October 22-28, 1862: Queer Dickinson

This week’s post explores what scholars label the “queerness” of Dickinson’s writing. 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 unsettle stultifying Victorian values.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Victoria Corwin
Sources


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.

Elise Cowen (1933-1962)
Elise Cowen (1933-1962)

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, 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)]

Poem: The Wife's Song
Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

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.”

page 3
“Eight thousand signatures have been appended to an appeal from the women 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

Plaque in Leamington, England
Plaque in Leamington, England

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!

Truly, yours,
A Peaceable Man.”

“Queer Desires”

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. Indeed, 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:

In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.
In September 2012, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.

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.”

Mutilated manuscript of
Mutilated manuscript of "One sister have I in our house" (F 5A, B, J14).

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.

Cynthia Nixon in
Cynthia Nixon in “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

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.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Victoria Corwin

“Choosing all by choosing nothing”

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 not just as a noun but also as 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 does 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 in 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 is 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.

Sources:

Overview

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.

History
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 28, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 25, 1862

Biography

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.

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February 26 – March 4, 1862: Sue

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Dickinson, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, life-long correspondent and object of her deepest affections. Though we are not sure of the details of their relationship, we explore its deep impact on her life through the “Sue Cycle” of poems of 1862.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection –Victoria Corwin
Sources

“The Sue Cycle”

Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)
Susan Dickinson, n.d.

One of the persons we KNOW Dickinson chose for her selective society was Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, a girlhood friend of Dickinson who married Dickinson's brother Austin.  We dedicate this week to exploring her significance in Dickinson’s personal and poetic lives. It is not clear whether Susan chose Dickinson back, or reciprocated as the full confidante, soul sister, even lover that Dickinson wanted. But their importance to each other is undeniable.

Sue was born nine days after Dickinson on December 19, 1830 and died twenty-seven years almost to the day of Dickinson death on May 12, 1913. From a struggling family and with dreams of betterment, Sue loved books, reading, art and poetry. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her aunt and came to live in Amherst in 1850, where she met Dickinson, and for the next decade their intimacy flourished.

Abiah Root
Yale University Archives

Dickinson’s early letters to Sue are nothing short of delirious. In one of the most thorough considerations of their association, Judith Farr speculates that Sue took the place of Dickinson’s girlhood friend and crush, Abiah Root, when Abiah married and stopped responding to Dickinson’s eroticized importunings.

Then, on July 1, 1856, Sue married Austin, Dickinson’s brother, a match Dickinson encouraged, thinking it would bind Sue more firmly into the family, especially when their father built the couple an Italianate villa dubbed “The Evergreens” next door to the Homestead. Dickinson’s upstairs window faced both the road and the Evergreens where she could watch Sue’s comings and goings.

The Evergreens

Sue was a fit interlocutor for Dickinson and there is evidence that they shared profound interests in reading, writing, gardening, recipes, and even acted as editors for each other’s poetry, as in the case of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” detailed below. But Sue was mercurial, worldly and socially ambitious, and soon became busy with the birth of her first child. Scholars differ on just what happened, but in the Fall of 1861, as Farr narrates it, Sue sent a letter to Dickinson, folded up tight and marked “private,” apologizing for her silence, commiserating with Dickinson’s suffering (the “terror” Dickinson tells Higginson she experienced "since September") and disclosing her own

sorrow that I never uncover. If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?

she asks. This note captures the literary quality of their relationship.

In a message Dickinson sent across the lawn to the Evergreens later in 1862, Dickinson included the poem, “Your Riches – taught me – Poverty” (F418, J299), with the words,

Dear Sue– You see I remember–Emily.

It’s as if their deep love and profound importance to each other exist now in memory, but they provided Dickinson with her great themes of loss and suffering. We will discuss this poem and others from the “Sue Cycle” of poems Farr identifies in the poems section in order to plumb the vast and sometimes underplayed importance of Sue in Dickinson’s artistic life.

“We need humility”

INTERNATIONAL

Britain continues to deliberate, but so far refuses to recognize the Confederacy, or aid their cause in any way, which eases the Union’s nerves on the matter.

The war for subjugation in Mexico continues, and the Union Senate finally decides to reinvigorate the Monroe Doctrine and ally itself with Mexico against Britain, France, and Spain. Previously, there were worries that getting involved in the conflict would take away resources from the Civil War and a free Mexico would enable the South to pull them into the war, but with the South’s “suppression now well and assured,” these worries disappear.

NATIONAL

Review of the Week: Progress of the War. The Union continues to report back on sweeping victories that keep the Confederacy’s armies retreating, “crushed,” and destitute in morale. Tennessee is under General Ulysses S Grant’s martial law and Missouri is now “swept clean,” and reports say the Union has occupied Fort Donelson and Nashville, which cuts off vital road systems that connect the Confederacy. General Price’s army is “used up,” and the civilians in the South “accept their fate” and submit to the Union’s government rule.

An index of the importance of this victory, and its costs, is Herman Melville’s long poem, “Donelson,” published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The detailed account of the successful Union siege of the Confederate Fort concludes on a less celebratory note with “wife and maid” reading “the death-list” while the narrator intones:

Ah God! may Time with happy haste
Bring wail and triumph to a waste,
And war be done;
The battle flag-staff fall athwart
The curs'd ravine, and wither; naught
Be left of trench or gun;
The bastion, let it ebb away,
Washed with the river bed; and Day
In vain seek Donelson.

Jefferson Davis
(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Jeff Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederacy for six years last Saturday, and during the ceremony it was reported that he received updates on Nashville.

“Washington’s Day” was “never before as universally and enthusiastically celebrated” as it was this week in the Union. It symbolized the strength of the Union and the country as a whole, and boosted morale even higher than the previous string of victories.

A Violent, Wintry Storm. A series of peculiar storms hit Massachusetts, including hurricanes and snow storms within the course of “three to four days.” This may be the “fatal weather” Dickinson refers to in a letter (L 254) to her cousin, Frances Norcross, written at this time.

Life in Washington. As Seen Through New Spectacles. This week’s “Life in Washington” is a walk through the “grand” streets of the National Mall. The author tells us of the history of the layout, designed by Christopher Wren, and compares it to other famous cities: New York, London, and Paris in terms of style and space. The reader explores Pennsylvania Avenue and its history as they walk with the author down the visual space, and the White House is the last stop.

Willie Lincoln, c. 1855

We learn the history and architectural inspiration for the White House, both inside and out, but then the author inevitably strays to the recent death of eleven-year-old William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln (February 20, 1862) and the impact it had on the family and the country. The author (perhaps a woman, as the other “Life in Washington” installments suggest) muses on Mary Todd Lincoln’s distress about her son, and the criticism she received because of such devastation. The author ridicules all the gossip about Mary Lincoln that unfairly criticize her, as it

sharpens the scalpel which cuts through every fibre of her mental, moral, and physical frame. If she were an angel fresh from the sky she could not satisfy the requirements of narrow ignorance and petty malice.

The author reiterates that “we need humility” in this time, kindness for others and for the grieving Lincoln family, as they end their walk in distress. This column may be a response to last week’s “A Visitor in Washington,” which expressed vehement dislike for women as irrational and fomenting evil, especially those Southern women who are the supposed root of the “wild and wicked rebellion”—the author recounts a story of a man who ascribes every problem encountered to an anonymous woman and asks, “who is she?

When a Wife Should be at Home. This little column is a companion piece to last week’s “When a Husband Should be Absent from Home” (on washing and cleaning days, when the child cries and when your wife’s female friends come to visit) and lists some traditional duties of “mistresses of the household” at the time:

The wife may go out for light and air, and also for her little round of social duties, of friendship or beneficence. She may go out for merchandise and marketing, as the mother-bird explores every nook for the snug upholstery that lines her nest, and the dainty morsels for which the birdlings flutter and call. She may go out, too, as the robin does, for food for herself; that she may return with a clearer mind and a larger heart, a fresher cheek and a more elastic step; yea, in some instances, where such an improvement is possible, with a more equable temper than before. For these purposes the prayer meeting, the lecture, the concert, the soiree and sewing-circle are not to be despised. But all these wanderings should be subordinate and occasional, the exception and not the rule.

The bird metaphors are particularly relevant. Here they are little creatures, delicate and homely. In her early poetry about Sue, Dickinson used bird metaphors as well, but these birds were singers and built nests and carry very different connotations: of strength and wonder, instinct and great importance, vital to nature and life, sometimes divine.

"Sue Forever More"

This week, Dickinson received a very excited letter from Susan Dickinson, discussing the appearance of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1, 1862. Entitled “The Sleeping,” the poem was heavily edited and regularized and published anonymously (see below for an image of the original printing):

The Sleeping.

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning,
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
Ah! What sagacity perished here!

This poem is key in illustrating the profound personal and poetic connection between Dickinson and Sue. The myth goes that Dickinson wrote in solitary exile in her upstairs bedroom. And for many years, family members and editors have ignored or downplayed her intense connection to Susan Dickinson. But Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart argue in their edition, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington, that the material evidence shows that Dickinson and Sue, living next door to each other, sent poems and other writings back and forth for commentary and critique.

“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” is the prime example. In 1859, Dickinson sent a draft that was close to the printed version quoted above to Susan, who thought the second stanza inadequate. Dickinson then sent her a new version with a new second stanza,

Grand go the Years – in the
Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges -
surrender –
Soundless as dots – on a
Disc of snow -

But Susan again disliked it, writing in reply in one of the rare surviving correspondences between the two women,

I am not suited dear Emily with the second verse … it just occurs to me that the first verse is complete in itself it needs no other, and can’t be coupled –.

One last (known) time, Dickinson wrote an alternate second stanza and sent it to Susan, asking, “Is this frostier?” Susan chose to submit the first version to Bowles for printing in the Republican, but when Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, she included the poem with the second stanza beginning “Grand go the years.”

In the same letter in which Dickinson sent the “frostier” final stanza, she praises Susan’s eye for poetry and criticism, saying “I know it knows,” and that

Could I make you and Austin – proud – sometime – a great way off – ‘twould give me taller feet -,

a line that Susan would remember well into the 1880s when she wrote it down while working on compiling a book of Dickinson’s writings. Her daughter would finish that work and publish it in 1914 as The Single Hound, which Kate Anthon, another long-time friend of the two women, called

a volume as a memorial to the love of these ‘Dear, dead Women.’

The material evidence Hart and Smith offer are the more than 500 poems Dickinson sent to Sue over their forty-year correspondence, way more than she sent to her next most important correspondent, Thomas Higginson. Furthermore, especially in the early years, these were mostly in pencil and on scraps or plain paper, unlike the ink and gilt-edged stationary she used for copying out poems in the fascicles or sending poems in letters. The drafts of “Safe in their Alabaster chambers” she sent to Susan were clearly working drafts and Dickinson invited feedback, which Susan happily and somewhat haughtily provided. But after this experience, we have no evidence of Dickinson soliciting feedback from Sue, and in April 1862, she looked for a new “preceptor” in Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Samuel Bowles

Susan was a good mirror for Dickinson: passionate, worldly, intellectually gifted, an insatiable reader and a devotee of poetry. She also wrote a few critical essays and reviews herself, some of which she sent as Letters to the Editor, and she frequently wrote to Samuel Bowles, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and William Hayes Ward – all influential editors of their day. She submitted some of Dickinson’s poems to be printed in different newspapers as well, and published four short stories and at least two of her own poems. She championed women writers throughout her life, as evidenced by a lengthy review of the early work of Harriet Prescott Spofford she sent to the Editor of the Republican in 1903.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sue's obituary for Dickinson, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886, and which Higginson thought good enough to serve as the introduction to the 1890 volume of Poems (but Mabel Todd rejected), is considered the first important critical evaluation of Dickinson’s work.

Below “The Sleeping” is one such poem that is most likely Susan’s, entitled “The Shadow of Thy Wing”:

Sus most likely sent her drafts to Dickinson for editing as well, but most of the two women’s correspondence is lost. What remains, however, reveals much about their relationship.

Dickinson and Susan were particularly close for almost their entire lives, displaying what modern readers would label as an intense, passionate romance. Their letters are frequently erotic, and Dickinson romanticizes Susan, calling her Darling, Dear Sue, Sweet Sue, and Dollie in the most passionate of cases. During the nineteenth century, such intensely affectionate relationships between same-gender friends were commonplace. See, for instance, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s classic essay on the subject, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (1975).

Close friendships used romantic imagery of flowers and longing, physical intimacy of kisses and hugs, and loving affectionate names like “dearest,” “darling,” “my angel,” “sweet,” “lover,” etc. For Dickinson scholars Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart, however, Dickinson and Susan’s letters and relationship indicate a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the ‘intimate exchange’ between women friends of the period.

Some scholars see them as lesbians; others see Dickinson as queer.

Dickinson likens Susan to Eden, Cleopatra, imagination, calls her the “Only Woman in the World,” and describes her love for Susan an “endless fire.” Hart and Smith point out that Austin was clearly jealous of Susan and Dickinson’s relationship after they were married, and Susan even accused him of “interfering” with their letters, to which he responded quite defensively:

As to your deprivation of ‘Spiritual converse’ with my sister – I Know Nothing …  So you will not suspect me of having interfered with your epistolary intercourse with her

(Note: “intercourse” did not carry a sexual connotation at the time). Dickinson also equates herself to Austin in relationship to Susan, in the famous letter in which she says:  “I guess we both love Susie just as well as we can” that casts them both as her suitors. See also the poem, “The Malay took the Pearl, (F451A, J452),” which scholars have read as a love triangle composed of Austin–Sue–Emily.

Another fascinating element in this story is that the material remains of Dickinson and Susan’s relationship suffer from heavy mutilation, making it hard to discern what they meant to each other. Someone, most likely Austin or his lover of twelve years, Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Susan at first befriended but eventually snubbed and completely rejected, painstakingly erased, masked, or changed references to Susan in most quasi-romantic contexts. For example, in printing, “Her breast is fit for pearls” (F121A, J84), Todd replaced Susan with Mary Bowles as the recipient. The opening salutation, “To Sue,” of “The face I carry with me -” (F 395A, J336) was erased, and in the suitor letter to Austin, “I guess we both love Susie,” the “S” and “ie” are erased to produce a familial love of “us.” By contrast, Sue is allowed to appear in other letters not romantically inclined.

One sister have I in our house (F 5A, B, J14).

The most striking mutilation of a poem occurs in the “B” version of “One sister have I in our house” (F 5A, B, J14). A great deal of angry energy has been expended to erase the importance of Sue to Dickinson, and as a counter to that, we have chosen our cluster of poems from those poems scholars speculate were written to and about the incomparable Sue.

 

 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Victoria Corwin

The relationship between Emily and Sue always fascinated me. I am usually the token queer theorist in the room when anything comes up in one of my many College English classes, so I had a lot to say on the subject whenever a “Sue poem” (as we’ve taken to calling them) came up in our studies. But, because we were aware of the prevalence of such close same-gendered relationships, thanks to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay and the “cult of true womanhood,” I felt a bit skeptical of applying queer theory to the time period.

Then, I came across “One Sister have I in the house -”

Reading Martha Nell Smith’s introduction to the DEA’s site about mutilation in the Dickinson corpus, my whole world changed. I had only ever worked with the manuscript when looking for frequent Dickinson word alternations or connotations of different kinds of stationery, but never considered cuts, erasures, inks, much less destructions of any kind. I couldn’t imagine they existed, that of course no one would intentionally ruin a real life Dickinson manuscript, how silly.

But the image of “One Sister” sewn into Fascicle 2 (copy F5B) looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Utterly defaced.

Fascicle 2 is the heaviest mutilated fascicle out of the 40 we have, with six poems missing, all by the hand of the mutilator(s) that meticulously and very intentionally deleted “One Sister” from the fascicle and tried to delete it from Dickinson’s work completely. The mutilator (jealous Austin, inferior sister Vinnie, or Sue’s mortal enemy Mabel?) struck through the poem in ink, cut it out of the fascicle, and ripped it again and again in multiple places so that an editor could not fit the pieces back together again, ever. We have the full poem only because Emily sent a copy to Sue, which she guarded down to her last breath.

How is this not queer?

The heaviest deletion violently cancels line 27, “Sue – forevermore!” which indicates that this line held the most weight for the mutilator. Sue is the most important element to delete, whether due to Austin’s failing marriage, Vinnie’s jealousy, Mabel’s hatred, or a general dislike for Sue post-1880s that sprang from Mabel and Austin’s public affair. The exact motivation, however, is irrelevant, because every one of the possible motivations ultimately stems from the same basic queer issue: Emily’s love for Sue.

Since having such a revelation, I’ve been primarily concerned with mutilations and how they unintentionally reveal the deeper politics of Dickinson’s relationships with others. I’m fully convinced that Smith and Hart are right when they say “One Sister” indicates a love that

surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the ‘intimate exchange’ between women friends of the period,

but I’m not entirely sure what that means yet–whether and which queerplatonic, romantic, or sexual labels apply to either of them.

All I know is that I will never not look at a manuscript ever again, and always check poems or letters for damage. Signs of tampering carry a deeper meaning than words alone ever could, and I have a feeling the heavily deleted line “Sue – forevermore!” will haunt Dickinson studies (and me) for a very long time.

Bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of ‘19 and a student of English and Classical Archaeology. She edits the Stonefence Review and writes fiction and poetry whenever the time is right. A voracious reader and a devout Dickinson scholar, she swears by adjectives, Open Me Carefully, and “One Sister have I in the house -,” and thinks words only grow more powerful when crossed out.

Sources

Historical:

  • Springfield Republican, volume 89, no. 9, Saturday, March 1, 1862.

Biographical:

 

 

January 8-14, 1862: The “Azarian School”

Previous generations regarded Dickinson as either unique and, thus, untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. This week, we focus on a contemporary literary style of 1850s-60s, the “Azarian School,” which delighted in fanciful matters of the soul and ecstasy. Dickinson read and engaged with this literature—and then perhaps used it herself.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Victoria Corwin
Sources

War, Death, and Influence

Previous generations regarded Dickinson either as sui generis–that is, unique and thus untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. Current scholars, such as Cristianne Miller, have laid these views to rest, in studies like her Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012). To explore Dickinson's literary debts, our focus this week is on the “Azarian School,” a term coined by the writer Henry James to describe the work of Harriet E. Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke, two writers from New England contemporary with Dickinson. The school's name derives from the title of Spofford’s novel Azarian: An Episode published in 1864. It is important at the outset to show how Dickinson read, absorbed and adapted the literary techniques of other writers, in this case, the prose works of New England women. We also want to frame this year, 1862, with an exploration of a literary style that influenced some of Dickinson's most incendiary poetry.

We follow the lead of David Cody’s 2010 essay, “‘When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School.” Cody argues that several well-known poems Dickinson wrote in 1862 were directly influenced by the prose works of Spofford and Cooke.

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Harriet Prescott Spofford

As he tells it, James’s review of the “school” was “scathing,” accusing Spofford

of a long list of literary crimes, including a tendency to indulge in ‘fine writing,’ and ‘almost morbid love of the picturesque,’ an emphasis on ‘clever conceits’ and the ‘superficial picturesque’ at the expense of ‘true dramatic exposition, a ‘habitual intensity’ of style, and an ‘unbridled fancy.’

Many readers at the time felt Spofford walked “a fine line between

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Rose Terry Cooke

permissible daring and a reckless disregard of conventional morality.” In short, this style was the antithesis of the realist school, soon to come into popularity with the ascendancy of William Dean Howells to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly.

We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was a secret disciple of the Azarian School, which, according to Cody, was characterized by intoxication and ravishment 

by perfumes; sunsets; gems; diseases physical, psychological, and spiritual; fugues and symphonies; hurricanes; and panthers.

Barton Levi St. Armand argues that Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” inspired Dickinson

to dare the technique of describing the moment of death from the dying person’s point of view.

The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter. See L261 in which Dickinson responded,

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

“War As An Educator”

This week was rather uneventful, as the Civil War heated toward its boiling point, and President Abraham Lincoln began sending orders to General McClellan to take offensive action against the Confederacy. There were small victories for the Union, on January 8th at the battle of Roan’s Tan Yard under Major W.M.G. Torrence and on January 10th at the battle of Middle Creek under Col. James Garfield.

The January edition of The Atlantic Monthly included an essay on “Methods of Study in Natural History.” It prominently featured Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist credited with founding the practice of botany. Dickinson was a passionate botanist, as evidenced by the herbarium, a collection of pressed and identified local flowers and plants, she created in 1844 as a teenager.

 
 

The January edition of Harper’s magazine opened with a lengthy travel narrative titled “The Franconian Switzerland,” which discusses European geography and offers illustrations of the Castle of Goessweinstein. The second article, “History of the United States Navy,” looked back to 1775 for a historical context that would have appealed to readers during the Civil War. Excerpted and mostly anonymous poems—one simply titled “Frost”—and part of a serial novel, Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope, were also included. A biographical essay on Mehetabel Wesley illustrates a common attitude towards women poets. The essay focused on her beauty and morals: “Nature, which seldom grants the double favor, richly endowed her both in body and mind,” and added that her poetry is full of “silly conceits.” The month’s edition ended with a two-page spread titled “Fashions for January” with illustrations of two women, one in an evening dress in the other in a walking robe.

The January 11th edition of the Springfield Republican included a column titled “War as an Educator” that observed: “the present war is doing, and is to do, a great work in the education of the American people,” and criticized the inefficacy of party antagonism and the dangers of men attracted to power. It called into question the idea that the United States is the “greatest nation on the face of the earth,” and warned of waiting to take action about incipient rebellion. On the other hand, the writer insisted that the war will make that generation of Americans “superior to any generation that America has raised since the revolution” due to rigorous training, discipline, and courage. Another column brought good news, the release of two hundred forty Union prisoners from Richmond.

LOCAL NEWS

In a time marked with violence and death, the Springfield Republican  included a brief paragraph condemning the death penalty, a debate that might have influenced Dickinson poems like “The Doomed – regard the Sunrise” (F298, J294), featured last week.

Comment on the death penalty, included in The Springfield Republican on January 11, 1862.

 

“The Value of a Close Friend”

Dickinson’s reading in the Springfield Republican, as well as her personal and literary relationship with its editor-in-chief, Samuel Bowles, had a large influence on her life and writing. On around January 11, 1862, Dickinson wrote to  Bowles, who was in New York, planning to sail to Europe:

Dear Friend, — Are you willing? I am so far from land. To offer you the cup, it might some Sabbath come my turn. Of wine how solemn full! … While you are sick, we—are homesick. Do you look out to-night? The moon rides like a girl through a topaz town. I don’t think we shall ever be merry again—you are ill so long. When did the dark happen? I skipped a page to-night, because I come so often, no, I might have tired you. That page is fullest, though… When you tire with pain, to know that eyes would cloud, in Amherst—might that comfort, some?  (L247)

At the end of the letter, Dickinson included, “We never forget Mary,” referring to Bowles’s wife. It is clear from the letter that Dickinson was deeply concerned with Bowles’s well-being, and that his illness had taken a toll on her. This passage also contains a frequent Dickinson trope: that the skipped and blank page, or what is renounced, “is the fullest.” It appears as an image in the poem, “Going to them/her/him! Happy letter!” (F277), addressed to a personified letter Dickinson composed in early January of this year. The poem exists in three versions with three different pronouns (depending on the recipient), and contains this line, where the speaker charges the letter:

Tell Them/Her/Him – the page I never wrote.

Samuel Bowles, editor of The Springfield Republican and a close friend of Dickinson's.
Samuel Bowles

What was the darkness that Dickinson refers to in her letter to Bowles? Richard Sewall, in his biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson, comments about her letters that

at times one wonders whether the recipients themselves may not at some points have been almost as puzzled as we are.

Though this is true of many of Dickinson’s letters, as we will see with the “the Third Master Letter” next week, it is especially true of her correspondence with Bowles. As Sewall points out, this correspondence was important because it punctuated a time of “extraordinary stress and inner turmoil.”

Bowles’s correspondence and editorship of the Springfield Republican likely provided Dickinson with a way to look outward at the world while she was turning inward during this period. What’s more, Bowles often published women writers in the pages of the Republican, including, according to Sewall, women of “spirit and brains” such as

Colette Loomis [“a pretty little aunt of mine” according to what Dickinson wrote in a letter], Lizzie Lincoln of Hinsdale, N.H., Luella Clarke, Ellen P. Champion, and Fannie Fern (Sarah Willis Parton).

As for his sickness, Bowles had traveled to Amherst in the winter of 1861 and became afflicted with “a chill and severe sciatica that sent him to Dr. Denniston’s in Northampton that fall.” As he grew ill, Dickinson became increasingly aware that her worldly, literary, and affectionate friend might not be around forever.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Victoria Corwin

I started my Dickinson studies as many do: in a high school classroom, with an old, generic anthology sprawled open to “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -,” pressed to question how a person who never left her own room could produce such striking imagery of the outside world. My teacher fed me the mythological Dickinson, the woman in white, and I remember imagining the poet as a shy, stunted personality concerned with nature and childish dreams who talked to herself in her poetry. Years later, I regard her as one of the most advanced writers I’ve ever read.

The disconnect between what many of us read in traditional published collections and what Dickinson actually wrote intrigues me. This week’s poems deliver some of the most famous lines in her body of work that I’m sure many high school students have memorized, but memorization takes something away from the character of the lines that can only be revealed through the visual picture of the manuscript.

For example, Dickinson’s big swooping handwriting forces line breaks and enjambments that publishers ignore when printing poetry. Pick any poem from this week and notice that the words spill over to a second line. It’s especially noticeable in “After great pain, a formal / feeling comes -,” which stood out to me the most in this set, partly because I love the ending line: “First – Chill – then Stupor – then / the letting go -”


The emotion pulses through this poem; the horrible metric “Feet” that “mechanically” “go round” sound like a “formal” march to death when you read it in orderly printed lines. It sounds unstoppable, but the first time I saw the manuscript of this poem, the breaks made me hold my breath. You feel the Chill and Stupor as the dash pauses force you to slow down your reading, like slowly freezing. Then, on a completely different line that physically separates–

the letting go.

It’s funny, enjambment is supposed to keep poetry flowing, but in this case, the reader trips over the breaks and truly sees them as breaks, because of the disjointed subject matter and because of the striking spaces left over after the concluding words. The words sit with you, mimicking the formal feeling and ponderous tone of the poem. The breaks intensify everything.

Not to mention that Dickinson’s handwriting lends its character to each of her poems. The shape of her words colors the mood of her poems, generating beauty or solemnity or finality with all her different letter forms. For example, the word “impatient” looks absolutely beautiful in “Dare you see a Soul / at the White Heat?”—no impatient reader would rush past individual words here!

It’s a completely different experience reading the manuscripts, one that I am glad to have discovered so early in my studies. It took a few months of practice to decipher Dickinson’s handwriting, but the payoff is worth thousands of (printed) words.

Bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of '19 (a junior, to the uninitiated), a student of English and Classical Archaeology, a member of "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course in Fall 2017, and a member of the "White Heat" team.

Sources

Overview

Cody, David. “”When one’s soul’s at a white heat”: Dickinson and the “Azarian School”.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 19 no. 1, 2010, pp. 30-59. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/edj.0.0217

History

The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 9, Issue 51. January 1862.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 140. January 1862.

Springfield Republican, Volume 89, Issue 2. January 11, 1862.

Biography

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, 1974, 281.