,” and she replied:

Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself, that my Father bought me – They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell – and the noise in the Pool, at Noon – excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister – My Mother does not care for thought –and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – (L 261, April 25, 1862)

The Holyoke Range
The Holyoke Range

Notably, and probably with some posing, Dickinson mentions first the “hills” (the rolling Holyoke range is quite distinctive and beautiful), sunsets, and her dog Carlo. Rather far down the list is her mother, who, Dickinson notes acerbically, does not share her interest in thinking. Dickinson amplified this sense of separation from her mother in a comment she made to Higginson on his first visit to her in 1870, which he reported to his wife in a letter dated 16 August 1870. He was taken aback to hear her say:

I never had a mother. I supposed a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled (L342).

Sharon Leiter notes that in an 1874 letter to Higginson, Dickinson developed this theme of motherlessness:

I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none (L405).

Leiter wonders whether Dickinson was exaggerating or pointing to a “fundamental reality of her emotional life,” and cites, with some qualification, John Cody’s reductive (and heteronormative) psychoanalytic reading that because of her mother’s weakness and distance, “Dickinson failed to make a proper female identification and identified with the males in her life,” preventing her from having a satisfying sex life.

After her mother’s death in 1882, however, Dickinson wrote to her friend and mother-figure Elizabeth Holland, confessing the deep connection that finally developed with the woman who was her mother:

We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother–but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came (L792, mid-Dec 1882).

In late October 1885 Dickinson wrote to console a friend who had lost her mother by saying,

Who could be motherless who has a Mother’s Grave within confiding reach? Let me enclose the tenderness which is born of bereavement. To have had a Mother – how mighty! (L1022).

Despite all the research on Emily Norcross Dickinson, we know almost nothing about her inner life because she apparently hated writing letters (it became a family joke). She was the eldest of two daughters in a large prosperous family from Monson, twenty miles south of Amherst, and had an unusually good education, attending the Monson Academy and then a year at a noted girls’ boarding school in New Haven, CT. She met Edward Dickinson in 1826, and after a lopsided correspondence (he wrote around seventy letters to her, she responded with around twenty) and much ambivalence on her part about leaving her close-knit family, they married on May 6, 1828.

Emily Norcross had three children over the next five years and ran her household in exemplary (or fanatical, according to Dickinson) fashion without servants for many years. She excelled in cooking, attended social and community events, and was the first in the family to convert in 1831. She was a skillful gardener, a passion she passed on to her daughter. She loved roses in particular, and grew figs, a difficult feat in New England.

Lavinia describes her mother as tender and loving, but others recall her as timorous and fearful, especially when her husband’s business and duties took him away from home. Both she and Dickinson suffered a bout of depression when they moved back to the Homestead in 1855, but Dickinson complained to Elizabeth Holland that her mother’s prostration took precedence (L 182). The domestic and caretaking duties that fell to Dickinson at that time might have contributed to her gradual withdrawal from society. In 1874, a year after her husband’s sudden death, Emily Norcross suffered a stroke and for the last four years of her life needed full time care, which largely fell to Dickinson, who died only four years after her mother. About their relationship, which some have dismissed as unimportant, biographer Richard Sewall concludes:

Emily learned from her what was perhaps more valuable than anything a brilliant mother could have given her: some lessons in simple, devoted humanity, important for a precocious girl not disinclined to the Dickinson snobbery and the satiric Dickinson wit.

The woman Dickinson looked to for maternal emotional support was Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland, wife of Josiah Holland, the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, and friend of Samuel Bowles. Dickinson met the Hollands in 1853 when they attended one of the famous Commencement week dinners put on by the Dickinsons. The Hollands epitomized the Victorian ideal of marriage; Josiah was large, imposing and intellectual, and Elizabeth was small, doting and warm-hearted.

Dickinson was so pleased with these new friends that she and Lavinia visited the Hollands’ home in Springfield, MA in Fall 1853 and again in Fall 1854. Their welcoming and vibrant household was the antithesis of the strict and dour Dickinson home, and despite Josiah’s anti-feminism, he rejected religious orthodoxy and had a strong commitment to the literary world, both of which Dickinson shared. And he genuinely cared for Dickinson. For example, as we detailed in the post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although he critiqued Barrett Browning's work as morally questionable, we know from Higginson’s report of his visit to Amherst that Josiah gave Dickinson a picture of Mrs. Browning’s tomb, obviously honoring his friend's delight in this woman writer and literary role model (L342).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Marianne Hirsch

“Matrophobia,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the 1970’s, is not fear of mothers, but “fear of becoming one’s mother.” Hers is a diagnosis that describes many women writers over the centuries, even those who are not feminists. Casting their mothers as “angels in the house,” to use Virginia Woolf’s derogatory term, they tend to cast themselves as motherless daughters who can rewrite the scripts of dailiness and of femininity. When Rich later writes about Jane Eyre and about her strength and the strength of her writing voice, she alludes to Jane’s motherlessness – a motherlessness that is full of temptations she must evade, but that nevertheless enables her survival, her development, and, indeed, the new script she forges for herself. But Rich also makes sure to tell us that Jane is not unmothered. She relies on surrogate mothers – her teacher, her friend, her cousins, the moon – to sustain and to protect her.

It is thus not a surprise that Emily Dickinson – the supreme crafter of her very own script—should distance her writing self from her mother, nor that she should describe her mother as someone who does not “care for thought” in the ways she herself does. Thinking women leave their mothers behind; they identify with fathers, or with women outside the family, with those who do not pose the dangers of matrophobia. Dickinson’s companions are nature, dogs, friends. Neither is it a surprise, however, that Dickinson turns to her mother during her illness and after her death. “To have had a mother,” she writes, “how mighty.” The stress is on the finality of the “have had.” The mother is in the past tense.

Yet Dickinson spends years caring for her mother in her illness and dies a short four years after her mother’s death. If she claims her in her death, does she repair the rift she nurtured in her life? Is the moving elegy she writes, “To the bright east she flies,” actually dedicated to Emily Norcross Dickinson, or is it more about a primal maternal loss, one that faces us all – one that leaves us “homeless at home?”

Dickinson’s ambivalent relationship to her mother is familiar for anyone who studies women writers. The mother who is alive poses the threat of matrophobia, but the dead mother, no longer threatening, invites a reconsideration. Virginia Woolf waited nearly three decades before writing To the Lighthouse (1927), the book that enabled her to work through the premature loss of her mother, Julia Stephen. She stated that writing the book did for her “what psychoanalysts do for their patients.” Dickinson’s elegy, and the other poems included here, are less specific and they engage the mother as figure and not as person. They do not ultimately negate the poet’s statement that “I never had a mother.”

bio: Marianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former  President of the Modern Language Association of America. She was born in Romania, and educated at Brown University where she received her BA/MA and Ph.D. degrees.

Hirsch’s work combines feminist theory with memory studies, particularly the transmission of memories of violence across generations. Among many other works, she is the author of The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (1989).

Sources

Overview

Plant, Rebecca Jo. Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (1929). University of Adelaide, Chapter Four.

History
Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  28, 1862

Biography

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

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 278-81, 325-38.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 88.

 

June 11-17, 1862: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This week we explore the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) on Dickinson, occasioned by Dickinson request in a letter to Samuel Bowles, traveling in Europe for his health, that “if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.”

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Kirstyn Leuner
Sources

Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room with three portraits

Only three portraits hung in the corner bedroom of a very selective Emily Dickinson: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Take a virtual tour here). This week we explore the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) on Dickinson, occasioned by Dickinson's request in a letter to Samuel Bowles, who was traveling in Europe for his health, that

if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.

Dickinson knew that Bowles would try to visit the grave of this famous writer because he took two books with him on his tour: the Bible and Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh. Many consider Barrett Browning to be Dickinson’s most important and beloved literary foremother.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
We will explore what drew Dickinson to Barrett Browning, from a literary as well as a personal perspective. While Barrett Browning is best known these days for Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a series of love poems to her husband, we will focus on the epic novel-poem, Aurora Leigh, published in 1856 and read by Dickinson in the late 1850s-early 1860s. Condemned by some contemporary reviewers as too frank about taboo subjects like female desire, prostitution, and rape, it achieved critical acclaim and wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Aurora Leigh fell out of the canon in the first half of the 20th century, feminist scholars recovered it and study it as the first, first person account of a woman poet’s coming of age, struggling against conservative Victorian social conventions, gender restrictions, and her own conflicting desires for love. In Literary Women, Ellen Moers called it

the epic poem of the literary woman herself.

As such, it spoke volumes to a young aspiring poet in rural Massachusetts.

“The Woman that Writes”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1

This week has been one of prosperity to the union arms, though no great movements have occurred. No considerable action has taken place before Richmond. At no point has there been a rebel gain.

Verbal Foundlings, page 2

There are some words of doubtful parentage, words picked up in the street, or dropped mysteriously at some hospitable door. If they receive shelter and kind treatment, they sometimes develop into useful members of society, but too often, like other orphans, they are overworked in their youth and afterwards ignore or neglected. In such cases what must be our emotions when we learn that the mysterious stranger is of ancient and eminent parentage.

Civilization in Africa and in Dixie, page 2

But with all the advantages and benefits derived from the peculiar institution [of slavery], [human inhabitants of equatorial Africa] are still savages, and there is nothing beautiful or fascinating about them, not even when they smile. They are, however, valiant warriors, and excel in the manufacture of arms, particularly in the spear and the sword. Why, the weapons of war made by those savages are as much superior to those manufactured by the chivalry of the South, as those of Damascus or Chicapoo are superior to those produced by the savages. If those weapons [of the South], thousands of which have been taken from captured rebels, should be exhibited to the wild cannibals of Africa, they would exclaim, “What barbarians made these shocking looking knives and swords!”

The Woman That Writes, page 6

Grace Fenton was only twelve years of age, and although her quick scholarship had given her a place in the first class, yet nobody thought of her writing a theme for the occasion. As she blushingly went through [her composition], her fellow pupils whispered to each other—“Grace never wrote that;” “Her father helped her;” “Certainly, of course.” But there was one among the visitors who rose and said:—
“The written exercises are highly creditable to the ingenuity and skill of the writers. Some of them are proofs of patient research and great judgment in selection, but the brief and artless essay to which we last listened was given us not only by the writer but by the author.”
In these brief and sensible remarks was a single word that proved fated to Grace’s peace. “The author.”

Poetry, page 6

Three poems appeared in this week’s Republican; all included themes of death, country living. and faith.

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862

Immediate Emancipation, page 2

The emancipation movement does not progress fast enough for many people. If a desire to see that institution banished from the land is abolitionism, then we are all abolitionists. On that point we are all united; yet on the question of immediate and general emancipation, there are wide differences of opinion.

The Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have grounds to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.

Harper’s Monthly, June 1862, page 123

There is a poem of Mrs. Browning’s in the “Last Poems,” lately published, which is the most pathetic and passionate expression of the woe of a mother who loses both her boys in the Italian war of liberation [“Mother and Poet” p. 183]. If you do not happen to like Mrs. Browning’s poems, as the Country Parson says he cannot read Carlyle, it is not necessary to read the stanzas I am going to quote. But don’t for a moment imagine that you have said a fine thing in saying so, or that you have shown yourself to be downright common-sensible. You may not like Shakespeare’s music, the odor of magnolias—but they are good.

“Her Unmentioned Mourner”

By the time of her death in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved wide international success as a prolific poet and outspoken liberal voice on issues like child labor reform and abolitionism. When Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson, in his response to her first letter dated April 15, 1862, who and what she read, she responded “– For Poets – I have Keats – and Mr and Mrs Browning” (L261). Though scholars find echoes of Robert Browning’s poetry in Dickinson’s verse, Barrett Browning was the much larger and more significant influence for Dickinson in her formative years.

Robert Browning (1812-1889)
Robert Browning (1812-1889)

As Higginson observed in an 1854 letter to Robert Browning, her widely reviewed collection Poems [1844; expanded 1850, 1853, 1856] made

Mrs. Browning’s poems . . . household words in Massachusetts to every school boy & (yet more) every school girl.

A supporter of women’s rights, Higginson recognized the importance of Barrett Browning as a model for young women who aspired to independence and careers. In addition, Barrett Browning’s story was compelling and romantic. She showed early poetic prowess, but an illness and a riding injury made her an invalid and kept her frail throughout her life. After the poet Robert Browning read her poetry, they began a correspondence that blossomed into romance and a secret elopement against her father’s wishes.

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881)
Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881)

It is important to note, however, that Higginson’s feminism was a minority position. By contrast, Josiah Gilbert Holland, another of Dickinson’s close friends and the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, was an antifeminist who opposed women’s rights to vote and own property. In 1858, he published an essay, “Women in Literature,” in which he expressed the fairly widespread idea, explicitly countered by Barrett Browning, that men have principles while women express fancies. He also dismissed Dickinson’s beloved Aurora Leigh, along with another passionate favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Scholars argue that Dickinson was drawn to Barret Browning because of similarities in their social situations. The Englishwoman was from a gentrified, middle class family, with roots in the creole plantation culture of Jamaica, had a docile mother, who birthed twelve children, a strong-willed, tyrannical father, and a favorite brother. She came to her love and study of poetry early, was self-educated, and suffered illness and injury which kept her a recluse for many years. She even had a constant canine companion named Flush (a cocker spaniel whom Virginia Woolf famously wrote about), counterpart to Dickinson’s Carlo.

The resemblance stops there, though, for Barrett Browning eagerly published her work, courted popularity, and was outspoken on contemporary social issues. She had a whirlwind courtship with the dashing younger poet, Robert Browning, married him and moved to Italy, where her health improved and allowed her to have a child. She managed to combine literature and love, work and motherhood in a way that Dickinson could not or chose not to. Some scholars speculate that Barrett Browning lived the life Dickinson dreamed of, while Betsy Erkkila contends that we should pay attention to the differences between them, and that Dickinson was, in some sense, truer to her “better self” and a more radical vision of women’s art and independence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen
Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860

Still, Barrett Browning’s struggles as a woman and poet and her notion of the noble and sacred vocation of poetry spoke to Dickinson. She owned the 1859 edition of Aurora Leigh and first referred to it in her letters in 1861. In nine books of blank verse, this epic poem tells the story of Aurora Leigh, daughter of an English father and Italian mother, who is orphaned at twelve, raised by her “caged bird” English aunt, and courted by her cousin Romney Leigh, a social reformer who does not believe women can make art. Aurora rejects Romney’s offer and moves to London to pursue a career as a poet.

Their complex story has a subplot involving the destitute Marian Erle, one of Romney’s “projects,” who is trafficked by her abused mother and eventually sold into prostitution in Paris, raped, and driven partly mad. Aurora takes Marian to live with her in Italy, but eventually realizes she loves Romney, who goes blind and comes to acknowledge her poetic achievement. Aurora finally marries him, while Marian dedicates herself to raising her daughter. Along the way, Aurora discusses women’s desires, men’s dominance, and her struggles to make art. Barrett Browning called it

the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.

Sometime in mid-June, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Samuel Bowles, away in Europe, telling him how she missed him acutely and adding her special, perhaps ghoulish, request:

If you should like to hear the news, we did not die – here – We did not change. We have the Guests we did, except yourself – and the Roses hang on the same stems – as before you went. Vinnie trains the Honeysuckle – and the Robins steal the strings for Nests – quite, quite as they used to – I have the errand from my heart – I might forget to tell it. Would you please to come Home? The long life's years are scant, and fly away, the Bible says, like a told story – and sparing is a solemn thing, somehow, it seems to me – and I grope fast, with my fingers, for all out of my sight I own – to get it nearer -
Should anybody where you go, talk of Mrs. Browning, you must hear for us – and if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner –(L266).

Barrett Browning died on June 30, 1861 in Florence, Italy, her adopted home, where she is buried. A year later, Dickinson still styled herself in mourning for someone especially important to her—so important that she bid Bowles to lay hands upon “the Head” of the grave for her, as if to make concrete (through another of her literary intimates) the deep connection she feels to a poet she has never met but who shaped her sense of what a woman could do.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb, English Cemetery, Florence. 2007
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb, English Cemetery, Florence. 2007

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Kirstyn Leuner

Kirstyn LeunerThis week’s post on the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Emily Dickinson invites reflection on how women writers are able to influence each other. It is remarkable that Dickinson knew where Barrett Browning’s grave was located in light of the fact that there were so many women writing at the time, and so few of whom received due notice or critical acclaim. Barrett Browning was exceptional not only for her writing but also for her fame in life and death.

I taught an undergraduate British literature course this Spring that explores what it means to be a canonical woman writer of the long 18th century and how that compares to women who are elsewhere on the continuum between canonical and unknown. For the first half of the term, we read writing by women who are varying shades of well-known, canonical, and at smaller risk of being forgotten, such as Aphra Behn, Mary Collier, and Mary Shelley, who is being celebrated around the globe for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein.

We dedicated the second half of the term to reading and writing about  work by understudied or unknown women authors, like S. Robinson, Esther Barnes, and Maria Grace Saffery. In fact, it was a student, Danna D’Esopo, who discovered that Saffery wrote the last poem we studied in the course, entitled “Cheyt Sing” (1790) though the title page gives no author attribution. We approached these works differently from how we approached Frankenstein, for example, since there is little or no research published specifically on the author or the work to provide context. We read closely as an act of recovery: using front matter, title pages, advertisements, dedications, the text itself, marginalia, and any information about the book we could glean from digital images.

E. Barnes title pageA poem we read together by Esther Barnes called “The Disengaged Fair” (1796) contains a call to gather a vocal tribe of women writers in support women’s independence. The poem begins as a response to a middle-aged widower who placed a single’s ad in a newspaper addressed “to the Disengaged Fair,” seeking a wife “who may wish to give Retirement and Ease the Preference to a single Life.” The gentleman threatens to treat applicants without sufficient virtue “with the Contempt they deserve.” In her poem, Barnes writes back to the gentleman “in Behalf of the Fair Disengag’d” and makes witty demands of her own on the habits and virtue of a prospective husband. Then, she writes to the women she is in solidarity with:

What, barter our liberty, to be a slave,
To a clown or a fop, a fool or a knave;
Consider, good ladies, we can do as we please,
We have no one to vex us, nor no one to teaze.
I think all that makes us poor ladies afraid,
Is that frightful sound, ah! There goes an old maid!
All I now wish is, that the body at large
Would make a petition, and lay down a charge,
That not one in future should ever us call
But Disengag’d Ladies, and that should be all.
[…]
And therefore I think we’ll all vow and declare,
That we will be call’d the Disengag’d Fair.
Ought we not to have some badge or some sign,
That we are all maidens, and maidens divine.
I wish that the ladies would now out of hand,
Send up their name, and we’d form a grand band,
And would all marshal forth for the good of the
            land.
This I think, that we ladies would stand by our
            sex,
And trim all those husbands who their wives don’t
          respect.
To find out our friends will surely be hard,
So we’ll rally our forces, and be on our guard.
And now our whole body declare with our pen,
That we will esteem all worthy good men. (ll. 12-13)

Here, the poet creates her own competing advertisement to the widower’s. As a counterpoint to marriage (a union of the widower and his “disengaged fair”), Barnes wants to create another kind of union: an army of disengaged women, a “grand band” for the cause of maidens, also a pun on a wedding ring. But like the widower, she needs applicants to “send up their name” to her, because it will be hard to “find out our friends.” The disengaged fair, whether they will be future friends in Barnes’s band, or brides, are unknown. They’re out there, but they require a printed advertisement to muster.

Despite its humor, I find the medium of Barnes’s call, through an advertisement in a newspaper mimicking the widower’s personal ad, trivializing. In addition, her inability to name the names of like-minded women writers who might join her suggests how isolated she was from other women writers and how anonymous they were at the time.

At least Dickinson was able to identify Barrett Browning as an author who expressed what it meant to be an independent woman writer and latch onto her for inspiration, even to the point of being able to locate her grave and send someone to “fangirl” there on her behalf. Barnes’s search for compatriot women she admired who were independent-minded when it came to marriage and writing was much harder: she can’t name them, much less know where they are buried. Shows how far women had come by the mid-nineteenth century.

Bio:
Kirstyn Leuner is Assistant Professor of English at Santa Clara University, where she specializes in British literature of the long eighteenth-century, Digital Humanities (DH), women’s writing, and Romanticism. She is Director of The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing and at work on a related interdisciplinary monograph. Both projects seek to recover and study Francis Stainforth's 19th-century private library that contained approximately 8,800 volumes of writing produced by women. She has published essays on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Rodolphe Töpffer’s earliest comic strips, markup languages, and book history. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Colorado Boulder and, following this, was Postdoctoral Fellow in the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College.
Visit her research website or on Twitter @KLeuner

Sources:

Overview
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.

History
Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862

Biography
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 68-79.

Stone, Marjorie. “Lyric Tipplers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Wine of Cyprus,” Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor,” and the Transatlantic Anacreontic Tradition.” Victorian Poetry 54.2 Summer 2016): 123-154, quoted from The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23 volumes, eds. Philip Kelley et al. Winfield, KS: Wedgestone: 1984–2015, 20: 53.

For information on Barrett Browning, a summary of Aurora Leigh and selected books from the poem, see the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive 

For a short account of the Brownings in Dickinson’s life, with a list of further references, see Curtis, Audrey. “Browning Robert (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861).” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 1: 129-33.

On Josiah Holland, see Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work.  New York: Facts on File, 2007, 326.

 

May 28-June 3, 1862: Illness and Health

This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health and illness, especially her eye troubles, in the work of two of her contemporaries and influences, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” both published in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Giavanna Munafo
Sources

This week’s post takes its inspiration from the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which printed two articles related to health and illness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.” In April, Dickinson began a correspondence with Higginson in which she invoked illness both explicitly—“I was ill – and write today” (L261) and “I felt a palsy” (L265)—and implicitly in her language about her writing, with medicalized terms like “Balm” and “spasmodic” (L265).

Thoreau, Pointing out that editor Thomas Johnson dated 366 poems to 1862, biographer Richard Sewall considers Dickinson’s remarkable poetic inspiration and production during a time when she was in “such a deplorable emotional condition as is often hypothesized.” He observes, it

is hard to see how she could have had the strength to put mind to matter or pen to paper, let alone write poems of much coherence and power.

In fact, many scholars have attempted to figure out just what was going on in Dickinson’s life, and “the difficulty with her eyes is still a mystery.” Explanations range from John Cody’s psychosomatic Freudian prognoses to investigations by Sewall and an ophthalmologist, who noticed in “the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson taken at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary” that her right cornea “deviated as much as fifteen degrees from true.” James Guthrie notes that Dickinson traveled twice to Boston two years later to see Dr. Henry Williams, an ophthalmologist. Though a diagnosis is now impossible, Guthrie speculates that

in this struggle, poetry functioned as an extension of herself, an alternative mode of perception that took place of her injured eyes and which was equally capable of revealing the truth to her.

A Quiet PassionInterest in Dickinson’s health persists in contemporary circles. Director Terence Davis gave it ample screen time in his 2016 biopic A Quiet Passion. This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health in the commentaries of two contemporary writers, Higginson and Thoreau, and in her own poems from around 1862 about illness and health.

 

“The Health of Our Girls”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Progress of the War.
This has been the most extraordinary week of the whole war—a week of needless defeat and retreat, and of sudden panic and quick reassurance. Under the misapprehension that the capital was again in danger there has been another outburst of popular patriotism scarcely less vehement than that of April of last year, and the two hundred thousand volunteers needed to fill up the ranks of our decimated armies will come forward at once, and the government be obliged to say, “Hold, enough!” almost before its new summons to arms has been proclaimed through the country.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Cotton and Consumption.
Dr. Alfred Booth of Lowell, formerly of this city, has published an article broaching the novel theory that the wearing of cotton next the skin is a cause of consumption. If this should be confirmed the destruction of King Cotton may prove a great blessing instead of an evil. Dr. Booth’s theory is at least ingenious.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 2
Books, Authors and Art.

Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist
Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist

Dogs and horses receive a great many ideas, both detached and associated, but they are incapable of generalizing; so that Max Muller is substantially right when he says: “No animal thinks and no animal speaks, except man. Language and thought are inseparable. Words without thought are dead sounds; thoughts without words are nothing. To think is to speak low; to speak is to think aloud. The word is the thought incarnate.”

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 3
Emancipation at War.
A letter from Gen. Fremont’s camp in Western Virginia relates the following significant incident:

The presence and passage of our army in the country is having the effect of settling the slavery question here, for emancipation follows its path. I have talked with many of these poor negroes, and find them singularly intelligent… They are of great value to us in many ways, especially as guides, and the scouts tell me that there has never been an instance of false or even incorrect information derived from them.

Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 3

The poetry of the June Atlantic is all good with one exception; very good, with two. Of its prose, the first essay, on Walking, does more to unfold the characters and habits of its author, the late gifted eccentric Henry D. Thoreau, than any ordinary biography would have done;—Thoreau, who was emphatically a man of today, a student of “that newer testament, the Gospel according to the present moment;” and who after sauntering through a brief but happy life, has passed a la Sainte Terre, and will return no more.  … Mr. Higginson’s article upon feminine health provokes a feeling of antagonism. He seems to ignore the fact that the brute vigor of the peasant woman is absolutely incompatible with culture and refinement, and that the scimitar of Saladin must keep to its graceful feats, and not attempt to deal the sledge-hammer blows of the heavy battle-ax of Richard. Moreover, physiologists are wont to confine themselves to material agencies, and yet there is an immaterial hygiene that affects, more vitally than we are fond of admission, “the health of our girls.”

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
The Emancipation and Confiscation Acts.
These two most important measures of the government came up in the House of Representatives last week, and the confiscation bill was passed by a majority of twenty, while the emancipation bill was lost by four votes. Both bills are published in another column. The people of Massachusetts are anxious that measures should be adopted by which some sort of punishment shall be meted out to the rebels, and they regret exceedingly that the bill for the emancipation of the slaves of rebels has failed.

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
Amherst.
The Selectmen have appointed Daniel Converse for the South part, and Marquis F. Dickinson for the North part, Special Police, to enforce the dog law. Mr. Converse canvassed the South Parish Wednesday and had 10 dogs licensed on his route, and all but four in that parish are now registered, and those were allowed three days grace, on account of the absence of the owners… [Marquis F. Dickinson (1840-1915) was born in Amherst, graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and was a prominent Boston attorney, but does not seem to be related to the Dickinson's of the Homestead.]

Thomas M. Brown has been lecturing on temperance in Amherst, North Amherst, and other places adjoining—Dodge had a large audience at his concert in Amherst.

“Thoreau and Higginson on Health”

“I wish to speak a word for Nature …” -Henry David Thoreau, Atlantic Monthly, June of 1862

The June 7th printing of the Springfield Republican directs its readers’ attention to the Atlantic Monthly, reviewing columns by Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (page 3). “Walking,” by the “late gifted eccentric” Thoreau, is said to “unfold the characters and habits of its author.” “The Health of Our Girls,” Higginson’s piece, on the other hand, “provokes a sense of antagonism.” The contemporary reader might also take issue with Higginson’s anachronistic arguments about women’s health, though writing about the topic at all was considered progressive for his time. Whatever the Springfield Republican has to say in review of this month’s Atlantic, it was certainly an issue to pique Dickinson’s interest, both for her focus on nature and her newfound relationship with Higginson.

In “Walking,” Thoreau makes a case for

Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

He feels there are “enough champions of civilization” and too few of Nature. He notices the “subtle magnetism of Nature,” a force that Dickinson has well-documented. He does not, however, share her love for gardens, but instead, for walking: 



 yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that every human art contrived, or else of a dismal swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.

Thoreau, perhaps unlike Dickinson, places the garden on the order of “civilization,” the management and pruning of “Nature,” and is therefore surpassed by the wild, untouched swamp.

Around the same time that Higginson was in correspondence with Dickinson, he published his editorial, “The Health of Our Girls,” in the Springfield Republican, addressing what he saw as a decline in the vigor of New England women. Notably, Dickinson’s first three letters to Higginson (on April 15th, 25th, and June 7th) make use of the metaphors and metonyms of health.

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

she writes in the first, as if to put her poetry on the hospital bed (L260). In the second, she thanks him for his “surgery,” writing from her pillow because she is “ill” (L261). In the third, she claims that his “Balm, seemed better” because he “bled her first” (L265). That her rhetoric affords him the role of a poetic doctor becomes all the more relevant when he publishes his piece on the health of women. His all-knowing assertion of what’s best for women’s health is reflected in his correspondence with Dickinson and his editorial comments on her poetry. At the same time that he performed surgery on her poetry, she was “ill” and found some relief in writing.

Higginson frames his argument within an American context, asserting that “Nature is aiming at a keener and subtler temperament in framing the American” due to a “drier atmosphere” which might produce a “higher type of humanity.” Female health, however, is determined largely by changing social conventions. He then cites the obstacles:

 What use to found colleges for girls whom even the high-school breaks down, or to induct them into new industrial pursuits when they have not strength to stand behind a counter? How appeal to any woman to enlarge her thoughts beyond the mere drudgery of the household, when she “dies daily” beneath the exhaustion of even that?

The “disease” of American women, as he calls it, is deeply embedded in the social, the “elevation of the mass of women to the social zone of music-lessons and silk gowns” such that they forgo the “rustic health” of field-labor and agriculture. Like Thoreau, he privileges “walking” which he sees as a “rare habit among our young women.” He offers a panorama of possible solutions—forms of exercise that he finds well-suited to women—such as swimming, rowing, and riding horses. Of the condition of women’s health in American, he concludes with a dire prognosis and hints and emerging panacea:

 Morbid anatomy has long enough served as a type of feminine loveliness; our polite society has long enough been a series of soirées of incurables. Health is coming into fashion.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Giavanna Munafo

Giavanna MunafoThis week’s post and poems invite us to consider the complex ways that Dickinson’s health, especially her “chronic optical illness," influenced her poetry, is made visible or evident there, and/or might inform our understanding of her work from this period.

In response, I was called back to a poem very much of our current time and concerned with one of the greatest health crises of modern life, the AIDS epidemic. In “Heartbeats,” the poet and novelist Melvin Dixon asserts through poetic utterance his own stuttering process of coming face to face with illness and suffering. Dixon died at 42 of complications from AIDS. Every step of the way “Heartbeats” insists, in recurring imperative commands, on the tending of the body and its fitness while simultaneously cataloguing the determined, ever-escalating throws of its failure in the face of a persistent, fatal disease.

Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)
Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)

The battery of the poem’s repetitive two-syllable sentences in relentless couplets, along with the poem’s guttural rhythmic music, hammer home its story of ever-persistent symptoms and the speaker’s equally stubborn drive to fend them off. The final couplet, starting with a reprieve from the poem’s headstrong anti-sentimentality — “Sweet heart.” — introduces a tension similar to the one Guthrie notes in Dickinson’s work, giving possibility with one hand while taking it away with the other.

Lastly, another connection across the years worth noting, and one that remains a pressing matter today, is concern about public health in the specific context of subjugated populations put under medical scrutiny, populations to be managed or controlled. In Dickinson’s day (and, of course, sadly too often still), women were to be diagnosed and managed, and in our time those most devastated, and for far too long abandoned, by private and public neglect of the AIDS epidemic — gay men, intravenous drug users, and the poor — were and remain under the microscope, literally in medical terms and metaphorically in terms of their rights as citizens and fully human members of our communities.

Heartbeats
by Melvin Dixon

Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.

Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.

Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.

Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.

Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.

Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.

Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.

Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.

Don’t cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.

Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.

Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.

Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.

Black out. White rooms.
Head hot. Feet cold.

No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. No air.

Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.

Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.

Today? Tonight?
It waits. For me.

Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

 

Bio: Giavanna Munafo teaches in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College. She is also a volunteer crisis counselor and advocate and does consulting work focused on diversity and equity. Giavanna’s poems have appeared in E.Ratio, Redheaded Stepchild, Slab, Talking Writing, The New Virginia Review, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and The Nearest Poem Anthology (Ed. Sofia Starnes). She holds a BA and PhD from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Giavanna lives in Norwich, Vermont.

Sources:

Overview
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 606.

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862

Springfield Republican, May 31,  June 7, 1862

Biography
Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “The Health of Our Girls,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.

 

March 5-11, 1862: Women of Genius

Although Dickinson never met the English author Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, she considered Eliot a friend and certainly a role model. Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. This week, we look at “women of genius” of this time period and how Dickinson’s own genius shaped her life.

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

“What do I think of glory”

This week we build on last week's post on a remarkable woman by picking up on a snarky comment from the February 22th Springfield Republican’s “Books, Authors and Art” section:

Miss Evans (George Eliot) promises a new novel this spring; but judging from her last (Silas Marner) her glory has departed; Happy marriage and rest from doubt and scandal take the passion out of women geniuses. Adam Bede and the Mill on the Floss were born of moral trial and heart hunger; and the reading world must find their compensation–if they can–for the falling off in their successors in the belief that the writer is content and at peace.

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), 1819-1880

The forthcoming novel referred to here is Romola, a historical tale set in fifteenth-century Florence, which appeared in serial form in Cornhill Magazine from July 1862 to August 1863 and was published as a book in 1863. Note that the writer accepts the fact of Eliot’s artistic “glory,” but sees domestic happiness as antithetical to “women geniuses.” In fact, Eliot’s acknowledged masterpiece, Middlemarch, was still to come in 1871-72. Dickinson will rave about it in a letter to her Norcross cousins who solicit her opinion, using the same word, “glory,” as in the Republican’s dismissive comment:

What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.”

George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite. … (L389, late April 1873).

Dickinson’s reverence for Eliot as woman and writer is well known (see Sources). Of the three portraits Dickinson hung in her room, one of them was a picture of Eliot, the only woman in the group. Although Dickinson never met the English author, she considered her a friend, and certainly a role model. When Dickinson heard of Eliot’s death in December 1880, she was bereft, and wrote to her intimates about “Grieving for ‘George Eliot’” (L683) and called her “my George Eliot” (L710; emphasis hers). In a letter to Samuel Bowles, dated late November 1862 (L277), Dickinson alludes to an image from Eliot’s novel, Mill on the Floss, which she was probably reading during this time.

Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. Eliot chose to publish under a male pseudonym, like the Brontë sisters before her, in order to evade prevailing cultural attitudes that trivialized or denigrated women’s artistic productions. Attitudes like the one asserted by the Republican, that women could achieve genius if they were motivated by “moral trial” and “heart hunger.” But if they found some modicum of domestic happiness or stability, the quality of their work must inevitably fall off. That is, women could be artists, somehow transcending the limitations of gender, but not women at the same time.

In fact, Anglo-American culture has not been good to its women of genius, especially its poets. The first poet to publish a book of poetry written in the North American colonies was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the educated daughter and wife of men who both served as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But when her brother-in-law carried her book of poems to London to be published in 1650, it was titled, The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. High flown praise, but muses are not writers. This brother-in-law felt it necessary to engage a bevy of notable literary men to write prefatory poems and endorsements for this somewhat unusual volume, and he himself wrote a long letter confirming that, indeed, this was the work of a woman “honoured, and esteemed where she lives for … her exact diligence in her place.”

Over a hundred years later, the owners of the child prodigy and slave, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), tried to get her poetry published in Boston in the late 1760s.

Frontispiece to "Poems on Various Subjects," 1773

To do so, they not only appended a letter of verification to the volume, assuring a doubting public that this young African woman had indeed written poems that emulated Alexander Pope, but they also included a statement signed by a troop of prominent men who affirmed Wheatley's authorship. At the top of this list was the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor and a host of Boston worthies, including a man who would soon make the act of signing his name the signal act of rebellion: John Hancock! Nevertheless, Wheatley had to take her manuscript to London for publication.

One of the reasons for this treatment is the historical gendering of genius, enshrined in the Roman origin of the word itself, which connotes the male “essence” or “gens” that is passed down through the male lines of a family. Romantic and Victorian ideas of genius look back to the Greeks, who argued that certain men could be the medium for ideas of the divine, a creativity that looked a bit like madness, because they were, according to the reigning medical theory of humors, warm and dry.

Women, by contrast, were wet and cold on account of having wombs; their madness was not creative but procreative—that is, hysterical (from “hyster,” the word for womb). Thus, the rhetoric of genius that praised “feminine” qualities in male artists, like intuition and emotionality, excluded women and supposedly “primitive” peoples on the basis of biology and psychology. Some thinkers, like the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), developed the idea of the artist as a “third sex” or androgyne, who combined “feminine” receptivity and “masculine” will. But this led to different treatments of melancholia, a state closely associated with genius; in men, it was a channel to sublime revelation, but in women it led to weakness and mental illness.

Virginia Woolf, 1927

In her ground-breaking feminist analysis of genius, A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) conducted a telling thought experiment. She imagines that Shakespeare had a sister named Judith who was just as brilliant and ambitious as her brother, and tries to construct a life for her. After considering all the social constraints placed on Englishwomen of the sixteenth century, Woolf concludes that

 a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

Not surprisingly, in this tale Judith ends up pregnant, abandoned and, unable to support herself, commits suicide.

Margaret Fuller, daguerreotype

Judith’s story is not so far from that of women of genius in the nineteenth century. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), hailed by her contemporaries as a rare intellectual and artist, condemns the treatment of women of genius of her day in her remarkable study, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Notice the connection in this passage by Fuller to Dickinson’s use of bird imagery for Sue and herself:

Plato, the man of intellect, treats Woman in the Republic as property, and, in the Timaeus, says that Man, if he misuse the privileges of one life, shall be degraded into the form of Woman; and then, if he do not redeem himself, into that of a bird. This, as I said above, expresses most happily how anti-poetical is this state of mind. For the poet, contemplating the world of things, selects various birds as the symbols of his most gracious and ethereal thoughts, just as he calls upon his genius as muse rather than as God. But the intellect is cold and ever more masculine than feminine; warmed by emotion, it rushes toward mother earth and puts on the forms of beauty. Women who combine this organization [the electrical, the magnetic] with creative genius are very commonly unhappy at present. They see too much to act in conformity with those around them, and their quick impulses seem folly to those who do not discern the motives. This is an usual effect of the apparition of genius, whether in Man or Woman, but is more frequent with regard to the latter, because a harmony, an obvious order and self-restraining decorum, is most expected from her.

Then, women of genius, even more than men, are likely to be enslaved by an impassioned sensibility. The world repels them more rudely, and they are of weaker bodily frame.

It is not hard to see why a woman like Dickinson, who knew herself to be touched with brilliance, would choose not to be an active member of a world that rudely “repels” women of genius.

“God spared my life, and for what”

Springfield Republican, March 8, 1862.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

“Our position abroad is as good as we could desire.” Reports are that “the secession cause is in fact dead in Europe” and those backers in the British and French governments have accepted pending defeat of the South.

The war in Mexico concludes with “an armistice and negotiations for settlement.” The negotiations could continue for months, but the Union is not interested in rejoining the conflict, even if by chance it does start up again.

Trouble lies with Russia, however. Serfs criticize the law that gives them their freedom, because they have to buy their freedom, which is impossible for nearly all under serfdom. Poland and Finland seek to use this weak spot in Russian governing to gain independence. Germany, Hungary, Italy, Prussia, and Austria struggle with dissatisfaction in ruling powers and widespread imperial governments, and the Roman Catholic church is in turmoil due to an unstable Pope in times of war.

NATIONAL NEWS

Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “This week has been marked by important progress with little fighting,” says the Springfield Republican, and Union General Scott says “that the war is over and there is nothing to do but to clear up and prepare for peace, and the recent national successes at the West would seem to be decisive of the final result, so far as can now be seen.”

Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

The “rebels” are retreating, cornered, or preparing to fight their last fights, and the Union has occupied most of the South by now. Tennessee officially rejoined the Union, and “the confederate leaders at Richmond are represented to be in a state little short of panic.”

From Washington. The paper reports that the South had known about the decisive capture of Harper’s Ferry on Monday, but Southern newspapers were barred from printing such an update on the War, presumably to hide it from the public.

Harper's Ferry, Virginia

Confiscation and Emancipation. Illinois Senator Trumbull proposed a bill for the “confiscation of the property and the emancipation of the slaves of rebels,” a controversial move that has people asking what the rights of southerners are.

Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896)

Senator Trumbull maintains that full war laws apply, and that the South is to be treated like an enemy nation with total destruction possible, but to lessen such a harsh punishment towards the rebels, that confiscation and emancipation was enough, and to treat them as “belligerents” was enough, at least until they could possibly be tried for treason.

“Suggestions for the Crisis.” This column debriefs some lessons learned, reasons for war, and what should happen in the event of another uprising. The author notes that starting the war in the spring was a good move for the Union considering the paralyzing winters the North experiences, and that the South had produced “few great men in this generation.” They also try to tease out the exact reason of the rebellion, but can’t quite find it, resolving to label it a power grab of the dying Southern power.

“The Dark Side of the Picture.” This letter from a Northern officer who was at Fort Donelson shows the “terrible realities of war.” He recounts the number of dead, the outcome, and the “wholesale slaughter” that left only seven out of 85 men alive.

Do not wonder, dear father, that I am down-hearted. My boys all loved me, and need I say that, in looking at the poor remnant of my company—the men that I have taken so much pains to drill, the men that I thought so much of—now nearly all in their graves—I feel melancholy. But I do not complain; God spared my life, and for what, the future must tell.

“Was I the little friend”

This week brought the sad news of the the death of the infant Edward Dickinson Norcross, on March 6. He was the son of Alfred and Olivia Norcross, Dickinson's maternal uncle and aunt.

Also this week, Dickinson writes a letter to Mary Bowles, the wife of Samuel Bowles, about accidentally sending Mr. Bowles a note to complete an “errand” for her, forgetting he left for Washington on the first of the month.

Mary Bowles

She worries that Mary instead did it for her, and it “troubled” her, and if Mary could “just say with your pencil – ‘it did’nt tire me – Emily’” she would cease her worries, as she “would not have taxed [Mary] – for the world -” Dickinson also asks about the new baby Charlie, and says she

sends a rose – for his small hands. Put it in – when he goes to sleep – and then he will dream of Emily – and when you bring him to Amherst – we shall be “old friends.”

Mary was a close friend of Dickinson, who frequently wrote letters to her, but received next to none back (the reply Dickinson asks for in the above letter “will be the first one – you ever wrote me -” she says).  In editing some of Dickinson’s letters and poems, Mabel Loomis Todd switched the addressee from Sue to Mary to make their correspondence look more extensive. In the above letter, Dickinson plaintively asks Mary if “yet – was I the little friend – a long time? Was I – Mary?”

This week, Dickinson also writes to Frances Norcross, one of two  young Norcross cousins she adored and corresponded with throughout her life, about her sister Vinnie’s illness:

 Poor Vinnie has been very sick, and so have we all, and I feared one day our little brothers would see us no more, but God was not so hard.

She also mentions that spring is supposed to be coming soon, but that this March has been particularly hard, with the Northeast hit  lately with violent winter weather.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Ivy Schweitzer

For my women friends who are all geniuses!

Undammed

She is a neighbor and a painter,
mother of a wild red-headed girl
friends with my son
so long ago

calling to say she dreamt
of me in a café somewhere
hair wavy and golden
and I was sad, she said,

so sad, she had to call
though we are not close
how it flooded her night
snagged on the branches of sleep

and I am dumbstruck,
appalled by the mutinous grief
breaching my edges and
rushing into the ruts of the world

and I say yes,
I am sad and sorry to come
uninvited, and we talk
of the wild red-headed girl who works

at a women’s clinic in Texas,
facing protesters every day,
and my son dwelling in half-life
and our own lives as artists in this time

of profit and fools
and though nothing changes
I feel myself ebb as a tide
back into its almost

manageable course.

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

Sources

Overview
Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Bradstreet, Anne. The Tenth Muse lately Sprung up in America … London, 1650. Early English Books Online. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A77237.0001.001?view=toc

Freeman, Margaret H. “George Eliot and Emily Dickinson: Poets of Play and Possibility.” The Emily Dickinson Journal. 21.2 (2012): 37-58.

Fuller (Ossoli), Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman. Project Gutenberg EBook #8642. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8642/8642-h/8642-h.htm. Section on “Tune the Lyre.”

Gee, Karen Richardson. “‘My George Eliot’ and My Emily Dickinson.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 3.1 (1994): 24-40.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elsen. “‘What do I think of glory—’ Dickinson’s Eliot and Middlemarch.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 21.2 (2012): 20-36.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, 1773. https://archive.org/details/poemsonvarioussu00whea

Historical
Springfield Republican, volume 89, number 10. Saturday, March 8, 1862.

Biographical
Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Frances and Louise Norcross, DEA

Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Mary Bowles, DEA

Johnson, Thomas, editor. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. Belknap Press, 1958.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1960.

Smith, Martha Nell, and Ellen Louise Hart, editors. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 26 – March 4, 1862: Sue

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Dickinson, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, life-long correspondent and object of her deepest affections. Though we are not sure of the details of their relationship, we explore its deep impact on her life through the “Sue Cycle” of poems of 1862.

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

“The Sue Cycle”

Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)
Susan Dickinson, n.d.

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, a girlhood friend of Dickinson, and eventually her sister-in-law.  We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Sue, as Dickinson usually refers to her, chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is indisputable.

Sue was born nine days after Dickinson on December 19, 1830 and died twenty-seven years almost to the day of Dickinson's death on May 12, 1913. From a struggling family and with dreams of betterment, Sue loved books, reading, art and poetry. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her aunt and came to live in Amherst in 1850, where she met Dickinson and, for the next decade, their intimacy flourished.

Abiah Root
Yale University Archives

Dickinson’s early letters to Sue are nothing short of delirious. In one of the most thorough considerations of their association, Judith Farr speculates that Sue took the place of Dickinson’s girlhood friend and crush, Abiah Root, when Abiah married and stopped responding to Dickinson’s eroticized importunings.

Then, on July 1, 1856, Sue married Austin, Dickinson’s brother, a match Dickinson encouraged, thinking it would bind Sue more firmly into the family, especially when their father built the couple an Italianate villa dubbed “The Evergreens” next door to The Homestead. Dickinson’s upstairs window faced both the road and The Evergreens where she could watch Sue’s comings and goings.

The Evergreens

Sue was a fit interlocutor for Dickinson and there is evidence that they shared profound interests in reading, writing, gardening, recipes, and even acted as editors for each other’s poetry, as in the case of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” detailed below. But Sue was mercurial, worldly and socially ambitious, and soon became busy with the birth of her first child. Scholars differ on just what happened, but in the Fall of 1861, as Farr narrates it, Sue sent a letter to Dickinson, folded up tight and marked “private,” apologizing for her silence, commiserating with Dickinson’s suffering (the “terror” Dickinson tells Higginson she experienced “since September”) and disclosing her own

sorrow that I never uncover. If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?

she asks. This note captures the literary quality of their relationship.

In a message Dickinson sent across the lawn to The Evergreens later in 1862, Dickinson included the poem, “Your Riches – taught me – Poverty” (F418, J299), with the words,

Dear Sue– You see I remember–Emily.

It’s as if their deep love and profound importance to each other exist now in memory, but they provided Dickinson with her great themes of loss and suffering. We will discuss this poem and others from the “Sue Cycle” of poems Farr identifies in the poems section in order to plumb the vast and sometimes underplayed importance of Sue in Dickinson’s artistic life.

“We need humility”

Springfield Republica

INTERNATIONAL

Britain continues to deliberate, but so far refuses to recognize the Confederacy, or aid their cause in any way, which eases the Union’s nerves on the matter.

The war for subjugation in Mexico continues, and the Union Senate finally decides to reinvigorate the Monroe Doctrine and ally itself with Mexico against Britain, France, and Spain. Previously, there were worries that getting involved in the conflict would take away resources from the Civil War and a free Mexico would enable the South to pull them into the war, but with the South’s “suppression now well and assured,” these worries disappear.

NATIONAL

Review of the Week: Progress of the War. The Union continues to report back on sweeping victories that keep the Confederacy’s armies retreating, “crushed,” and destitute in morale. Tennessee is under General Ulysses S. Grant’s martial law and Missouri is now “swept clean,” and reports say the Union has occupied Fort Donelson and Nashville, which cuts off vital road systems that connect the Confederacy. General Price’s army is “used up,” and the civilians in the South “accept their fate” and submit to the Union’s government rule.

An index of the importance of this victory, and its costs, is Herman Melville’s long poem, “Donelson,” published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The detailed account of the successful Union siege of the Confederate Fort concludes on a less celebratory note with “wife and maid” reading “the death-list” while the narrator intones:

Ah God! may Time with happy haste
Bring wail and triumph to a waste,
And war be done;
The battle flag-staff fall athwart
The curs'd ravine, and wither; naught
Be left of trench or gun;
The bastion, let it ebb away,
Washed with the river bed; and Day
In vain seek Donelson.

Jefferson Davis
(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Jeff Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederacy for six years last Saturday, and during the ceremony it was reported that he received updates on Nashville.

“Washington’s Day” was “never before as universally and enthusiastically celebrated” as it was this week in the Union. It symbolized the strength of the Union and the country as a whole, and boosted morale even higher than the previous string of victories.

A Violent, Wintry Storm. A series of peculiar storms hit Massachusetts, including hurricanes and snow storms within the course of “three to four days.” This may be the “fatal weather” Dickinson refers to in a letter (L 254) to her cousin, Frances Norcross, written at this time.

Life in Washington. As Seen Through New Spectacles. This week’s “Life in Washington” is a walk through the “grand” streets of the National Mall. The author tells us of the history of the layout, designed by Christopher Wren, and compares it to other famous cities: New York, London, and Paris in terms of style and space. The reader explores Pennsylvania Avenue and its history as they walk with the author down the visual space, and the White House is the last stop.

Willie Lincoln, c. 1855

We learn the history and architectural inspiration for the White House, both inside and out, but then the author inevitably strays to the recent death of eleven-year-old William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln (February 20, 1862) and the impact it had on the family and the country. The author (perhaps a woman, as the other “Life in Washington” installments suggest) muses on Mary Todd Lincoln’s distress about her son, and the criticism she received because of such devastation. The author ridicules all the gossip about Mary Lincoln that unfairly criticizes her, as it

sharpens the scalpel which cuts through every fibre of her mental, moral, and physical frame. If she were an angel fresh from the sky she could not satisfy the requirements of narrow ignorance and petty malice.

The author reiterates that “we need humility” in this time, kindness for others and for the grieving Lincoln family, as they experience distress. This column may be a response to last week’s “A Visitor in Washington,” which expressed vehement dislike for women as irrational and fomenting evil, especially those Southern women who are the supposed root of the “wild and wicked rebellion”—the author recounts a story of a man who ascribes every problem encountered to an anonymous woman and asks, “who is she?

When a Wife Should be at Home. This little column is a companion piece to last week’s “When a Husband Should be Absent from Home” (on washing and cleaning days, when the child cries and when your wife’s female friends come to visit) and lists some traditional duties of “mistresses of the household” at the time:

The wife may go out for light and air, and also for her little round of social duties, of friendship or beneficence. She may go out for merchandise and marketing, as the mother-bird explores every nook for the snug upholstery that lines her nest, and the dainty morsels for which the birdlings flutter and call. She may go out, too, as the robin does, for food for herself; that she may return with a clearer mind and a larger heart, a fresher cheek and a more elastic step; yea, in some instances, where such an improvement is possible, with a more equable temper than before. For these purposes the prayer meeting, the lecture, the concert, the soiree and sewing-circle are not to be despised. But all these wanderings should be subordinate and occasional, the exception and not the rule.

The bird metaphors are particularly relevant. Here they are little creatures, delicate and homely. In her early poetry about Sue, Dickinson used bird metaphors as well, but these birds were singers and built nests and carry very different connotations: of strength and wonder, instinct and great importance, vital to nature and life, sometimes divine.

“Sue Forever More”

This week, Dickinson received a very excited letter from Susan Dickinson, discussing the appearance of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1, 1862. Entitled “The Sleeping,” the poem was heavily edited and regularized and published anonymously (see below for an image of the original printing):

The Sleeping.

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning,
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
Ah! What sagacity perished here!

This poem is key in illustrating the profound personal and poetic connection between Dickinson and Sue. The myth goes that Dickinson wrote in solitary exile in her upstairs bedroom. And for many years, family members and editors have ignored or downplayed her intense connection to Susan Dickinson. But Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart argue in their edition, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington, that the material evidence shows that Dickinson and Sue, living next door to each other, sent poems and other writings back and forth for commentary and critique.

“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” is the prime example. In 1859, Dickinson sent a draft that was close to the printed version quoted above to Susan, who thought the second stanza inadequate. Dickinson then sent her a new version with a new second stanza,

Grand go the Years – in the
Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges -
surrender –
Soundless as dots – on a
Disc of snow -

But Susan again disliked it, writing in reply in one of the rare surviving correspondences between the two women,

I am not suited dear Emily with the second verse … it just occurs to me that the first verse is complete in itself it needs no other, and can’t be coupled –.

One last (known) time, Dickinson wrote an alternate second stanza and sent it to Susan, asking, “Is this frostier?” Susan chose to submit the first version to Bowles for printing in the Republican, but when Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, she included the poem with the second stanza beginning “Grand go the years.”

In the same letter in which Dickinson sent the “frostier” final stanza, she praises Susan’s eye for poetry and criticism, saying “I know it knows,” and that

Could I make you and Austin – proud – sometime – a great way off – ‘twould give me taller feet -,

a line that Susan would remember well into the 1880s when she wrote it down while working on compiling a book of Dickinson’s writings. Her daughter would finish that work and publish it in 1914 as The Single Hound, which Kate Anthon, another long-time friend of the two women, called

a volume as a memorial to the love of these “Dear, dead Women.”

The material evidence Hart and Smith offer are the more than 500 poems, letters and other writijgs Dickinson sent to Susan over their forty-year correspondence, way more than she sent to her next most important correspondent, Thomas Higginson. Furthermore, especially in the early years, the poems were mostly in pencil and on scraps of plain paper, unlike the ink and gilt-edged stationary Dickinson used for copying out poems in the fascicles or sending poems in letters. The drafts of “Safe in their Alabaster chambers” she sent to Susan were clearly working drafts and Dickinson invited feedback, which Susan happily and somewhat haughtily provided. But after this experience, we have no evidence of Dickinson soliciting feedback from Sue, and in April 1862, she looked for a new “preceptor” in Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Samuel Bowles

Susan was a good mirror for Dickinson: passionate, worldly, intellectually gifted, an insatiable reader and a devotee of poetry. She also wrote a few critical essays and reviews herself, some of which she sent as Letters to the Editor, and she frequently wrote to Samuel Bowles, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and William Hayes Ward — all influential editors of their day. She submitted some of Dickinson’s poems to be printed in different newspapers as well, and published four short stories and at least two of her own poems. She championed women writers throughout her life, as evidenced by a lengthy review of the early work of Harriet Prescott Spofford she sent to the Editor of the Republican in 1903.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sue's obituary for Dickinson, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886, and which Higginson thought good enough to serve as the introduction to the 1890 volume of Poems (but Mabel Todd rejected), is considered the first important critical evaluation of Dickinson’s work.

Below “The Sleeping” was printed one such poem that is most likely Susan’s, entitled “The Shadow of Thy Wing”:

Sue most likely sent her drafts to Dickinson for editing as well, but most of the women’s correspondence is lost. What remains, however, reveals much about their relationship.

Dickinson and Susan were particularly close for almost their entire lives, displaying what modern readers would label as an intense, passionate romance. Their letters are frequently erotic, and Dickinson romanticizes Susan, calling her Darling, Dear Sue, Sweet Sue, and Dollie in the most passionate of cases. During the nineteenth century, such intensely affectionate relationships between same-gender friends were commonplace. See, for instance, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s classic essay on the subject, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (1975).

Close friendships used romantic imagery of flowers and longing, physical intimacy of kisses and hugs, and loving affectionate names like “dearest,” “darling,” “my angel,” “sweet,” “lover,” etc. For Dickinson scholars Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart, however, Dickinson and Susan’s letters and relationship indicate a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the “intimate exchange” between women friends of the period.

Some scholars see them as lesbians; others see Dickinson as queer.

Dickinson likens Susan to Eden, Cleopatra, imagination, calls her the “Only Woman in the World,” and describes her love for Susan as an “endless fire.” Hart and Smith point out that Austin was clearly jealous of Susan and Dickinson’s relationship after they were married, and Susan even accused him of “interfering” with their letters, to which he responded quite defensively:

As to your deprivation of “Spiritual converse” with my sister – I Know Nothing …  So you will not suspect me of having interfered with your epistolary intercourse with her.

(Note: “intercourse” did not carry a sexual connotation at the time). Dickinson also equates herself to Austin in relationship to Susan, in the famous letter in which she says:  “I guess we both love Susie just as well as we can” that casts them both as her suitors. See also the poem, “The Malay took the Pearl” (F451A, J452),” which scholars have read as a love triangle composed of Austin–Sue–Emily.

Another fascinating element in this story is that the material remains of Dickinson and Susan’s relationship suffer from heavy mutilation, making it hard to discern what they meant to each other. Someone, most likely Austin or his lover of twelve years, Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Susan at first befriended but eventually snubbed and completely rejected, painstakingly erased, masked, or changed references to Susan in most quasi-romantic contexts. For example, in printing, “Her breast is fit for pearls” (F121A, J84), Todd replaced Susan with Mary Bowles as the recipient. The opening salutation, “To Sue,” of “The face I carry with me -” (F 395A, J336) was erased, and in the suitor letter to Austin, “I guess we both love Susie,” the “S” and “ie” are erased to produce a familial love of “us.” By contrast, Sue is allowed to appear in other letters not romantically inclined.

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

The most striking mutilation of a poem occurs in the “B” version of “One sister have I in our house” (F 5A, B, J14). A great deal of angry energy has been expended to erase the importance of Sue to Dickinson, and as a counter to that, we have chosen our cluster of poems from those poems scholars speculate were written to and about the incomparable Sue.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Victoria Corwin

The relationship between Emily and Sue always fascinated me. I am usually the token queer theorist in the room when anything comes up in one of my many College English classes, so I had a lot to say on the subject whenever a “Sue poem” (as we’ve taken to calling them) came up in our studies. But, because we were aware of the prevalence of such close same-gendered relationships, thanks to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay and the “cult of true womanhood,” I felt a bit skeptical of applying queer theory to the time period.

Then, I came across “One Sister have I in the house -”

Reading Martha Nell Smith’s introduction to the DEA’s site about mutilation in the Dickinson corpus, my whole world changed. I had only ever worked with the manuscript when looking for frequent Dickinson word alternations or connotations of different kinds of stationery, but never considered cuts, erasures, inks, much less destructions of any kind. I couldn’t imagine they existed; that, of course, no one would intentionally ruin a real life Dickinson manuscript, how silly.

But the image of “One Sister” sewn into Fascicle 2 (copy F5B) looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Utterly defaced.

Fascicle 2 is the heaviest mutilated fascicle out of the 40 we have, with six poems missing, all by the hand of the mutilator(s) that meticulously and very intentionally deleted “One Sister” from the fascicle and tried to delete it from Dickinson’s work completely. The mutilator (jealous Austin, inferior sister Vinnie, or Sue’s mortal enemy Mabel?) struck through the poem in ink, cut it out of the fascicle, and ripped it again and again in multiple places so that an editor could not fit the pieces back together again, ever. We have the full poem only because Emily sent a copy to Sue, which she guarded down to her last breath.

How is this not queer?

The heaviest deletion violently cancels line 27, “Sue – forevermore!” which indicates that this line held the most weight for the mutilator. Sue is the most important element to delete, whether due to Austin’s failing marriage, Vinnie’s jealousy, Mabel’s hatred, or a general dislike for Sue post-1880s that sprang from Mabel and Austin’s public affair. The exact motivation, however, is irrelevant, because every one of the possible motivations ultimately stems from the same basic queer issue: Emily’s love for Sue.

Since having such a revelation, I’ve been primarily concerned with mutilations and how they unintentionally reveal the deeper politics of Dickinson’s relationships with others. I’m fully convinced that Smith and Hart are right when they say “One Sister” indicates a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the “intimate exchange” between women friends of the period,

but I’m not entirely sure what that means yet—whether and which queerplatonic, romantic, or sexual labels apply to either of them.

All I know is that I will never not look at a manuscript ever again, and always check poems or letters for damage. Signs of tampering carry a deeper meaning than words alone ever could, and I have a feeling the heavily deleted line “Sue – forevermore!” will haunt Dickinson studies (and me) for a very long time.

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

Historical:

  • Springfield Republican, volume 89, no. 9, Saturday, March 1, 1862.

Biographical:

 

February 19-25, 1862: Choosing

Dickinson lived in an era where women had agency in limited realms and were often overseen by men. During 1862, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. This theme of “selecting” and “choosing,” both in Dickinson’s life and writing, guides our post this week.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Charif Shanahan
Sources

“and I choose…”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Still ringing in our ears are the last words from the last poem in last week’s post:

“With Will to choose,
Or to reject, and I choose, just a crown.”

The flood of power that comes with embracing one’s agency, often associated in Dickinson’s poems with images of royalty, has the speaker feeling “adequate,” becoming “erect,” and “crowing” like a rooster over his roost—that has to warm any feminist’s heart. And because there is so much celebration in the news this week in 1862 on account of a string of Northern victories, we want to continue the mood of exultation by exploring the theme of “choosing.”

It is not clear how much choice women of Dickinson’s time, place and class could exercise in their lives. Within certain realms—the domestic sphere, emotional life, religion—women of this class had scope for agency, but always granted and surveilled by men. Dickinson’s father was notoriously controlling and supervisory, but so were the gossiping tongues of relatives and neighbors in the small town of Amherst.

Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room 

During this year, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. Her niece Martha, Susan Dickinson’s daughter, recalls a childhood memory of entering Dickinson’s upstairs bedroom with her, and tells how her aunt closed the door behind them, mimed the act of turning a key in the lock and said: “It's just a turn–and freedom, Matty!”

We also wanted an excuse to organize a group of poems around the incomparable poem, “The Soul selects her own Society.” When a version of the poem was published in the first collection of 1890, the editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave it the title “Exclusion.” While being “exclusive” sounds discriminating, as we know Dickinson was about people and silly social conventions, that word doesn’t capture the exhilaration of actively “selecting” and “choosing.” We want to explore the differences between s/electing and being s/elected; choosing and being chosen. And in the poems section, we will explore Sharon Cameron’s provocative phrase and title for her book describing Dickinson’s governing method and ethos in her fascicles, “Choosing not Choosing.”

Not that all choosing in Dickinson’s work or life was the occasion for celebration. There is exclusion in “The Soul selects her own society” and it has serious, even painful consequences. In another poem Franklin dates to late 1863, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue” (F782A, J745), the speaker finds that:

Renunciation – is the Choosing
Against itself –
Itself to justify
Unto itself

That is, sometimes the exhilaration of exercising choice is dampened by what one decides to choose. In this passage, one gives up a present joy “for an expectation.” Is it worth it?

“Who is she?

NATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican for Saturday February 22, 1862

Review of Week: Progress of the War: “This has been a week of triumph and exultation, unbroken by a single disaster. The series of victories continues and increases in value. The victories at Fort Henry and Roanoke Island have been followed by the capture of Fort Donelson, with fifteen thousand prisoners, and all their arms and supplies, while Price has ignominiously fled into Arkansas and his army is being captured piecemeal or dispersed.”

Major-General Sterling Price (1809-1867) Credit: Civil War Trust

Home Matters: “The deep interest felt in the war has taken a new start and led to extensive rejoicings over the federal victories, which will culminate in this city in public services and a splendid illumination on Saturday, the 130th anniversary of the natal day of the father of the country. His soul need not now be ashamed of his loyal children.”

Religious Intelligence: Church and Ministry. “A revival has been going on in the Northampton Methodist church, for five or six weeks past … and as a result some twenty-three persons have professed a hope in Christ.”

Opinions and Movements: “A Massachusetts soldier on the upper Potomac, recently went to hear a hardshell Presbyterian slaveholder preach, and gives the following graphic account of his style:”

Like most men of his profession who live in open violation of the moral precepts of Christ, he is a perfect tiger in doctrines. … There was not one kindly, charitable word in the whole sermon. I can easily see how such a man–so positive where modest men utter their convictions with some sort of deference to the opinions of other men, and where the great majority of hearers have very poorly defined views–should be a very effective preacher. It is in religion much as in medicine–the mass of men concern themselves so little about it that the quack who assumes the most and speaks most positively usually carries the day.

A Visitor at Washington “Who is She?” Correspondence of the Republican.

The story is told of a certain Caliph … that he was in the habit of going about incog. to observe the state of affairs in his capital, and whenever he saw any disturbance, or heard of any trouble or quarrel, his one question always was, “Who is she?”– thereby proving his acuteness and knowledge of the world. … Perhaps, if we were Caliphs, we might arrive at the truth as to the part woman has taken in this wild and wicked rebellion; as it is, our information is partial, but startling. Beyond the line of Mason and Dixon, (is that why it is called Dixie?) they were early aroused, and were stirring up their sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, to resist this dreadful oppression. Poor dears, they did not stop to reason–women never do; they jump at conclusions, and it is but justice to say that their impulses are often right … But in this case … nothing that woman has done since Eve ate the fruit (I never did believe it was an apple) has wrought such mischief to the country.

The writer goes on to castigate the courage of the Southern women who “have quilted quinine into their skirts, and carried arms in their trunks” to support their fighting men and exclaims:

How they have taken advantage of our proverbial national courtesy to women.” But in the next breath, he recounts: “I know a man who applied for a certain post [in Washington] and he was well fitted for it, and had some claim. But, the highest lady in the land (who is she?) said, “Tell him he cannot have it, I have promised it elsewhere;” and she carried her point. It is certain we are indebted to the same influence for some very curious appointments, more curious than suitable.

We will see many more criticisms of Mrs. Lincoln from this source in the coming weeks.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Books, Authors and Art. Notes a new edition of the popular author Bayard Taylor, and recommends a passage from “A Young Author’s Life in London,” which is relevant to Dickinson’s upcoming correspondences with Higgingson:

O, the dreams we dream! O, the poems we write! Kind are the hands that hold us back from rushing into print; tender the words which pronounce such harsh judgments upon our works. For a year, we proudly curse the stupidity of our advisers; forever afterwards we bless them as benefactors. Reader, that knoweth, peradventure, how many bad poems I have published, little dreamest thou how many worse ones a kind fate has saved me from offering thee.

The article concludes: “The reader will perhaps be reminded of those playful lines of Lowell’s:

While you were thinking yourself to be pitied,
Just think how much harder your teeth you’d have gritted,
It ‘twere not for the dullness I’ve kindly omitted.

Original Poetry: Printed “February” a long poem in tetrameter quatrains rhyming abab about the coming spring as a metaphor for the peace of summer longed for by the nation. [We found this in a volume titled A Quiet Life and Other Poems by EDR, or Elizabeth Dickinson Rice Biancardi 1833-1885, author of At home in Italy, NY: Houghton Mifflin and Co, 1884, but no more information on her.] “The Photograph Album,” in the same form, about the fear of loss of a loved one. “Along the Lines” uses a more rousing ballad measure to evoke the men fighting the rebellion, and “My Love,” a humorous poem in common meter of 8 line stanzas describing the speaker’s passion for an ill-favored man [which gets reprinted in the Labor Digest and other books about workingmen]:

My love, dear man, turns in his toes,
My love is tangle-kneed,
Cross-eyed, left-handed, hair and beard
In hue are disagreed.
He has no soft and winning voice,
No single charm has he.
And yet, this awkward, ugly man
Is all the world to me.

In Selected Miscellany: Two poems: “Into the Darkness” by Mary Forest, in iambic tetrameter quatrains with variable rhyming, about the inevitability of death. “The Compass” by S. D. Robbins, iambic pentameter quatrains rhyming abab about God as the speaker’s moral index.

Also, from Gail Hamilton, “The Time to Make Love to a Woman”– after she has been jilted by another; “The Army of the English Commonwealth” by John Milton, who, he claims, was exemplary for reading scripture and hearing sermons in their off-hours; “The Women of a Nation” by Alexis de Tocqueville, who, though he argues that women are sometimes a positive and redeeming influence on men, most often are negative influences because “the grand notion of public duty was entirely absent” from their minds. “Stick to your Opinions” by John S. Hart, “Baby Talk” a complaint about the degeneration of the language from Vanity Fair.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. c. 1879 (1809-1894)

Hampshire Gazette for February 25, 1862, publishes on its first page from the Atlantic for March, “Voyage of the Good Ship Union” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with 8 line stanza of two quatrains of ballad measure rhyming ababcdcd and ending,

One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, / One Nation, evermore!

Besides coverage of the war they print a column on “A Royal Courtship,” about the late Prince Albert’s courtship of Queen Victoria, and “A Few Reflections on Boys” about how to raise honorable men.

INTERNATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862: “In the January number of the Westminster Review is an interesting article on the Religious Heresies of the Working Classes of England. In speaking of the atheism of a certain class of unbelievers, it is said that they carry their opposition to theism so far that their organs strike out the word ‘God’ in all poetry they quote. Thus, the ‘National Reformer,’ having occasion to quote, to serve its own purpose, Bryant’s celebrated stanza, beginning–

Truth crushed to earth will rise again,
The eternal years of God are hers

[from William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) The Battle-Field,” ll. 33-34, which was made into a hymn. The first, famous line was quoted by M. L. King and gave the title to an album by the hip hop group House of Pain] alters the second line in this way,

Surely eternal years are hers.

In the minds of these bigots of atheism, Truth may be eternal, but God cannot be permitted to have even a momentary poetical existence.”

“Joyful Victory”

On February 17, the Springfield Republican reported that Edward Dickinson had been re-elected president of the Amherst, Belchertown and Palmer railroad for the current year. See Dickinson's poem about the railroad, “I like to see it lap the miles” (F383A, J585), written in 1862.

On February 20 the town of Amherst rang the bells to celebrate the news of the capture of Fort Donelson.

The stars and stripes were unfurled from the tower of the chapel and cheer on cheer rose from College hill.

And on February 22, a short notice in the news from Amherst, which presages the tragedy to come:

We have just ascertained that the son of President Stearns [of Amherst College 1854-187], engaged in the battle of Roanoke as Adjutant, was slightly wounded on the head. So we feel quite glorious over our share in the joyful victory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Charif Shanahan

Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

To spend a life
In choice –
Not in having chosen, but in
Choosing –

A choice of its own
I suppose –
A railway paved as it goes –

The figs –
Ripe and dropping
From the encumbered boughs –
Before reach –

O Natural World
To commit – to be –
O to be certain so –

I was recently in Amherst for the first time and took the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home. Unfortunately, the house was closed for the winter months, though I did have the chance to walk around and feel the energy of the estate. While there I recalled the details of a visit to Dickinson’s house that the great poet Jorie Graham had shared in an interview for Slate. Graham, pregnant with a child and at something of a crossroads in her life, was seeking guidance, direction from outside herself about how to proceed—perhaps from Dickinson’s spirit itself, still so alive in that small town it is almost tangible. During her visit, Graham noticed, on or near the poet’s grave, a ladybug, which then flew up and landed on her hand for a moment before flying in the direction of The Homestead. Graham followed the ladybug to Dickinson’s house, which was closed—for the winter season, as it was for me, or perhaps for renovations; I can’t recall the details. I do recall that Graham managed to convince the attendant to let her enter not only the house, but Emily’s upstairs bedroom where, incredibly, Graham found, next to Emily’s impossibly narrow desk, a small wooden crib—a sign to continue on the path of making poems in the face of imminent motherhood.

It’s likely I’m misremembering some details of Graham’s story—I looked for the interview in the Slate archives, but was unable to find it—though the story, as it exists in my memory, has stayed with me since I first encountered it years ago as an MFA candidate in New York City: I was struck that a poet as visionary and accomplished as Graham might, like myself and so many of the young poets I knew then personally, question how, or whether at all, to continue on a path of making poems. Given the demands of the world that might take us away from the craft, or simply given the other commitments one could choose to make in this life—some more clearly mapped, with fewer obstacles and less resistance, than a life of writing poems—I was encouraged to discern that the doubt, the questioning might simply be a part of the path that lies before any artist—of any age, background, experience, or life stage. As sentimental as it sounds, I think of the story—and of poetry—whenever I see a ladybug.

Years after first hearing Graham’s story, with a book of my own now in the world, I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read Dickinson’s poems “of choosing”—in her case, not only her art, but her reclusive life—and to be reminded of the many ways to be a poet in the world and of the responsibility we share to reflect the world back to itself, however we can.

At a time when so many of us carry a sense of helplessness and dread in the face of unimaginable greed, rampant and institutionally-sponsored violence, and the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters all around the world, I am “Held fast … By my own Choice” to engage in exactly the kind of truth-telling work that poetry allows. I sit in the Ferry Building of downtown San Francisco, looking into the open expanse above the Bay, on the opposite side of our “ample nation”—itself at a kind of crossroads and in need of the compassion and action that poetry can offer and inspire in us—and think of Dickinson at her small desk writing these lines:

A still – Volcano – Life -
That flickered in the night -
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight -

 

Bio: Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (SIU Press, 2017), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems appear in New Republic, New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. Called a "vital and profound new voice" by Publishers Weekly, Shanahan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, the Frost Place, the Fulbright Program/IIE, Millay Colony for the Arts, Starworks Foundation, and Stanford University, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in San Francisco.

Sources

History
Hampshire Gazette, 
February 25, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862