September 3-9, 1862: Volcanoes

This week, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in Foreign Affairs about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of my favorites!).

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Renée Bergland
Sources

This week, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in “Foreign Affairs” about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of our favorites!). She wrote several startling poems about volcanoes, Vesuvius in particular and its explosive, destructive AND creative power. Volcanoes were also a potent symbol for Emerson, who, as we will see, used them as a figure for the poet and for the “central fire … which animates all men.” Dickinson’s use of the image is much less romanticized, more violent, much more about what is under pressure and subterranean.

Mt Vesuvius eruption
Mt Vesuvius eruption [see a simulation here]

This focus also gives us the opportunity to reprise an exploration of Dickinson’s schooling in science and, in particular, her study of geology through the fascinating works of Edward Hitchcock, a Dickinson family friend and guiding light of the science curriculum at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson studied. Hitchcock has been described as

America’s leading advocate of catastrophe-based gap creationism,

in which his provocative theory of volcanoes played a role. To what extent was Dickinson responding, in her use of this potent symbol, to both of these powerful public men whose work she read and appropriated so subversively for her own purposes? Dickinson’s imaginative travel to places like Naples also expresses her fascination with geography, a subject that touches on issues of space and location we explored in last week’s post on “home” and “homelessness.”

“Matters are Now at the Worst”

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are again defending Washington behind its fortifications. The rebel armies hold their old line in Virginia, and the difference in the military situation between the present and the past is that larger armies have been massed on both sides, and that the rebels have assumed the offensive and put us on defense. We think matters are now at the worst; that they cannot cross the Potomac; and that our new levies hastening to the seat of war will soon turn the tide and drive back the insolent foe.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The most interesting of the foreign news at present is the movement of Geribaldi in Italy, for the possession of Rome. The Turin government has expressed its disapproval of his course in the strongest terms, and there is danger of a collision between the partisans of the radical leader and the government of Victor Emanuel. Sicily is declared in a state of siege.”

Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott
Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott

Books, Authors and Arts, page 6
“Recent excavations in Pompeii have brought to light a beautiful tridinium [triclinium: formal dining room in private Roman homes of the time containing three couches], with three richly decorated walls and three fine pictures [from the House of Siricus].

Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus
Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus

The first of these represents the building of Troy by Neptune and Apollo; the second, a drunken Hercules with numerous cupids, who have disarmed him, and surrounded by several Fauns and Bacchanal; and in the third picture Vulcan shows Thetis the arms of Achilles, among them a shield on which are represented the zodiac, Apollo and the nine muses.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

page 1
“From the three upper classes of Amherst nearly forty have entered the army since the close of summer term. The freshman class in Amherst College numbers fifty-four.”

Marrying Cousins, page 1
“Combining these results [conducted by Dr. Brochard] with those previously presented to the Academy [of Sciences in Paris] by Dr. Bourdin it appears that in marriages within the limits of consanguinity the births of deaf and dumb are in the proportion of 25 to 30 percent. A frightful warning this is to young ladies and gentlemen who have any regard for their posterity not to fall in love with their cousins.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Rifle Clubs, page 303
“A sense of the importance of rifle-practice is becoming very generally prevalent. Rifle-clubs are organizing on our country-towns, and target-practice by individuals is increasing to a degree which proves incontestably the interest which is felt in the subject. The chief obstacle to the immediate and extensive practical operation of this interest lies in the difficulty of procuring serviceable guns. We trust that our legislators will perceive the necessity of adopting a strict military organization of all the able-bodied men in the state, and providing them with weapons, with whose use they should be encouraged to make themselves familiar by the institution of public shooting-matches for prizes.”

“Vesuvius – dont talk”

Dickinson’s own education in geology and geography began early with coursework at Amherst Academy, whose curriculum in science was heavily influenced by Edward Hitchcock, a prominent figure in Amherst and an important voice in scientific debates of the day. Hitchcock was a friend of the Dickinson family, a working geologist, a minister who gave up his congregation to become professor of Chemistry and Natural History, then Geology at Amherst College, and finally served as the College’s President from 1845-1854.

In her study of geology, Dickinson used Hitchcock’s book, The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, a series of lectures the author introduced as aiming to develop “the relations between geology and religion” in order to counteract the many current attacks that argued for their incompatibility. Hitchcock declares at the outset:

I place geology first and most conspicuous on the list, because I know of no other branch of physical science so prolific in its religious applications.

Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25
Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25

The book appeared in 1851 adorned with a frontispiece of a beautiful hand-colored illustration, probably by his wife Orra White Hitchcock, who was herself a distinguished scientific illustrator, showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust” with a volcano erupting off to the side.

As the title of Lecture VI describes, Hitchcock argues that volcanoes are key to the “Geological Proofs of the Divine Benevolence.” Well aware of the “awful sublimity” of volcanic eruptions, he offers an impassioned description of the eruption of Kilauea, “the most remarkable volcano on the globe.” From this, he explains that volcanoes are “safety valves” allowing for the escape of the “vast accumulations of heated and melted matter beneath the earth’s crust” that modern geology has documented. Although outwardly destructive, volcanoes, unlike earthquakes that do far more damage, are, in reality, “essential to the preservation of the globe.” Thus, he reasons, they are a means by which God shows his benevolence because

the evil is permitted that thereby greater good may be secured to the universe. … The desolation of this fair world by volcanic agency, and especially the destruction of life, do, indeed, teach us that this present system of nature is adapted to a state of probation and death, instead of a state of rewards and immortal life. … we have strong reason to believe they are essential to the preservation of the globe … If we can only rise to these higher views, and not suffer our judgement to be warped by the immediate terrors of the earthquake and the volcano, we shall see the smile of infinite benevolence where most men see only the wrath of an offended Deity.

Volcanoes held an important but more metaphorical meaning for Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, in his famous lecture “The American Scholar,” declared:

The human mind … is one central fire, which flaming now out
of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

More pointedly, in his essay, “The Poet,” which we know Dickinson read, Emerson compared his Romantic vision of the poet as a “liberating god” standing out from  ordinary humankind to “Chimborazo,” a stratovolcano in present-day Ecuador that begins in the equatorial jungle and rises up through all the climatic zones to be crowned with snow and glaciers more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

Kamilla Denman calls Emerson’s volcano an “image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment,” a description that also covers Hitchcock’s more doctrinally Christian view. They have appropriated their volcanoes, though admittedly sublime and awful, as images of compassion and generosity. By contrast, Denman argues that Dickinson’s volcanoes are “a far more violent force, an image of devastating linguistic expression erupting out of silence,” and she quotes this astounding passage from the Third Master Letter, which is dated sometime in 1862:

Vesuvius dont talk — Etna — dont — one of them — said a syllable — a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever —  (L 233).

Plaster casts of PompeiiArguing from a psychological perspective, Chloe Marnin finds that “volcanoes illustrate the repression, eruption, and aftermath of human emotion” in Dickinson’s poems, and points out that her particular interest in Vesuvius might have been kindled by the recent reports of excavations, like the one in this week’s Republican. Although it was early in this process, by 1860 Giuseppe Fiorelli took over directing the excavations at Pompeii and instituted new and better systems of recovery. By this time, much of the western part of Pompeii had been excavated. Fiorelli also began the process of pumping plaster into the cavities left by victims’ bodies to produce the uncanny casts of their struggles.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius." Grosvenor Prints

Dickinson also may have been aware of another popular entertainment that features volcanoes. In the 1840s, Mr. Spooner, a London-based printer, began making what he called “Spooner's Protean Views,” hand-painted 9" x 11" cards that showed one view but when held up to strong light or used with the early “magic lantern” device called the Polyrama Panoptique, completely changed the view. The views of Mt. Vesuvius were among the most dramatic and most popular.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius Erupting." Grosvenor Prints


In her now-famous essay of 1976, poet Adrienne Rich performed an important re-vision of Dickinson, reimagining the “Belle of Amherst” not as a jilted lover but as “Vesuvius at Home,” that is, a woman of explosive, ungovernable powers, feeling herself possessed by a daemon or demon. In the 19th century, Rich argued, such a woman who felt this way “has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.” One of these masks was the “reticent volcano,” and it expressed in her mind Dickinson’s extreme “ambivalence toward power.” Some readers are now re-assessing Rich’s essay in contemporary terms, as our guest respondant for this week describes in her reflection. Still, it gave many of us permission NOT to read Dickinson in the limiting context of romance and men but in terms of her own powerful creativity. In the poems for this week, we will explore just how Dickinson re-purposed the volcano image used by two very prominent male thinkers in her world.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Renée Bergland

In the trail of that genius my mind has been moving, and with its language and images my mind still has to reckon.

 

Adrienne Rich wrote these words about Emily Dickinson, but for me, they also describe Rich.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Rich’s essays are very moving to me. I love tracing out her emerging thinking across the decades—the change from her first steps away from an absolutist stance in “Poetry and Experience” (1964) to the feminist possibilities of “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” (1971) and “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (1976), and then, later, the more intersectional, anti-racist feminist awareness of “Notes toward a Politics of Location” (1984). Reading these essays as a Dickinson scholar, I see that Rich continued to reckon with Dickinson as her own poetics and politics changed and evolved.

I have been thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home” quite a bit this year. I had the chance to talk it over with a group of Dickinsonians at the EDIS Summer gathering in Amherst in early August. Although the EDIS seminar discussion was the high point, I’d started gathering the materials in January, and I have continued to reflect on them since our meeting. One of the things that particularly interested me as I gathered the materials for the seminar was that there was surprisingly little crossover between Dickinson scholarship and Rich scholarship. Vivian Pollak’s wonderful book, Our Emily Dickinsons, published in 2016, describes “Vesuvius at Home” as “an essay which deeply influenced me and many of my friends” (13), but she only devotes a page or two to Rich, and she deftly rebuts Rich’s portrait of Dickinson as a proudly isolated volcano by citing “How happy is the little Stone” (F 1570), a poem that values “interdependency, complexity, and vulnerability” (14).

In our seminar discussion, we looked at a few recent essays about Rich, and tried to make connections to Dickinson’s poetry. We considered an essay by Miriam Marty Clark that traced Rich’s movement from identity to affiliation, another by Jeffrey Neilson that framed Rich in the context of postsecular feminism, and a third by Christian Haines that argued for an impersonal feminism, “gesturing toward a historical transformation that has rendered the borders between the personal/private and the impersonal/public extremely tenuous” (182). These scholars all describe Rich’s thinking in twenty-first century ways—as affiliative, postsecular, preindividual—that are hard to square with the way that “Vesuvius at Home” celebrates Dickinson as autonomous, secular, and individualist.

What I enjoy the most about Dickinson’s work is that it often brings together seemingly contradictory possibilities. I love thinking about the Dickinson whom Rich celebrates for being dangerous, aggressive, even destructive, alongside the affiliative, postsecular, preindividual version of Dickinson (who wrote about “Boundaries – forgot — ” in “The Spider holds a Silver Ball” (F 513), as well as volcanos. When I read “On my volcano grows the grass” (F 1743), my reading is shaped by Rich’s description of the destructive power of the volcano, but it is also shaped by another idea—of the volcano as a place warm enough to melt the hardest little stones—a place more wondrous than destructive, more mysteriously, embracingly, passionately fluid than angry.

Dickinson’s volcano continues to “populate with awe my solitude” (as the last line of that poem would put it). A solitude populated with awe may not be solitary at all. To give Rich the last word, I’ll conclude with another line from “Vesuvius at Home:”

There are many more Emily Dickinsons than I have tried to call up here. Wherever you take hold of her, she proliferates.

Sources

Clark, Miriam Marty. “Human Rights and the Work of Lyric in Adrienne Rich.” The Cambridge Quarterly 38,  1 (2009) pp. 45-65.

Haines, Christian P. “The Impersonal is Political: Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Feminism, and the Art of Biopolitics.” Cultural Critique 96 (2017) pp. 178-215.

Neilson, Jeffrey. “‘No Poetry Will Serve’: The Cruel Optimism of Adrienne Rich’s Last Poems.” Genre  49,  3 (December 2016) pp. 331-357.

Bio: Renee Bergland is Hazel Dick Leonard Professor of English, Simmons College and Visiting Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies, Dartmouth. Like every cultural critic worth her salt, I am curious about everything. My research and writing tend to focus on nineteenth-century America, but in every piece I push against national and historical boundaries, trying to find (or make) connections and to think outside of disciplinary boxes. My first three monographs may seem to be on wildly different subjects: Native Americans, Women in Science, and Emily Dickinson. But there is a methodology to my madness. All of my work tends to span broad expanses of time, to offer slightly startling juxtapositions, to rely on close readings of both literary and historical texts, and to explicitly advocate a dialogic ethics of analysis. I keep trying to connect the past to the present.

Sources:

Overview
Moore, Randy, Mark Decker and Sehoya Cotner. Chronology of the Evolution-creationism Controversy. Greenwood Press, 2010, 99.

History
Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862

Biography

Andrew. “Spooner's Protean Views.” Magic Lantern World: Projected images from the 1640s to the present day. 

Denman, Kamilla. “Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1, Spring 1993: 22-46, 22.

Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 107ff.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.Complete Works. RWE.org

Hitchcock, Edward. The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1854 1, 196-97, 204ff.

Marnin, Chloe. “The Imagery of Volcanoes in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: The Psychology and Aftermath of Emotional Repression.Medium. May 10, 2016.

Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 5, 1, 1976.

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August 13-19, 1862: Emerson and Thoreau

This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism,” as well as to Thoreau, considered Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right.

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

“Emerson and Thoreau”

This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism.” We also consider her debt to Thoreau, considered Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right. Thoreau shared with Dickinson an investment in what scholars are now calling “vitalist materialism,” which we explored in the earlier post on Gardens and reprise here in more detail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Emerson has come up numerous times in these posts as a thinker and writer whose ideas and phrases struck deep chords in Dickinson. Indeed, Jack Capps observes that

of all American authors whom she read, Emily Dickinson can be most closely associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 He also notes that “Success,”the only poem published in her lifetime that garnered critical attention, was attributed to Emerson. Still, it is important to consider the ways she revises Emerson and diverges from Transcendental idealism.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Dickinson only mentions Thoreau twice in her correspondence, but scholars like Yanbin Kang trace her references to Eastern thought to

Dickinson’s life-long responses towards Henry David Thoreau’s construction of the East.

We will explore Emerson’s eulogy for his friend and how it may have struck Dickinson, his mentorship of both Thoreau and Dickinson, and their shared concerns with vital materialism and its radical political implications.

“Genius Makes its Observations in Shorthand”

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862
General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Our expectations in regard to the Virginia campaign have been fulfilled. A new series of battles has commenced, and the result thus is far better than we had reason to expect. Stonewall Jackson did not await the concentration of Gen. Pope’s army to attack in force, but with his usual admirable energy, made an unexpected dash across the Rapidan and hurled his whole army upon the unsupported corps of Gen. Banks.

The Sin of the North, page 4
“It is time we had begun to know something of our relations to this [African] race, and to appreciate the wrongs we have inflicted upon it. It is the habit of the northern mind, or has been since the rebellion began, to wonder why the peculiar sin of the South should be permitted to bring such bitterness of punishment upon the North. But Count Gasparin finds [the sin of the North] here in our treatment of the free negroes—the only representatives of the African race with whom we have come in contact.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“Genius makes its observations in short hand; talent writes them out at length.”

Disagreeable People, page 7 [reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly]
“There is nothing more disagreeable, and few things more mischievous, than a well-meaning, meddling fool. And where there was no special intention, good or bad, towards yourself, you have known people make you uncomfortable through the simple exhibition to you, and pressure upon you, of their own agreeable disagreeableness.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Amherst, page 2
“There is considerable building in progress in Amherst, particularly in the vicinity of the depot. L. M. Hills & Son are preparing to build two fine residences for themselves. It is expected that these will be the most elegant houses in the town. Their shaker hood business is very prosperous.”

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)
Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)

Mistress and Maid: A Household Story, page 229 [by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik]
“The scarlet face, the entreating tones—there was no resisting them. One natural pang Hilary felt—that in her short poverty she had fallen so low as to be indebted to her servant, and then too she blushed, less for shame at accepting the kindness than for her own pride that she could not at once receive it as such.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau”
“The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."

Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP
Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in teaching a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once." He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.

… he had a perfect probity, was exact in securing his own independence, and in holding every man to the like duty. But Thoreau never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.

“His Transcendental Arm”

When Emerson spoke in Amherst for the first time on December 16, 1857, he had assumed his role as “the Sage of Concord,” lecturing widely. That he stayed with Austin and Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens was an indication of just how high their social status had risen in the town. Emerson’s topic was “The Beautiful in Rural Life,” and, as noted by Jay Leyda, the report of the Hampshire and Franklin Express for December 18 captures the reigning opinion of Transcendentalism in that stronghold of conservative Congregationalism:

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture greatly disappointed all who listened. It was in the English language instead of the Emersonese in which he usually clothes his thoughts, and the thoughts themselves were such as any plain common-sense person could understand and appreciate.

Susan Dickinson wrote in her journal, “Annals of the Evergreens”:

I remember very little of the lecture except a fine glow of enthusiasm on my own part. … I felt strangely elated to take his transcendental arm afterwards and walk leisurely home.

Despite Sue’s enchantment, Dickinson refused to meet Emerson on this occasion, complaining that she did not want to be introduced as someone’s [Austin’s] sister. It is unclear whether she attended the lecture, but she certainly heard from Sue about its contents. Sue reports Dickinson’s impression of Emerson at that time:

As if he had come from where dreams are born.

Dickinson’s refusal to meet the eminent visitor as merely a relation of his host might be connected to her own growing sense of vocation. Very soon, in 1858, she would commence gathering her poems into hand-sewn booklets we call “fascicles.” We know that Emerson was an important source for the young poet because her first “gentle, yet Grave Preceptor,” Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), a student in her father’s law office during 1847-49 and a frequent visitor to the family, sent her a copy of Emerson’s Poems (1847), his first volume of collected poetry, as a farewell gift. Newton was Dickinson’s first contact with the liberal-leaning Unitarian version of Christianity championed by Emerson. In his recommendations, Newton offered the nineteen-year old poet-in-the-making a view of human dignity and sovereignty of self more elevating than her family’s Congregationalism with its dour Calvinist teachings about innate depravity and a wrathful God. The first person to encourage Dickinson’s poetic sensibility, Newton opened a new world of spirituality and reading to her, and his gift of Emerson’s poetry had a lasting effect. He marked several poems for her special perusal, which we will discuss in the Poems section.

Dickinson mentioned Thoreau twice in her letters (L320 and L961) but with a familiarity that bespoke a deep engagement. For example, in August 1866, she wrote to Sue, who was vacationing at the seashore, and asked:

Was the Sea cordial? Kiss him for Thoreau –.

Thomas Johnson speculates that Dickinson and Sue might have been reading Thoreau’s Cape Cod, which appeared in 1865. The Dickinson family library contained two copies of Walden (1862), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1862) inscribed with “E. Dickinson” and Letters to Various Persons (1865).

Scholars have long noted their shared engagement in nature and what the 19th century called natural history. More recently, investigations into the period’s debates over the nature of life have turned up a mutual interest in what Branka Arsic identifies as “vital materialism,” more traditionally known as “pantheism,” the belief that all matter in the world is imbued with life, often described as the “spirit” or “breath” of God or the divine. The 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, was a proponent of pantheism as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English Romantic. Arsic  finds that “Harvard [University] was a center of vitalistic progressive philosophies at least as of 1824” and into the 1840s, and that these scientists would have influenced Thoreau’s belief in the “substantial coincidence of the divine and material.”

Similarly, in illustrating what she sees as Dickinson’s belief in the feelings of plants, Mary Kuhn explores the period’s “debate over plant sentience” and finds a similar academic grounding for these ideas, quoting Thoreau’s musing that

the mystery of the life of plants is kindred with that of our own lives.

A link between these two findings is William Smellie’s The Philosophy of Natural History, updated by John Ware to include the new ideas of vitalism. This was the textbook Thoreau used in his studies of natural history, a copy of which remained in his library. It was also on the list of textbooks Jack Capps provides for courses at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary the year Dickinson attended. For both these writers, a belief in vitalism and in plant sentience had important ethical, political and ecological implications. In unseating the human as exceptional and blurring the line between natural objects and perceiving subjects, these beliefs lead to a more radically democratic notion of the material world and our place in it.

Another source of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Dickinson is in the writing of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Richard Sewall notes that in times of disappointment in his life, Higginson would retreat into nature. In 1848, he was dismissed by his liberal Unitarian congregation in Newburyport, MA, for his radical views, which included visits from the radical abolitionist John Brown, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, the fugitive slave William Wells Brown, and a lecture he organized at the Newburyport Lyceum despite the objection of the majority of the board, by Emerson.

In 1850, Higginson visited Thoreau and found his simplified way of life congenial and healing. Similarly, after the failure of John Brown’s raid in Fall 1859, Higginson retreated to his natural haunts and wrote extensively in his journals. Before Dickinson contacted him in April 1862, Higginson published four nature studies in the Atlantic Monthly, written, according to Sewall, “in the shadow of Thoreau and Emerson,” which Dickinson “probably read” before she contacted him. Despite his “dilution of these masters,” Higginson modeled a close and deeply informed observation of nature and its seasonal changes, precise botanical knowledge, and an apprehension of the power and mystery of the natural world.

Emerson’s biographical sketch of Thoreau in the Atlantic Monthly would have also affected Dickinson. In a discussion of Emerson’s “anti-mentoring” of Thoreau and Dickinson, Lawrence Buell charts the changing effect of the 1862 sketch:

In the short run, the essay contributed to the bracketing of Thoreau as a minor figure, the quirky sidekick,” and later, “the bachelor of thought and nature. … Not long after, though, it started to become common practice to rescue Thoreau from Emerson’s clutches and chastise the memoir’s patronizing parts,

like the passage that rebukes Thoreau for his lack of “ambition.”

What might have appealed to Dickinson is Emerson’s account of Thoreau’s dismissal of the bustling world and professional concerns in order to wrestle

with graver questions … He interrogated every custom … and few lives contain so many renunciations.

She would have resonated with “his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord,” just as she thought Amherst was heaven on earth. Also, that “His interest in the flower or the bird lay deep in his mind” and that “he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception.” Emerson spends several paragraphs on Thoreau’s poetry and one can see Dickinson alighting on this passage:

He knew the worth of the Imagination for the uplifting and consolation of human life, and he liked to throw every thought into a symbol. The fact you tell is of no value, but only the impression. For this reason his presence was poetic, always piqued the curiosity to know more deeply the secrets of his mind. He had many reserves, an unwillingness to exhibit to profane eyes what was still sacred in his own, and knew well how to throw a poetic veil over his experience.

Buell ultimately sees a “mutuality” in this mentoring relationship, in which Thoreau’s “uncompromising integrity” becomes for Emerson “both a personal aspiration and a personal lack.” He ends his discussion by considering Dickinson as a figure “often claimed to have been” an Emerson mentee, though mostly through Higginson, “her personal ‘preceptor’-designate,” who was himself a “derivative” of Emerson and Thoreau. Though Buell mischaracterizes Dickinson as “timid” and needing “the sanction of authority Emerson and Thoreau never did,” (perhaps because they were males in a male-dominated society?), he concludes:

Dickinson is the prototype of the brilliant mentee who figures out how to make the best of a much less perceptive mentor.

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Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Marianne Noble

“Vital Materialism” is a wonderful term. This notion of a connection with nature that does not involve looking past the material world to the spirit that is its (supposedly) true nature represents an inspiring attitude towards the natural environment. It finds spirituality in aliveness itself. I appreciate the insight that this approach characterizes both Dickinson and Thoreau.

This blog post got me to wondering about which Thoreau works Dickinson might have encountered before reading Emerson’s obituary (all of the works mentioned in the blog date from 1862 or later). It is quite likely that she read Thoreau’s “Chesuncook” in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1858. I looked this essay up, and was astonished by the way the opening sounds like a hymn to vital materialism:

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light,—to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. . . . Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

In the second paragraph, Thoreau stresses that the one who best understands the pine tree is the poet, “who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it.” The poet loves the pines “as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand”:

when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that [industrial uses] were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.*

When Thoreau says he sympathizes with the living spirit of the tree, feeling connections of kinship and similarity, he is stressing the spiritual continuity of living things. His sympathy heals his cuts, which themselves seem to resemble the cuts inflicted on felled trees. Thoreau is every bit as wounded by a utilitarian approach to things as the trees are, and when he focuses on his kinship with the pine trees rather than his dominion over them, he discovers that he heals those ruptures in his soul.

In claiming that the pine trees are “as immortal as I am,” Thoreau claims a different notion of immortality from that of the conventional Christian imaginary. It is not quite clear what it is, though it suggests an immortality of the unified cosmos, the spirit-infused material world, rather than a separate world where human souls resume their worldly conditions. To feel the immortality of the pines is to feel the immortality of the spirit-infused material world that lives, changes, and grows.

Thoreau’s notion of knowing “whether” something’s “heart is false without cutting into it” sounds a lot like Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark” (F905A, J861). In this poem, a skeptic wants to know if his bird is true and proposes to “split the lark.” The speaker seems to say, “Go ahead—the music is inside, like flower bulbs rolled in silver.” And yet, the speaker does not really endorse this splitting approach to understanding. As the poem develops, she criticizes this penetrative approach as a “scarlet experiment” that will kill the lark. She echoes Thoreau’s conviction that a “pine cut down” is not a pine, just as a human carcass is not a man, just as a dead lark is not a lark. A lark, like a pine tree, is a living thing, and its beauty is not a spiritual essence haunting a material carcass; it is an unleashing of vitality into the world. It is an intersubjective and networked spiritual quality. Living things must be understood as living things, not as potential industrial products.

Vital materialism strikes me as a timely concept in our Anthropocenic days. If we try to lean into the ways that we are one with the natural world, we might find ourselves moved to heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the world. And in doing so, Dickinson and Thoreau suggest, we might heal the wounds that the world has inflicted upon ourselves.

*According to Thoreau Historical Society, “Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Chesuncook,’ the second essay of The Maine Woods, is well known for the controversy resulting from Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell’s decision to remove a now famous sentence referring to a pine tree.” That excision is the last sentence of this quotation, which makes the case for vital materialism – and more. See: See Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Chesuncook: Textual Notes,” in The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 435. 

Bio: Marianne Noble is Associate Professor of English at American University. Her teaching and research interests include American literature, culture studies, and gender studies, with a particular emphasis on the construction of sexuality in nineteenth-century American women's literature. She is the author of The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton UP 2000), which won a Choice Outstanding Book Award. She has recently published articles on gothic and sentimental literature and is currently working on a book entitled Sympathy and the Quest for Genuine Human Contact in American Romanticism.

Sources:

Overview
Capps, Jack. Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 113.

Kang, Yanbin. “Dickinson’s Allusions to Thoreau’s East.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. 29:2, 92-97, 92.

History
Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

Biography
Arsic, Branka. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016, 124-25, 134.

Buell, Lawrence. “Emersonian Anti-Mentoring: From Thoreau to
Dickinson and Beyond.” Michigan Quarterly Review 41:3 (2002 Summer), 347-60.

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 196, 189-90.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 455.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” Atlantic Monthly 10, 58, August, 1862.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH 85,  1, (Spring 2018): 141-170, 156.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 1: 351-52.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 115 note 15; 468, 546-47, 568 (includes Susan Dickinson's
“Annals of the Evergreens.”).

Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript. Ed. Bradley P. Dean. New York: Norton, 2001, 242.

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