June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Virtues of Cold Water”

NATIONAL HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I am in danger–Sir–”

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

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

She enclosed four poems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

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

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

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

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

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

+ edifice

webbed burfish

Identification

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

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

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

 

Sources:

Overview

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

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

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

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862

Biography

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

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

 

Week of January 22-28: Fascicle 12

Dickinson chose to self-publish fascicles, booklets filled with hundreds of poems and variants, to avoid the pitfalls of the publishing industry. Upon her death, the fascicles were dismantled by her editors and then, in 1981, painstakingly pieced back together. This week, we explore what role the context of the fascicles plays in reading Dickinson’s poems by looking at Fascicle 12.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Madeline Killen
Sources
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Book-Making: Fascicle 12

Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about the publishing industry of her time, to say the least. She was aware of the gendered conventions and limitations placed on women writers and thought her poetry would not be conveyed accurately in print. The editorializing of her work both during and after her lifetime shows she was right. A Dickinson poem is hard to capture in a single traditionally printed manuscript or the sea of print and columns that was a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper page. Many of her friends urged her to publish her work, and editors approached her. The ten poems published during her lifetime appeared without her permission or supervision and often caused her consternation.

Instead, Dickinson chose a form of self-publication that allowed her to edit on her own terms and produce multiple fair copies and versions of one poem on a single sheet. She did this by including variants of words and phrases on the fair copies, often indicated by a small cross in the text next to the word with the variants in a list at the bottom or on the sides. The variants thus become a part of the poem, which itself becomes dynamic and performative. From 1858 to around 1864, Dickinson hand sewed the pages together, creating little booklets her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, called fascicles, which contained hundreds of her poems and thousands of variants.

Dickinson produced forty fascicles (that we know of). She never labeled them or the poems in them, or gave them numbers or titles. When they were discovered after her death, her editors immediately took them apart; now, multiple reconstructions of the fascicles exist, not all agreeing. In 1981, Ralph Franklin undertook a painstaking re-assemblage (based in part on the direction the needle went into the paper!) and printed the fascicles in manuscript, which is the only way we have of reading Dickinson as she presented herself. In an important study from 1992, Sharon Cameron argues that reading Dickinson's poems in the fascicles substantially changes our understanding of her work. The inscrutable, difficult single lyric poem stands in a rich and complex, perhaps, more comprehensible context.  In 2016, Cristanne Miller published a reading edition based on the fascicles titled Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them.

In addition to disagreement over how the sheets go together, there is also lively debate on why the sheets go together – what did Dickinson intend by grouping these specific poems and in that specific order? How does the context of a fascicle inform the reading of her poetry? Why do some poems appear in multiple fascicles? How do the fascicles relate to each other? Some scholars, like Franklin, view the fascicles as merely a way for Dickinson to organize her poems, part of “her workshop” in a period of immense productivity. Others see them as poetic sequences with a consistent narrative or organizations of complex relationships. Cameron goes further, arguing that they represent, as the title of her study pithily puts it, Dickinson Choosing Not Choosing. That is, they illustrate Dickinson’s self-conscious playfulness and her resistance to closure or fixity. We thought it important to explore one of the first fascicles Dickinson put together in early 1862, Fascicle 12.

“Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady”

INTERNATIONAL

Short news articles appeared this week on the history of French emancipation (presumably to apply to Civil War tactics and the lively emancipation debate in the North), and on the “Rejuvenation of Spain,” referring to the country’s reinvigorated military and economic power at the outset of the Second French Intervention in Mexico, when Spain joined with France and Britain to forcibly collect debts from Mexico after the country declared a suspension of loan payments to foreign creditors.

NATIONAL

Victory with a teeming sense of urgency and anxiety color this week’s affairs. The Springfield Republican’s “Review of the Week” describes how a “great victory crowns the new campaign,” referring to a battle in Kentucky where the Union obliterated a Confederate camp, seized some supplies, and pushed the enemy into retreat. The Hampshire Gazette contains the full report from Washington, and both papers pulled some quotations from Southern newspapers to show the past few weeks’ effect on Confederate morale. Numerous strong Union victories put a damper on things, and The Springfield Republican concludes that the only hope the “rebels” have is to not lose the whole war very badly. The “educated Southern men” are said to “rebel against the rebels,” and to think the constant fighting is now pointless.

Also in the Springfield Republican, lengthy war preparation reports from states in New England follow some important upheavals in the North. On January 27, President Lincoln ordered all land and naval troops to advance southward by February 22 (George Washington’s birthday) to avoid Major General McClellan’s vastly unpopular waiting game war tactics. Lincoln also appointed Edwin Stanton as new Secretary of War, replacing Simon Cameron after allegations of corruption surfaced. The Hampshire Gazette chronicles an interview with Lincoln about this cabinet change, to which he replied his cabinet now feels more “cohesive.”

Two op-eds stand out in this week of taxation complaints: one about the unchanging and ever-similar “American Society” of both the North and the South, and one entitled “Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady.” An anonymous upper class woman tells of her trip to the Senate to hear Charles Sumner’s speech on the Trent Affair,

Lithograph of Preston Brooks' 1856 attack on Sumner

including the sights of Washington, the distinguished socialites present (including other famous women), the politics discussed and derived from the experience, and the conclusions of the speech. The author makes a point to talk to the reader directly, her tone of voice and astute observations about Washington revealing that a woman, too, can not only engage in public political life, but also form her own opinions on the happenings in Washington.

“A State of Constant Flux”

No letters are definitively linked to this week, but we don’t know exactly when Dickinson wrote most of her letters. Over the next two weeks, Dickinson will pen multiple letters to Samuel Bowles, who is preparing to travel to Europe for his health. Some of these letters included poems, both old and brand new.

Another task that occupied part of Dickinson’s time was the production of her fascicles, and we focus this week on Fascicle 12. Cristanne Miller dates its sheets from early 1861 all the way to April 1862, and probably later than that. As is clear from the widely varied dates of different sheets, Dickinson was in a state of constant flux and revision with her fascicles, and frequently edited them by taking poems out or putting poems in, editing words and adding alternate choices, and probably re-sewing them together as well.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Madeline Killen

Believe it or not, I made it to age 18 and through an entire American public school education without reading an Emily Dickinson poem. The “Emily Dickinson” card in my mental rolodex had a couple of bullet points — recluse, apparently couldn’t stop for death — but was otherwise blank. Whether related to my Dickinson ignorance or not, I’d also never developed a particular affinity for poetry, choosing the less fair house of prose any day. I disliked that poetry so often felt like a locked chest with one little gem hidden inside; I wasn’t interested in searching for the key to a form that was so eager to resist me.

Yet somehow, as my undergraduate career comes to a close, I find myself writing a senior honors thesis on one of the most interpretation-resistant poets imaginable. In an ironic turn of events, it’s Dickinson’s seeming inaccessibility that makes me love her poetry as much as I do. She’s not inaccessible, she’s impossible; trying to decipher the core meaning of any one of her poems is a completely futile exercise, simply because there isn’t one. Rather than being infuriating, that’s liberating — Dickinson poems change depending on the angle you look at them from like the smooth side of a seashell in the sunlight. Nowhere is this more striking than in her fascicles, where Dickinson’s choices of order and proximity cause you to lose your grasp on what you believe she’s writing about the moment that you start to feel confident about it.

Poet and visual artist Jen Bervin's composite renderings of Dickinson’s seldom-seen editing marks and word variants

When Fascicle 12 starts with “I taste a liquor never brewed -,” I see a Dickinson in love; can any phrase describe a lover struck by the “extasy” of their reciprocated feelings like “Inebriate of air –”? This leads me to a single reading of the brutal drop in mood from the fascicle’s first poem to the later “I got so I could hear his name -” — a broken heart trying to mend.

I got so I could stir the Box -
In which his letters grew
Without that forcing, in my breath -
As Staples – driven through -

Can any Dickinson reader envision anything now besides Dickinson shifting through her correspondence with Master? But this is the brilliance of Dickinson’s fascicles — “A single Screw of Flesh” depicts a tortured relationship with a “Deity” and casts the preceding poem in a different light. Could the Box in which his letters grew be a Bible? Are we watching Dickinson fall from faith or fall out of love? Both, and neither, and who knows, and what does it matter? We dwell in possibility now.

Bio: Madeline is a member of the Dartmouth class of 2018, where she is currently working on an English honors thesis that focuses on Dickinson's Fascicle 18. An English major and an Italian minor, she took "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course, which inspired her thesis topic, in Winter 2017.

Sources

Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Ed. Cristanne Miller. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. Ed. Ralph Franklin.  Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elson. “Fascicles.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 108-09.

Hampshire Gazette, Volume 76, Issue 26. January 28, 1862.

“January 27: This Day In History.” History.com

Springfield Republican, Volume 80, Issue 4. January 25, 1862.