American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Drum Beat

with 6 comments

drum beat2

Blazing ... quenching ... Leaping ... Laying ... to die

Over the summer, Modern Books and Manuscripts (the blog for the Houghton Library) posted a note on Emily Dickinson’s Drum Beat appearances. The post is called “From the stacks … Three early Dickinson publications” (link here), and it includes two clippings: the paper’s decorative banner, and Dickinson’s “Flowers” (from the March 2, 1864, issue).

Drum Beat was a Brooklyn-based newspaper that raised money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission near the end of the Civil War. Dickinson’s three unsigned poems, which appeared in three different issues, were discovered in the 1980s by Karen Dandurand, a period when the old view of Dickinson as cut off from history underwent substantial change. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, nothing of substance has been said about the poems since, at least nothing I’ve seen. The context in which they appear is evocative in the extreme … but evocative of what? As MB&M notes, the paper was edited by an Amherst graduate, Richard Salter Storrs, an acquaintance of Dickinson’s brother. Did her brother, then, send the poems in? Or was it a friend? Or Dickinson herself? And if it was Dickinson herself, did she do so in answer to a request? Or as an unsolicited contribution? In sympathy with the cause? Or from friendship alone? Or was it for the sake of publication? And why those poems?

As with so much else about Dickinson, we know just enough to ask precise questions. Not enough to give precise answers.

The image above shows Dickinson’s “Sunset” (from the February 29, 1864, issue). Note that the other poem, “Enigma,” is signed with the letter G. There was no house style in Drum Beat for attribution; there’s nothing peculiar about the way Dickinson’s poem is given.

You can click on the image to see more of the page, and for enlargements.


Written by Ben Friedlander

October 12, 2009 at 11:19 am

6 Responses

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  1. See: My wars are laid away in books: the life of Emily Dickinson, by Alfred Habegger, p. 403; Dickinson’s misery: a theory of lyric reading,by Virginia Walker Jackson, p. 252; I’m guessing it was Sue.


    October 26, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  2. The Dandurand discovery gets mentioned quite a bit; Habegger and Jackson are examples of that. But not much of substance has been said about the poems themselves in light of that discovery, and not much has been added, as far as I can tell, to our understanding of the event of publication (apart from positing Gertrude Vanderbilt as a possible intermediary). Maybe I’m wrong! But what I see is a tantalizingly important fact dislodged from any context that would make certain sense of it. And a set of poems that in themselves provide no clue. It’s a discovery, in other words, that raises questions, doesn’t answer them. And the poems involved seem curiously uninvolved in what’s asked. Which is oh so Dickinson-like! No? (How different it would be, one feels, with Whitman…)

    Ben Friedlander

    October 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  3. Hm – I don’t think of poems (least of all hers!) as providing clues… Why are these particular poems different from others of hers, beyond belieing the canard that she didn’t care about the war? The means of their transmission to press remains a mystery, but not a great one, it seems to me. I think I’m missing something!

    Don Share

    October 27, 2009 at 9:45 am

  4. “Least of all hers!” Yes, that was my point!

    The mystery of transmission is only important if we care about how she felt about publication and the Civil War. It’s definitely not necessary to care about that when we read…but I happen to.

    By clues I only mean that the poems are not about the war, or about the work of the sanitary commission, or about one of the relationships that might have led to the publication. They stand apart from all this questioning. But poems, oh yes, are evidence, of many many things.

    Are these poems different? Yes and no. They’re typical of the newspaper printings, which never seem to be in dialogue with their print context. But the poems she selected for particular correspondents are quite other. There, very often, the context does illuminate her poem, and vice versa.

    That’s my sense, anyhow.

    Ben Friedlander

    October 27, 2009 at 10:00 am

  5. Ah, yes, I understand now & agree!

    Don Share

    October 27, 2009 at 10:02 am

  6. Yeah, I figured we’d be on the same page here!

    Ben Friedlander

    October 27, 2009 at 10:03 am

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