In 1951, Rebecca Patterson published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson in which she proposed that Dickinson’s great love was not a man but a woman, Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, the "Katie" of Dickinson’s letters and poems. The protests were loud and strong. Apparently, few at that time wanted to acknowledge that the single canonized woman poet of the 19th century might be—a lesbian.
Except Elise Cowen, a Beat poet who briefly dated Allen Ginsberg and also wrote lesbian love poems inspired by and addressed to Dickinson in the 1950s. Cowen sensed in Dickinson’s poetry what Patterson tried to prove with biographical and textual evidence.
Today, much has (mercifully) changed. But as much fun as it is (and also politically and personally consequential for occluded minority groups) to speculate about the genders and identities of Dickinson’s love interests, this week’s post explores more broadly what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. In 1995, Sylvia Henneberg rejected the “fruitless investigations aimed at calling the poet or her poetry purely heterosexual or purely homosexual. Instead,” she argues,
one does greater justice to Dickinson and her work by recognizing that her eroticism resists definition and by examining how it does so.
Reading Dickinson through a queer lens involves suspending the gender binaries and oppositions that structure mainstream society, normative notions of relations and time, as well as foregrounding the qualities of her thinking and writing that questioned stultifying Victorian values.
“Passing Through the Furnace”
Springfield Republican, October 28, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“The war news of the week has been meager and unimportant. The expectation of an immediate movement has prevailed for several weeks, and the causes for delay are known only to the commander and the government. There have been fears that the army would go into winter quarters around Harper’s Ferry, but that is out of the question. There are all sorts of necessities—military, political, moral and financial—for an active and successful fall campaign, and we have no doubt we shall have it.”
The Morals of War, page 2
“War is a forcing process; it accelerates development and abridges time. It opens a briefer road to the goal of human life. It arouses thought, excites emotion, inspires action. We are all living faster and with fuller vitality than heretofore in times of peace. We are growing better or worse. We are passing through the furnace, to come out vessels of honor or dishonor. This war is stamping its impress upon all our hearts, and it rests with us to choose whether it shall leave a stigma or a crown.”
Poetry, page 6
"The Wife’s Song." By Kate Cameron [Kate B. W. Barnes 1836-1873. See the chapter on her in Newspaper Poets: Or, Waifs and their Authors by Alphonso Alva Hopkins (1876)]
Thoughts for Young Men, page 1
“Costly apparatus and splendid cabinets have no magical power to make scholars. In all circumstances, as a man is, under God, the maker of his own mind. The creator has so constituted the human intellect that it can grow only by its own action and by its own action it must certainly and necessarily grow. Every man must, therefore, educate himself. His books and teachers are but helps—the work is his. A man is not educated until he has the ability to summon, in case of emergency, all his mental powers into vigorous exercise, to affect his proposed object. The greatest of all the warriors that went to the siege of Troy had the pre-eminence, not because nature had given him strength, and he carried the largest bow, but self-discipline had taught him how to bend it.”
“Eight thousand signatures have been appended to an appeal from the woman of the loyal States, praying for removal of all negligent, incompetent, drunken, or knavish men, who, in the first hurry of selection, obtained for themselves posts of responsibility; and that the President will retain in the army only capable, honest, and trustworthy soldiers.”
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862
Preface to “Leamington Spa” by Nathanial Hawthorne, page 451 [an essay about his sojourns in Leamington, England.]
“My dear Editor—
You can hardly have expected to hear from me again, (unless by invitation to the field of honor,) after those cruel and terrible notes upon my harmless article in the July Number. How could you find it in your heart (a soft one, as I have hitherto supposed) to treat an old friend and liege contributor in that unheard-of way? Not that I should care a fig for any amount of vituperation, if you had only let my article come before the public as I wrote it, instead of suppressing precisely the passages with which I had taken the most pains, and which I flattered myself were most cleverly done. However, I cannot lose so good an opportunity of showing the world the placability and sweetness that adorn my character, and therefore send you another article, in which, I trust, you will find nothing to strike out!
A Peaceable Man.”
There has always been a cottage industry in speculation about Dickinson’s sexuality and romantic interests. Now they include women as well as men, and a range of tendencies such as “Polymorphous Perversity! Lesbianism! Autoeroticism! Necrophilia! Cross-dressing! Masochism!” according to Suzanne Juhasz’s survey of the scholarship in 2005. It’s hard not to see the homoeroticism of these lines that accompanied a pair of garters Dickinson knitted for Kate Anthon, who was visiting Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens:
When Katie walks this simple pair
Accompany her side, –
When Katie runs unwearied they travel on the road,
When Katie Kneels, their loving bands
Still clasp her pious Knee –
"Oh Katie, smile at fortune with two
so Knit to thee – (F49A.2, J222)
Although “lesbian” was not a category of sexual identity in Dickinson’s day, scholars like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Nancy Cott have documented an extensive culture of passionate female relations and “romantic friendships” or “Boston marriages” that flourished and were socially acceptable during the nineteenth century. Throughout her life, Dickinson had several passionate attachments to women, from her early relationship with Emily Fowler, her flirtatious friendship with Kate Anthon, her daughterly dependence on Elizabeth Holland and her life-long connection to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson. Her letters to Susan, especially the early ones before Susan’s marriage to Austin in 1856, are eloquent in their adoration. The many poems to and about these women record a pattern of passionate but frustrated love.
Since Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 biographical argument for Kate Anthon (1831-1917) as the object of Dickinson’s affections, which was largely ignored, other early scholars like Lillian Faderman and biographer John Cody identified homoerotic content in the letters and poetry. In 1990, Paula Bennett published her study, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, which argued for the poet’s lesbian sensibility and a “cliterocentrism” in some erotically charged poetic imagery of small round things. The work of H. Jordan Landry expands this approach, exploring Dickinson’s revisionary process as “Lesbianizing the Triangles of Puritan Conversion.”
Other work reveals deliberate attempts to quash Dickinson’s affective orientation towards women. Martha Nell Smith’s reading of the original manuscripts reveals a systematic pattern of erasures and revision of female pronouns into male pronouns by editors, probably Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, in order to obliterate Susan Dickinson’s presence and disguise women as love objects in the poems and letters. Open Me Carefully, a collection of letters between Dickinson and Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, has brought to light the salience of this relationship and their correspondence for both women.
Then, there are scholars who argue for both orientations. Judith Farr’s study, The Passion of Emily Dickinson (1992) juxtaposes long chapters on Dickinson’s “Narrative of Sue” and “Narrative of Master.” Recently, actress Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson in the much-debated biopic A Quiet Passion (2016) directed by Terence Davies, and who came out as bisexual in 2010, spoke about her strong conviction that, like her, Dickinson also identified as bisexual.
Still another thread, advanced by Bennett who was following the lead of scholars like Susan Howe, Sharon Cameron and Cristanne Miller, argues that Dickinson’s embrace of indeterminacy in the form of textual variants and disrupted grammar is a revolt against the male domination of her period and creates a new form of femininity.
Queer theorists like Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam and Heather Love go further in their critique of opposed gender binaries and the reproductive and temporal expectations they imply. Likewise, those reading Dickinson through a queer lens. Suzanne Juhasz defines her approach this way:
“Queer” is a verb, an adjective, and a noun. The verb means to skew or thwart. The adjective means unconventional, strange, suspicious. Queer as a noun was originally a derogatory term for male homosexuals. It has been reclaimed in academic theory as a tool to question and disarrange normative systems of behavior and identity in our culture, especially as they regulate gender, sexuality, and desire.
Scholars are increasingly exploring this approach to Dickinson. In creating his archive of “queer” 19th century American authors, for example, Peter Coviello includes Dickinson and her relationship with Sue as part of a group who
worried over the encroachment of a new regime of sexual specification, and so placed a countervailing emphasis on the erotic as a mode of being not yet encoded in the official vocabularies of the intimate.
Michael Snedicker uses Dickinson as one of four examples of the resources in lyric poetry to argue against the dominant trend in Queer theory that privileges melancholy, shame and the death drive. Rather, Dickinson and other queer poets illustrate a radical form of “queer optimism.” Most recently, Benjamin Meiners finds “foreignness,” a category associated with regions in Latin America, things rich and exotic, and Susan Dickinson, “as a key element in Dickinson’s articulation of her queer desires.”
My relationship with queer Dickinson studies is a complicated one. I do deeply appreciate the concept and consider it incredibly important work, even imperative in most cases. However, I have to say I disagree with most of what is out there.
In my other Dickinson work, the manuscripts and variants in Dickinson’s poems fascinate me. Two of this week’s poems stand out in this regard: “I/He showed her/me hights” (F346A, B; J446) and “If I may have it when it’s dead” (F431; J577). Both have such radically different readings with their fairly extreme variants, Dickinson going so far as to replace an entire line in the second case, and completely alter the identity of the speaker in the first.
But did she really alter the speaker at all?
This week emphasizes how queerness acts as not just a noun, but also a verb. To perform queerness, to be queer, to queer a concept, is to modify the basic norm in some way. I would argue that Dickinson indeed queers her poetry, modifying it in some ways, but in queering it, she also destroys the “original” poem, and the notion of “original” as well. Exactly which poem did she “mean” to produce when she created two versions of “I/He showed her/me hights,” and which poem is the “variant”? Of course, there are no such things as right or wrong versions in Dickinson, as her texts were always living documents, texts she would return to again and again over years and years of rethinking and reimagining certain aspects of her poetry.
In the case of “I/He showed her/me hights,” discerning which is the “original” and which is the “variant” becomes even more impossible when one takes into account that the earlier copy (A) was sent to Sue, but the later copy (B) was copied into a fascicle. Dickinson practiced both letter writing and fascicle production as modes of self-publication, and even within those parameters, nothing was permanent and she continuously revised. The quintessential Dickinson poem, then, can be collapsed in on itself, all forms existing simultaneously in one living document, all copies just as valid, all combinations readable.
If you take “I/He showed her/me hights” in this way as a living document and collapsible poem, the notion of queerness becomes even clearer. The speaker of the poem–every iteration of the poem–retains the same identity as the protagonist, so to speak, but performs themself differently each time. The speaker never uses gendered pronouns, but in each “version” the speaker equates themself with a specific role in the relationship, which do correspond with gendered pronouns. In A, the speaker takes the active masculine-aligned role (which uses he/him/his pronouns when not controlled by the speaker’s “I”), and in B, the passive feminine-aligned role (using she/her/hers when not controlled). Since Dickinson queered the poem, we can collapse it, therefore assigning both roles to a single speaker, rather than keeping the two roles separate and taking both copies as from separate speakers. A single speaker, in this way, encompasses both gender roles, both gendered pronouns, both active and passive stances, and therefore both genders and the spaces in between them, as an entity with vacillating pronouns. The speaker is genderfluid, an individual that occupies the space outside of the gender binary that Dickinson explores and breaks down both in this poem and many of her others.
We know that Dickinson frequently plays in the liminal spaces that concrete definitions cannot reach. She “chooses not choosing” by self-publishing her work in fascicle form among other modes, as we’ve explored in past weeks. Here, she chooses all by choosing nothing. All versions and variations of her poems are legitimate, because none of them are ever specified as the “final,” “original,” or “correct” version.
This is why I disagree with queer Dickinson studies. Too often I find that we forget that choosing nothing is an option, and through making that choice, we open ourselves to all possibilities. Queer identities are much more extensive than scholars glimpse, and personally, I find Dickinson’s work leaning more towards the agender, aromantic, and asexual end of the spectrum. Dickinson frequently chose nothing in her life as a physical recluse and an unmarried woman, and also in her work, where she utilizes themes of emptiness, unattainable or overwhelmingly disturbing desire, and most relatably, the relief at this lack of a love object akin to the celebration of freely expressing a disinterest in love and sex. “If I may have it when it’s dead” is a good example of this great sigh of relief at the prospect of a love object (the “Thee” and the “Lover”) becoming permanently unavailable, in this case through death. The speaker laments how overwhelming the potential lover is as the “Bliss I cannot weigh” when alive and able to be interacted with, and instead wishes for a time to come when the lover lies still in a grave, quietly nostalgic for lives past, a time when the speaker could “stroke [the lover’s] frost,” which “Outvisions Paradise!”
Of course, “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” serves as a strong antithesis to an end-all be-all prescription of Dickinson’s sexuality, and indeed I do not think that we should prescribe at all. Merely, I want to propose opening up the definition of queerness in Dickinson to include the option of affection without immediate sexual connotations, the ability to choose nothing. For Dickinson, vague unanswered questions–or simply leaving a question blank, as at the end of “I/He showed her/me hights”–are some of the most powerful forces in the universe.
bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of ‘19 and a student of English and Classical Archaeology. She edits the Stonefence Review and writes fiction and poetry whenever the time is right. A voracious reader and a devout Dickinson scholar, she swears by adjectives, Open Me Carefully, and “One Sister have I in the house -,” and thinks words only grow more powerful when crossed out.
Hennenberg, Sylvia. “Neither Lesbian Nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19, 4.
Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24.
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862
Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862
Springfield Republican, October 25, 1862
Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Coviello, Peter. Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America. NY: New York University Press, 2013, 4.
Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998.
Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson's Erotic Language.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24-25.
Meiners, Benjamin. “Lavender Latin Americanism: Queer Sovereignties in Emily Dickinson's Southern Eden.” Emily Dickinson Journal 27. 1 (2018) 24-44, 24.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1.1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29.
Snedicker, Michael. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.