June 25-July 1, 1862: Mothers

This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationship to mothers–—her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson, mother figures in her life, and with the theme of mothering more broadly in her poetry and in her letters.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Marianne Hirsch

Exploring Dickinson’s literary foremother, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two weeks ago reminds us of the importance of mothers more generally in her life. We recall Virginia Woolf’s famous comment in A Room of One’s Own, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” Then, a column in this week’s Springfield Republican for 1862 on “The Influence of Mothers” contextualized motherhood in Dickinson’s historical moment. The nineteenth-century US idealized motherhood as a sacred duty to nurture and spiritually uplift, to be a self-less, shining beacon in a rapidly changing and war-torn world. All of this suggested this week’s focus on Dickinson’s “mothers.”

Emily Norcross Dickinson
Emily Norcross Dickinson

We use the plural to indicate mothering in a broad sense. Dickinson's biological mother, Emily Norcross (1804-1882), was a disappointing figure for most of her daughter’s life. There is evidence in Dickinson’s writings that she felt “motherless.” Most of the poems she wrote containing the word “mother” are about “Mother Nature” or “Mother Eve.”

Elizabeth Holland
Elizabeth Holland

But there is also evidence that she found a mother figure in the woman who was one of her closest friends throughout her adult life, Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland (1823- 1896). In a move to perhaps divert attention from her emotional dependence, Dickinson called Holland “Little Sister,” despite the fact that Holland was seven years her senior. By all accounts, Holland perfectly exemplified the Victorian mother, who excelled in the domestic sphere of nurturing and support. This week, we explore Dickinson’s relationships with her mothers and with the theme of mothering through her poetry and letters.

“The Influence of Mothers”

Springfield Republican, June 28, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We have again reached a moment of silent and anxious suspense. Gen. McClellan has crowded the rebel lines close up to Richmond, and there can be no further advance without a great battle, unless the enemy abandon the position, which is not probable. Everything is ready on our side, the last parallel is completed, the siege guns are in position, and probably before what we write is printed the country will be startled with news of the most terrific battle yet fought. If our arms are successful, as we confidently expect, the war is substantially at an end; if otherwise the struggle will be still further prolonged, and we may be embarrassed by foreign intervention. Everything depends on success at Richmond.”

The Emancipation Bill, page 2
“The bill to free the slaves of rebels that passed the House on Tuesday provides for the emancipation of the slaves of all persons holding civil or military office in the confederacy after the bill becomes a law, and of all others who shall not return to their loyalty within sixty days after a proclamation to that effect to be issued by the president. The bill also disqualifies all the classes named from ever holding office under the United States government. The president is authorized to negotiate for the acquisition, by treaty or otherwise, of lands or countries in Mexico, Central America or South America, or in the islands in the Gulf of Mexico, or for the right of settlement upon the lands of said countries for all persons liberated under this act, to be removed with their own consent.”

Western Virginia, page 2
“Two bills are before Congress for the admission of Western Virginia as a state into the Union.”

Influence of Mothers, page 6
“Love as we may other women, there stands first and ineffaceable the love of ‘mother;’ gaze as we may on other faces, our mother’s face is still the fairest; bend as we shall to other influence, still overall silent but mighty, reaching to us from long gone years, is a mother’s influence. In scenes of sin and shame and license come that pure, that holy, that ever-loving presence.”

The Power of Music by Augusta B. Garrett, page 6
“It happened one day that the evil ones were all assembled together. They issued from hell to conquer the souls through all the earth. Lucifer left the minstrel to take care of the infernal regions and promised, if he let no souls escape, to treat him on his return with a fat monk, roasted, or a usurer, dressed with hot sauce. But, while the fiends were away, Saint Peter came in disguise, and allured the minstrel to play at dice, who, for lack of money, was so imprudent as to stake the souls which were left under his care. They were all lost and carried off by St. Peter in triumph. The devil returned, found hell empty and the fires out, and very unceremoniously sent the minstrel away; but he was generously received by St. Peter. Lucifer, in his wrath, threatened with severe punishment any fiend who should again bring there a minstrel’s soul; and thus, they ever after escaped the claws of the evil one.”

Poetry, page 7

The Contented Robin poemBooks, Authors and Art, page 7
“A monthly magazine for business men is published in Philadelphia, with the title of the American Exchange and Review. But it must be true that businessmen are slower than their wives and daughters, for side-by-side with the American Exchange for June lie the fashionable monthlies of Godey and Peterson for July. It will be a great convenience to the ladies to receive these numbers in advance of the date.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

The Crops, page 1
“Vegetation of all kinds was never more promising at this season of the year than it now is in this region.”

Influence of Women in Secessia, page 1
“Secession went in among the daughters of the South just as a contagious disease would, or a new style of bonnet. It wasn’t urged into them. They took it. They liked it. It made the amiable angry, the sweet sour, the attractive repulsive, the handsome ugly as sin. It made havoc of all female charms and graces. It muddled the female moral sense and sense of honor. You can’t answer or argue with a woman. There is but one weapon left us in combat with these secesh: their own—insult. General Butler was right in using it.”

page 2
“The rumor of a repulse of our forces before Charleston, first announced from rebel sources, proves too true. Reinforcements will be needed in considerable numbers before the city can be captured.”

William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876
William S. Clark (1826-1886) in 1876

Amherst, page 3
Col. W. S. Clark arrived in town Wednesday evening. Notwithstanding the pouring rain, a large number of citizens turned out to welcome him, and he was received at the depot with three times three rousing cheers. His stay will not be long. The rebels are to be whipped and he means to have a hand in it. The ladies of Amherst are busily engaged in procuring articles for the comfort of our wounded soldiers.”

“I Never Had a Mother”

In his first letter, Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson about her “companions,” and she replied:

Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself, that my Father bought me – They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell – and the noise in the Pool, at Noon – excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister – My Mother does not care for thought –and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – (L 261, April 25, 1862)

The Holyoke Range
The Holyoke Range

Notably, and probably with some posing, Dickinson mentions first the “hills” (the rolling Holyoke range is quite distinctive and beautiful), sunsets, and her dog Carlo. Rather far down the list is her mother, who, Dickinson notes acerbically, does not share her interest in thinking. Dickinson amplified this sense of separation from her mother in a comment she made to Higginson on his first visit to her in 1870, which he reported to his wife in a letter dated 16 August 1870. He was taken aback to hear her say:

I never had a mother. I supposed a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled (L342).

Sharon Leiter notes that in an 1874 letter to Higginson, Dickinson developed this theme of motherlessness:

I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none (L405).

Leiter wonders whether Dickinson was exaggerating or pointing to a “fundamental reality of her emotional life,” and cites, with some qualification, John Cody’s reductive (and heteronormative) psychoanalytic reading that because of her mother’s weakness and distance, “Dickinson failed to make a proper female identification and identified with the males in her life,” preventing her from having a satisfying sex life.

After her mother’s death in 1882, however, Dickinson wrote to her friend and mother-figure Elizabeth Holland, confessing the deep connection that finally developed with the woman who was her mother:

We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother–but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came (L792, mid-Dec 1882).

In late October 1885 Dickinson wrote to console a friend who had lost her mother by saying,

Who could be motherless who has a Mother’s Grave within confiding reach? Let me enclose the tenderness which is born of bereavement. To have had a Mother – how mighty! (L1022).

Despite all the research on Emily Norcross Dickinson, we know almost nothing about her inner life because she apparently hated writing letters (it became a family joke). She was the eldest of two daughters in a large prosperous family from Monson, twenty miles south of Amherst, and had an unusually good education, attending the Monson Academy and then a year at a noted girls’ boarding school in New Haven, CT. She met Edward Dickinson in 1826, and after a lopsided correspondence (he wrote around seventy letters to her, she responded with around twenty) and much ambivalence on her part about leaving her close-knit family, they married on May 6, 1828.

Emily Norcross had three children over the next five years and ran her household in exemplary (or fanatical, according to Dickinson) fashion without servants for many years. She excelled in cooking, attended social and community events, and was the first in the family to convert in 1831. She was a skillful gardener, a passion she passed on to her daughter. She loved roses in particular, and grew figs, a difficult feat in New England.

Lavinia describes her mother as tender and loving, but others recall her as timorous and fearful, especially when her husband’s business and duties took him away from home. Both she and Dickinson suffered a bout of depression when they moved back to the Homestead in 1855, but Dickinson complained to Elizabeth Holland that her mother’s prostration took precedence (L 182). The domestic and caretaking duties that fell to Dickinson at that time might have contributed to her gradual withdrawal from society. In 1874, a year after her husband’s sudden death, Emily Norcross suffered a stroke and for the last four years of her life needed full time care, which largely fell to Dickinson, who died only four years after her mother. About their relationship, which some have dismissed as unimportant, biographer Richard Sewall concludes:

Emily learned from her what was perhaps more valuable than anything a brilliant mother could have given her: some lessons in simple, devoted humanity, important for a precocious girl not disinclined to the Dickinson snobbery and the satiric Dickinson wit.

The woman Dickinson looked to for maternal emotional support was Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland, wife of Josiah Holland, the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, and friend of Samuel Bowles. Dickinson met the Hollands in 1853 when they attended one of the famous Commencement week dinners put on by the Dickinsons. The Hollands epitomized the Victorian ideal of marriage; Josiah was large, imposing and intellectual, and Elizabeth was small, doting and warm-hearted.

Dickinson was so pleased with these new friends that she and Lavinia visited the Hollands’ home in Springfield, MA in Fall 1853 and again in Fall 1854. Their welcoming and vibrant household was the antithesis of the strict and dour Dickinson home, and despite Josiah’s anti-feminism, he rejected religious orthodoxy and had a strong commitment to the literary world, both of which Dickinson shared. And he genuinely cared for Dickinson. For example, as we detailed in the post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although he critiqued Barrett Browning's work as morally questionable, we know from Higginson’s report of his visit to Amherst that Josiah gave Dickinson a picture of Mrs. Browning’s tomb, obviously honoring his friend's delight in this woman writer and literary role model (L342).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Marianne Hirsch

“Matrophobia,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the 1970’s, is not fear of mothers, but “fear of becoming one’s mother.” Hers is a diagnosis that describes many women writers over the centuries, even those who are not feminists. Casting their mothers as “angels in the house,” to use Virginia Woolf’s derogatory term, they tend to cast themselves as motherless daughters who can rewrite the scripts of dailiness and of femininity. When Rich later writes about Jane Eyre and about her strength and the strength of her writing voice, she alludes to Jane’s motherlessness – a motherlessness that is full of temptations she must evade, but that nevertheless enables her survival, her development, and, indeed, the new script she forges for herself. But Rich also makes sure to tell us that Jane is not unmothered. She relies on surrogate mothers – her teacher, her friend, her cousins, the moon – to sustain and to protect her.

It is thus not a surprise that Emily Dickinson – the supreme crafter of her very own script—should distance her writing self from her mother, nor that she should describe her mother as someone who does not “care for thought” in the ways she herself does. Thinking women leave their mothers behind; they identify with fathers, or with women outside the family, with those who do not pose the dangers of matrophobia. Dickinson’s companions are nature, dogs, friends. Neither is it a surprise, however, that Dickinson turns to her mother during her illness and after her death. “To have had a mother,” she writes, “how mighty.” The stress is on the finality of the “have had.” The mother is in the past tense.

Yet Dickinson spends years caring for her mother in her illness and dies a short four years after her mother’s death. If she claims her in her death, does she repair the rift she nurtured in her life? Is the moving elegy she writes, “To the bright east she flies,” actually dedicated to Emily Norcross Dickinson, or is it more about a primal maternal loss, one that faces us all – one that leaves us “homeless at home?”

Dickinson’s ambivalent relationship to her mother is familiar for anyone who studies women writers. The mother who is alive poses the threat of matrophobia, but the dead mother, no longer threatening, invites a reconsideration. Virginia Woolf waited nearly three decades before writing To the Lighthouse (1927), the book that enabled her to work through the premature loss of her mother, Julia Stephen. She stated that writing the book did for her “what psychoanalysts do for their patients.” Dickinson’s elegy, and the other poems included here, are less specific and they engage the mother as figure and not as person. They do not ultimately negate the poet’s statement that “I never had a mother.”

bio: Marianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former  President of the Modern Language Association of America. She was born in Romania, and educated at Brown University where she received her BA/MA and Ph.D. degrees.

Hirsch’s work combines feminist theory with memory studies, particularly the transmission of memories of violence across generations. Among many other works, she is the author of The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (1989).



Plant, Rebecca Jo. Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (1929). University of Adelaide, Chapter Four.

Hampshire Gazette, July 1, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  28, 1862


Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 278-81, 325-38.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 88.


May 7-13, 1862: Wanderlust

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, the Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel and Dickinson’s fascination with the East.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Joe Waring

“Telescoping Places”

We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel.

              —Samuel Bowles, from a letter printed in the Springfield Republican, May 10th, 1862

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel. Though Dickinson didn’t stray far from the Homestead, she eagerly consumed news from abroad in the Republican, in her readings, and in her correspondences. She looked forward to letters from Bowles, some of which she read in the Republican, where he offered rich and sharply observed descriptions of England,  Ireland and the Continent.

Their relationship and correspondence underscore a fascination with travel, otherness, and foreign places that Dickinson exhibited in much of her writing, which is often expansive, reaching far beyond the narrow confines of Amherst life. Mary Kuhn points out that Dickinson frequently compresses vast distances into short lines or tight stanzas. For example, in 1860, Dickinson wrote:

Kashmir Valley
Kashmir Valley

If I could bribe them with a Rose
I’d bring them every flower that grows
From Amherst to Cashmere!     (F176A)

We are swept from the Homestead to the Kashmir Valley near the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent in one line. That flowers are the means of such compression points to Dickinson’s consciousness of the international mobility of plants, a theme we explored last week.

Cristanne Miller is particularly interested in Dickinson’s images of Asia and the East and finds that her “use of the idioms of Orientalism and foreign travel” in her poetry reaches a peak between 1860 and 1863. Miller explains:

Such images were not unusual at the time; Orientalism was in its heyday during the 1850’s in the United States. Dickinson both extended this discourse and critiqued it in her poems. She was part of a community that perceived its material pleasures, religious obligations, and republican principles, if not identity itself, in relation to global exchange, including commerce with … the “Orient” or “Asia.”

Dickinson read about the East, Asia, and the lands of the Bible in essays in the Atlantic and Harper’s, and her family library had copies of The Koran and several accounts of expeditions to places in the East. In her letters to her brother Austin, Dickinson teased him about his passionate reading of the Arabian Nights, which was immensely popular at the time and fostered a stereotypical and colonialist image of the East as a land of luxury and sensuality (see Letters 19, 22)

Dickinson’s fascination with places and her ability to “telescope” space, in the words of Christine Gerhardt, has opened a new direction in Dickinson scholarship that unfixes her from a narrow confinement to the small town of Amherst and her local surroundings, instead highlighting her global and even planetary dimensions.

“The Wounded Heart”


Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 3
“Rev. Mr. Green, a colored local Methodist preacher, was five years ago sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in Maryland, for having in his possession a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Numerous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, but without success until a few days since, when Gov. Bradford set him at liberty. He is required, however, to leave the state, and is already on his way to Canada.”

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Williamsburg Evacuated. Details of Monday’s Operations. Advance Near Williamsburg, Monday evening, May 5th—To the Associated Press:—

When my dispatch was sent last evening that the indications were that our troops would occupy Williamsburg without much opposition.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Gen. McClellan Overtakes the Enemy.
The following was received at the war department Monday noon:—

Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 4th, 7 o’clock, p.m.—Our cavalry and horse artillery came up with the enemy’s rear guard in their entrenchments, about two miles this side of Williamsburg. A brisk fight ensued. … The enemy’s rear is strong, but I have force enough up there to answer all purposes. … The success is brilliant, and you may rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up the enemy. The rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct in placing torpedoes within the abandoned works, near wells and springs, near flag-staffs, magazines, telegraph offices … Fortunately, we have not lost many men in this manner—some four or five killed, and perhaps a dozen wounded. I shall make the prisoners remove them at their own peril. G.B. McClellan, Major General.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 6 Poetry: “The Wounded Heart.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart.
Pass! there’s a world full of men;
And women as fair as thou art
Must do such things now and then.

Thou only hast stepped unaware,—
Malice, no one can impute;
And why should a heart have been there
In the way of a fair woman’s foot?

It was not a stone that could trip,
Nor was it a thorn that could rend:
Put up thy proud underlip!
’Twas merely the heart of a friend.

And yet peradventure one day
Then, sitting alone at the glass,
Remarking the bloom gone away,
Where the smile in its dimplement was,

And seeking around thee in vain,
From hundreds who flattered before,
Such a word as, “Oh, not in the main
Do I hold thee less precious, but more!”

Thou’lt sigh, very like, on thy part,
“Of all I have known or can know,
I wish I had only that heart
I trod upon ages ago!”

                   —Mrs. Browning

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 7:  On A Rose.—Be An Epicure

I thank thee, fair maid, for this beautiful rose,
Fresh with dew from the favorite bowers;
In the bloom of the garden no rival it knows,
For the rose is the beef-steak of flowers.

“The Heart Wants What it Wants”

By April of 1862, Samuel Bowles had embarked on his trip to Europe, and on May 10th, Emily Dickinson—who was keenly affected by his absence—caught wind of his whereabouts in the Springfield Republican. His remarks, written from off the coast of Liverpool while en route to Paris,  were printed alongside a set of letters from passengers aboard the Steamer China.

Samuel Bowles

Bowles had entered into Dickinson’s life four years earlier, in 1858, and became an important presence in Dickinson’s poems and correspondences. As biographer Richard Sewall notes, his place in her life is difficult to determine:

whether Bowles was at the exact center of it, or whether he was only a part of it, a catalyst in a mixing of many elements, cannot yet be said with certainty.

At any rate, Bowles was certainly someone to whom Dickinson addressed poems. Somewhere between 1861 and 1862—scholars disagree due to her shifting handwriting during this period—Dickinson wrote, “Dear Mr. Bowles,” accompanied by the following verse:

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To mind it!
How sweet it would have tasted!
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high
Except we dine on tiptoe!
Crumbs fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robins –
The Eagle’s golden breakfast – dazzles them!
God keep his vow to “Sparrows,”
Who of little love – know how to starve!  (F195A, J690)

The last line, Sewall points out, could indicate Dickinson’s willingness, even her desire to “exist on whatever bit (crumb) of love he chooses to bestow on her.” Hungry for such a crumb, Dickinson would have read the correspondences published in the Republican, pleased to hear the descriptions of Bowles’ journey:

We land at Liverpool this noon, and the end of our 18th day. The Irish and English shores in sight yesterday and today are a contrast in their rich green verdure and advanced cultivation to those we left behind us in America, dotted even in New Jersey and on Long Island with snow, or the barrenness and deadness of winter. The season here seems like the last of our May. We spend but a few days in England now, going over to Paris for May, and returning to Britain for the riper and richer June. We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel. S. B.

Interestingly, the letter closes a temporal gap, as if to reduce the geographic distance between Bowles and his reader. “The season here seems like the last of our May,” he writes, likening England in late April to New England’s May. Thus, he and Dickinson occupy the same clime despite being separated by continents, and because the letter wouldn’t be published until May in the Springfield Republican, the “now” and the climate of the letter converge with the “now” and the climate of Amherst, upon Dickinson's reading.

Around the same time the Republican printed  Bowles’ letter, Dickinson wrote to his wife, Mary Bowles, expressing sympathy for her husband’s absence.

When the best is gone I know that other things are not of consequence. The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care (L262).

Notably, the letter reads as if in two voices. Dickinson refers to “the heart” in general, as if to imply Mary’s, but also her own. The doubling continues and intensifies when she writes,

Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – and noting does – but just itself.

The peculiar use of “we” in a letter ostensibly about another woman’s husband stands out, as Dickinson co-opts Mary’s longing for her husband as her own.

As we discuss in the poetry section for this week, one indication of Bowles’ influence is Dickinson’s fascination with “foreignness,” place names, and “exotic” references during this period. Cristanne Miller points out that Dickinson had some knowledge of Asia, and often criticized Western attitudes of racism and colonialist “Orientalism.” As exemplified in Bowles’ letter from the China Steamer, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican.” Dickinson’s isolation in Amherst, intensified by Bowles’ departure for Europe, was, perhaps, partly remedied by identifying “ontologically” with “epistemologies of foreignness” that brought her ever closer to him.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joe Waring

Joseph WaringBy the time Dickinson was writing in the year of the “white heat,” interest in “Orientalism” had reached its peak in the American cultural imagination (Miller 118). The “Orient,” as Edward Said notes in Orientalism, his groundbreaking work of postcolonial theory, is the

place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring image of the Other

—and an interest in identity-formation in opposition to those images played out throughout the West (Said 1). Moreover, Said considers “Orientialism” to be not only a set of oppositions and ideas, but a

mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles,

all of which would become fodder for Dickinson’s poetic lexicon (Said 2). In fact, Miller locates about seventy different references to the “Orient” in Dickinson’s poetry, as she played her role in a long-established tradition of evoking “Oriental” tropes in writing—a discourse she ultimately perpetuated as well as criticized (Miller 118-119). Understanding “Orientalism” in this way—as a discourse, Said contends, allows us to trace the

enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.

Dickinson’s poetry—in its frequent references and deep interest in the “Orient”—urgently calls to be understood as part of this process (Said 3).

Why was Dickinson so interested in the “Orient” in the first place? To start, she voraciously consumed the literature, news, and culture that she came into contact with. As Miller points out, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican,” and she would have developed a deep interest in “foreignness” as her close friend, Samuel Bowles, set out for Europe in 1862, leaving her behind in Amherst. She also occupied a social milieu in which everyone else was fascinated by the “Orient,” too. New Englanders were constantly filling their homes with “knickknacks, the fine china dogs and cats, the pieces of oriental jade, the chips off the leaning tower of Pisa” (Tate 155). What’s more, Dickinson visited the Peter’s Chinese Museum in 1846, which documented the Anglo-Sino Opium War, spurring great interest in the use of narcotics (Li-hsin 9).

Among American writers, Dickinson was not alone in her invocation of “Orientalism.” Miller notes that “Emerson, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Lydia Maria Child, and Whitman” were all deeply interested in “Asian scripture and literature” in a way that surpassed Dickinson (Miller 129). The transcendentalists in particular looked to “Asian philosophy and religion as a source of spiritual inspiration or knowledge” (129). Whitman, even more problematically, viewed “Asia as a natural partner to or goal of American westward expansion”—a form of U.S. imperialism that Dickinson largely avoided (130). Where the transcendentalists sought to incorporate the “Orient” both into their spirituality, philosophy, and—imperialistically—their geography, Dickinson saw Asia as an “unknown” that could inspire insight into her understanding of her own context.

While Dickinson’s use of “Orientalist” references was in line with historical trends and interests, what she read and learned about the “Orient” may have expanded her ability to think about contemporary issues at home, thus participating in what Said sees as a trend of oppositional identity formation. Dickinson’s 1864 poem, “Color – Caste – Denomination” (F836), which in its title alone addresses three pressing issues of American society, makes use of “Oriental” imagery to comment on contemporary social and political issues:

Color – Caste – Denomination – 

These – are Time's Affair – 

Death's diviner Classifying 

Does not know they are -

As in sleep – all Hue

forgotten – 

Tenets – put behind – 

Death's large – Democratic


Rub away the Brand -

If Circassian – He is careless – 

If He put away 

Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber – 

Equal Butterfly -

They emerge from His Obscuring – 

What Death – knows so well – 

Our minuter intuitions – 

Deem unplausible

Race, socioeconomic status, and religion—topics that are well-documented in Dickinson’s poetry, as well as in the blog posts for several of the weeks in 1862—were important to Dickinson’s understanding of the “Orient,” just as they were in the United States; they are, universally speaking, “Time’s Affair,” unified across continents insofar as “Death’s diviner Classifying / Does not know they are.” Death’s “large – Democratic / fingers” are democratic precisely because they touch everyone, everywhere. “If Circassian,” she seems to ask, the effect is the same as if the question were, “If from Amherst?” The poem makes frequent reference to skin tone and race: “color,” “Hue,” “Blonde,” “Umber”—a lexicon that maintains its urgency whether in reference to American abolition or the Circassians.

What, then, do we make of these references? As Said points out, the academic and literary traditions of “Orientalism” are not innocuous; “European culture,” he points out, “gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 3). The natural consequence of identity formation that opposes itself to an “other,” Said continues, is a “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (7). As such, there is much to be criticized, examined, and understood about conceptions of “otherness” and “foreignness” in Dickinson’s frequent evocation of the “Orient.” Miller offers some consolation in that, though Dickinson certainly participated in a troubling and long history of “Orientalism,” she did so with her characteristic empathy:

Instead, Dickinson’s Orientalism borrows from and rewrites the symbolic geographies of her era. While popular geographies portrayed people in relation to stereotyped coordinates of the South, North, East, and West, her representations of Asians were without exception sympathetic, even if romantically or ambivalently so (Miller 130).


Hsu, Li-hsin. “Emily Dickinson's Asian Consumption.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1-25,135.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-146.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Tate, Allen. "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson." The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890. Ed. Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1965.

bio: Joe Waring is a Dartmouth ’18, who studied English, Italian, and Linguistics. He came by Dickinson like most, in his high school classroom, where he memorized “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” and was happy to revisit Dickinson in Professor Schweitzer’s class, “The New Emily Dickinson: After The Digital Turn.” His favorite Dickinson poem is, unquestionably, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (J1298, F1350).

Gerhardt, Christine. “Often seen–but seldom felt”: Emily Dickinson’s Reluctant Ecology of Place.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 15.1 (2006): 73.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH, 85:1 (Spring 2018), 143-44.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-20.

This week in History:
Springfield Republican,  Sat May 310 1862.

This week in Biography:
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 119.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980,  492-93.


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 this year-long exploration of one of Emily Dickinson’s most productive periods as a poet with the events of January 1-7, 1862. One of the most poignant issues for Dickinson was the American Civil War, which is why we start by examining some of the implications of the War for 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 United States, 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. His death inaugurated a Victorian culture of mourning (Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life), but events in Britain laid the backdrop for this culture: Alfred Lord Tennyson's popular elegiac poem, “In Memoriam” (1849) and  the preoccupations of the late Romantics with dying and death. Tennyson's influence on Dickinson will be explored in next week's post. Man. thanks to my colleague Colleen Boggs for this information.


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 1st, 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

During this week, Dickinson wrote a letter to Edward Dwight, a former local pastor, which had a strange, comedic fate. 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 photograph of Lucy in return.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

I tell people who ask about the motivation for this project, that Dickinson called me. That is why I created  this year-long exploration of 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 (1723-1792), 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. That is, they have been “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, according to Werner, that is

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 to 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 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, in Song of Myself, Section VI asks, “What is the grass?” The speaker responds: “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