American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s “Suez” Crisis

with 3 comments

(part three of an essay; part two is here; part one is here)

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

I want to take up a remark left unexplained in part one of this essay, which focused on Emily Dickinson and Egypt by way of a brief, cryptic note sent by the poet to her sister-in-law Sue, probably in September 1882. That was the date of the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, fought between British troops and Arab nationalists. Dickinson makes reference to that battle in her note, signing her name with the title of the Egyptian governor (“Khedive”) instead of with “Emily.” The note is witty, and its wit lights up an event that most readers of Dickinson will not know. Lit up in this way, moreover, the event becomes a hole in time through which Dickinson’s own historicity becomes more visible.

With any other poet, this historicity would hardly be worth remarking, but Dickinson’s withdrawal from public life and the loftiness of her habitual concerns makes it necessary even still to say that she was interested in world affairs, even if only as the basis for one of her jokes. She was, emphatically, a creature of society. The joke is proof of that, and not only because of its topical concern. Jokes are the most social of all speech acts, the very opposite of the solitary writing for which Dickinson is best known. They are in effect a testing of the social contract’s looser provisions; when successful, they ratify the contract with laughter. The assent of the governed find its truest parallel in the ungovernable assent of the amused.

But what society is involved in this joke? In my previous reading, I remarked in passing that Dickinson’s ultimate subject is probably not Egypt. I did not elaborate on this point, but did suggest that her comment was likely intended as an illumination of something having to do with the note’s recipient, Sue, whose name, I added, is echoed in the cause of the Egyptian crisis: Suez.

I am not the first to read the note as a comment on Amherst affairs.  Elizabeth Phillips precedes me. More than twenty years ago, in her fine study Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance, she made a brief, incisive reference to the note, one that nonetheless requires further elaboration.

The Phillips reference comes in a footnote that examines Dickinson’s view of her brother, who married Sue (already Emily’s friend) in 1856. By 1882, the marriage had gone awry and Austin was involved in a passionate affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, herself married to a member of the faculty at Amherst College. Phillips takes this affair as the occasion prompting Dickinson’s note:

Knowing as early as mid-September 1882 that Mrs. Todd and Austin were in love, the poet sent a note to Susan Dickinson: “Had ‘Arabi’ only read Longfellow, he’d have never been caught—,” signed it “Khedive,” and added a postscript: “Shall fold their Tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away—” … Emily Dickinson drew clear lines around the people to whom she was closest. She never received Mabel Todd but exchanged notes and small favors with her, sent her poems, and corresponded with her parents. The poet’s expression of gratitude, in the fall of 1882, for the knowledge her sister-in-law had “told me” was a reminder to Susan Dickinson of their old ties when she needed them strengthened.

The quoted words “told me” refer to another note to Sue (dated “early 1880s” by Martha Nell Smith, the scholar best acquainted with this correspondence), and this one is also cryptic. It begins with a salutation, “Dear Sue,” then continues, “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living — To say that sincerely is strange praise.” A strangely cool affirmation of debt (or “old ties,” as Phillips puts it), although it is certainly an affirmation. But was it occasioned, as Phillips suggests, by Austin’s affair with Mabel? Maybe so. It must be added, however, that Emily’s friendship with Sue was extraordinarily complex, and had more occasions than this one for expressions of regret or affection. In any event, I find the linkage made between the affair and the “Arabi” note more convincing than the one made between the affair and Dickinson’s “strange praise,” since, in the “Arabi” text, an allusion to Austin’s behavior can actually be discerned.

Because she relegates her insight to a footnote, Phillips does not go to the trouble of decoding Dickinson’s meaning, but such a decoding does corroborate Phillips’ reading, of the note and also of Dickinson’s attitude toward Mabel. This decoding, of course, cuts to the very heart of Dickinson’s purpose: sending her note to Sue in so cryptic a form, on so important a subject, was an act of intellectual seduction, undertaken with all the risks of antagonism and misunderstanding that a complex friendship can muster. To accept Dickinson’s gesture of friendship ― that is to say, to accept her friendship in the form it was offered ― decoding was necessary.

So let us read the note. If it is an allegory of Sue’s marriage, all of the principals ought to be accounted for, if not in the note proper, then in the situation to which the note refers. “Sue,” for instance, is not actually named here (there is no salutation), but no conflict would have arisen, at least not between Britain and Arabi, had there been no Suez Canal; Sue is implied. Britain (Mabel, the trespassing power) is likewise implied, its role implicit in Arabi’s capture. What we have then are two Dickinson siblings ― Emily as Khedive and Austin as Arabi ― caught in a conflict of loyalties that need not be made explicit. The Khedive’s role is particularly tricky: betrayed by Arabi, no longer in sole control of the Suez, beholden to the British in ways that must have been uncomfortable. Is this true for Emily also? Yes and no, or rather yes if she too wanted sole control of the Suez, in which case she too would be beholden to Britain for Arabi’s capture.

But before considering the Khedive’s attitude toward Britain, let us pause over Dickinson’s use of Longfellow. When I read her note as a comment on Egypt, I argued that Longfellow signifies Western culture, which the Khedive has assimilated and now wields as a verbal weapon against his nationalist opponent. In this construal, Longfellow’s particular qualities are not especially relevant. But if the note is instead a comment on Amherst, Longfellow necessarily assumes a different aspect. It is not his Westernness that matters, but his status as the poet laureate of hearth and home. That is, instead of telling Arabi that the Westerner might have made him a better Arab, the Khedive is telling Austin, “The Fireside Poet would have made you a better husband.” Except that the Khedive is not speaking to “Arabi” here; he is criticizing Arabi for the sake of his dear Suez.

Is this what Sue would have taken from the note? In a context where loyalties are so important, I suspect her first question would have been, “Where are yours?” And in this respect, Dickinson’s note is quite risky, signed as it is with the name of the most compromised figure of all an Ottoman governor in Egypt, beholden to Britain.

Elizabeth Phillips says that Dickinson “never received Mabel Todd but exchanged notes and small favors with her, sent her poems, and corresponded with her parents.” The failure to receive is of course open to interpretation. By the time Todd arrived in Amherst, Dickinson had more or less withdrawn from face-to-face interactions. But if the implication here is that Dickinson yielded to the inevitable with her brother’s mistress, and did so with grace, then I think Phillips is exactly right. Whether Sue could accept this behavior from her “Khedive” this compromise with colonialism remains unknown.


Written by Ben Friedlander

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I can imagine Emily looking down and smiling in wonderment as her admirers spend so much thought, time and energy over one short line she wrote, perhaps on the spur of the moment. But then, that’s what admirers do. I didn’t really understand the first part about holes in time and metalanguage, but I enjoyed the third part. I had to draw it out on paper, Sue is Suez Canal, Mabil is trespassing Britains, Austin is….. ending with Longfellow is Western Culture or Hearth and Home of Amherst. I think I got it. What a genius.

    Kathryn Lindsay

    June 5, 2009 at 11:39 am

  2. I do worry about over-interpretation, but if any poet invites it, Dickinson, with her riddling temperament, is the one. Don’t you think?

    Ben Friedlander

    June 5, 2009 at 4:12 pm

  3. Ben–
    This is fabulous. Your readings in the archive make much of Dickinson’s complex and contradictory, allegorical, socially relevant and highly personal deployment of language. Thanks for your thoughtful blog.


    July 14, 2009 at 9:49 pm

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