July 2-8, 1862: Marriage

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Lisa Furmanski

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work. We also take inspiration from the publication in this month’s Atlantic Monthly of Julia Ward Howe’s tonally ambiguous poem, “The Wedding,” the second in her series titled Lyrics of the Street, reproduced in “This Week in History.”

For a woman of Dickinson’s time, region, and class, marriage was the acme of a female life. Such women were not considered “complete” without it. In 1966, historian Barbara Welter described what she called “the cult of domesticity” or “cult of true womanhood,” a set of ideas purveyed by sermons, how-to books and women’s magazines for middle and upper-class white Protestant New-Englanders, in response to a range of social developments: the disappearance of the family farm, where everyone worked together; new professions located outside the home; and the flood of immigrants crowding cities and even small towns like Amherst, MA. She titled her book on the subject, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, taking her opening phrase from Dickinson's condemnatory poem, “What soft – Cherubic Creatures–/These Gentlewomen are –" (F675).

At the same time, in legal terms, when a woman married, she moved from the legal category of feme sole (single woman) to the legal category of feme coverte (covered or protected woman), where her identity merged with that of her husband and she, essentially, had no rights apart from his protection. Reform of these laws in the form of the Married Women’s Property Acts began in the mid-nineteenth century but was not fully accomplished nation-wide until the early twentieth-century.

This new vision of femininity reflected what scholars identified as an ideology of “separate spheres” for men and women, based on biologically determined gender roles and part of a complex system of “sex-gender conventions” that prevailed in the northeast US in the 19th century. It rested on four central “virtues:” piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. Recently, historians have challenged and amplified Welter’s definition. For example, Susan Cruea identifies four evolving and overlapping images of women in the nineteenth century: not only True Womanhood, but Real Womanhood, Public Womanhood and New Womanhood.

While the reality and effect of the beliefs in True Womanhood  are palpable in Dickinson’s circle, as we will see in the poems for this week, there were also palpable tensions in this ideology and strong resistance to it. In her poem, “The Wedding” published in July 1862, for example, Julia Ward Howe characterized the “the wedded task of life” as “Mending husband, moulding wife.”

Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections
Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections

A salient site of Dickinson’s desire and resistance to this ideology is her extensive series of poems that explore marriage in all its dimensions, often highly metaphorical and “mystical.” These poems explore betrothal, the bride and bridegroom, the wedding and its aftermath of consummation, the wife’s experience and entitlement, and the frequent renunciation that accompanies love and marriage. Although Dickinson never married, she had several proposals, one as late as 1882 from Judge Otis Lord when she was in her early 50s. Some scholars read her marriage poems biographically, but we will approach them as complex explorations of female identity. For models, Dickinson could draw on several very different types of marriages among her circle of intimates. We will look at these marriages, the current attitude towards marriage in the press, and Dickinson’s extraordinary poetry of marriage.

“They Will all Have to Die Old Maids”

Springfield Republican, July 5

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the midst of the great struggle before Richmond, with only imperfect accounts of the events that occurred last week. The prominent and most important fact is that Gen. McClellan has changed his entire line in the face of the enemy, and while a severe battle was raging, and that his army now occupies the region between the Chickahominy and James river, that his base of operations at the White House landing is abandoned and his supplies and reinforcements now go up the James River. A series of great battles has been fought commencing on Wednesday of last week and continuing until Sunday, possibly until the present hour, and there is no reason to expect and further lull in the storm till the fate of Richmond and of the rebel armies that defend it is decided.”

From Washington, page 1
“No one can think of anything but the great battle at Richmond and the gigantic movements of the last few days. Is McClellan whipped? Is our army in danger of immediate destruction? Can McClellan still evolve victory from apparent disorder? Great battles have been fought—and the war department pretends it has no news.”

Poetry, page 5

General News, page 5

“English antiquarians are much exercised over the identity of a human skeleton just discovered at Leicester. It is supposed that the remains are those of King Richard III.”

“The reason the southern women are so bitter in this rebellion, against the people of the North, is that the southern men prefer the northern women to them, and they are afraid if the war ceases they will all have to die old maids.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Some married folks keep their love, like their jewelry, for the world’s eyes; thinking it too precious for everyday wear at the fireside.”

“Men love women for their natures—not their accomplishments. More men of genius marry, and are happy, with women of very common-place understandings, than ever venture to take brilliant wives, and enjoy a showy misery.”

The First Death, page 7
“It is wonderful how a war like this ennobles death. Once it was only sad to think of the first death, and no subsequent bereavement seemed quite like that. The heart was not accustomed to chastening when the first blow fell, nor the home used to such visitants when the destroying angel first crossed its threshold. That house of mourning may become again a house of feasting, but the memory of the darkened chamber and vacant chair below survive all change.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“There are certain books which are not what we wish they were, because we are confident they are not what their authors are capable of producing—books of promise—books which betray a nature kept by circumstances from a free and full development—books which impress without satisfying—books which please moderately, yet yield us no full throb of pleasure—books with musical threats and warm bosoms and fine plumage, but no wings, no faculty of flight to take us up through the ether. One of these books is “Home, and other Poems” by A.H. Caughey of Erie, PA.”

Woman and Chivalry, page 7
“A man should yield everything to a woman for a word, for a smile—to one look of entreaty. But if there be no look of entreaty, no word, no smile, I do not see that he is called upon to yield much.”

Atlantic Monthly, July 15

Originality, page 63

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

“A great contemporary writer, so I am told, regards originality as much rarer than is commonly supposed. But, on the contrary, is it not far more frequent than is commonly supposed? For one should not identify originality with mere primacy of conception or utterance, as if a thought could be original but once. In truth, it may be so thousands or millions of times.”

Lyrics of the Street II [from a series of 6], page 98
“The Wedding” by Julia Ward Howe

In her satin gown so fine
Trips the bride within the shrine.
Waits the street to see her pass,
Like a vision in a glass.
Roses crown her peerless head:
Keep your lilies for the dead!

Something of the light without
Enters with her, veiled about;
Sunbeams, hiding in her hair,
Please themselves with silken wear;
Shadows point to what shall be
In the dim futurity.

Wreathe with flowers the weighty yoke
Might of mortal never broke!
From the altar of her vows
To the grave’s unsightly house
Measured is the path, and made;
All the work is planned and paid.

As a girl, with ready smile,
Where shall rise some ponderous pile,
On the chosen, festal day,
Turns the initial sod away,
So the bride with fingers frail
Founds a temple of a jail,—

Or a palace, it may be
Flooded full with luxury,
Open yet to the deadliest things,
And the Midnight Angel’s wings.
Keep its chambers purged with prayer:
Faith can guard it, Love is rare.

Organ, sound thy wedding-tunes!
Priest, recite thy wedding tunes!
Hast no ghostly help nor art
Can enrich a selfish heart,
Blessing bind ‘twixt greed and gold,
Joy with bloom for bargain sold?

Hail, the wedded task of life!
Mending husband, moulding wife.
Hope brings labor, labor peace;
Wisdom ripens, goods increase;
Triumph crowns the sainted head,
And our lilies wait the dead.

Reviews and Literary Notices, page 124
“‘Fantine,’ the first of five novels under the general title of ‘Les Misérables,’ has produced an impression all over Europe, and we already hear of nine translations. It has evidently been ‘engineered’ with immense energy by the French publisher. Every resource of bookselling ingenuity has been exhausted in order to make every human being who can read think that the salvation of his body and soul depends on his reading ‘Les Misérables.’”

“That Great Blessedness”

Dickinson’s feelings about marriage emerge early in her writing. In a letter to Susan Gilbert, dated early June 1852, Dickinson recalls a walk with her friend Mattie, how they talked about “life and love, whispered our childish fancies about such blissful things” and

wondered if that great blessedness which may be our’s sometime, is granted now, to some. Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly, beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it’s own, and we shall not run away from it, but lie still and be happy.

It is not clear whether Dickinson refers here to heterosexual marriage or, as some commentators argue, a great love she feels for Sue. What is clear is that she is looking at this rapturous state from the outside and has some fear of it. The phrase, “but lie still and be happy,” echoes the advice about unwanted marital sex purportedly given to women at the time, sometimes attributed to Queen Victoria: “close your eyes and think of England.” Women were not supposed to have or feel or own up to sexual desires.

Dickinson goes on in the letter to chide Susan for being “strangely silent on this subject,” asks her if she has a “dear fancy, illuminating all your life … one of whom you murmured in the faithful ear of night,” and insists

when you come home, Susie, we must speak of these things. How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but – dew? No, they will cry for the sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho’ it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace – they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up. (L93; her emphasis).

From this “amatory strain,” we can draw several inferences. On the one hand, Dickinson feels that non- or pre-brides and unplighted maidens have dull lives, although the phrases describing brides as “fed with gold,” and gathering “pearls every evening” verge on the melodramatic and ironic. On the other hand, “the wife forgotten” is pitiful, and the scorching of delicate female flowers by burning “men of noon” is dangerous and threatens to consume women. Dickinson fears being “yielded up,” a doubling of the passive construction.

Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)
Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)

We know that Susan also feared marriage and put hers to Austin off for several years, mainly because of the sexual component. There is speculation that she had several abortions before her first child was born in June 1861, and that she may have tried to terminate that pregnancy as well. This resistance occurred, perhaps, because, by all accounts, her marriage to Austin was miserable. While Susan was a close school friend of Dickinson and was, at first, adored by the Dickinson family, she and Austin had very different expectations of their union. From a less stable background, Sue wanted financial security and improved status. Austin, by contrast, had a romantic streak and craved affection he did not get from his stern father and distant mother.

Although they eventually had three children together, Austin felt exiled from the family and spent much time at the Homestead next door with his two unmarried sisters. Unable to divorce Susan, Austin eventually began a passionate, long-term affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, a much younger woman.

Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd
Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd

Dickinson’s biography contains several types of marriages that might have colored her feelings about the state. Her parents’ marriage was steadfast but featured a controlling husband who exacerbated the fears and dependencies of his much frailer wife. Austin’s marriage to Susan was a dismal failure that caused much pain to all involved. By contrast, Austin’s lover Mabel was married to David Todd, a young professor of Astronomy, who joined the faculty at Amherst College in 1881, and who seems to have known about and even approved of (and participated in) his wife’s liaison—offering a very different model of an “open” marriage from the very “closed” Victorian model advocated by the reigning sex-gender conventions. A happier version of this ideal was epitomized by Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, friends of Dickinson discussed in last week’s post. As we noted there, Josiah was large, imposing, and intellectual and Elizabeth was small, doting, and warm-hearted. He had a public profile as a writer, lecturer and literary editor of the Springfield Republican while she maintained their busy and vibrant home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Lisa Furmanski

No more families torn apartHow to Be Wife at the End of the World

Inside me is a scarlet feather, clenched
With gauze, it takes my mind abroad
Where I risk the end of our children.
Wed me not to bells, clanging knots,
Their sound is an eclipse of the spirit
Doming a lead gown. I can protest
A bare sun but no way to bear its melt,
Thus I am alone, that is, being a bride.
Night rites blue and our bed plumbs
What the radio said about loneliness.
Wife weeps. Wife pulls at her feather.
Fierce, a woman with such tiny wrists.
I am dogged enough to choir, to carry
Signposts, memes of sickness and vow.

— June 30th, the day of the March for Families, was unbearable in many ways. The incredible heat was ominous, and the speakers invoked the long, long arc of resistance, nothing near or soon. Is my marriage and wifehood in these times beyond the political, or can it strike a chord of protest? Proof and risk, defiance and intimacy, I want my shared life to be all of these. The
poems for this week’s blog, like much of Dickinson’s work that I depend on, are a “puzzle”: of faith and nature and relationships, and inspired this attempt to speak as a wife in these terrible times.

bio: Lisa Furmanski is a physician and writer living in New Hampshire. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, Hunger Mountain, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere.



Cruea, Susan. "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement. ATQ: 19th century American Literature and Culture. Vol. 19, Issue 3, 2005: 187-204; General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 1. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/gsw_pub/1

Gerdes, Kirsten. “Marriage and Property Rights.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Greenwood Press, 2014, 564-68.

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

As complication and challenge, see:

Davidson, Cathy and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds. No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.


Atlantic Monthly, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 5, 1862.


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

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 186-96.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983.

April 23-29, 1862: Second Letter to Higginson

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay, responding to his critique of her poems and including several poems, thought which exactly are in dispute. This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week‘s Poems
This Week‘s Reflection - Joseph Waring
Sources/Further Reading

“Thank you for your surgery”

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay:

Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude – but I was ill – and write today, from my pillow. (L261)

As discussed in last week’s post, Dickinson was first prompted to write after reading Higginson’s essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” published in the Atlantic Monthly on April 15th, and her letter inspired a swift response. Though we don’t know exactly what Higginson said in his reply to Dickinson, we do know that he offered some criticism of the poems she enclosed—criticism that she refers to in her second letter as “surgery.” Having her poems dissected by an established male editor “was not so painful as I supposed,” she writes, but she side-steps his advice, engaging on her own terms, in a series of dense, opaque lines, discussed in This Week in Biography.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

This scenario is all too famillar to poets who are women. In 1964, Adrienne Rich wrote a poem to Emily Dickinson, referencing Higginson's involvement in and “garbling” of the posthumous publication of Dickinson poetry. The poem's title is a phrase taken directly from Dickinson's June 7th, 1862 letter to Higginson (L265). Check out the pun on “premises” at the end of the poem!

“I am in Danger Sir”

“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood

mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end 
who are you?

you, woman, masculine
in single-mindedness,
for whom the word was more
than a symptom 

a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
of Perjury

and in your half-cracked way you chose
silence for entertainment,
chose to have it out at last
on your own premises.

    – Adrienne Rich, from  Necessities of Life (1966)

This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences of receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

“This hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy”


Springfield Republican, April 26

The Pear and Grape Mania, p. 1:

“Pyrumnia, or pear fever, and vitifermania, or grape fever,” says the New York Horticulturist, are endemic diseases, affecting most violently the inhabitants of anti-rural towns, and chiefly those recently from city life in the spring. This disease, to plethoric purses, is well understood by nurserymen, to whom its appearance is as welcome as an epidemic to young physicians, or a financial crisis to briefless lawyers. The first stage of the disease usually commences soon after taking a country residence, and shows itself in a general admiration of fruit. Soon half a dozen or more thrifty tress and vines are bought. These trees are generally faultless in shape and proportion, and the nurseryman very reluctantly, but obligingly parts with them.

New Bradford Pear Tree
New Bradford Pear Tree

Emancipation and Colonization, p. 2:

Frank P. Blair of Missouri made a speech in Congress, on the 11th, in defense of the president’s war policy, and of his plan of colonizing the negroes as they are emancipated.

We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slaveholders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will then induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of the negroes; and, as nine out of ten of the white people of the South are non-slaveholders, and as the right of suffrage is almost unlimited, it is easy to see what will be the result. It is objected, however, that we have no right to remove the negroes from their own country against their will. I do not believe that compulsory colonization is necessary to the ultimate success of this plan; but neither do I regard it with any abhorrence. On the contrary, I look at it as the greatest boon we can confer upon this race—greater by far than the gift of personal freedom in a land in which they must forever remain in a condition of social inferiority, among people who will treat them with every imaginable indignity.

The Abuse of Words

It may be a small matter to some that the noblest words in the English language are daily prostituted to the commonest affairs of life, but to an admirer of his mother tongue it is certainly painful. The constant application of great words to small things is gradually undermining the native strength of the language, insomuch that to make an impressive statement it is not infrequently necessary to pile a Pelion of adverbs upon an Ossa of adjectives. But that is not the only bad phase of the subject; to plain matter of fact sort of people nothing can be more nauseating than this hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy.

Books, Authors and Art, p. 7:

Mrs. H. B. Stowe’s Romances of Italy and America, “Agnes of Sorrento,” and “The Pearl of Orr’s Island,” will appear in book form on the same day. One is a story of the Old World’s loves and sorrows, and the other is a vivid picture of our own country’s romance of a newer life. Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, in Boston, and Messrs. Sampson, Low & Co., in London, will bring out both these charming stories on the 1st of May. The author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” thus provides summer reading for both sides of the Atlantic.

The Unparalleled Flood of 1862, p.8

The rapid melting of immense bodies of snow throughout New England has caused a sudden freshet in most of the rivers, wholly unparalleled at some points. No rain fell until the water had begun to subside. The few warm days of last week caused the snow to melt and run like butter… As the great spring freshet of 1801 was called the “Jefferson flood,” and that of 1854 the “Nebraska flood,” so this unparalleled one of 1862 may perhaps go down to posterity under the name of the “Secession flood.”

Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

New Orleans Captured, p. 2

Dispatches from Gen. Wool at Fortress Monroe, and Gen. McDowell, at Fredericksburg, contain the intelligence, obtained from rebel newspapers, published in different southern cities, that New Orleans has been captured by the federal forces.

Fredericksburg Fully Occupied

The correspondent of the Herald, under date of the 23d, states that Fredericksburg, Va., is now occupied by Gen. McDowell’s force. The troops are in excellent health, only 75 being on the sick list, including 14 wounded. The flotilla has succeeded in clearing the Rappahannock of obstructions, and reached Fredericksburg on Saturday. Work has been commenced on the Acqui Creek and Fredericksburg railroad, which will soon be in running order. The railroad bridge over the Rappahannock will of course be immediately rebuilt.

“The Most Experienced and Worldly Coquette”

Upon receiving Dickinson’s first letter, Higginson reported in a reminiscence published after her death that he was struck by

the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius

exemplified by the four poems she enclosed. Just what Higginson wrote back to Dickinson is up for speculation; even he seems to have forgotten, as he admits in his 1891 recollction in the Atlantic, “On Dickinson’s Letters:”

It was hard to tell what answer was made by me, under these circumstances, to this letter. It is probably that the advisor sought to gain time a little and find out with what strange creature he was dealing. I remember to have ventured on some criticism which she afterward called “surgery,” and on some questions, part of which she evaded, as will be seen, with a naive skill such as the most experienced and worldly coquette might envy.

Indeed, in her letter Dickinson thanks Higginson “for the surgery,” riffing on whatever dissecting remarks he made about her four enclosed poems and the fact that, one line before, she claimed to be ill in bed. Jason Hoope, who studies their relationship, remarks that

these passages expand on the stylistic criterion of vitality established by the first letter

and that Higginson’s criticism

dovetails with the phenomenon of Dickinson’s own physical illness; both her poetry and her person, she suggests, are in a state of recovery from Higginson’s salutary critical procedure—the invasions of editorial “surgery” are appreciated as “kindness.”

In the Atlantic essay written many years after the events, Higginson claims that in her second letter Dickinson attempted to “step nearer, signing her name” and calling him her “friend.” He is also impressed by her astute response to his didacticism:

It will also be noticed that I had sounded her about certain American authors, then much read; and that she knew how to put her own criticism in a very trenchant way.

Dickinson’s lines were trenchant, to say the least, and convey a pointed dishonesty that obscures her intent in responding to, or accepting, Higginson’s criticism, advice, and correspondence.

You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.

I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.

Dickinson's demure categorization of Whitman as “disgraceful” leaves us wondering; a poet with her ear to the ground and an appetite for upending literary convention, she very well might have read Leaves of Grass, however disgraceful. As for Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Circumstance, the post for January 8-14 makes the case that several of Dickinson’s poems were directly influenced by what David Cody calls the “Azarian School” named after Spofford’s novel, Azarian. In fact, in a column Susan Dickinson wrote in the Springfield Republican praising Spofford’s works, she reports having sent “Circumstance” to Dickinson, her sister-in-law, after reading it. Dickinson immediately replied:

Dear S. That is the only thing I ever saw in my life that I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes.

Regardless of what Dickinson is willing to admit to Higginson, it is clear that she was interested in Spofford’s writing. And she clearly read the Azarian works thoroughly; Cody points to a handful of Dickinson’s poems that are intertexts for, or at the very least, heavily influenced by, Spofford’s novels.

These are not the letter’s only half-truths. “You ask how old I was?” Dickinson writes, “I made no verse – but one or two – until this winter – Sir –.” This is, of course, blatantly false, as Dickinson had been writing deftly since at least 1858, and had penned hundreds of poems, distributing many to friends and family members before contacting Higginson. She goes on to mischaracterize her status as a novice, asking

I would like to learn – Could you tell me how to grow – or is it unconveyed – like Melody – or Witchcraft?

In asking for Higginson’s guidance and simultaneously likening it to witchcraft, Dickinson belies her claim to being a beginning poet. What could a male magazine editor have to offer to the unconveyable art of witchcraft or melody? Further, Hoope argues that Dickinson’s fib stands as a parody of Higginson’s condescension in the Atlantic’s “Letter,” where he said:

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose?

Dickinson goes on to relay that she

had a terror – since September – I could tell to none – and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground – because I am afraid.

Cynthia Wolff comments that “for a long time critics supposed that this ‘terror’ was some disappointment in love,” but she disagrees:

she scarcely knew Higginson at the time of this letter, and it would be astonishing to find her alluding to such an intimate matter in so early a note.

If she had been referring to a love affair gone wrong, Wolff thinks she would have said “loss” or “disappointment.” Instead, she asserts, it is more likely that the “terror” refers to “periods of severely impaired vision.”

Additionally, Susan Leiter wonders if Dickinson might be referring to the departure of Rev. Dr. Wadsworth, which made the news that week.

Philadelphia Daily News

The Arch Street Presbyterian Church firmly but kindly resisted the application of the Rev. Dr. Wadsworth for a dissolution of the pastoral relation. So urgent were the people, that the Presbytery sent back the application to the congregation. But when it was found that the Dr. had made up his mind that it was his duty to go to California, the congregation yielded, and he was dismissed. He was accepted to the pastorate of the Calvary Church, San Francisco…

If Dickinson’s meanings in correspondence with Higginson are so obscured and indirect, then what were her intentions? Hoope asserts another possible reading of her letters:

By radically joining herself and her writing to Higginson and his writing, moreover, Dickinson links the antinomian qualities of her charismatic personality to social belonging and poetic achievement. In one movement she thus reverses the alienation and commonness Emerson associates with portfolioists, who are on his account mostly lonely eccentrics who litter the “masses of society,” with the fruits of their inspiration “sacred” to themselves alone.

In exchanging reading lists, asking for literary criticisms but then asserting her own standard, and even commenting on Higginson’s own writing—“I read your Chapters in the Atlantic – and experienced honor for you,” Dickinson engages Higginson in a discourse of two equals, or, as Hoope calls it, a “poetic elect.” Referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “equality in honor,” Hoope thinks we can understand Dickinson’s “riposte” as a relationship between writers who are both up for the challenge, willing to “play the game.” At any rate, Dickinson’s rhetorical agility and coy rebuttals in her second letter spurred a long correspondence and friendship with Higginson, who would long be inspired by her “wholly new and original poetic genius.”

Read this week’s poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joseph Waring

Joseph WaringScholars have argued for treating Dickinson’s letters, including her letters to Higginson, as literary texts, but rarely are they read for their subversive potential as queer. In light of her decision to sidestep the publishing industry and forgo conventional metrics of “success,” Dickinson wrote with a negative affect that resembles what Jack Halberstam terms a “queer art of failure.”

By negative affect, Halberstam means the “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair” that “poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (Halberstam 3). Dickinson’s disillusionment with the publishing industry is well-documented in her verse—“Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” (F788, J709)—and her second letter to Higginson invokes an ongoing sense of unnamed despair: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid” (L261). 

Moreover, in a letter that otherwise might have been a request for literary mentorship, Dickinson insists on invoking illness, pain, and loss while concealing her motives behind a cryptic rhetorical mask. Her letter rejects what Halberstam calls a certain strain of “positive thinking,” a “North American affliction” that traffics in

a combination of “American exceptionalism” and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude (Halberstam 3).

“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?,” Dickinson asks in her first letter, precluding the opportunity for Higginson to say if it’s good or “successful.”

Though scholars portray Higginson as a literary mentor and teacher, Dickinson’s letters verge on a vision of “education” that is anti-disciplinarian, anti-authoritarian, and untrained. First, she deceives Higginson, claiming that she “made no verse, but one or two, until this winter,” which we know to be untrue—a simple lie, but it undermines the teacher-student norm, which requires students to be honest. Second, she asserts herself as unschooled: “I went to school,” she admits, “but in your manner of the phrase had no education.” Instead, she avows an alternative form of education, an unconventional teacher: “When I was a girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality.” Finally, she mentions past experiences with “tutors” that were rife with conflict. One died, leaving her with one companion, her “lexicon,” and the second “was not contented [that she] be his scholar, so left the land.”

Jack Halberstam
Jack Halberstam

Her misadventures with education and insistence on alternative pedagogy are akin to Halberstam’s “counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity” (11-12). Though no one would ever call Dickinson’s “stupid,” Halberstam invokes a sort of unschooled, subversive naiveté, a

refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit, and as a counter hegemonic discourse of losing (12).

“I would like to learn,” Dickinson insists, but she proposes only alternative pedagogies—learning immortality from a child, for example—and suggests that any “growth” might be unconveyed rather than studied, “like melody or witchcraft.” What does witchcraft have to do with education? It is, as Halberstam would call it, a “counter hegemonic discourse,” an alternative way of knowing (12).

In the closing line, Dickinson signs her letter, “Your friend,” as if to recall Ranciére’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Dickinson rejects the hierarchy of student-teacher relations, and insists on a “two-way street,” a “dialogic relation to the learner” (13). Halberstam comments:

[Ranciére’s book] examines a form of knowledge sharing that detours around the mission of the university, with its masters and students, its expository methods and its standards of excellence, and instead endorses a form of pedagogy that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy.

Now, to zero in on the second letter’s most peculiar, and perhaps queer, diction. “Thank you for the surgery,” Dickinson writes, “it was not so painful as I supposed.” Why use a term like “surgery” to describe Higginson’s critique of her poetry? Why subject herself to his pen at all? Halberstam, verging on the Freudian, argues that “cutting”—where Dickinson’s “surgery” stands in as a textual metaphor for self-harm—

is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of unbecoming (135).

Writing to Higginson, knowing well the pain it might entail, is Dickinson’s form of “unbecoming,” implicating a “desire for mastery, and an externalization of erotic energy” (135). In two moves—exposing herself to critique and then undermining it—Dickinson shatters the hegemonic “self” of the conventional poet, a practice that “may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and proscriptive forms of agency.” Out of the public eye and away from the editor’s pen, Dickinson remains illegible to the hegemonic powers that be. Her “surgery” is the cut that breaks her away through a “masochistic will to eradicate the body” and leave only the page (135):

The antisocial dictates an unbecoming, a cleaving to that which seems to shame or annihilate, and a radical passivity allows for the inhabiting of femininity with a difference. The radical understandings of passivity … offer an antisocial way out of the double bind of becoming woman and thereby propping up the dominance of man within a gender binary (144).

What is queer about all this? Dickinson forgoes hegemonic structures, engages in self-shattering, revels in illegibility, and embraces the

incoherent, the lonely, the defeated, and the melancholic formulations of selfhood that it sets in motion (148).

If, at one time, her only companion was her lexicon, then that is a “lexicon of power” that, as Halberstam maintains, “speaks another language of refusal” (139).

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Bio: Joe Waring graduated from Dartmouth College, where he 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” (F1350, J1298).




Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” The Atlantic, October 1891. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1891/10/emily-dickinsons-letters/306524/

Rich, Adrienne. Necessities of Life.  New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966.


Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

Springfield Republican, April 26 1862


Dickinson, Susan Huntington. “Harriet Prescott’s Early Work: A Reader Who Agrees with Us That Mrs. Spofford Should Republish.” Springfield Republican. 1 February 1902: 19.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print

Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 55 no. 3, 2013, pp. 348-387, 352-58. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/517590.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1891.

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 165.