December 17-23, 1862: Second Crossroads Collaboration

On Monday, December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus with Steve Glazer and his 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy. Our destination was Amherst, Massachusetts, where we would celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday in her home town. This week, we describe that visit, explore some children who were crucial in Dickinson’s life, and admire more of the students’ projects from their portfolios on Dickinson.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Eliot Cardinaux
Sources
Emily Dickinson by Crossroads student, 2019

Dickinson Day!

On December 10th, we journeyed down the Connecticut River Valley in a large yellow school bus to Amherst, Massachusetts, to celebrate Dickinson’s birthday in her home town. It was a bright, cold day and, as we like to say in the “Upper Valley,” “at least it wasn’t snowing!”

The students in Steve Glazer’s 7th grade class from Crossroads Academy, in Lyme, New Hampshire, were restless with anticipation. As the Pioneer Valley opened up and flattened out, dotted with farms and old tobacco drying sheds, Steve tried to focus the students’ attention with his characteristic call and response: “Where was Emily Dickinson born?” he called through cupped hands to be heard over the rattling bus. “In Amherst, Massachusetts,” the children called back. “What year?” – “In 1830” and so on.

We stopped first at Special Collections in the basement of the Frost Library at Amherst College. Archivist Michael Kelly had a stunning display of objects and manuscripts laid out for us, including a lock of Dickinson’s hair, which is surprisingly ruddy. He showed us manuscripts of poems from early, middle and late in Dickinson’s writing career to illustrate the palpable changes in her handwriting. He was surprised and impressed when he held up the manuscript of a poem, announced its first line and, as if on cue, the entire class recited the poem with one voice. “I see I can up my game with this group,” he responded.

In Amherst College Special Collections
In Amherst College Special Collections, 2018

We then walked over to the Homestead for tours of the house and Dickinson’s bedroom. Perhaps the highlight of the day occurred next door at the Evergreens, where one of the students played her original piano composition inspired by the poem, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” The Museum graciously allowed her to use the Evergreen’s Steinway and we all crowded into Sue and Austin’s parlor to hear it. You can see a video of this performance and more of the students’ projects in the Poems section of this week’s post.

West Cemetery with Crossroads 7th graders, 2018

West Cemetery with Crossroads students, 2019

Then, back to the Homestead where students recited the poems they had memorized in the double parlor with the doors thrown open, under the watchful eyes of the Dickinson children’s group portrait. And, finally, a quiet walk through West Cemetery, flooded with winter afternoon light, to the Dickinson family plot, where we surrounded Dickinson’s gravestone and sang, “This is my letter to the World.” I think, I hope, Emily was listening.

“The Reverent Faith of Childhood”

Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862

Review of the Week, page 1
“Disappointment and disaster cover the week’s history. The march to Richmond by any of Fredericksburg has begun and ended. Our army is in camp again on the north side of the Rappahannock, but weaker by the loss of fifteen thousand men and by the consciousness that it has failed in one of its greatest efforts.”

The National Currency System—Its Advantages to New England, page 2
“[A currency] is designed as a medium of exchange to facilitate the business intercourse [of the people], enabling them to buy and sell, and to receive and make payments. The most indispensable qualities for this medium are, that it should be simple, uniform, and of undoubted value. The local paper currencies of the United States have not these qualities.”

The Reconstruction Puzzle, page 4
“The true way to settle the question as to how the South shall be got back into the Union is to destroy the rebel armies. When the rebellion is ‘crushed out,’ the theoretical difficulties of the problem will disappear. But the theoretical difficulties have very little reality to them. They are chiefly got up by those ingenious amateurs in state craft who think in some way to circumvent the stubborn facts of the situation and get rid of the hard necessity of fighting down the rebellion. The territorial lines, the constitutions and laws of the states in rebellion still exist. South Carolina is still a state, and her state officers elected legally are her rightful state authorities. The act of secession is null and void, and all the acts connected with it—if we can make it so by success in the war.”

Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind
Bransby Williams (1870-1961) British comic actor who played Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind

Books, Authors, and Arts, page 6
“This is a literal age. While seeking to master material forces, they have well-nigh mastered us, leading us to rest content with physical facts, instead of regarding them as the lowest and coarsest forms of subtle spiritual truth. We have lost the reverent faith of childhood; we are like raw schoolboys, who, knowing a little, fancy they know all. Our juvenile libraries contain no fabulous legends or fairy tales; they seem to have been selected by clerical Gradgrinds and offer only ligneous lessons and ferruginous facts.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 23, 1862

Poetry, page 1 [Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) an American poet, literary critic, translator, travel author and diplomat.]

Poem by Bayard Taylor

A New Cabinet, page 2
“The entire cabinet of President Lincoln, with the exception of Secretary Stanton, is said to have resigned. It seems well established that Secretary Seward has resigned the position of Secretary of State, and his son that of assistant secretary. These statements will take the country by surprise, as there had been no previously well-founded rumors of any proposed changes in the cabinet.”

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

from Lyrics of the Street (Part III) by Julia Ward Howe [see earlier parts of the series]

III.
The Charitable Visitor.

She carries no flag of fashion, her clothes are but passing plain,

Though she comes from a city palace all jubilant with her reign.
She threads a bewildering alley, with ashes and dust thrown out,
And fighting and cursing children, who mock as she moves about.

Why walk you this way, my lady, in the snow and slippery ice?
These are not the shrines of virtue, — here misery lives, and vice:
Rum helps the heart of starvation to a courage bold and bad;
And women are loud and brawling, while men sit maudlin and mad.

I see in the corner yonder the boy with the broken arm,
And the mother whose blind wrath did it, strange guardian from childish harm.
That face will grow bright at your coming, but your steward might come as well,
Or better the Sunday teacher that helped him to read and spell. …

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Love by Mishap, page 47 [by Edward Howard House]
“There is nothing in the world like the beautiful devotion of a woman to the sick. She feels no toil, nor pain, nor timid terrors. If she has grief, she hides it, lest it add one feather’s weight to the afflictions of her charge. Her courage rises as her hopes recede. The grim spectre that hovers and threatens may appall her, but she gives no sign. Her eye is clear and gentle; her voice soft and sweet as the breath of summer; her touch so tender that the simplest kindly office soothes like a caress. The dawn of her smile chases away suffering as light dispels the mists of the universe. In her weakness she is stronger than the strong.”

“This Slew all but Him”

Besides the neighborhood urchins, with whom (as we learned in the earlier post on Children) Emily Dickinson was reputedly a popular figure, she had a few young people in her daily world. Notably, the three children of Sue and Austin, who proved to be crucial to her life, writing, and reputation.

Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)
Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898)

The eldest of these was Edward, called “Ned.” He was a difficult child who was plagued with illness and eventually became a librarian at Amherst College, but died at age 37 of heart problems. Shortly after he was born, Dickinson sent this arch poem to Susan:

Is it true, dear Sue?
Are there two?
I should'nt like to come
For fear of joggling Him!
If you could shut him up
In a Coffee Cup,
Or tie him to a pin
Till I got in –
Or make him fast
To "Toby's" fist –
Hist! Whist! I'd come! (F189, J218)

But by early March 1866, Dickinson wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland:

We do not always know the source of the smile that flows to us. Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie (L315).

Despite Dickinson’s early fears of being displaced in Susan’s affections, she and nephew Ned became cheerful companions, sharing a love of words. Ned’s sister Martha recalled, in her soft-focus memoir:

His love of books kept him near her, and his sense of humor delighted her. He saved all his funniest stories, his gift of mimicry, his power of offhand description for her; and if his Aunt Lavinia went to a neighbor’s for an evening chat, Ned was usually to be found in front of the fire with his Aunt Emily, perched on the edge of a stiff-backed chair, the light of the flames flickering over her white dress, her hands crossed for permanence, but in easy position for flight should their talk be broken by an unwelcome knock.

Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)
Martha Dickinson later Bianchi (1866-1943)

Martha, called “Mattie” by her intimates, was the family memoirist, a poet and an early editor of Dickinson’s works. She was the middle child of Susan and Austin. In a letter to Susan away on holiday in Europe, Aunt Emily described her as “stern and lovely–literary they tell me–a graduate of Mother Goose and otherwise ambitious’” (L333, autumn 1869). Caught in the middle of her parents’ tumultuous relationship, Mattie was a staunch supporter of her mother. After her own failed marriage to an erstwhile “count” Bianchi and her mother’s death, Martha resided at the Evergreens and in 1913 began publishing Dickinson’s poetry and her reminiscences of Dickinson and the family. She eventually published eight volumes of Dickinson’s writings.

Although scholars have sharply criticized her editing of the poems and her sentimentalized recollections, which contributed to the myth of Dickinson as a woman in white who renounced the world because of frustrated love, Bianchi was the first editor to try to faithfully reproduce Dickinson’s original lineation as it appeared in the manuscripts. As Jonathan Morse notes in his helpful essay on the complicated publication history of Dickinson’s work, Bianchi was “ahead of her time” in this regard. The 1924 Complete Poems, which she edited, though in no way “complete,” brought more of Dickinson’s poetry into the world than ever before.

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and
Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883). Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and

Last but not least is the third child of Susan and Austin, Thomas Gilbert, called “Gib” by the family. Born to his parents in their middle years and much younger than his siblings, Gib was adored by all, especially his aunt. Biographer Alfred Habegger recounts this story about them:

Once, when little Gilbert was in kindergarten and boasted about a beautiful white calf that proved to be imaginary, his teacher reprimanded him for the sin of lying and made him cry. Sue tried to convince the benighted woman of the validity of the imagination, but Aunt Emily, as her niece [Martha Bianchi] recalled, was too indignant for reasoning and “besought them one and all to come to her, she would show them! The white calf was grazing up in her attic at that very moment!” A note she drafted for the wounded boy to take to his teacher had a poem on “The vanity . . . / Of Industry and Morals” (Fr1547B) and pointedly contrasted the punitive Jonathan Edwards with Jesus.

When Gib, barely 8 years old, died suddenly from typhoid fever, Dickinson reportedly rushed over to the Evergreens to be with the family, the first time she had visited there in fifteen years! She wrote to Elizabeth Holland about this death ( L873, late 1883) and wrote several poems and letters of condolence to Susan about Gib (see L886, F1624, F1666), one which asserted:

Some Arrows slay but whom they strike –
But this slew all but him …  (F1666)

Gib’s death deeply affected the family and apparently precipitated Austin’s affair with the young and alluring Mable Loomis Todd, who, with Thomas Higginson, was the first editor of Dickinson’s poetry. Their affair caused further divisions and enmity among the already hostile parties.

Although Dickinson would suffer other losses around this time—the death of her mother and Judge Otis Lord, a man whom she loved (but refused his offer of marriage)—it was Gib’s death that, some say, contributed to her final illness. There is nothing like the death of a child to reinforce the blighting existence of frost as perennial threat to the youth and innocence of the earthly garden.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Eliot Cardinaux

Have you ever come across an ED poem about Disillusionment? Anxiety? Reality? About how words themselves can be affected by life’s challenges, at least within us, as we grow into and out of and recede from them?

I wonder because her ideals were so wrapped up in her status as a woman at that time, there’s often a bite to what she says.

I was thinking of the way in which words can be struggled with, the way meanings wrap around their things, in language and without, how certain words can produce in us, personally, the need to grapple with how we live, the questions they provoke in us.

While their letters remain the same, each of these words, like tattoos, reel in the years or cause us to, in both senses of the word. A tattoo can change its meanings over time, acquire new ones, and shed those that life has caused us to question, their validity.

A tattoo of a gull caught by a fishing hook might be a good analogy, because to reel, to be struck, for example, like an eagle in flight by a crow, is to lose all sense of balance, and yet fishing for something down below the surface, we can never possess it — whatever mystery that fish holds, the weight of its bite, the force of its pull — without reeling it in. Some violence there, perhaps, in pursuit of the unknown.

Some thoughts on a cold, wet Monday as the snow thaws.

This ― Illusion― Meant

in the loop ― and out
it’s nothing ― personal if
you stay ― calm ― you
stay ― an anxious ― wreck

did you want me ― to scorn
the ear ― did you need
my throat ― to sing
did you want me ― here

to live ― in an unknown
word ― meanings coil ― around
their things ― havoc rings ― my head
a hydra’s ― lizard’s tail ― expendable

wrap ― your tongue ― around
a dash ― in the way ― I need you
there ― this way ― to go
did you want me ― dead

adapting ― hand in
hand ― with blindness
to the drug ― is the score
the truth ― that ― malleable

out the loop ― and in
it’s nothing ― special
you stay ― calm ― to
stay ― an anxious ― wreck

 

bio: Eliot Cardinaux
Poet, Pianist, Multimedia Artist

Sources

History
Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 23, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 20, 1862

Biography

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences by Her Niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932, 169.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson New York: Random House, 2001, 548.

Morse, Jonathan. “Bibliographical Essay.” A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian Pollak .New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 255-83, 258-60.

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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, and eventually her sister-in-law.  We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Sue, as Dickinson usually refers to her, chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is indisputable.

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

Springfield Republica

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

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