March 5-11: Poems on Genius

On Choosing the Poems

As we suggested in the introduction to this week’s post, Dickinson was profoundly affected by contemporary cultural attitudes about women of genius. In her essay, “A Damned Mob of Corinnes: Hawthorne and the Daughters of de Staël,” Renée Bergland reviews the history of these attitudes in relation to Madame de Stael’s popular novel, Corinne, about a dark and passionate female poet who loses her gift and pines away when the English lord she loves marries her blonde, bland and modest sister.

Madame de Staël (1766-1817) by François Gérard (1810)

Published in 1807, Corinne set the standard for the artistic female, and was very influential for 19th century women writers in France, England and the US. Bergland finds that popular US writers like “Catharine Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child were relatively untroubled by their identification with Corinne in the 1820s and 1830s.” Indeed, the great writer, Margaret Fuller, was known as “the Yankee Corinne.” But “[b]y the 1860s and 1870s, Louisa May Alcott and Constance Fenimore Woolson would describe genius as a fatal disease.”

The period of 1850-1860 was “the crucial decade” when anxiety about the figure of Corinne reached a fever pitch and turned. It was in 1855 that Nathaniel Hawthorne famously wrote to his publisher, William Ticknor, castigating that “d—d mob of scribbling women,” who were outselling male writers.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) by Matthew Brady, 1860-64

And though Hawthorne admired the writing of many contemporary women, like Grace Greenwood, Fanny Fern, and Julia Ward Howe, he compared women’s publication of their works to “prostitution.” Others shared his feelings.

As in so many other ways, Dickinson’s father Edward was a bellwether of mixed and misogynist attitudes when it came to questions of gender and genius. Bergland notes that in 1826, he met Catharine Sedgwick, a leading writer of the day, and wrote in his journal that he felt “a conscious pride that women of our own country … are emulating not only the females, but also the men of England & France & Germany & Italy in works of literature.”

Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867)

But he was also disturbed: “I should be sorry to see another Madame de Staël.” This ambivalence emerges in Dickinson’s remark to Thomas Higginson about her father:

He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. (L261, 25 April 1862)

The poems we have chosen for this week meditate on issues of fame, freedom, despair in love and marriage, misunderstanding, and isolation, all of the obstacles facing women of genius in 1862.

Sources

Bergland, Renée. “A Damned Mob of Corinnes: Hawthorne and the Daughters of de Staël,” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 42.1 (Spring 2016): 95-120.