August 20-26, 1862: Bowles and Bees

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

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

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

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878)

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

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

“Authors ought to be Read and not Heard”

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

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

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

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

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

“Jerusalem Must be like Sue’s Drawing Room”

Samuel Bowles
Samuel Bowles

 

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the name of the Bee –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Efrosyni Manda

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

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

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


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

Sources:

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

History

Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862

Biography

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

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

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

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

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

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June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson denominates, for the first time, her “friendship” with Higginson.

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

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862.  This letter is most commonly known for what biographer Richard Sewall calls “disavowals that have contributed as much as anything ever said about her to the legend of the shy genius”—most specifically, a seemingly definitive expression of her disinclination for print publication ("foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin"). It also notably ends with Dickinson’s famous, coy request: “But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?”

But elements in this letter undermine Dickinson’s possible “posing” here as needing a tutor and guide. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson, for the first time, denominates her “friendship” with Higginson. This is a weighty word that implies not tutelage or preceptorship but a relationship of equality. And letters have historically been a special genre for friendship, by which writers send themselves in words to their special recipient.

In fact, Dickinson carefully chose Higginson as a correspondent. As a prominent literary figure, he  was in a position to acknowledge and legitimate her as a poet.  This letter also sets the tone for this friendship, which will last until Dickinson’s death in 1886. It records Dickinson's playful parrying and resistance of Higginson’s criticism of her poetry, which we have to infer from Dickinson’s responses, since all Higginson’s letters to her were either burned after her death or lost.  As several studies of their relationship demonstrate, it’s not  clear who was the student and who was the teacher!

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

Exploring this letter, which has a poem embedded in it, also gives us the opportunity to consider it as an aesthetic object in its own right, and think about how Dickinson's prose and poetry interact. In the “Foreward” to a collection of essays about Dickinson’s letters, Marietta Messmer argues that her correspondence can “be regarded as her central form of public artistic expression.” Messmer cites pioneering work in this vein by scholars like Agnieszka Salska, who argues that Dickinson's letters

became the territory where she could work out her own style, create her poetic voice, and crystallize the principles of her poetics.

We will read this letter next to other poems written during this period that expand on its central themes of intoxication, illness, publication, and preceptors.

“The Virtues of Cold Water”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 1
Review of the Week:  “This has been the most g[illegible] week of the war–a week of victories and successes, which make us forget all previous blunders and disasters. The rebel army in front of Richmond has been beaten in a two days’ battle, Beauregard’s army has fled in fright and confusion from Corinth, the rebels have been driven back up the valley of the Shenandoah, and the ground lost last week more than recovered, and it looks now as if the field fighting is really over.”

“The General Situation,” page 1:  “In connection with the victories won by our arms come reports of growing Union feeling at the South.”

William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)
William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)

“New England Matters,” page 1:  “The lectures of Parson Brownlow have excited great interest at the various points which he has visited; and he had full houses and enthusiastic applause at Hartford and in this city. He paints this wicked rebellion in such strong colors as may suitably be used by one who has felt the halter around his neck and the iron entering his soul for the crime of loving his undivided country.”

Religious Intelligence, page 1:  “Treason brutalizes priest as well as people. … Another reverend secesh, named Ely, distinguished himself by his outrages. After dinner he remarked to a young lady that he was going to Ball’s Bluff after trophies. He wanted some bones of the Yankee soldiers, in order to make finger rings, &c. to carry his presents to some of his female friends in Mississippi.”

Poetry:  “Spring in New England” page 2, in rhyming couplets by J. R. Lowell

Original Poetry, page 6
“The Kiss” and “Love’s Good Night” by H. M. E. and “A Sonnet After F. G. T.” which refers to an apparently execrable sonnet that appeared in this month Atlantic Monthly, and was called out by other commentators as well:

… Poor murdered language, lying still and stark;
Words that have somehow lost the vital spark;
As if the lexicon, in playful antic,
Shook them as from a dice-box,––new and old,
Nouns, adjectives and adverbs, more or less,
Just as it happened; so it is, I guess,
That, like a pebble in a ring of gold,
Lies a dead sonnet in the June Atlantic.    F. H. C.

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

John B. Gough (1817-1886)
John B. Gough (1817-1886)

Local IntelligenceNorthampton: “Another great success attended the lecture of [John B.] Gough last Tuesday evening. … The old temperance advocates were excited with delight, and even the lovers and users of intoxicating drinks were forced to accept his logic as conclusive and laugh at the exposures of their unmanly conduct. The closing portion of the lecture was an exceedingly beautiful picture of the virtues of cold water.”

There is another long column on page 1 about Gough’s lecture and the virtues of temperance in which the correspondent says, “we wish our poor brothers whom alcohol has almost destroyed could hear Gough.”

Also, a short piece, from “some curious letters” that were found in the post office at Norfolk when the Northern troops took possession. Among them was one from John Tyler [tenth president of the United States], dated October 6, 1860, which said, “Eight months ago I gave up the wine cup forever, to devote myself to my country until the end cometh.”

Literary, page 1:  Recommends three books for children and gives the contents for The Westminster Review for April, the London Quarterly for April, Blackwood for May, and the newest Rebellion Record.

Other columns on page 1: “What is a ‘Gentleman,’” “Truth at Home,” “Unruly Milch Cows,” “Kindness to Animals,” “A Plea for the Skunk.”

Amherst, page 2: “The eloquent John B. Gough will address the students by request, on Tuesday afternoon of Commencement week, in the Village Church. His subject will be “London.”


Amherst College, June 9: “We enjoyed a great treat last Saturday afternoon, listening to the heroic Parson Brownlow, from Tennessee. … The Parson’s daughter, the brave woman who defended the “Stars and Stripes” at the peril of her life against the savage hordes of rebeldom, is traveling with her father. She is a noble looking woman, and her outer bearing speaks for the great soul within.

“I am in danger–Sir–”

It is important to put Dickinson’s third letter to Higginson on June 7, 1862 (L265) into the context of her state of mind and their earlier correspondence. In an earlier post, we discussed Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson, a prominent literary figure and public reformer. Written on April 15, after reading his “Letter to a Young Contributor” in that month’s Atlantic Monthly, she asked:

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

She enclosed four poems.

Higginson wrote back quickly, but because his letters to Dickinson were either burned at her death (on her request to Lavinia) or lost, we have only those she sent to him and have to infer what was in his letters from her responses. In her second letter on April 25, Dickinson thanks him for his “surgery,” implying that he critiqued her poems, and answers in oblique and winsome ways some of the questions he put to her about herself, her reading, her family and companions. She enclosed two or three more poems, including the masterful account of renounced passion, “There came a Day at Summer’s Full” (F325A, J322) .

On June 7, 1862, Dickinson responded to the second letter Higginson wrote to her, sometime after the end of April. We should note that instead of addressing him as “Mr. Higginson,” as she did in her second letter, this letter begins “Dear friend.” and ends, “Your friend / E Dickinson,” suggesting quite a leap in intimacy for the reputedly shy Dickinson. It also suggess an aspiration to or even the assumption of equality. Jason Hoope, who argues for the importance of this correspondence to Dickinson, notes that she regarded Higginson’s “surgery” on her poems “as heralding literary legitimacy. The inevitable sincerity of evaluation in and of itself—regardless of its content—is ‘justice,’ as the third letter makes clear”:

Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung – I had not supposed it. Your first-gave no dishonor, because the True-are not ashamed – I thanked you for your justice -but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp-Perhaps the Balm, seemed better, because you bled me, first.

Whereas in the first letter, Dickinson asks Higginson to “tell me what is true,” here, as Hoope notes, Dickinson “asserts her own membership among ‘the True.’” This letter also reprises important themes from the earlier two letters, such as poetry as/and illness, her thinking about print publication and fame, and her eagerness for an interlocutor and confidante, a “friend.” We know from her letter of April 25 that Dickinson has been recently ill when she says, I “write today, from my pillow.” (L261). We also know that her close friend, Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, had been away since Spring on a European tour for his health, and that Dickinson had been missing him keenly. Claiming to have exhausted language’s capacity to describe how moved she was by “The ‘hand you stretch me in the Dark,’” Dickinson embeds a poem into the letter, “As if I asked a common Alms” (F14, J323).

Although Alfred Habegger observes that “the letters to Higginson enacted the poet’s fondness for self-dramatization,” he also suggests that “The isolation she claimed was by no means wholly fictive.” Still, when her brother Austin read the 1891 Atlantic essay in which Higginson excerpted and commented on Dickinson’s letters,

he says Emily definitely posed in those letters. … The fraternal view had its blind spots, like the paternal condescension toward the female mind. These familial male superiorities help explain many things, including the poet’s quest for authoritative “tutors” and “masters” outside her home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

The room– spare and bright.
Carlyle, Browning, and Eliot watch from the walls,
A tiny desk for weighty work.

Franklin stove gave private warmth,
Writing into the night, even–
deliciously–till dawn.
Later, pencils, scribbling on
Scraps stashed in pockets,
Envelopes splayed like butterflies
Straying through chores,
Winged +gleanings of song.

But the geranium on the sill?
Flamboyant blossoms coaxed in shivers,
For window musing, stroking sueded leaf,
heady scent of Orient and heat.

Then, shimmering grail of pilgrimage
The white dress
Surprisingly petite, front buttons requiring
No help. Too busy plumbing eternity for fussing.

Through the hush of admiration
–rustle of muslin, and
Glimpsed escaping behind the bedroom door
Pinned auburn hair
Bold, like the chestnut burr
Depthless eyes
Like the sherry in the glass the guest leaves.

+ edifice

webbed burfish

Identification

Spellbound I tail it,
coral shard
shifting too deliberately
in the rubbled shallows
I prowl between reef and shore.

First, tiny whirling fins appear,
little brooms propelling
a wedge-shaped body
brindled with three dark blotches
like bruises or spilled ink.
Then a face, square and wide,
with large unlidded eyes
and yellow spikes whiskering
a plated, smirking mouth.

For a sickening moment our gazes
lock–I am hooked and held.

Later, dry and safely landed,
I find staring out from a page
of the identification book:
Chilomycterus antillarum,
the webbed burrfish,
aka spiny boxfish, blowfish, balloonfish, globefish, hedgehog fish,                    swelltoad,
evil twin of the porcupine puffer
who delights us with its
Disney waifishness.

I add it to my life list
but it bewitches
my thoughts, twitching up,
talisman of depths,
never letting me forget
how in its world
I am forced to surrender
the engineering miracle of knees
kicking stiff-legged
tipped with rubber fins.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

 

Sources:

Overview

Messmer, Marietta. “Foreword.” Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays. Eds. Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009, vii-x, viii.

Salska, Agnieszka. “Dickinson’s Letters.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 163-80, 168.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 553.

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862

Biography

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, kindle version.

Hoope, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 55, 3 (Fall 2013): 348-387, 358.

 

January 1-7, 1862: The Civil War

As Dickinson’s “white heat” burned, her country faced the heat of the Civil War. News and discussion of the Civil War reached all parts of the country by 1862, including Dickinson in her Massachusetts home. This week we investigate the effects of the war in Dickinson’s writing, despite common misconceptions of disconnect between the two.

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

The Start of the Year at the White Heat.

We begin with the week that started one of Emily Dickinson’s most productive years as a poet, January 1-7 of 1862. Perhaps one of the most poignant issues for Dickinson was the American Civil War, which is why we start this year exploring some of the implications of the War on her work. The popular myth of Dickinson as a recluse perpetuated the idea that she was a poet apart from the world and its turmoil, but her connections with the Civil War in her writing reveal this damaging assumption to be false.

This week’s news heavily centered on the War, still fairly new in the country’s mind as the second anniversary quickly approached in April 1862.

“Breaking the Backbone of the System”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Ireland officially announced that if Britain became involved in the American Civil War or declared war anew on the US, it would take the side of the US against Britain. Whether that would be the North or the South was never specified. This decision was sparked by the Trent Affair and provided a big confidence boost to the States, especially the North.

Also, news of the death of Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria of England, on December 14 reached the States. On the one hand, his death inaugurated a Victorian culture of mourning (Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life), but the backdrop for this culture had been created by Alfred Lord Tennyson's popular elegiac poem, "In Memoriam" (1849) and by the preoccupations of the late Romantics. Tennyson's influence on Dickinson will be explored in next week's post (many thanks to Colleen Boggs for this addition).

NATIONAL NEWS

The year 1862 starts in the throes of the second year of the American Civil War. This week, all is quiet – the Civil War saw no major battles recently and what battles there were the North won “handsomely” and tidied up “nicely” in the words of the Springfield Republican.

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani
Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani

Notable, however, was the debate regarding emancipation of all slaves in the South, which would be announced later this year.

Both the Springfield Republican  and the Atlantic Monthly ran op-eds about the debate. The opposing sides included those who saw emancipation as a strategic misstep that would give the South reason to say the North took away its freedom to own slaves, and those who supported emancipation for solely ethical and socially justified reasons. Springfield’s op-ed, entitled “What Are We Fighting For?” is a good example of the debate. Dickinson’s friends were mostly abolitionists, as was her father.

An interesting “Letter From A Missionary ran in the local Hampshire Gazette. The author, a Christian missionary “to the Zulus in Africa,” describes the horrors of war and states what he believes the Civil War is about: liberation from slavery and “breaking the backbone of the system. The Atlantic also ran  historical pieces about President Thomas Jefferson and his views on slavery as a slave owner, and General Fremont’s “hundred days” before his controversial dismissal from the North’s army.

Celebrating and Mourning

Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.
Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.

This week, on January 1, the Dickinson family celebrated Edward Dickinson’s fifty-ninth birthday. Dickinson had a close relationship with her father Edward, but his restricting parental control caused much strain. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in April of this year, Dickinson said of her father:  

 

He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind (L261).

Reverend Charles Wadsworth

Dickinson wrote a letter to Edward Dwight, a former local pastor, during this week. A month before, Dickinson received a letter from Dwight informing her that his wife, Lucy Dwight, had died. The couple, who were family friends, lived in Amherst until Lucy fell ill. Dickinson thought Dwight the best pastor in town. She wrote a passionate letter in response lamenting his loss, but accidentally switched it with a letter to Charles Wadsworth, another minister she met in Philadelphia, to whom some biographers connect her romantically. Awkwardness ensued: a recent widower and family friend receives a letter which might have contained romantic yearnings, and the very much alive Mrs. Wadsworth wonders at her assumed death. Dickinson cleared the air and sent an adapted version of the last stanza of There came a day at summer’s full(F325, J322)  to Mr. Dwight, and received a poem and a photo of Lucy in return.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

I tell people who ask, that Dickinson called me. That is why I came up with this year-long project to document one of the most intense years in Dickinson’s writing life. I am both a scholar of early American literature with a particular focus on women, and a poet. Wanting to invigorate my relationship to poetry as a writer of it, I thought to immerse myself in all things Dickinson and get as close as I could to her writing process and to the texture and networks of her daily life. There are many exemplary biographies and accounts of Dickinson (see Resources) and no end of fascinating fan literature and fiction, but I wanted something more experiential and sustained.

I had just finished a digital humanities project, The Occom Circle, a scholarly digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian leader, public intellectual and Christian minister. In the course of working on that project, I explored the Dickinson Electronic Archive, an innovative research and teaching tool created by a collective of Dickinson scholars in the wake of the recently digitized Dickinson manuscripts by Harvard University and Amherst College. The world of Dickinson scholarship had been revolutionized in 1981 by the publication of Ralph W. Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which afforded a unique view of Dickinson’s texts as she wrote (and rewrote and preserved) them. Since then, scholars have been busy “unediting” Dickinson’s writing, as Marta Werner expressed it in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, “undoing” a century of editorial and critical work so that we can finally begin to read what Dickinson actually wrote. The digital form of Dickinson’s manuscripts is producing another revolution, again in Werner’s words, “constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom.” I wanted to explore and find a way to present Dickinson’s poems as events of freedom.

I thought I would use the digital technologies I learned about to share this immersive experience with a wider audience of poetry lovers, students of Dickinson, and folks interested in the nineteenth-century. I test-drove a good deal of this approach in the two iterations of a junior level colloquium on Dickinson I taught at my home institution of Dartmouth College, titled The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn. It was a revelation to see how our readings of the poems changed, deepened, and grew more complex and dynamic when we worked with the digital scans of the manuscripts. As my students often commented heatedly, they felt “gipped” when comparing printed versions of the poems with the manuscript images. How dare the editor make those choices about diction, syntax, line breaks, and the fixed length of Dickinson’s iconic dashes without telling us! they complained. This “new” way of reading Dickinson was further aided by the ease of finding contextual materials on the web like newspapers, magazines, Dickinson’s lexicon, information about the Civil War and others. That is what I imagined our blog posts would offer.

And so, to the first week in January 1862.

Beyond the debates about the Civil War and why it was fought, Dickinson seems preoccupied with its effects, especially the nearness, prevalence, and arbitrariness of death. It is a commonplace that in the midst of life, we are all near to our mortality, but the line that haunts me in these poems is Dickinson’s description of dying as “passing into Conjecture’s presence.” We cross the boundary between life and death and so pass into a “presence,” but when it is personified as “Conjecture,” my mind starts buzzing. What would it be like to stand in the presence of Speculation, Guess, or another great Dickinson word from a related poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Surmise? Is this where she imagines death brings us: into a vast hall at the end of which presides a powerful Spirit whose demeanor and character we do not and cannot know? Whose character is Not-Yet-Knowing? Will we be devastated when we learn the true nature of this Spirit, or rapturous? or simply disappointed? This makes me think of the iconic line from Whitman’s answer to the child, who asked, “What is the grass?” in Song of Myself, Section VI: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

I am also struck by the speaker of “Unto like Story,” who remembers the tales of “Kinsmen” who died for their beliefs, who have “marched in Revolution,” and prays, “Let me not shame their/sublime deportments.” I have often pondered how we, how I, can live our lives in the light of our ideals and deepest-held beliefs. Especially in a time of perpetual war, of atrocities committed in our name in far-off places we will never see. And so, listening to the news every day, I try to put myself into the lives of the people I hear about in news stories, as a way to honor the dignity of their struggles and their humanity. And sometimes it takes the form of a poem, with words borrowed from Dickinson’s poems:

Adoptee

They call it attack of panic
when alarms clang in my head
as if I had swallowed fire drills,
forcing me back into the night,
under our hut, boots thumping overhead.
The teachers at my new school
gather me up, pressing me back into myself.

Before, I was surrounded by bustle.
Neighbors’ chatter, banging pots,
the bubble of simmering azuki beans
we loved to eat mashed with butter and sugar.
Sometimes, distant growls
measured how we shared the bush.

Here on our American street,
houses loom mutely on lawns.
Cars sleek as gazelle
slide soundlessly into garages.

New mother, corral my flying parts
my belly full of surmise,
tell me nothing can send me back.
Our entwined hands like long evenings
lit by a full moon.

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, where she teaches American literature and WGSS courses.  She is the editor of “White Heat.”

Sources

 

History
The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 9, Issue 51. January 1862.
Hampshire Gazette, January 7, 1862
Harper's Monthly Magazine, January 1862.
Springfield Republican, January 4, 1862

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani