Jan 29-Feb 4: Poems on White

On Choosing the Poems

As we described in the post’s introduction, the word white and its cognates appear in many poems, but we have confined our choices to poems written in 1862; they are among Dickinson’s most important work on this theme.

The critical conversation on Dickinson and whiteness has been particularly contentious. For example, in 2000, two prominent Dickinson scholars published essays on the subject in The Emily Dickinson Journal: Vivian Pollak, “Dickinson and the Poetics of Whiteness” and Domhnall Mitchell, “Northern Lights: Class, Color, Culture and Emily Dickinson.” Both locate Dickinson’s representations emerging out of broad cultural changes involving white middle and upper class people looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, from social mobility, from aristocratic excess, and  from racial and ethnic groups. American Studies scholars have produced important studies of this period that detail the re-consolidation of whiteness, such as Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1992) and David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1999), to name a few.

Mitchell routes his argument through Dickinson’s response to a concert by Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano, who represented her class’s elevation of all things Northern as culturally superior.

Jenny Lind (1820-1887)

In Mitchell’s mind, whiteness becomes “an agent of social discrimination, a determinant of virtue and value against vulgarity and excess,” a sign of Dickinson’s “strategic disengagement, precisely because it promotes non-specificity, purity of reference, puzzlement, contemplation, inaction.”

Pollak argues, more broadly, that “Whiteness functions as an ambivalent sign of historical privilege; the poet … is ambivalent about her whiteness,” but she also claims that Dickinson “identifies her psychological difference from other people with racial and ethnic others,” and that her poems using white imagery clear space “for rebellion against ethnic and racial sexual prejudice” as well as gender non-conformity.

In a 2002 essay, Paula Bennett takes issue with Pollak’s view in particular, and with the majority of critics who view Dickinson outside and above the raft of other women writers of her time, critics who do not call out what Bennett sees as the “racism” in various poems and letters by Dickinson about Irish and African American domestics. It is unrealistic to think that Dickinson, as a product of her culture, was not deeply affected by “the nineteenth century’s racist environment,” including racially insensitive “squibs” and stereotypes penned in articles by Dickinson’s revered friend, Samuel Bowles, as editor of the Springfield Republican.

“The Original Jim Crow”

In all of these arguments, white gets inevitably folded into attitudes towards race, a subject of particular contention at this moment of US history. In a more recent analysis from 2009, Wesley King agrees with earlier scholars that whiteness for Dicnson is “a contested site … almost always subjected to some form of reversal,” and that, putting aside Bennett’s argument, “Dickinson attempts to wrest some form of power from whiteness while in part avoiding the dominant ideological position such claims imply.” He takes another approach, using post-Freudian Lacanian theories of language and identity formation. Looking at two poems, one very early and one very late in Dickinson’s career, he teases out, quite remarkably, how Dickinson uses white imagery to explore the crisis “between the image and the word, or between the realm of appearances and language.” In doing so, he concludes, Dickinson works against the tide of her culture where white was becoming a sign of “natural authority,” to reveal “the linguistic and epistemological underpinning of racial hierarchy.”

Many poets have written poems in the wake of this complicated history; here are a few of our favorites:  Robert Frost’s “Design,” Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” and Pat Parker, “For the White Person who Wants to be my Friend.”


Sources

Bennett, Paula. “ ‘The Negro never knew:’ Emily Dickinson and Racial Typology in the Nineteenth Century. Legacy 19.1 2001: 53-61.

King, Wesley. “The White Symbolic of Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 18.1 2009: 44-68.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Northern Lights: Class, Color, Culture and Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000) 74-83.

Vivian Pollak “Dickinson and Poetics of Whiteness.” in Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 2000: 84-95.