August 27-September 2, 1862: Home

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Eliot Cardinaux

This week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an article under the eye-catching title “Immigration to Be Encouraged.” This was rather surprising in a largely homogenous white and Protestant nation, which saw anti-immigrant riots in the 1840s and 1850s, as well as the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, whose dominant issue was restricting immigration. But apparently,

almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.

Given our present-day conflicts about immigration and the ongoing tragedy of separating immigrant parents and children, we decided to focus this week on the image of “home” in Dickinson’s life, thinking and writing, and what it means to be or feel homeless.

Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860
Emblem of the Know Nothing Party 1844-1860

Several prominent literary scholars and psychologists—Gaston Bachelard, Kenneth Burke, Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson to name a few—have explored what Jean McClure Mudge calls “the reverberatory power of this central symbol” of home in our culture and literature. For psychologist Erikson, “the optimum sense of identity is to possess a feeling of at homeness.” In 1975, Mudge applied some of their insights to Dickinson’s extensive use of this image and found that it

is perhaps the most penetrating and comprehensive figure she employs, [emerging] as a unique and unifying touchstone to several facets of the poet’s consciousness.

Mudge also sees a “universality” in Dickinson’s “situation, which was sometimes, if not gnawingly, to feel out-of-place as woman and writer, in short, homeless.” Still, Mudge notes how frequently other writers of the time—Hawthorne and Melville, for example—expressed a similar feeling, and how “it seems to be the hallmark of our own day.” By exploring Dickinson’s many homes and houses—the house of nature, the body, the mind, poetry, memory, God—and their layered associations, we might illuminate our own fraught experiences of home and away.

“Praesidium et Dulce Decus”

Springfield Republican, August 30, 2018

Progress of the War, page 1
“The withdrawal of Gen. McClellan’s army from the James, while our army in eastern Virginia was on the banks of the Rapids involved great and obvious hazards. It gave the rebel leaders the best opportunity they could desire to throw their entire force against the smallest division of our army and annihilate before the army from the James could arrive to the rescue, and they were not slow to see and to seize their opportunity. But this had been foreseen and provided against as fully as could be. Gen. Pope made a quick and unmolested retreat from the Rapids to the Rappahannock, where he could make a better defense against the vastly superior members.”

Immigration to Be Encouraged, page 2
“The recent letter of Secretary Seward addressed to J.N. Gamble of Cincinnati, in which the subject of aid in our farming and industrial pursuits from foreign laborers is presented, is the key-note to a matter of vast and growing importance in our country, especially the West. The letter was in reply to a suggestion of Mr. Gamble that special efforts should be made to make up for a deficiency in laborers by encouraging immigration. We are glad that the foresight of our secretary anticipated the need, for almost every farming town, and especially in the West, has exhausted all its available labor and the cry is for more men to cultivate the fields.”

Feminine Advisers, page 6
“It is a wonderful advantage to a man, in every pursuit or avocation, to secure an adviser in a sensible woman. In woman there is at once a subtle delicacy of tact, and a plain soundness of judgment, which are rarely combined to an equal degree in man. A woman, if she really be your friend, will have a sensitive regard for your character, honor, repute. Female friendship is to man, ‘praesidium et dulce decus’—bulwark, sweetener, ornament of his existence. To his mental culture it is invaluable; without it all his knowledge of books will never give him knowledge of the world.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Curious Case of Superstition, page 1
“A widow lady in Paris, aged about sixty-three, was accustomed to spend several hours every day before the altar dedicated to St. Paul in a neighboring church. Some villains, observing her extreme weakness, resolved, as she was known to be very rich, to share her wealth. One of them accordingly concealed himself between the carved work of the altar, and when no person but the old lady was there, he contrived to throw a letter right before her. She took it up, supposing it to be a miracle. In this she was more confirmed when she saw it signed ‘Paul, the Apostle,’ expressing the satisfaction he received by her prayers addressed to him, when so many newly canonized saints engrossed the devotion of the world and robbed the primitive saints of their wonted adoration.”

A Nice Girl, page 1
“There is nothing half so sweet in life, half so beautiful, or delightful, or so lovable as a ‘nice girl.’ Not a pretty, or a dashing, or an elegant girl, but a nice girl. One of those lovely, lively, good-tempered, good-hearted, sweet-faced, amiable, neat, natty, domestic creatures met within the sphere of home, diffusing around the domestic hearth the influence of her goodness, like the essence of sweet flowers.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

The New Gymnastics, page 129 by Dr. Dio Lewis (1823-1886)
“The common remark, that parents are too much absorbed in the accomplishments of their daughters to give any attention to their health, is absurd. Mothers know that the happiness of their girls, as well as the character of their settlement in life turns more upon health and exuberance of spirits than upon French and music. To suppose that, while thousands are freely given for their accomplishments, hundreds would be refused for bodily health and bloom, is to doubt the parents’ sanity.

“Home, Sweet Home!”

Of all the poets in an age that idealized home and associated women with domestic space, Dickinson is probably the one most closely associated with a house and home. Given that at some point in the 1860s, she started not leaving the Homestead, the gracious house her grandfather built and her father expanded and moved the family back into in 1855 after being forced to leave for a humiliating period of fifteen years. “Home” was a pervasive cultural icon of this period of growing industrialization and civil conflict. So redolent of peace and security that, according to Patrick Browne, popular songs like “Home, Sweet Home!” were banned in the Union Army camps because they incited desertions. To this day, and thanks to the loving curation of the Homestead’s buildings and grounds (pictured above), Dickinson is closely associated with this place, the literal house where she wrote all but a few of her poems and many of her letters.

But “home” was also a fraught space for Dickinson. She mentioned “emigrant” twice in her letters, both times in relation to the Homestead, suggesting that she experienced being a kind of immigrant at her home. In a letter to her dear friend Elizabeth Holland written in January 1856, Dickinson describes the move from the family’s Pleasant Street home to the Homestead, all of a block and a half away, in humorous terms with a cutting edge:

It is a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants!
They say that "home is where the heart is." I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings (L 182).

According to Patricia Thompson-Rizzo, who does a thorough reading of this complicated letter, Dickinson may be alluding to the sentiments if not the words of John Greenleaf Whittier's 1854 poem, "Song of the Kansas Emigrants,” which also contains the resonant term “Homestead:”

We cross the prairies, as of old
Our fathers crossed the sea;
To make the West as they the East
The Homestead of the Free.

At the time of this move, Dickinson’s father Edward was a congressman and proponent of the manifest destiny embodied in the immigration to Kansas, also known as “Bloody Kansas,” the site of bitter controversy and strife over the legality of slavery. Thompson-Rizzo concludes:

Reluctantly dragged to the neoclassically refurbished Homestead, Dickinson exposes the myth [of manifest destiny] so keenly lived by her father,” thus “providing an overt, albeit imaginative critique of the expansionist aims underlying the cult of domesticity as recently deconstructed by Amy Kaplan.

The second mention of emigrants comes in a June 1869 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

You noticed my dwelling alone -To an Emigrant, Country is idle except it be his own (L330).

Dickinson did not dwell “alone,” but was very much a part of her family's life. In some ways, though, Dickinson still felt like an immigrant in her father’s house or, at least, wanted Higginson to believe so. She recognized and sympathized with the emigrant’s sense of loss and “idleness” in a strange land.

Over her life, Dickinson made many more striking assertions about her home and the concept of home especially in her letters. For example, in 1851 she wrote to her brother Austin, away at school, about the Dickinsons’ second home on Pleasant Street (which was razed): “Home is a holy thing” (L59). In 1870, she wrote to a friend congratulating him on his marriage, saying: “Home is the definition of God” (L355). In 1875, she wrote to Maria Whitney: “Consciousness is the only home of which we now know. That sunny adverb had been enough were it not foreclosed” (L591). As Jean Mudge remarks, enclosures like houses and bodies and coffins were never far in Dickinson’s world from “closures,” endings, separations, death. Perhaps most famously, in 1876, Dickinson sent this resonant declaration to Thomas Higginson:

Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted (L459a).

Homes and houses abound in the poetry as well. One Dickinson’s speaker declares, “I dwell “in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose –” (F466A, J657) and another tells how she is exploring “Vesuvius at Home” (F1691A, J1705).

Scholars who work on Dickinson’s images of home and houses approach them from different directions: as an index of her attitude towards space and her body, as forms of containment, as structuring images, as “a sheltering framework,” as a metaphor for “breaking down the boundaries of consciousness.” All link her physical experiences of houses with her metaphysical concerns, which raises her poetry of domestic space to existential heights. As J. Brooks Bouson explains it, the house image

explores her Chinese-box view of reality: the soul or the mind of the poet is in the body which dwells in a house (in Amherst). That house, in turn, is contiguous to nature's house which borders on the heavenly home. Her special complication in considering this topic is that Dickinson uses the image in a paradoxical sense: that which is finite is replete with the infinite.

This is what Dickinson calls her “Compound Vision -/ Light enabling Light – The Finite furnished with the Infinite” (F830A, J906). Exploring these boundaries, Dickinson “is paradoxically both released and confined in safety or as a prisoner.” The downside to this is that she can never achieve a resolution or synthesis

but only unresolved paradox as she uses her art to define the space she occupies and to bring into focus different planes of reality which are simultaneously remote and near.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Eliot Cardinaux

Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale


That wood in the wind clatters
slowly as laughter yawns
in the belly of weeping,

that the pain splits the earth
in her laughing,
the same two masks

which pale as noon marble
into sunset, crowding
the dome with shadow,

that heap in her folds,
to measure like wings, and
swallow a dream between.


On nature a dying love is placed;
she melts over the pines,
her shadow waxen.

An emblem of guilt
we embrace,
he invented the mind.

Like sinew, her wings’ acting
comfort the will
demands graces,

like thistle below a sign,
somewhere an action
we keep still.


Odd, how her soft-
spoken, uncanny
twin and the wicked

tresses dye in
the midday sun;
it bleaches dust on

too — she’s
gone to market, slown
down like

cartwheels in
a gloaming

Today I was surprised and very excited to receive an email from the poet and scholar Ivy Schweitzer that my recent poems, “Passing, Exaltation, Pastorale,” were published as this week’s reflection on White Heat, an online Dartmouth publication about Emily Dickinson.
Since I had sent the poems but wasn’t anticipating them being published on such short notice, I decided to write a prose reflection in addition to the verse she published. The topic of this week’s entry on White Heat is “Home.” Since, as you will see, the events that correlate on this week in 1862 pertain to immigration, and Ivy decided to focus on homelessness, I though I’d share this.
The rents are rising. Homelessness is on the rise as a statistic. Or I might be wrong, but I notice myself more aware of my privilege every time I walk to the store, and of the precariousness of that position in society: that of having a roof over one’s head. As I settle into a new living situation (I’ve been in Western Massachusetts, the town over from Dickinson's hometown of Amherst, for just over a month), I have felt the contention of the forces of capitalism at its decay quite potently, to put it mildly. Not having bus fare. Having to work odd jobs to scrape by. These are not news to me. But all around me I see people struggling. From the man who sleeps out back of the Amherst bookstore where I work, who asked  to put in the good word. He was trying. To the hobos that lay under the bridge a block from my house in Northampton. I often stop off with a bottle of water or a nip, and hand them a couple of cigarettes. I can hardly afford it.
The fact that helping people sustain basic needs puts me in jeopardy is a good thing because it teaches me the lesson of what it means to go without. In an age where those in power are taking everything for themselves, including the rights of citizens to their own citizenship, it is empowering to learn how to survive with the bare minimum, and I think it deepens the empathy I have for people who are living this as a constant, often not by choice. As we near the third decade of what was once a new century, I find it poised within me to stand guard over people who have less because I know how it feels. 
I just wanted to share that in terms of what this is teaching me; I think I have a long way to go, but that accepting this life has taught me that I’m not alone.
Enjoy the poems, peruse the blog (Ivy has put together a great project on a phenomenal poet), and think a little on others. It will do you good.

Bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist


Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, xvii-xviii, 1, 13.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 2, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 30, 1862


Browne, Patrick. “'Auld Lang Syne’ Banned.” Historical Digression. January 2, 2011.

Bouson, J. Brooks. “Emily Dickinson and the Riddle of Containment.” Emily Dickinson Bulletin 31 (1977), 33-35.

Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 6-7.

Thompson-Rizzo, Patricia. “Gone-to-Kansas: A Reading of Dickinson's L182.” RSA Journal 14, 2003: 17-35, 21-22.

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July 30-Aug 5, 1862: Wealth, Class, and Economics

This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette on “Power and Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth and class in relation to Emily Dickinson and her use of economic imagery in her poetry.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christian Haines

""This week we take our cue from a column in the Hampshire Gazette titled “Power of Money” and an essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on “Economy” to focus on wealth, class, and economics in relation to Emily Dickinson.

Martha Nell Smith notes:

In studies of Emily Dickinson and her family, class is one of the most underinvestigated topics.

The essay in  Atlantic Monthly suggests a reason for this:

in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.

It is important to note that this essay, part of a series about the changes wrought by the war economy on the American household, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe under the pseudonym “Christopher Crowfield.” And that even in progressive outlets like the Atlantic Monthly, women writers still felt it necessary to publish under male pseudonyms—perhaps especially when they were discussing economics.

Dickinson came of age during a period of shifting economic and social trends, what Robert Merideth calls “The Age of Enterprise [and] the Rise of Finance Capitalism.” Her grandfather, father, and brother were each known as the “Squire” of Amherst, a title that recognizes their active involvement in the town’s development and membership in New England’s conservative political and social elite. Dickinson and her sister Lavinia were not expected to work, have a profession or earn money. But the Dickinson family’s financial history was fraught with instability. The small town community, in which their status harked back to earlier pastoral forms of social hierarchy, was changing and, as we will see, those changes register in Dickinson’s experience of class and economic necessity, inflected by her gender and her racial identity.

Economic changes also register in Dickinson’s poetry. Merideth estimates that at least 10 % of Dickinson’s poems employ “the language of economics,” but scholars are divided on how she used this discourse and to what end. Famous poems like “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –” (F788, J709, 1863)  and her refusal to enter the print publication market of her day bolster the view of Dickinson as an elitist and Romantic who placed herself and “art” above the worldliness of commerce. Other approaches explore her investment in and commentary on economics, her evolving class consciousness, and her commitment to democracy’s notion of the sovereign individual.

“Power of Money”

Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“There is now a prospect of immediate activity in Virginia. Gen. Pope has taken the field with the intention to find Jackson and compel him to fight, or to push on directly towards Richmond on the north. Some movement to be made by Gen. McClellan’s army, but in what direction is not yet apparent.”


Martin Van Buren, page 2

“The death of the ex-president has been mentioned by telegraph. He died on Thursday morning at Lindenwold, his homestead, near Kinderhook, N.Y.”

Poetry: “The Water Drinker’s Song,” page 6

I drink with a noble company—
With all the stately trees
That spread their leafy shade abroad,
And flutter in the breeze;
The playful breeze,
That loves to please
My comrades great and small;
I’ll drink at ease
Pure draughts with these—
They’re water-drinkers all.

Aimless Lives, page 7
“There are the most unfortunate persons, who are by their parents’ wealth released from their responsibility of industry—the spoiled children of the rich. Wealth in parents’ hands may enlarge the bounds of opportunity without destroying the motives in the child of industry and sagacity and perseverance; but he is a wise parent who knows both how to earn and how to hold the administration of his wealth in such a way as that he shall not destroy by these motives in his child.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“The world never admits a writer is inspired till he has expired.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862

Power of Money, page 1
“The power of money is on the whole overestimated. Riches are oftener an impediment than a stimulus for action; and in many cases they are quite as much a misfortune as a blessing. The youth who inherits wealth is apt to have life made too easy for him, and he soon grows sated with it, because he has nothing left to desire.”

The Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

“Headquarters of Beer Drinking,” page 185
“Besides the four elements known to us as air, fire, earth, and water, there is a liquid substance not entirely unknown in our country, which, in the kingdom of Bavaria, is sometimes called the fifth element, under the specific name of beer.”


House and Home Papers: “Economy,” by Christopher Crowfield [pseudonym for Harriet Beecher Stowe], page 230

“I think there is a peculiar temptation in a life organized as ours in America. There are here no settled classes, with similar ratios of income. Mixed together in the same society, going to the same parties, and blended in daily neighborly intercourse, are families of the most opposite extremes in point of fortune. In England there is a very well understood expression, that people should not dress or live above their station; in America none will admit that they have any particular station, or that they can live above it. The principle of democratic equality unites in society people of the most diverse positions and means.”

“‘The Almighty Dollar’”

There is little doubt that Dickinson occupied a privileged class position and knew it. She also likely perceived how unstable and threatened that position was.


Edward, Dickinson’s father, struggled in his early years to make up for his father Samuel’s financial insolvency, caused largely by his investment in the establishment of Amherst Academy and Amherst College. Samuel built the imposing “Homestead,” also known in town as “the mansion,” but Edward had to move his family out while he established his law practice. He lost money in the Panic of 1837, but eventually recouped his losses with investments in land. The Dickinsons did not move back until he could repurchase the house in 1855 and expand and refurbish it. Strongly civic-minded, Edward served as treasurer of Amherst College and helped bring the railroad to Amherst, which increased mail service.


His first born son, Austin, also became a lawyer and civic leader in Amherst. When Austin married Susan Gilbert in 1856, Edward insured their proximity by building them The Evergreens, a distinctive Italianate villa next door, which they furnished with contemporary art work. When drafted during the Civil War, Austin purchased a substitute for himself at the price of $500. Both Dickinson families hosted many famous guests and held annual social events like the Amherst College Commencement Day dinner and Sue’s famous evening salons and musicales.

Dickinson’s consciousness of class was shaped by her family’s position and what biographer Richard Sewall refers to as the family’s tendency to snobbery and satire, but also by her experiences of her gender and race. She had an observant and satirical eye for social mores, and her comments in her letters, especially to Austin, are often biting and condescending. She makes disparaging remarks about Irish immigrants, soldiers who come to the house, African Americans who worked for her family, the working poor, the girls at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary who weren’t quite up to the “Amherst standard,” and, in fact, anyone not in her intimate circle. In June 1853, she complained to Austin about the many visitors her father entertains brought by the new railroad to Amherst and characterizes them as:

the high and the low, the bond and the free, the “poor in this world’s good,” and the “almighty dollar” and “what in the world are they after” continues to be unknown – But I hope they will pass away, as insects on vegetation, and let us reap together in golden harvest time —that is you and Susie and me and our dear sister Vinnie … (L 128 )

Dickinson probably quotes the arresting phrase, “the almighty dollar,” from Charles Dickens, an author she read and loved and mentions earlier in the letter. From this desire to flee the growing diversity and commercialism of Amherst and withdraw into a pastoral “golden harvest time,” many scholars depict Dickinson as a critic of this enterprising age, of the literary marketplace, and “the almighty dollar.”

For Betsy Erkkila, however, Dickinson’s critique of commercialism was made possible by her elite status. In perhaps the most condemning reading of Dickinson’s class consciousness, Erkkila argues that

Dickinson was in some sense the spokesperson and representative of older ruling class interests, [who] returned to a pre-Revolutionary and aristocratic language of rank, titles, and divine right to assert the sovereignty of her self as absolute monarch.

In Erkkila’s view, Dickinson thought herself above politics and social causes, including abolition and women’s rights, did not make common cause with other women writers, feared the body and sexuality (and, thus, the democratic masses), and ridiculed the fame and commercial success of sentimental writers. About Dickinson’s resistance to Victorian gender conventions, her refusal to marry and publish, Erkkila observes that “from the point of view of class that refusal was paradoxically grounded in the privilege of her status as the daughter of a conservative Whig squire.” Even Dickinson’s radical poetics are compromised by her privilege: 

If on the level of language Dickinson might be celebrated as a kind of literary terrorist — a "loaded Gun" and dancing "Bomb" — who blew up the social and symbolic orders of patriarchal language, it is also important that we recognize that her poetic revolution was grounded in the privilege of her class position in a conservative Whig household whose elitist, antidemocratic values were at the very center of her work.  

Although Domhnall Mitchell recognizes that Dickinson did engage with political and social issues of her day, he comes to a similar conclusion about her elitist and conservative positions. For example, both Erkkila and Mitchell read “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (F260, J288) against the conventional grain. Mitchell argues:

Rather than expressing sympathy for the disenfranchised, the speaker expresses both anxiety and contempt for the democratic system that gives “bog-trotters” [Irish immigrants] access to political and cultural influence.

Erkkila’s central claim that

Dickinson was the“lady” and the intellectual whose leisure, freedom, and space “to think” were made possible by the manual labor and proletarianization of others

has been differently inflected by a ground-breaking study of Dickinson’s relationship with the Irish servants in her household. Aife Murray points out that domestic arrangements in the Dickinson household were unusual for that class. Emily Norcross insisted on doing most of the domestic tasks, with the help of her daughters, but as they became more socially engaged, they persuaded their father to hire a full-time live-in “maid-of-all-work.” Margaret O’Brien served in this capacity from 1850 until she married and left in 1865. Then there is a three and a half year gap before Margaret Maher is hired in 1869 and remains until well after Dickinson’s death in 1886.


Murray acknowledges that these women were “critical to [Dickinson] defining herself as a poet,” but not merely as nameless, faceless laborers or proletarians. She notes that Dickinson begins creating the fascicles when O’Brien arrives and stops during the period between her departure and Maher’s hiring, when she–Dickinson–took on so much of the household chores that even her letter writing flags. Editor Thomas Johnson comments about this period, “Psychologically she was dormant. The great poetic drive was suddenly at an end,” while Murray counters by saying, “Dickinson was busy”–with housework.

Murray also paints a very different picture of Dickinson’s class consciousness, arguing for her awareness of the significance of these privileges and her recognition of the contributions of the Irish servants in her household to the often occluded “social context of the artwork’s production.” She even argues that Dickinson stored her fascicles in Maher’s trunk and abjured her to burn them after her death. But recognizing their worth, Maher disobeyed and moved them into Dickinson’s dresser where Lavinia “found” them.

These two approaches to Dickinson and class show how “facts” can be differently interpreted and valued. For Erkkila, the fact that Dickinson had six Irish workmen as her pallbearers reinforces her elite class status and conservative politics. For Murray, the same fact was

an unusual choice that appears to have broken class and cultural taboos

and that spoke

to the Irish immigrant and poor community of Amherst, in an unambiguous gesture of honor and recognition.

Christian Haines

"ChristianIn her brilliant book, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Sara Ahmed asks us to consider everything that goes into the activity of writing – not only the time and energy of the author, nor merely her influences, talents, skills, and education, but also her material support. Without time and space, without food in the belly and a roof over one’s head, writing becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Sitting down to write is never simple, for in clearing a space to write, one is inserting oneself into a specific position within a material economy. Unless one is a professional writer, writing is a leisure activity—testimony to the margin of freedom allowed by capitalism. Part of the difficulty of reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry in class terms is that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Dickinson suffers from too much leisure, that the formal inventiveness of her poetry betrays a certain elitism. It’s easy to disdain the commodification of social life—“the Auction/Of the Mind of Man”— when one doesn’t have to worry about paying rent.

Part of Ahmed’s point, however, is that writing orients us towards objects in certain ways, that writing has its own efficacy, its own ability to move us in specific directions. It’s undeniable that Dickinson’s class position—her belonging to a bourgeois family of politicians and entrepreneurs—is the material condition of possibility of her poetry. At the same time, I’m not so sure her poetry orients itself towards the social reproduction of capitalism.

I should explain: Social reproduction—the object of a great deal of Marxist Feminist criticism (by Selma James, Silvia Federici, and Maya Gonzalez, among others)—describes the labor that goes into reproducing labor-power. In other words, it describes the housework, the childcare, transportation, and all of the other kinds of activities that maintain a work force. Without a work force, after all, capitalism cannot exist, and part of how capitalism secures its profit margins is by not paying for the maintenance of its work force. Imagine, for instance, if businesses had to pay wages for the housework supporting their workers or, given that the two-income household has become the social norm, imagine if workers received a stipend for their meals, their childcare, and their transportation over and above their wages/salaries. (By the way, these proposals were circulated by the Wages for Housework Campaign [1972], organized by the International Feminist Collective.)

So, when Dickinson’s poetry uses economic language to describe the emotions of a household, or when it frames the value of poetry and love in terms of their irreducibility to financial calculations, what’s at stake is not only class position in the conventional sense (workers versus capitalists; the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie; etc.). It’s also about everything that goes into reproducing a household, including the emotional labor or care labor so often expected from women. Dickinson’s poetry speaks to the intersection of gender and class, specifically, to the ways in which patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia align with capitalism to burden women with the task of reproducing the workforce (and with a smile).

We might pose a few questions, then: How does Dickinson’s poetry represent capitalism not only as class conflict or as the privilege of the elite but also as the general commodification of the household? How might the formal strategies of her poetry suggest alternatives to the capitalist value-form? How might her poetry cultivate social norms, affects/emotions, and even forms of life that differ from bourgeois possessive individualism?

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing poems such as “I gave Myself to Him” and “I’m ‘wife’- I’ve finished that,” and one of the consistent refrains in these poems is an anxiety regarding private property. To paraphrase Marx, Dickinson worries about what happens when everything gets reduced to the sense of having. I read this same anxiety in “Reverse cannot befall.” The retreat of value into the bowels of the earth constitutes a utopian demand for a life beyond the capitalist cycle of booms and busts. One might say that the poem becomes a placeholder for, if not a guarantee of, the invaluable. It makes a place for that which remains untouched by the endless reversals of the market.

Interiority—the geological interiority of the poem’s extended metaphor; the psychological or emotional interiority associated with lyric poetry—is therefore a social matter, because it implies a resistance to capitalism’s tendency to reduce everything to a commodity. No doubt, such interiority is a far cry from the poetic activism of, say, a Bertolt Brecht, an Adrienne Rich, or a Claudia Rankine, but it nonetheless suggests that even bourgeois personhood can remind us that keeping society running doesn’t have to mean reproducing a docile population of workers. (By the way, this emphasis on the utopian power of the bourgeois lyric poem is not unlike Theodor Adorno’s argument in “Lyric Poetry and Society” [1957].)

Of course, none of this erases the privilege Dickinson derives from her class position, but in the midst of a household that could not help but reflect and reenact the commercial desires of capitalism, her poetry did not so much serve capitalism as do a disservice to its entrepreneurial schemes. One could perhaps do worse than seeing her poetry as a reminder that not everything has a price.

bio: Christian P. Haines is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University. He's recently finished a book, A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons, which will be published by Fordham University Press in 2019. He also co-edited and introduced a special issue of Cultural Critique, "What Comes After the Subject?" (Spring 2017). Essays by him have appeared in journals including Criticism, Genre, Cultural Critique, and boundary 2. He has work forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly and Postmodern Culture and in edited collections including The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics (Routledge) and The Next Generation: Emerging Voices in Utopian Studies (Peter Lang). He serves as a contributing editor for Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities.



Merideth, Robert. “Emily Dickinson and the Acquisitive Society.” The New England Quarterly 37.4 (1964), 435-52, 437.

Smith, Martha Nell. “The Dickinsons & Class.” The Civil War, Class, & The Dickinsons.

Atlantic Monthly, August 15, 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 5, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 2, 1862


Erkkila, Betsy. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” American Literary History 4.1 (Spring 1992): 1-27, 3, 13, 15, 21, 23.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Emily Dickinson and Class.” Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 191-214, 197-99. See also, Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

Murray, Aife. “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson.” Signs 24, 3 (Spring 1999): 697-732, 729. See also Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New Hampshire, 2008.

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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.

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

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”


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).


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


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:


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.”



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