Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff
I guess one purpose of a blog is self-advertisement, so I may as well announce that I have an essay in the October PMLA, a special issue on the topic of war. My contribution looks closely at one of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poems, a soldier elegy written for a distant relative, Francis Howard Dickinson, who was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The elegy, as I read it, was written specifically for publication, though it didn’t see print until 1890. I base my inference on a variety of contextual cues … but I won’t repeat myself here. You can read the essay, if you think it sounds interesting. Or you can take a peek at an excerpt given by Robin Tremblay-McGaw at X-Poetics (one of my favorite blogs).
What really tickles me about Robin’s excerpt: she cites me in the midst of an interview with Beverly Dahlen (link here). I consider Bev one of the five or six most important teachers I’ve ever had, and the most important outside of any actual school. I’m in debt to her in particular for leading me to think more carefully about Dickinson and the Civil War. Back in 1985, in the literary journal Ironwood, Bev published an essay on Dickinson and abjection that included a picture of the dead at Antietam. I was already convinced that the war was a key to understanding Dickinson’s work, so I told her how thrilled I was to see her make the connection, which was unusual at the time. No, no, she replied, saying something like, “I already regret including that picture; it was a frivolous juxtaposition.” I tried to say otherwise, but she just shook her head no.
Out of this brief exchange began a correspondence. And Bev, though far kinder to my dubious reasoning than she was to her own flash of insight, brought me by turns to see how inadequate my reasoning was. Some of our conversation concerned a poem from the end of the war, “Further in Summer than the Birds.” I was convinced — and still am — that the variant word choice “Antiquest,” an intensification of “Antiquer,” intimates “Anti-quest,” accentuating the hint, perhaps, of Antietam in antique. But Bev was not convinced. And this, along with her prodding questions, led me to see more clearly than any methodological training I ever received what a compelling account of Dickinson and the Civil War might require. That was almost a quarter century ago! Graduate school — and research — and dissertation — and publication — were all a long way off. But the work got started then.
The photographs are from a summer visit to the site of the battle in Virginia. I was surprised that the tour guide in costume wore a Union uniform, though Ball’s Bluff is in the South (and the battle was an early, decisive victory for the Confederates). The view through the trees looks beyond the Potomac into Maryland (I’m pretty sure). Dickinson’s poem mentions the river in the first quatrain:
When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory
The state in the last:
I’m confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In Yonder Maryland —
Meanwhile, since this is America, Ball’s Bluff is now a shopping center.