Sarah’s Much Expected CC Assignment C


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.

Sources:
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!)



Sarah’s Highly Anticipated CC Assignment B


Animals and Anthropmorphism

Unfortunately, we never got the chance to discuss Dickinson’s animal poems, though, as Aaron Shackelford points out in his article “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism,” there certainly are a lot of them. He does an excellent job of summarizing the scholarship on these animal poems and the literary and scientific debates surrounding the use of anthropomorphism in general. In the end, he shows how Dickinson played both sides of the humanizing animals debate to make effective statements about both animal and human nature.

Shackelford starts by addressing modern conceptions of anthropomorphism as childish or immature, and traces this idea back to Dickinson’s own library, citing one of her textbooks from Mount Holyoke and an article in the Atlantic Monthly, the same issue in which Higginson’s “Letter to a Young Contributor” was published. Originally, as is shown in the science textbook, anthropomorphism was considered essential to understanding the natural world, the idea being that without a human lens and human-based metaphors, we couldn’t understand animals as the complex beings they are. William Smellie, the author of the textbook, condemns detatched methods of approaching natural life, as in the casting of animals as bits of complex machinery.

This approach remained popular through Darwin’s researches and other famous scientific studies, but started to be challenged seriously around Dickinson’s time period. The Atlantic Monthly article, written by Louis Agassiz, highlights a very removed approach to natural study. His theory is that human bias prevents us from really understanding animals fully, as all of the study is on our terms and not theirs. Both the article and the textbook are used primarily because of the high probability that Dickinson would have read them, but they are also good examples of the scholarship out there.

At this point, Shackelford applies both of these theories to Dickinson’s own poems, first using the example of “A Saucer holds a Cup” to show how she incorporates the ideas. In the poem (don’t worry, we haven’t read it), she describes a squirrel eating. Onto this image she applies such human imagery of a king in a dining room, and gives the squirrel cutlery. Although on the surface it seems quaint, Shackelford shows how these metaphors are cleverly disrupted (the dining room is swaying, the cutlery is the squirrel’s own teeth), which in turn highlights the flaws in applying such metaphors in the first place, forcing the reader to consider the choice. In the end, the squirrel, a mere vehicle, fades away and the reader is faced with commentary on human society.

Another poem that Shackelford explicates, “You’ll know Her – by Her Foot -” approaches a bird from the opposite approach. The poem details a minute examination of the bird in question, which, instead of resulting in a complete understanding of the creature, ends in a turning away from the bird at hand to contemplate the false bird in the speaker’s mind. To do this, Dickinson uses the same method of “A Saucer holds a Cup,” familiar human metaphors that are disrupted. The bird’s “hand” is of course not a hand, and its “rubber boots” are buttonless. The bird is described as wearing a cap, but then we are told the cap has no material, no seam, no band, and no brim—in other words, not a hat at all. Finally, the songs of the bird are wasted on the speaker, who turns to the internalized robin, ignoring the reality of the bird.

Overall, it was a fantastically written article, deep in research and mostly sound in explication. The thesis, a bit spread out in the beginning, is wrapped up perfectly in the conclusion, where Shackelford’s arguments are all tied together. We are left with an interesting case study of how Dickinson commented on scientific debate around her, using the strategies of both sides to undermine them and point out the flaws in each by exaggerating anthropomorphism. Finally, Shackelford points out that because of modern views of the triviality and juvenility of anthropomorphism, Dickinson’s many animal-based poems are given a diminished worth, and not studied as much as her Civil War poems or sexuality poems (why we choose the topics we do is such a worthwhile question that this article raises). Though we have a limited time in this class to study Dickinson in depth, it is great to do a bit of research on significant topics that get squeezed out. Her animal poems are a great example of how she, often seen as a recluse, interacted with the world and ideas around her in a clever and skillful way.

Source:
Aaron Shackelford. “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.2 (2010): 47-66. Project MUSE. Web.



Sarah’s Long-Awaited CC Assignment A


Perdita, or Lack Thereof

It is striking to me how little is written about Perdita. I see her of one of the most interesting people of the many who surrounded H. D. Perhaps I am only romanticizing, but she seems to me a relatively normal child, and later woman, thrust by no fault or request of her own into the most unusual of circumstances. It’s true that she’s not the most interesting of the cast of characters in which she was born—less drama surrounds her than anyone else. Even in the trials that do involve her, such as the spat over her registration and her eventual adoption, have almost nothing to do with her—she might as well have been a piece of furniture or a relic of art.

This strange fading away of such an interesting person is reflected in H. D.’s writing. There is very little written about Frances Perdita Aldington Schaffner by her mother or mother-figures; she seems not to have been a very noteworthy person at all. Even when she is mentioned, it is as an allusion to H. D.’s pressures and troubles surrounding Perdita’s birth. Thus, I consulted Barbara Guest’s biography of H. D., Herself Defined:  The Poet H. D. and Her World, to try to find more information about this “little lost one.”

On page 243 I found a little nugget that explains so much about Perdita—not only about her early life, but also about the kind of atmosphere she was raised in and the attitudes of those around her. Her first few weeks were spent at the nursery where we see her at the end of Asphodel, and then she was moved to another house, separate from H. D. For a time, it seems, she lived with Bryher and H. D., but was sent to a vocational school (cooking, housekeeping), and then a girl’s school, and then shunted between Kenwin and London, as H. D. couldn’t stand to have her around too much. At eighteen, she moved to a flat in London separate from her mother. In fact, for most of her life she lived separate from H. D., which explains her absence from H. D.’s writing—she was absent from her life. According to H. D., “This did not mean…that her love was any the less for Perdita. It was that she suffered from the mere physical presence of another person.” I’m not well-informed enough to judge H. D.’s parenting skills, and I have no children of my own, but I believe that some sort of proximity to one’s child is rather useful in their upbringing, and it appears that H. D. couldn’t physically do that.

In a biography of a person, you would expect attention to be devoted to their family most of all. In Guest’s biography, H. D.’s friends and lovers take precedent, and Perdita, her one blood tie left at the time (her family either dead or in America), is mentioned only in little asides. To get a sense of what the daughter meant to the mother, these little asides must be examined. In 1924, Bryher writes to H. D. to come to Paris, suggesting she bring “the Pudding’ (159). Nursery-age Perdita, apparently round and chubby, is the dish referred to—almost an afterthought, and certainly an object (it is a cute nickname, but the fact remains that it’s indicative of how her two mothers treated her). When Bryher encourages Perdita to go to America, she warns of how these two mothers could smother her. “We would eat you up!’ she told Perdita” (289). (pudding, anyone?) Here we can see that the high drama and demanding personalities of the people surrounding Perdita caused her to truly become a background character, as she is in the biography.

In the US, she married a literary agent, and their home became “one of literary enterprise combined with raising a family of four children” (289). She appears to have come into her own here—it was in the US that she started her lucrative career as a writer—she writes her own works and the prefaces to and criticism of her mother’s works. After H. D., Perdita has become more of a person than during H. D. Two of her sons are published writers, and her daughter is an artist, and Guest says that “H. D. would now see in the Schaffner household fresh rewards of her own literary creativity”—though she appears to have been mostly absent from this actual household. It seems that there is not much about Perdita in H. D., but plenty of H. D. in Perdita. While Perdita’s effect on H. D. cannot really be considered an anecdote, I consider her an important person in H. D.’s life—and was slightly disappointed to find that, ultimately, she isn’t.

Sources:
Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984.   Print
Perdita, Schaffner. “Running.” The Iowa Review 16.3 (1986): 7-13. JSTOR. Web.*
*This is very very interesting reading, I highly recommend it.



Claire’s CC Assignment A


Frances Gregg, the woman behind Fayne Rabb in HERmione and Asphodel, was born in 1884. At the time she met H.D. she was living with her widowed mother in Philadelphia (Guest 22). H.D. met Gregg through their mutual friend Nan Hoyt. The meeting took place in 1909, after H.D. had left Bryn Mawr (Guest 22). Since Ezra Pound had left for Europe earlier in the year, H.D. had been searching for a new companion. H.D. found in Gregg a friend with similar beliefs and interests, or as Barbara Guest called Gregg, a “twin and her love” (Guest 23). John Cowper Powys and Llewellyn Powys both described Gregg as androgynous, a description echoed by H.D. in Hermione (Guest 24). This is an image that Gregg played up: while on her honeymoon in Venice, Gregg spent much of the time dressed as a boy (Guest 38). Though H.D. delighted in her time with Gregg, her parents were critical of their relationship, which they viewed as worse than her relationship with Pound (Guest 25). Despite their dislike, they allowed H.D. to travel to Europe with Gregg and her mother.

The 1911 trip to Europe was rocky; H.D. and Gregg’s mother often fought over Gregg. Gregg’s mother claimed that H.D. was “robbing the widow of her orphan” and H.D. accused her of trying to restrict Gregg’s freedom (Guest 28). The relationship between H.D. and Gregg was strained as well; before leaving for Europe, Gregg admitted to being involved with Pound. Gregg wrote in her diary “Two girls in love with each other, and each in love with the same man. Hilda, Ezra, Frances” (Guest 26). H.D. eventually parted from Gregg and her mother in order to live in Europe. One year later, Gregg wrote to H.D. to inform her that she would be in London with her new husband (Guest 36). Gregg had married Louis Wilkinson, a lecturer who was booked to speak in Brussels. Gregg asked that H.D. accompany them to Brussels to keep her company while her husband worked (Guest 36). H.D. agreed to go but was physically stopped at the train station by Ezra Pound. Guest says that this was a wise decision on Pound’s part and that H.D. most likely felt that Gregg had “triumphed” over her by getting married first (Guest 37).

H.D. and Gregg did not see each other for more than a decade after her marriage to Wilkinson, but Gregg remained an influence on H.D.’s life. According to Guest, H.D. would confuse her female lovers with Frances (Guest 120). Later, when she became friends with the writer Harold P Collins, H.D. stridently defended Gregg when he questioned her actions (Guest 149). H.D. eventually came across Gregg in the 1920s, when Gregg was living in greatly reduced circumstances (Guest 178). Her marriage to Wilkinson ended in 1920 and Gregg was sharing a single bedroom with her mother in London (Guest 38). Though H.D. defended Gregg to Collins, she was wary of befriending her again due to Gregg and Wilkinson’s scathing portrayal of H.D. in their 1916 book The Buffoon (Guest 178). They eventually crossed paths again in 1926. Gregg introduced Kenneth MacPherson to H.D., whom Bryher later married and H.D. fell in love with (Guest 179).

H.D. and Gregg continued writing to one another until 1934 (Guest 230). H.D. entrusted their letters to Silvia Dobson; Guest believes that she did this in order to conceal the letters from Bryher (Guest 229). This does not hint that theirs was a particularly close relationship. When Gregg suggested that Perdita meet her son Oliver, H.D. passionately refused the offer (Guest 229). H.D. did briefly entertain the thought of moving Gregg and her family from Plymouth after an explosion in the area, but decided that it was ultimately too expensive and complicated of an idea (Guest 229). Contact between the two appeared to have ceased after 1934 and in 1941, Gregg, her mother, and her daughter were killed in the bombing of Plymouth (Guest 230).

Though they spent relatively little time in one another’s company, Gregg had a profound influence on H.D.’s life. Gregg is the main character in HERmione and causes the George-Hermione-Fayne triangle that helped bring on Hermione’s emotional breakdown. Even though she is not as prevalent in Asphodel, Fayne’s presence causes Hermione’s emotional turmoil. Fayne’s actions are not totally equal to Gregg’s, though Guest takes that view. Rather, that H.D. chose to portray in Gregg such a way shows the impact that she had on H.D.’s young life and her development as a writer. H.D.’s continued correspondence with Gregg in the 1920s and 1930s shows that she was willing to forgive Gregg for The Buffoon and their earlier falling-out; however, Gregg’s life was much diminished compared to what it had once been and it is possible that H.D. saw her as a relic of her old life. Her insistence on keeping her correspondence with Gregg secret and refusing to mix their families shows H.D.’s resistance to fully incorporating Gregg back into her life.

Works Cited

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. Print



Claire’s CC Assignment C


Opened to the public in 1759, the British Museum is one of the largest free museums in the world. Its exhibits range from African art to Levantine archeology to the famous Elgin Marbles. Since its creation, the Museum has been an important resource, opening its libraries and collections to visiting scholars; however, it has had important artistic benefits as well. Because of its location in the Bloomsbury area of London, it became a haven for the writers and artists who migrated to that neighborhood in the early twentieth century. The large museum and its library (now known as the British Library and housed in a separate location less than a mile away) provided inspiration and research opportunities for modernist authors interested in nationalism, colonial history, and philosophy (Sara Blair 823).

The British Museum began as a glorified storage cabinet. Scientist Sir Hans Sloane stipulated in his will that his vast collection of books, specimens, and antiquities were to be sold and put on public display after his death (Anne Goldgar 199). When the Museum was first established, the prevailing view of the eighteenth century was that ‘high culture’ should be limited to elites (Goldgar 196). Despite this belief, the foundation of the Museum demonstrated an important cultural shift: unlike most private museums that were mostly for royal use, the Museum was a public museum run on public funds (Goldgar 198). Proposals to begin charging admission, partially in order to keep out the lower classes, were consistently defeated in Parliament (Goldgar 213). As the nineteenth century wore on, the Trustees of the Museum welcomed the presence of the lower-classes and the museum had up to 12,000 visitors a year (Goldgar 229). As it entered the twentieth century, the Museum saw its population further diversify as Bloomsbury and the surrounding neighborhoods began to fill with immigrants. The Museum was seen as such an important site to new immigrants that the South Asian London community called the Museum their Mecca (Blair 822).

Then, as today, one of the most popular exhibits was the Elgin Marbles. Though originally housed in the Greek Parthenon, the Marbles have resided in England since 1801. Over the course of 1801 until 1812, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Lord of Elgin, made trips to Greece to purchase the Marbles in order to expand his collection of antiquities (John Henry Merryman 1882). Elgin took 247 feet of a partially fallen frieze inside the Parthenon; the total length of the frieze was 524 feet (Merryman 1884). The Ottoman Empire controlled Greece at that time and gave Elgin the permission to remove the Marbles from the Parthenon, an action that was in accordance with early nineteenth century law (Merryman 1897). In 1816, Elgin sold the Marbles to the Museum to pay off his debts and the sale was approved by Parliament. Though the ownership of the Marbles is now heavily debated as not only a legal but moral issue, there was limited debate on the subject at the turn of the twentieth century. A 1916 article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies celebrated the acquisition of the Marbles as not only right but a patriotic duty, though the early nineteenth century version of patriotism was to one-up Napoleon in his plunder of the world’s antiquities (Phillip Hunt and A.H. Smith 171). The article, which includes letters and detailed accounts of Elgin’s journeys and spans over two hundred pages, shows that the Marbles had become an important part to the Museum’s history. In Asphodel, it’s clear that H.D. saw the Elgin Marbles as being tied to England and Greece. “I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits.” (H.D. 41). Though the Museum and the Louvre were filled with artifacts from other nations, Hermione sees them as holding the world together.

Though the Greek and Roman antiquities were very popular, the Museum’s collection expanded during the early 1900s. An article written in June 1914 notes new additions to the collection, including German woodcuts (Bowyer Nichols and Campbell Dodgson 164). That the acquisition of German art despite the increased tensions between England and Germany could be a sign that the Museum valued its collection over politics. The early 1900s also saw the collection expand beyond Europe. During that period their collection of East Asian artifacts grew. Laurence Binyon, a modernist poet and friend of Pound and Aldington, was responsible for purchasing the bulk of the Museum’s collection of Japanese prints throughout 1906-1909 (Rupert Richard Arrowsmith 32). Aldington attributed the inspiration for his poem “The River” to the Japanese prints at the Museum (Arrowsmith 33).

Unlike other museums in London, the British Museum was uniquely influential to the early modernists. The scope of its Greek collection gave writers classical inspiration while also allowing them to consider how the artifacts came to be in England. And as the collection moved beyond Greece and into the antiquities of other areas, the Museum gave writers a chance to be exposed to art they might never have encountered before. Most importantly, it was a social destination. The story of H.D.’s ‘creation’ didn’t take place in the Elgin Marbles room; it was in the Museum café. Given its location in Bloomsbury, the Museum became a meeting place for the writers who inhabited the area. During the early twentieth century, the British Museum was a place to see classical sculptures, explore new exhibits, and mix with fellow Londoners in a museum that was seen as theirs.

Works Cited

Blair, Sara. “Local Modernity, Global Modernism: Bloomsbury and the Places Of the Literary.” Elh 71.3 (2004) : 813-838. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Virtual Representation Of Culture In the Eighteenth Century.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies 32.2 (2000) : 195-231. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

H.D. Asphodel. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. Print.

Hunt, Philip, and A. H. Smith. “Lord Elgin and His Collection.” The Journal Of Hellenic Studies 36 (1916) : 163-372. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

Merryman, John Henry. “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles.” Michigan Law Review 83.8 (1985) : 1881-1923. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

Nichols, Bowyer, and Campbell Dodgson. “The New Print Gallery, the British Museum.” The Burlington Magazine For Connoisseurs 25.135 (1914) : 163-170. Print.

[Bonus/Bragging rights! Last summer, I worked at the British Museum in the Ancient Near East Department. The majority of that department’s artifacts were added during the Great War and the 1920s and its library was built during that time period. Since H.D. mentions the Phoenicians sometimes, I thought you would appreciate a picture from the Ancient Near East library. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of the Greek and Roman Department’s library. Just imagine the Trinkle Study Room; it looked a lot like that.

The first floor is cuneiform tablets; the second and third floors were all books. There were also some old-school spiral staircases in the back (horribly lit) corners of the library that I almost killed myself on several times.]



Jacklyn’s CC Assignment A


There are very little details known about Emily Dickinson’s life, therefore biographers look to family and close friends for more insight. Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, has been judged harshly over the years because many critics blame her for her daughter’s unsatisfied and love-starved life. However, there are several positive references Dickinson makes to her mother in her letters. Dickinson often describes home with images of her mother’s quiet warmth and good-natured affection. Dickinson also served many uncomplaining years as her mother’s nurse before she passed away in 1882 (44). So to say Emily’s life was devoid of love and a relationship with her mother discredits too many of her genuine letters and love poems. Although, there is evidence that suggests the Dickinson family was not altogether happy. Letters from Lavinia and Emily sometimes describe a house of isolation and a fortress of terrible loneliness (44). The reality of what Dickinson’s relationship with her mother was, then, is complex and contradictory. Cynthia Griffin Wolff dedicates a chapter in her biography to this relationship and how the poet finds a voice among such a complicated family life.

Edward Dickinson and his wife, Emily Norcross, were married in September of 1928. Only four months later Emily became pregnant with her first child. This pregnancy forced the new wife to face many awful mysteries about child birth, along with even more personal fears about it. In 1828 pregnancy often led to pain, mutilation, or possible death, and for Emily Norcross Dickinson it could have meant infant mortality because the Norcross women often bore sickly infants or issues with her own health because the Norcross’s were also noted for having tuberculosis in the family (47-48). Moreover, Emily had more than just health concerns, she had no female support: her mother and sister were busy at home, she was not close with the other Dickinson women, and she had no close friends in the Amherst area. And on top of all of this, Emily was going to be treated by a male doctor, not a midwife. And during the early nineteenth century, women who were attended during pregnancy by a man were forced to seclude themselves to “impose modesty” (48). Meanwhile, she received no sympathy from her husband who was all too often detained by business and travelling.


Emily Norcross bore three children in five years, and with the birth of each she suffered a significant loss (50). Before Austin’s birth she lost her brother Hiram and shortly after her mother passed away from illness. Before Emily’s birth her father remarried a woman who was “impossible to tolerate” (51), and her in final pregnancy with Lavinia the birth was difficult for both her and the infant, most likely making any more pregnancies for Emily Norcross Dickinson life-threatening. As tragedy fell upon tragedy Mrs. Edward Dickinson was often depressed. “One can only surmise that this personal anguish interfered with her relationship with her infant. It was not a failure of love, one can speculate, but of communication” (57).


Some say that such background does not do much to clarify Emily Dickinson’s mixture of attitudes toward her mother, but Wolff’s biography proves quite the opposite. Dickinson’s mother had more impact on the reclusive poet than many may think. Emily’s mother’s depression and attitude had a major impact on Emily’s infanthood. And because human interaction comes first with the Mother, Emily’s first and most primitive feelings about words and about communication in general derived from her relationship with her mother (52). Thus we have then Emily Dickinson we all know so well today, the poet who finds a power of “withholding communication” can attribute her success to the preverbal stage of communication with her mother. Wolff’s assessment can be somewhat of a stretch, but because of Dickinson’s unique proliferation of words and her strange use of ellipses it only makes sense that Dickinson is making use of her own mother’s habitual discourse.

Wolff goes into detail about an infant’s preverbal stage of life, where communication is achieved visually and silently through a complex interaction of eye contact and face-to-face play (52). And explains that this is when the baby’s initial sense of identity is formed and where the baby learns its first lessons in how to interact with others.”Thus its successes are always the same successes—a strong and confident sense of self, an ability to interact gracefully with others, and a conviction that the world is a good place” (53). However, when there is a disruption in this period of development the victim’s sense of self remains weak, intimate relationships are difficult, separation from loved ones is always feared, and the world seems like a dangerous pace governed by a hostile God. If it is in fact true that Emily Dickinson’s preverbal stage of life with her mother was disrupted , than her use of language in her poems can easily be attributed this: “…although [Dickinson] was a supreme craftsman of the word, she consistently construed verbal communications as only second best to seeing” (54). These symptoms of a failed preverbal connection with a mother all describe Emily Dickinson in her entirety.


The conflicting attitudes toward her mother probably rely on a mixture of this failed nonverbal communication and, as Dickinson got older, an interpretation of her mother attempting to show affection. However, these attempts often frustrated Dickinson because she knew that they were not whole-hearted. Fortunately, Emily Dickinson’s “fall” into language, as Wolff puts it, allowed her to construe a language as a force that could combat her feelings of an unsatisfied relationship with her mother (64). “For Emily Dickinson, words became her refuge and her one great love” (65). Therefore, thanks to Emily Norcross Dickinson, her daughter’s combating words became the beloved poetry audiences continue to read and cherish today.

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1988. Print.



Sarah’s CC Assignment A


The New England Dickinson’s and the Puritan Heritage-

In Richard B. Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson Vol. 1, Dickinson’s life is covered by the inclusion of events that not only directly impacted her life, but those that did so indirectly as well. In chapter 2, The New England Dickinsons and the Puritan Heritage we are given background on both the puritan religion as a whole as well as the Dickinson family’s relation to the religion. With this information in hand it is then possible to see how Emily Dickinson would have been influenced by the Puritan religion of her present as well as the past. It is then likely that the reader of Dickinson’s poetry would be better able to understand both religious inflections and cultural issues prevalent in her poetry and letters. This chapter argues that although Dickinson herself did not follow Puritan beliefs, it would be shortsighted not to see that the religion still impacted her life, letters and poetry. The section also spent some time focusing on Emily’s family ancestry and commenting on how there was no reason she should have had such poetic genius, as it was not present in her work before.

Sewall notes the interesting appearance of Emily’s poetic gift claiming, “Genius is ultimately unaccountable…Even her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the most family-proud of biographers, found “nothing in the parentage or direct heredity of Emily Dickinson” to explain it (17)”.   Tracing the family history back a few generations we do see in Emily’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, we see the first “qualities that foreshadow in any specific way Emily Dickinson’s peculiar nature and, above all, her vocation as a poet (18)”.  It is interesting to see Dickinson’s family history laid out here in a relatable way. It is easy to lose sight of what made Emily the poet she was and in doing so it seems we would also lose valuable tools for analyzing her works and her life.

Emily’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts is, as we know, a historically Puritan town. During Emily’s life, “ between 1840 and 1862” it is believed that “no fewer than eight revivals swept Amherst college and town” (24). That being the case, Emily was more than familiar with Puritanical lifestyle and beliefs, although she did not choose to align herself with these beliefs. Sewall notes that Dickinson’s “whole career may be regarded as a sustained, if muted, rebellion against this very inheritance (19)”.  To further that thought Sewall notes that while Emily “knew what the Puritan traits were, saw them in her family and herself, respected them, but was critical of them throughout her life (19)”. It is important to have an understanding of not only the major events in a person or in this case, poets life because it gives the reader the ability to place works into contexts that can make a potentially difficult to understand work, understandable.

It has been established by now that Puritan beliefs played an important role in the life and works of Emily Dickinson. Sewall takes this thought further by pinpointing precise aspects of Puritan culture that can be seen in Dickinsons’s work.  Sewall mentions that New Englanders were “frugal with everything” and this trait carried into words (21). They hated to waste words, a quality which became perhaps Emily Dickinson’s most obvious New Englandism (21)”.  This is most definitely the case with Emily’s poetry. Her attention to every detail of the word was of paramount importance during the writing process. In general Dickinson’s poems were not abnormally lengthy. She was able to incorporate a multitude of variations with using the same word. This was apparent through Dickinson;s use of layered definitions as well as layered meaning throughout the poem as a whole. By conserving words in this way it seems that Dickinson was able to have her poems become relevant for more readers, or even just for a multitude of her own thoughts.

Sewall quotes Perry Miller, saying “Almost every Puritan kept a diary”. While this section of the biography does not elaborate on whether or not Dickinson kept a traditional diary, we can see a diary keeping of sorts in Dickinson’s other works. Look at her poetry, often times the reader can see the influences of historical events, such as the civil war, through Dickinson’s words. If one reads her poetry chronologically (or as much as possible with the order we are given the poems) then it becomes apparent that her writing style was not the only thing that changed over time. The topic matter or tone of the poems also varied, presumably with dickinson’s moods, troubles, or pleasures she was experiencing. Her letters further the idea of her keeping an ‘untraditional diary’ of sorts. In many of Dickinson’s letters not only were events in her personal life, as well as her family’s (the line between which became more blurred as she recoiled into seclusion later in life) but also her perception of current issues, the weather, the death of her dog and many other things. From these letters and poems we gain information that a personal diary would often reveal, though sometimes one must read ‘between the lines’ so to speak to gain insight into her most personal relationships.

Sewall brings forth much interesting information in his biography that chronicles the background of Emily’s life, family, and the prominent Puritan religion in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, Vol. 1. New York. Fararr, Straus and Giroux, 1974.  17-27. Print



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