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.

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 was part of 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. Although historians have challenged and amplified Welter’s definition, the reality and effect of these beliefs in Dickinson’s circle are palpable. But we also see tensions in the ideology. In her poem, 
“The Wedding” published in July 1862, 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 once 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).

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, but 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

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

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.

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.

 

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 who married Dickinson's brother Austin.  We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Susan chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is undeniable.

Sue was born nine days after Dickinson on December 19, 1830 and died twenty-seven years almost to the day of Dickinson 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”

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 criticize 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 end their walk in 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 Dickinson sent to Sue over their forty-year correspondence, way more than she sent to her next most important correspondent, Thomas Higginson. Furthermore, especially in the early years, these were mostly in pencil and on scraps or plain paper, unlike the ink and gilt-edged stationary she 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” is one such poem that is most likely Susan’s, entitled “The Shadow of Thy Wing”:

Sus most likely sent her drafts to Dickinson for editing as well, but most of the two 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 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: