April 7th, 2011
The 1st South Carolina
Not a single battle of the Civil War was fought in Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson’s home state. Despite this, her connection with the war was apparent. We know that she was an avid reader of everything that came to the house, and it stands to reason that she kept up to date on the progression of the war. One of her strongest ties to it most likely existed in the person of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Their relationship began with the publication of “Letter to a Young Contributor,” and article by Higginson published in the Atlantic Monthly, in which he encourages budding writers. Dickinson would write him in response to this, and through their exchange of letters, he would become her foremost literary mentor. This catalytic article was published months before Higginson left Massachusetts to take command of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment made up entirely of escaped black slaves—the first official black regiment in US history. They corresponded even as Higginson was going off to this new command.
The 1st South Carolina appears to have faded from history, despite the publication of Higginson’s book, Army Life in a Black Regiment, about his experiences with the regiment. Heaps of fame and interest are loaded instead upon the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the second official black regiment and the subject of the movie Glory. Most likely this is because the 54th Massachusetts saw significantly more action than the 1st South Carolina, which saw plenty of combat, but no big-name battles (but still). Though the war in general certainly affected her life and poetry, it was likely Higginson’s experiences in the war (along with the deaths of several neighbors and a family member) that affected her the most.
In his book, which was published in Dickinson’s lifetime (and I would not be surprised to know that she owned), Higginson shares his diaries, letters, and recollections from the start of training camp in 1862 until he left for health reasons in 1864. One of the reasons this memoir is valued is because in recording the so-called “negro spirituals,” he preserved an art form that we have little record of today. He continually refers to these songs and their singers as “poetry” and “poets,” and there are, in fact, a few parallels between these folk songs and some of Dickinson’s poetry. The biggest similarity is in their focus on the natural in setting and object. Mixed with a heavy dose of biblical allusions, Dickinson may have identified with these folk songs more than the more familiar “cathedral tunes” of her childhood, referenced in “There’s a certain Slant of light.” This natural or nature-imbued faith, as shown in “Some Keep the Sabbath going to Church—” was much more typical for Dickinson. I am, of course, merely drawing a connection between her poems and a possible influence on them; I have not found solid evidence that Dickinson herself felt this way.
She may also have been influenced by some of the descriptions of battle or troop life that Higginson included in his book. In an article by Leigh-Anne Urbanowicz Marcellin, she highlights several of Dickinson’s poems that seem directly influenced by war and the plight of the soldier—some even from the soldiers’ point of view. Some of these poems are “Our journey had advanced,” “My Portion is Defeat—today,” “They dropped like Flakes,” and “It dont sound so terrible—quite—as it did—.” The last poem is even written in a simplified grammar and syntax, emulating a poorly-educated soldier. Higginson preserves a similar dialect in his book—another link between the two.
The short article by Marcellin, which gives useful context to the subject and some explicatory passages, would have fit in nicely into our curriculum. We didn’t get the chance to study much of Dickinson’s war poetry, an unfortunate occurrence, considering the wealth of literature on the topic, and the parallels to H. D.’s own war experiences. Though it is harder to identify her war-influenced work because she rarely gives direct context (wouldn’t you love a note that says “this poem is about Antietam”?), the scholarship on the subject and the dates around which the Johnson edition is organized would have been enough to uncover a few exemplary examples of her war poetry. Women’s war poetry is just now becoming a popular field of study, as Marcellin points out, and the question of its influence is thus a current one, and worth more than a cursory glance.
Marcellin, Leigh-Anne Urbanowicz. “Emily Dickinson’s Civil War Poetry.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 5.2 (1996): 107-112. Project MUSE. Web.
Wikipedia pages on Higginson, Dickinson, and the 1st South Carolina Volunteers for basic information.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Publisher unknown, 1869. Scribd.com. Web. (and no I didn’t read the whole thing!)