American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

“She Treated Me As If She Were Insane”

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Abiah Root

Abiah Root

In a recent issue of New England Quarterly, Polly Longsworth introduces a newly discovered letter by Emily Dickinson’s early friend Abby Wood. The letter — sent to another friend, Abiah Root — concerns the poet’s response to the great revival of 1850. Dickinson was nineteen years old at the time; her work as a poet lay seven or eight years in the future (the girlishness of that early work tends to obscure the fact that its author was well past adolescence). But because Dickinson’s teenaged rejection of Christ is often taken as the first revelation — irony intended — of what would come, new insight into her actions is decidedly welcome.

The rejection was protracted, as was the spirit of revival Dickinson resisted. Her letters to Abiah from four years before contain extended discussions of the matter. These discussions are remarkably poised — that is, rhetorically poised — with one assertion canceling out the next; it takes an effort of will to recognize that there is no introspection, only a contradictory array of tropes. In the passage below, for example, Dickinson asserts that she continually hears Christ speak, but also that evil is lisping in her ear; that she is too sensitive for prayer meetings, but also that affectionate words do not move her; that enthusiasm is deceiving, but also that sudden conversions are wonderful. What does it all add up to?

I am far from being thoughtless upon the subject of religion. I continually hear Christ saying to me Daughter give me thine heart. Probably you have made your decision long before this time. Perhaps you have exchanged the fleeting pleasures of time for a crown of immortality. Perhaps the shining company above have tuned their golden harps to the song of one more redeemed sinner. I hope at sometime the heavenly gates will be opened to receive me and The angels will consent to call me sister. I am continually putting off becoming a christian. Evil voices lisp in my ear — There is yet time enough. I feel that every day I live I sin more and more in closing my heart to the offers of mercy which are presented to me freely — Last winter there was a revival here. The meetings were thronged by people old and young. It seemed as if those who sneered loudest at serious things were soonest brought to see their power, and to make Christ their portion. It was really wonderful to see how near heaven came to sinful mortals. Many who felt there was nothing in religion determined to go once & see if there was anything in it, and they were melted at once.

Perhaps you will not beleive it Dear A. but I attended none of the meetings last winter. I felt that I was so easily excited that I might again be deceived and I dared not trust myself. Many conversed with me seriously and affectionately and I was almost inclined to yeild to the claims of He who is greater than I. How ungrateful I am to live along day by day upon Christs bounty and still be in a state of emnity to him & his cause. [1]

This was in January. By March, Abiah had found God. There was no disruption to their friendship, but hints of faction may have been in the air. Abiah, Emily, and Abby were part of a small circle that called themselves “the ‘five'” (the other two were Harriet Merrill and Sarah Tracy), and Emily already understood herself to be a holdout. Writing Abiah, she depicts herself as a sinner, but strategically aligns herself with Abby. Sinners were in fact the majority (“I think of Dear Sarah & yourself as the only two out of our circle of five who have found a Saviour”), but this is not the feeling one gets. In her letter, Dickinson acknowledges the sweeping influence of revival, and plays up the hopelessness of her own condition. Again, it is difficult to know how much of this is heartfelt, and how much an extravagant playing of roles. The pleasure Dickinson takes in the rhetoric of salvation is so intense, one would think her on the verge of conversion. We know in retrospect that this was not to be, that her resistance would only become stronger. Where then did she really stand?

I shed many a tear and gave many a serious thought to your letter & wished that I had found the peace which has been given to you. … I feel that I am sailing upon the brink of an awful precipice, from which I cannot escape & over which I fear my tiny boat will soon glide if I do not receive help from above. There is now a revival in College & many hearts have given way to the claims of God. What if it should extend to the village church & your friends A. and E. feel its influence. Would that it might be so.

Although I feel sad that one should be taken and the others left, yet it is with joy that Abby & I peruse your letter & read your decision in favor of Christ & though we are not in the fold yet I hope when the great sheperd at the last day separates the sheep from the goats we may hear his voice & be with the lambs upon the right hand of God. I know I ought now to give myself away to God & spend the springtime of life in his service for it seems to me a mockery to spend life’s summer & autumn in the service of Mammon & when the world no longer charms us, “When our eyes are dull of seeing & our ears of hearing, when the silver cord is loosed & the golden bowl broken” to yield our hearts, because we are afraid to do otherwise & give to God the miserable recompense of a sick bed for all his kindness to us. Surely it is a fearful thing to live & a very fearful thing to die & give up our account to the supreme ruler for all our sinful deeds & thoughts upon this probationary term of existence. I feel when I seriously reflect upon such things as Dr Young when he exclaimed, O! what a miracle to man is man —

I cannot help but feel that Dickinson was only partially concerned with religion; that finding her place in an unfolding social drama was equally important.  She was, after all, only fifteen years old, and the issue before her was not simply faith, but declaring that faith in public. In such a context, there was no such thing as a private decision, though Dickinson might have wished it otherwise. [2] In any event, the veils of rhetoric are too thick to pierce once we get to Edward Young and Night Thoughts.

So what are we to make of these early letters? What is Dickinson revealing in this correspondence? Unlike her later correspondence, which has the same density and crypticness as her poems, the early letters to Abiah are declarative, novelistic even in their richness of expression, and this makes it tempting to read them as unabashed autobiography. Yet precisely because of their novelistic richness, I tend to feel that the person revealed in them is only a narrator; that Dickinson is performing, shaping her words for particular effects.

Can we really assume, for example, that Dickinson was “sailing upon the brink,” just because she said so to Abiah? Is this really a revelation of the poet to come? I find myself skeptical. But then it occurs to me: a skeptical reading might even be more revelatory. A fifteen-year-old girl who feigns anxieties for the sake of friendship — wouldn’t that be a more unique, more perplexing person than the anxious sinner we’re asked to consider? Not that I doubt Dickinson knew anxiety, only that she would speak so freely of its cause or cure.

If taken at face value, the letters look forward to later crises.

If read skeptically, they look forward to later opacities.

But which? I have no fixed opinion on the matter. My thoughts go back and forth.

Sometime after, Dickinson ceased to present herself as preoccupied with salvation, though she did try to resurrect the stance in 1848, something she could hardly do without acknowledging the intervening change in her behavior. The nature of that change remains an open question. Did she lose interest in self-laceration and play instead at being unregenerate? Or did she express sincere doubts? Or simply avoid expressing any opinion at all? Any one of these answers is plausible. Once again, the rhetoric is self-canceling. Writing Abiah, she begins with a tremble, expressing regret that she has not yet surrendered to Christ — has not and probably cannot, so maybe the less said the better:

I tremble when I think how soon the weeks and days of this term will all have been spent, and my fate will be sealed, perhaps. I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it, and i may never, never again pass through such a season as was granted us last winter. Abiah, you may be surprised to hear me speak as I do, knowing that I express no interest in the all-important subject, but I am not happy, and I regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian. It is not now too late, so my friends tell me, so my offended conscience whispers, but it is hard for me to give up the world. I had quite a long talk with Abby while at home and I doubt not she will soon cast her burden on Christ. She is sober, and keenly sensitive on the subject, and she only desires to be good. How I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can. But I will no longer impose my own feelings even upon my friend. Keep them sacred, for I never lisped them to any save yourself and Abby.

Raising the issue and then setting it aside, Dickinson wasn’t baring her soul here, but tending to friendship — a friendship in which the status of that soul posed a threat.

Pressures on friendship when one party was unredeemed no doubt rose and fell with the cycles of excitation. These cycles were at their apogee in 1850. As Longsworth writes:

The Revival of 1850 reaped a great harvest in Amherst. On the eleventh of August, First Church took in seventy new members by confession of faith, among them Edward Dickinson — Austin, Emily, and Lavinia’s forty-seven-year-old father — who finally came to his knees. Another of Emily’s close friends, Susan Gilbert, whom Austin was courting and would marry, came grief-stricken over the loss of a beloved sister. Abby Wood joined the church that day along with three other of Dickinson’s friends. Vinnie Dickinson joined First Church on 3 November 1850, when a second group of twenty-two new members professed their faith. Austin Dickinson deferred the matter another six years, converting at Sue’s insistence before their marriage. Emily Dickinson never joined.

Which is where the new discovery comes in.

In 1848, despite other changes, Abby was still aligned with Emily, though leaning toward conversion. By 1850, she had at last taken the plunge and joined Abiah among the saved. Her letter on that august occasion is what recently came to light. And it makes for fascinating reading. (Amherst College, which owns the original, has very generously digitized the pages, viewable here.) The letter begins:

My Dearest Abiah:

What shall I say to you? “I have found Him whom my soul loveth,” & He is indeed precious to me, the “chiefest among ten thousand,” the “One altogether lovely.” Yes, dear Abiah, after I had nineteen years — refused to accept Jesus as my Saviour — upon his own terms, he has revealed himself to me as a sinpardoning, compassionate Being — Oh let us praise Him for His goodness, and wonderful works!

A day-by-day account of her movement toward conversion follows (an account that ends with the poignant admission, “sometimes I am perplexed with doubt, but still I feel that ‘Jesus is mine and I am His —’ and ‘what can I want beside?'”). She then mentions two friends, one saved, the other leaning, before offering observations on the Dickinson family:

Vinnie is earnestly inquiring — & — what shall I say of our darling Emily? How can I tell you that she ridicules and opposes us, and shuts her own heart against the truth. But her very actions show that the Spirit of God is striving in her bosom, and she is perfectly wretched. I went there the other day & she treated me as if she were insane — Let us pray for her that she may not “grieve the Holy Spirit” to depart from her — Austin is inquiring — the way of salvation, & I sincerely hope he will find no peace but in Jesus.

She then turns to others in her circle and other thoughts before returning to Emily:

O dear Abiah, pray for me … And do not forget Emily — There are few who share my love as she does — & can I bear to see her on the road to death?

Her letter concludes with an account of her own family, an account that surely bears on her conversion and doubts alike:

Can I tell you the awful truth? Oh pray that I may be resigned. My darling only brother is an inmate of the Lunatic Hospital in Worcester. His mind is deranged upon some points, and we hope he will be better soon.

Taking all this in hand, Longsworth comments:

Although Abby knew whereof she spoke in saying that her friend Emily “had treated me as if she were insane,” one is reminded of Dickinson’s own later comment to a friend, “Pardon my sanity, Mrs. Holland, in a world insane.”

Which is a very elegantly, very tactfully put.

Emily’s friendship with Abby would survive this episode, but Abiah grew distant; things were never the same. Dickinson persevered for a while, but when Abiah made a tardy attempt to renew affections, Dickinson rebuffed her. The note she wrote is polite, but mischievous:

You asked me to come and see you — I must speak of that. I thank you Abiah, but I dont go from home, unless emergency leads me by the hand, and then I do it obstinately, and draw back if I can. Should I ever leave home, which is improbable, I will with much delight, accept your invitation; till then, my dear Abiah, my warmest thanks are your’s, but dont expect me. I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare. I should have to bring my work bag, and my big spectacles, and I half forgot my grandchildren, my pin-cushion, and Puss — Why think of it seriously, Abiah — do you think it my duty to leave? Will you write me again? Mother and Vinnie send their love, and here’s a kiss from me —

The question about “duty” is a stinging reminder of Abiah’s behavior during the great revival (it was now 1854), which makes the “kiss” of the last line a real kiss-off. There would be no later letters.

Polly Longsworth

Polly Longsworth

But going back to 1850: Abby’s letter to Abiah was written after a hard-won victory over doubt, which makes her testimony regarding Dickinson all the more difficult to evaluate. [3] We can set aside “insane,” perhaps, as overstatement, but what about “perfectly wretched”? What about “ridicules and opposes”? Was Dickinson acting out from agony, as Abby supposed, or simply fed up with evangelizing from friends? Also, thinking of Dickinson’s development here, of her transformation into the poet of the 1860s: how much of this report — whatever its meaning — can we ascribe to change, and how much to the person she always was (though kept in reserve)? Was the Emily of 1850 a woman who could not or would not write the letters of 1846? If the latter, then the change was superficial, touching only on behavior. If the former, then the change was very deep indeed — a threshold from which there could be no turning back.

In her essay, which I highly recommend, Longsworth gives compelling answers to these questions, or others like them, doing what all good critics do: she turns us back to the original sources, with new interest and new perspective, making possible new readings of our own.


Emily Dickinson has inspired several outstanding biographies, and more biographical criticism than anyone could hope to process (except, perhaps, another biographer). I went back to the letters after reading Longsworth’s essay, but I resisted the urge to revisit the secondary lit, except to check a fact or two. I spent a month once sorting out the interpretations of a crucial month in 1855. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to do the same thing with an entire half-decade. But having worked out the above, I’m curious to see how well my questions match up with the answers given by the biographers. If I find time for that, I’ll write a postscript.

1 [Back to text] Longsworth interprets the phrase “again be deceived” as a reference to an earlier period of belief, and near the start of her letter Dickinson does speak of “the short time in which I felt I had found my savior.” But far from alluding there to deception, Dickinson writes, “I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever.” There is nothing unusual in this lapse from daily practice; it would fit neatly in any conversion narrative. But Longsworth hears a sign of spiritual crisis in it. The death of a friend, she asserts, “stripped away Emily’s illusions,” though Dickinson later writes of this friend, “I trust she is now in heaven & though I shall never forget her, yet I shall meet her in heaven.” Myself, I read the “again” in “again be deceived” as a reference back to the “evil voices” of the previous paragraph. (Drawing a link between those voices and the exhortations of the revival would be audacious if it weren’t doctrinal. As Dickinson knew from 2 Corinthians, Satan himself can appear as an angel of light.)

2 [Back to text] There is a charming paragraph after the signature. It begins, “Please not let S. or any one see this letter. It is only for you,” then continues: “I carried your letter to Abby, & we read it together. I shall show it to no one else, of course, as I never show any of the letters of the ‘five’ to any one but Abby as she is one of them.” How easily one becomes two and even five in a circle trespassed by “irresistible force” (i.e., the holy spirit).

3 [Back to text] As Longsworth notes, another letter from the same month came to light a decade ago, corroborating Abby’s report (it was sent by Austin and describes Emily as “rather too wild at present”). Here too evaluation is difficult, however, witness the fact that Longsworth’s interpretation is different from that of Alfred Habegger, the first to use the letter in a biography.


Written by Ben Friedlander

September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am

3 Responses

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  1. Hi Ben,

    Wotta post. Love your dis- and re-entangling of the religious and the social.

    Don’t know what exactly yielding to one of these revivals entailed, but Dickinson sometimes makes it sound like she would’ve been locked up in an anchoress’s cell.

    rodney k.

    September 22, 2009 at 11:25 am

  2. This is a fantastic post. I agree on every single point. Thank you!


    September 22, 2009 at 12:29 pm

  3. Thanks, Cecilia!

    Rodney, the Emily Dickinson as nun motif is a tangled thread indeed. I’ll leave that one for another day!

    Ben Friedlander

    September 25, 2009 at 7:59 am

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