American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for the ‘Dickinson’ Category

A Vital Issue

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Note the label: Chester Greenwood invented the ear muff; his wife, Isabel Whittier Greenwood, subscribed to several suffragist papers, now held by the Univ. of Maine. Click for larger view.

Leafing through Alfred Habegger’s Dickinson biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, I found a reference that made me curious: a letter by Louisa Norcross, Emily’s beloved cousin Loo, published in a suffragist newspaper in 1904. As Habegger notes, the letter defends “the dignity of domestic labor,” with a Dickinson anecdote marshaled in support. By this date, three volumes of poems had appeared and one of correspondence, so the poet was already a well-known figure, important enough to link with Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Norcross does. Dickinson and Stowe: two authors who managed to scribble while working in the kitchen.

Habegger quotes the anecdote in full and gives some of the context, but I wondered what else the letter might hold, and what else might be in the newspaper. As it happened, the original publication was owned by my university; a trip to special collections was in order.


Click for a larger view.

The newspaper in question, The Woman’s Journal, came out of Boston, edited by Lucy Stone (in later years, by Stone’s daughter, about whom I’ve written before). The letter is signed L.N. and appears on a page regularly edited by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.[*] In fact, the letter is a response to Gilman, who had a few weeks before on “Housework and Athletics” (images of the brief text here and here). The “and” of the title should really be “vs.”: Gilman’s subject is the obstacle of household labor to the development of grace and power. Some sample sentences:

People who are confined to a house almost all the time, either as performers or overseers of labor, and who find in that house their principal are of expression, do not care so much for physical expression….

Housework is not good exercise. It makes one tired, even exhausted, but it does not develop the body nobly and beautifully. Most of it is wearing to the nerves, but not to the muscles; and when you have the hard work, washing, ironing, and sweeping, you have the disagreeable and really injurious concomitants of heat and dirt.

The dealing with dirt is almost constant in housework, whether dust, grease, or stains; and the kind of exertion required to remove dust, wash dishes, or launder clothes is not the kind that makes for grace and beauty. When one is through with all this, there is no ambition left to add the wiser and more enjoyable exercises to the previous labors.

Women get tired out doing what is not good for them, and have no strength left to do what is. Those who do not do the work, but who merely oversee it, and who use the house to exhibit their things, their furniture, and clothes and pictures and vases, are not likely to consider the human body as a means of expression. It may be an admirable clothes-horse, but not in itself that exquisitely adjusted engine which is the best vehicle of the human spirit….

A larger, more dignified life, broader ideals, more rational habits, higher purposes — these may be expercted as women come out of their little monogamous harems and take part in the world’s work. Then, as human beings, they will want human bodies — human first, female second. And human bodies need human exercise to develop them; scientific and consistent work, exhilarating and delightful play, neither of which is to be found in domestic labor.

Click for larger view.

“Vital Issues” page for The Woman’s Journal, 26 March 1904. Louisa Norcross’s letter is the second column from the right. Click for legible view.

The above lines were published in the March 5 issue. On March 26, the response from Norcross appeared:


Editors Woman’s Journal

Please, please do ask Mrs. Gilman not to run down Housekeeping any more! Housekeeping, properly arranged and planned, is glorious. I have had some of my most “triumphant soars” while flitting about my little home and cooking-stove.

Of course, the abuse of it is wrong. But there must always be housekeeping, or the superintending of housekeeping (which I consider infinitely more wearing), unless we go back to dens and hovels.

Mrs. Stanton suffered mental agony in giving time to such tremendous claims materially, instead of to the thought children that were being conceived continually in her brain; but do you think Mrs. Blatch would say unhesitatingly that it would have been better that she and her brothers and sisters should not have been born, so that her mother could write continually for Mrs. Anthony?

I insist that housework is the most healthy stimulus for the whole feminine constitution, if not overdone. As far as grease and dirt go, I would much rather attend to those conditions in the proper way, than to pedestrian mud or painter’s palette; although I approve heartily of both.

I am an ardent crusader for women, a whole-souled suffragist, and a lover of every progressive “ism,” but there is no use in running down housework, for it is inevitable.

Mrs. Gilman is so splendid and rigorous and magnetic, beg of her not to be unsymmetrical in the slightest swerve.

Why will she not give her idea of a model home, as over against a “one woman harem”? For she must believe in a home.

And what are we going to say to the few staunch females who are still left to be willing to work in our homes for us? Are we to tell them that housework is inferior and injurious?

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her most wonderful sentences on slips of paper held against the kitchen wall while she was hovering over culinary formations. And I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me. The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about.

If domesticity is a characteristic with an individual, it must assert itself.

Concord, Mass. L. N.

As it turns out, the Dickinson anecdote is the least of it. The two views of housework Gilman’s and Norcross’s are more interesting. I may have to leaf through more issues.


* [Back to text] I do wonder how Habegger identified this letter; it’s an excellent find. As far as I can tell, he was the first to cite it; a few others have since.


Written by Ben Friedlander

June 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm


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In 1933, in a review of Emily Dickinson’s letters, Marianne Moore wrote:

As Mr. Trueblood has noted, “What she said seems always said with the choicest originality.” Whittier, Bryant, and Thoreau were choice; and to some extent Emerson. Hawthorne was a bear but great. All of these except Whittier seem less choice than their neighbor “Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty” she called herself, not realizing the pinnacle of favor to which her words of dejection were to be raised.

OK, wait a second. Moore preferred Whittier? To all of the others? Choice indeed.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 23, 2016 at 6:12 am

Books of Poetry: The 1860s

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Joanne Dobson

One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past few years, in spare moments, is a counterfactual edition of Emily Dickinson’s war poetry: an attempt to imagine what a book of Dickinson’s war poems might have looked like, had she allowed one to be published at the end of the Civil War. I’m not the first to use this approach; I cribbed it from Joanne Dobson, who produced “a hypothetical Table of Contents for a volume of Verses by Emily Dickinson” as part of her own Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Dobson’s Verses was comprised of fifty poems run together in a continuous sequence; it had an imagined publication date of 1864, the year five of Dickinson’s poems poems did appear in print, on ten different occasions, her most public year as a writer. The point of the exercise: to make vivid the fact that many of Dickinson’s unpublished poems would not have been out of place in the literary market of the time, as previous critics had imagined. The point of my exercise is a little different: to make vivid the particularity of Dickinson’s war poems by putting them in a form that makes comparison easier with other war poets of the time (those, anyhow, who published whole volumes on the subject). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2012 at 7:07 am

Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

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edbb7I 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).

edbb4What 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.

edbb6Out 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.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Drum Beat

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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

“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? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am

a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun

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(From an essay in three parts written out of sequence. This picks up where part one left off and leads directly into part three.)

Indian Whips-Snake

Frederick William Frohawk, Indian Whip-Snake (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

I began with one model of historical knowledge and ended with another. To conceive of events as holes in time makes language a kind of residue or debris: the sand piled up around an ant hole, the rust around the drain of a sink. However intrinsic the relationship between the two ― between language and event ― the former can never be an explanation of the latter, only a witness to the fact that it occurred. Other language is needed to make sense of this “witness.” Historical knowledge requires a metalanguage.

To conceive of texts as misrecognized or misattributed events ― as whips that turn out to be encounters with snakes ― is not so very different in effect:  since knowledge of the “event” can only be had when the misrecognition or misattribution is grasped, metalanguage is still required. This metalanguage, however, is not simply an explanation of the text, but its first moment of authentic regard.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

May 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

Emily Dickinson’s “Suez” Crisis

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(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.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Dickinson, Longfellow, and Arab Nationalism

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

Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan

Khedive Tewfiq, 1883

There are holes in time, call them events, around which a poet’s words leave the most intriguing traces. Not powder burns or blood spatter, but smudges, odors, rubble; signs that somebody lingered where others pass quickly. Events, of course, take many shapes, and some indeed are wounds. But the holes I have in mind are peepholes, or entranceways; moments of understanding set at a distance from the thing understood.  And yes, I know that this metaphor is faulty. But how else evoke the special character of moments when a castoff sentence draws our attention, leading us to see what is always there anyway: history. And the closer we look, the farther we see.

Call the above a hypothesis; I’m not sure it is really workable as a model of understanding. Holes of time rimmed with language quickly enough become holes of language rimmed by time. The reversibility is beffudling; the fact that texts can be “in,” “of,” and “about” history, all at the same time, makes nonsense of all prepositional knowledge. And knowledge of history is indeed prepositional: it establishes direction, articulates relationships, arranges an order. Where is poetry, or a poet’s language, in all this?

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Written by Ben Friedlander

January 19, 2009 at 5:33 am

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

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From “Page Six” in the New York Post, January 18, 2009

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Written by Ben Friedlander

January 18, 2009 at 8:52 pm