April 20th, 2011
Emily Dickinson ballet. Gotta love those Canadians.
Emily Dickinson ballet. Gotta love those Canadians.
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!)
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.
Aaron Shackelford. “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.2 (2010): 47-66. Project MUSE. Web.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures in what has come to be known as the transcendentalist movement in 19th century America. His influence then (and now) was pervasive and lasting among many serious writers and thinkers here and abroad. For the purposes of this paper though the aspects of his thought that pertain to Dickinson are numerous and worth looking into (e.g. his discussion of mood and temperament in “Experience,” his views on the poet and what that person does in “The Poet,” his notion of self-reliance and its relation to constructing the self in “Self-Reliance,” and many more), I will focus on his idea of genius, what it is, how one discovers it and why it’s important. To simplify, one’s genius works through what Emerson calls your “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded” and has the capability to recognize and produce what is “original and not conventional” for you yourself are as such (Emerson 268; 259). Let me leave off of genius for a moment and focus on this aboriginal Self. The aboriginal Self is “that part [you] could not borrow” for it is what makes you distinct from all else, but capable of relating to and bringing about all else (Emerson 279). It is that which we refer to when we speak of “mine” and “my own,” and yet it is truly “ours”—shared insofar as it is the common ground upon which our selves as human beings stand. It is that very ground which must be presupposed to account for a certain kind of being that we call “human”—that which conjoins our consciousness and our physicality and is the unbreakable knot by which we tie down our “experience” in Emerson’s, I think Stoic, sense of the word. If you cannot get an idea of it from this, I urge you to read further, particularly in “Self-Reliance,” but I must move on to account for genius.
Emerson defines it as an action: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” (Emerson 259). Emerson’s numerous examples are mostly through language, but let us be generous enough to know that this signifies the kind of beings which have genius and not strictly the kinds of professions (writers or orators) who have it—his first example is, after all, “an eminent painter” (Emerson 259, emphasis mine). With that in mind, he shows it to be an articulation of the universal, one that resides within us at all times, “let the subject be what it may”* (Emerson 259). One discovers it then by experiencing the universal in some way, whether through someone else’s genius or through an instantiation of God or the divine (this is divine understood broadly** in nature (this is nature understood broadly as all that is, i.e. the natural world). Genius is exceedingly important for Emerson for it is this concept that ties together his views of recognizing, appreciating and ultimately expressing the divine for any individual, no matter the particular characteristics of that individual. We should keep this in mind when approaching Dickinson, which I’ll do in just a moment.
But before that, I should point out that there is no question among scholars that Dickinson was not only well aware of Emerson and his writings, but that his thought may have even had considerable influence on her own writing. Richard Sewall goes so far as to claim that she may have heard him lecture, writing that, “[t]here is no reason to believe that Emily did not hear…Emerson. It may have been on this occasion that Emily (according to Sue) gave her famous impression of Emerson: ‘As if he had come from where dreams are born’” (Sewall 468). Accordingly, many critics focus on what kind of influence Emerson had on her, whether positive or negative, and which direction it pushed her writing, whether toward or away from his thought, instead of on whether or not it existed. Dickinson’s other major biographer, Cynthia Wolff, has paid attention to Emerson’s essay “The Poet” as having particular influence on Dickinson. Wolff acknowledges that “any American poet who wished to be ‘Representative’ was constrained to address Emerson’s optimistic assessment of the meaning a poet would discover in the landscape” (Wolff 282). Dickinson, who considered herself representative (L268—although, note here that she in many ways is embodying Emerson’s idea of the representative poet) felt the need then to address at least this aspect of Emerson’s thought: one’s (particularly a poet’s) interaction with nature. With that in mind, let’s examine Fr1433 to see how that latter issue of Dickinson’s view of nature plays out in the context of Emersonian influence.
There are many who have seen this poem as expressly rejecting the views of Emerson (L227 and others). However, I don’t find Dickinson to be quite so unkind as some would make her out to be. Though I recognize the pun of “cite” with “sight” and its allusion to the Emersonian eyeball of Nature, I don’t see this as a bad thing, in part because of the ambiguity of the line that “those who cite [Nature] most / Have never passed her haunted house, / Nor simplified her ghost” (ll. 18-20). Leiter takes this to mean that they have never seen her house and cannot, therefore, be very good judges of Nature; that their “cite/sight” is satirical in Dickinson’s eyes. But there is another meaning of “pass” here as never having gone beyond the house; they have never passed it because they have stopped in before it to gaze and are gazing still. Dickinson’s own conclusion that “those who know her, know her less / the nearer her they get” supports this (ll. 23-24). This may seem like it doesn’t aid me, at first, but let us revisit the first stanza. Dickinson writes:
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
What resides in the well is our own reflection, or, as Emerson might say (were he in a poetic mood,) a person can only truly be alone when looking at the stars (Emerson 9). He would say further that “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” for Nature truly is what we see in it and thus our own selves reflected back at us (Emerson 11). Dickinson uses the metaphor of the reflection here to express the same point. It is no wonder then that those who grow nearer to Nature “know her less,” for they are growing closer to their own aboriginal Self. This may seem a stretch, but if we do not grant Dickinson the probability of interacting with one of the most profound thinkers of her day and in her own country, we do her a disservice. Let this serve as an admonishment then, for when I approach Dickinson, I recall that she is anything but obvious—she is “small, like the wren,” always flitting from bush to tree, dodging our darting eyes, for just when we think we might see her wing, she flies, leaving only our reflected face in her words and this reading is certainly not the only one, but nevertheless not to be dismissed, to be ignored or shut up in one’s chamber behind cracked doors (L269).
*It is important to note, in case any inquiring minds look at this sentence that it would be easy to assume that “the subject” here is referring to the “such lines” earlier in the sentence. While I wouldn’t say that’s wrong, I would advise a deeper examination of what “subjects” general are, especially in the context of the subject/object relationship in which a “subject” is most generally a human being.
** Though perhaps better grasped through a less encompassing definition by one of Emerson’s students, William James: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest” (James 42).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Poems. Library of America, 1996. Print.
James, William. The Varities of Religious Experience. Library of America, 2009. Print.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to
Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, Vol. 2. New York. Fararr, Straus
and Giroux, 1974. 17-27. Print
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1988.
John Shoptaw. “Dickinson’s Civil War Poetics: From the Enrollment Act to the Lincoln Assassination.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.2 (2010): 1-19. Project MUSE. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
In John Shoptaw’s article “Dickinson’s Civil War Poetics: From the Enrollment Act to Lincoln’s Assassination,” he argues that the Civil War provided many challenges to Dickinson. According to Shoptaw, this is evident in her poems that allude to the 1863 Enrollment Act or draft, Higginson’s work with a black regiment, and Lincoln’s assassination. Though critics have argued for years about the ways in which the Civil War impacted Dickinson and her family personally, Shoptaw singles out Dickinson’s role as a poet as the facet of her life that was most complicated by the war. Shoptaw writes that because her poetry was so focused on her personal experiences, Dickinson could have been worried that her poetry would not find a welcome reception during a military conflict (1). Shoptaw finds that though Dickinson could not convince readers that the interior experience was equal to the military one, she was successful in applying her own oblique style to war poetry (17).
The Enrollment Act of 1863 was the Civil War’s most direct impact on Dickinson’s life. Her brother Austin was eligible for the draft and due to his age was in the group of the most sought-after potential soldiers; however, Austin never saw combat. Shoptaw quotes Section Thirteen of the act, which allows for the draftee to, “on or before the day fixed for his appearance, furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place in the draft.” (5) It was common practice for wealthy Northerners to pay lower-class immigrants to take their place in the draft, so what Austin did was not unusual. Shoptaw believes that this was “an existential lesson” for Dickinson, as reflected in poem #638 (5). Shoptaw finds that the language in both versions of the poem echo that of the Enrollment Act, specifically the words ‘report,’ ‘the Act,’ ‘Telegram,’ and ‘Substitute’ (5). Shoptaw finds military-inspired vocabulary in several other poems. In poem #328, one version of which was sent to Higginson, Dickinson connects the elegiac poem to the war through her word choice. For example, Shoptaw highlights the description of the gowns as “Spangled,” which calls to mind the National Anthem (3). Shoptaw notes that this poem could be read as a criticism of the war; instead of praising the victors, Dickinson favors those whose robes are “Snow” (without blood). Shoptaw reads this as Dickinson placing the spiritual over the military.
Despite her moral criticism of the war, Dickinson continued writing about the conflict, going so far as to associate her poetry with a particular side. Shoptaw finds that poem #319, which could be read as a first-person account of witnessing the Northern Lights, is about the Union army (9). By framing “the North” with the words “Bronze” and “Blaze” and also referencing “Unicorns” (emphasis added), the poem encourages the reader to think of the Union forces (9). The poem has been dated by Franklin as being from early 1862; by acknowledging the date, the poem becomes a criticism of the overconfidence of the Union army going into the war. This reading is supported by her description of the North as having “Disdaining Men, and Oxygen,/ For Arrogance of them-” (9). The poetry shows that the northern states entered the conflict with a lack of respect for the human cost of war.
Though Shoptaw does not focus specifically on this, he briefly delves into the role that the “choosing/not choosing” played in Dickinson’s military vocabulary. He notes that in poem #138, written just before the war began, Dickinson’s use of the word “cavalry” is problematic (2). It is very close to “calvary,” which Dickinson’s edition of Webster’s defines as “A place of skulls; particularly, the place where Christ was crucified on a small hill west of Jerusalem.” This poem is about the rewards of spiritual battle, but Dickinson’s word choice alludes the violence inherent in the personal religious battles.
Another theme that Shoptaw finds important to Dickinson’s war poetry is the emotional scars left on the survivors. Poem #524 begins “It feels a shame to be Alive -/ When Men so brave – are dead -/ One envies the Distinguished Dust -/ Permitted – such a Head-” Other critics have attributed the shame to a failure in the country, but Shoptaw believes that the use of the first person plural in the poem indicates that the poem is about the survivors and non-combatants (12). Shoptaw finds this poem to be remarkable due to its honesty: “how many would identify with the admission, “One envies the Distinguished Dust -“? The confession is remarkable for its unvarnished and unflattering honesty: the dead are envied not for their heroic martyrdom but for their renown” (12). Shoptaw finds that Dickinson’s poetry worked towards creating a contemporary heroism that was on par with that of Sparta and Ancient Rome (13).
Though this article is about Dickinson, I think that it can be very easily applied to H.D. as we continue to explore her poetry. Like Dickinson, she was actively writing during a major war and closely experienced the lead-up to another. I think that Shoptaw provides an interesting frame of reference by showing how poets referred to the war indirectly and provides some methods of analysis that could be useful when reading H.D.’s poetry from the Great War.
In “Allusion, Echo, and Literary Influence in Emily Dickinson,” Elizabeth Petrino discusses the ways in which Dickinson’s poems and letters “sometimes overtly, sometimes in subtle and barely discernable ways” make use of other literary texts in order to add to her own writing (Petrino 80). Petrino establishes early on that this is fairly easy to discern in the letters where “she often quotes directly,” but that “her poems cast literary allusions subtly and anonymously” (Petrino 80). For the sake of her discussion, Petrino focuses mainly on the influence of John Keats and William Shakespeare, though she specifies that much of her argument is based on the idea of “echo” that she draws on from John Hollander (Petrino 80-81). This lends to her focus on “images, sounds, or rhythmical patterns” that may not be a “direct quotation,” but rather echo her literary predecessors. To support this, she cites Dickinson’s letter to Higginson in which Dickinson states that she “refrains ‘consciously’ from touching another’s ‘paint’” (Perino 82). This lends to her examination of the more hidden aspects of Dickinson’s writing—the echoes.
Before beginning her analysis, she lays out a number of former critics including Paul Crumbley, Marietta Messmer and Vivian Pollak who have discussed intertextuality in Dickinson’s writing. She emphasizes Crumbley’s notion that “Dickinson adapts a dialogic style that allows a number of voices to exist simultaneously and hence amplifies indeterminacy in her poems,” though I will argue later that this only lends to her argument to a certain point before diminishing it (Petrino 82). Petrino combines Messmer and Pollak’s thoughts to posit that Dickinson’s intertextual references are harder to spot in her later work as she begins to shirk direct quotation (Petrino 82). Importantly, she notes that Dickinson “changes [lines of Shakespeare and Keats], fitting several lines that were pentameter into her own tetrameter line,” which “creates challenges for readers,” emphasizing the difficulty of the task she is about to undertake (Petrino 83).
One of the main points that Petrino wishes to make is that Dickinson is able to utilize and “critically [engage] with precursor texts without losing herself in…them” (Petrino 84). She backs this up with ample evidence ranging from an extensive discussion of Dickinson in relation to Keats’ poetry and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which she thinks “[critics] have neglects…despite [Dickinson’s] frequent allusions to it in her letters” (Petrino 94). Her discussion of Keats’ poem “To Autumn” on Dickinson’s own Fr1419, Fr822 and Fr1702 offers examples of the echoing effects of alliteration, word choice and subject matter (Petrino 89-93). Her argument is sound and I will refer readers to it for an excellent example of hidden intertextuality in Dickinson’s writing that should always be listened for when reading. Her discussion of Macbeth is the same, but interesting for other reasons I will return to later on. For now, let’s take a closer look at her discussion of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
She begins by further emphasizing that the kind of “echoing” she’s talking about is often filtered through a mediating source—in the case of Keats’ poem, Petrino identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Vision of Poets” (Petrino 85). However, though Petrino acknowledged earlier that Dickinson’s multivocality “amplifie[d] indeterminacy in her poems” she argues mainly here that we should consider Dickinson’s own Fr448 to be a gloss specifically on Keats and identifying Browning and Emerson too to be primarily discussing him, though the theme of truth and beauty being one is as old as Plato, whom we know, at least Emerson, read thoroughly. Instead of recognizing that Keats too was drawing on an idea (and not a specific person) in his own poem, she inaccurately estimates that Keats is the originator of this thought. But, worse than this, is that, by assuming this, Petrino cuts off the contact between Dickinson and her immediate literary predecessors—Browning and Emerson.
Even in directly quoting the passage from Nature, she misses one of the more interesting aspects of Dickinson’s Fr448, which is that instead of “highlight[ing] her disagreement with Emerson’s…belief that the artist and philosopher’s aim is abstract truth,” it highlights her agreement with his overall thought (Petrino 87). It seems clear from the bulk of Emerson’s writing that he utterly acknowledges that each of us is located, creates and manifests our own world (I don’t have the space to elaborate immensely on this, but refer to “The Poet” in which Emerson is fairly explicit about each individual’s world and “Experience” in which he more elaborately discusses the self, the other and the relationship of self to other).
Thus to stress the rooms of the dead as much as Petrino does seems a bit unjustified. It is important to note that they are separate, for Dickinson acknowledges that the two martyrs were not one and the same person (which, I think, Emerson says metaphorically in Nature), but had separate experiences, but to dismiss that they are “Bretheren” and “Kinsmen” as “incompatible with Dickinson’s artistic views” seems outlandish (Fr448 ll. 8-9; Petrino 87). There is a kind of profound intimacy in the poem emphasized by the soft “Moss” and the sense of communion and closeness as it “reached our lips –“ (Fr448 11 emphasis mine) that Petrino seems to have missed. In her eagerness to open up new avenues of interpretation into Dickinson’s wiritng, she seems to have closed off entire paths of discussion: that, perhaps, these “religious” terms are used to imbued the spiritual into Dickinson’s art or that this discussion is one confined to religion and not withstanding philosophy or poetry (though that seems improbable). Petrino was perhaps too eager to associate this poem particularly with Keats; she even goes as far as to name the Kinsman as Keats himself (Petrino 87). There are a number of other issues I could raise with this section of her paper, but for the sake of space I’ll simply say this section was far from adequate and perhaps even unhelpful in some ways.
Petrino’s final discussion of Macbeth on the other hand, offers superb insights, including that, in altering Shakespeare’s passage at times, “she transfers the act of becoming well psychologically to the individual, rather than the professional” and even, when attributing the quote to Macbeth, “that she consciously ascribes a higher self-awareness to Macbeth, brought about through his suffering and tragic fate” (98-99). In short, Petrino concludes that through Dickinson’s own artistic merits, she is able to allow “two of the poets she most cherished [to] speak through her without completely subsuming her” (Petrino 100).
I found this useful for the class because it reminds us that we should always be wary of echoes, whatever they might be, in Dickinson’s writing–especially since we’re unsure about a lot of what she read and what she didn’t read, an idea that Petrino talks about in mentioning the mediating sources. I’m not sure if this is a particular kind of criticism; maybe reader response? Honestly, I don’t even know what that really means. And, I realize now that I wrote this more as a critical review rather than just a summary. I hope it still counts for something.
Petrino, Elizabeth. “Allusion, Echo, and Literary Influence in Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 19.1 (2010): 80-102. Web. 5 Mar 2011.
In order to cheer you up with our end of ED, I give you this brilliant piece of art that I’ve found: Emily Dickinson drop- kicking Edward Cullen.
Class started off to an awesome start with a clever cookie pulley system devised by Sam to mimic ED’s own system of lowering treats for children (not creepy at all!). Then we took the awesome to a new level by moving class outside to enjoy some rare February sunshine. From here we split into small groups and began discussing the letters that we read for class today. We were given several topics to consider: sexuality, death, immortality, and poetry.
Since we were in small groups, I’m just going to mainly focus on what my group talked about because I have a better grasp of this information. We began by focusing on the concept of immortality that ED brings up in several of today’s assigned letters. Two of the letters that we focused on were 330 and 354. In 330, ED opens with the line “A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone with corporeal friend.” In this context her use of immortality isn’t what you’d typically expect (i.e. living forever Highlander style), but the idea that her mind/thoughts/feelings are immortalized on paper and in the minds of the people that she’s shared these letters with. In my small group it was brought up that this idea of immortality on paper is almost synonymous with the idea of horizontal publishing. She keeps her words alive through her close personal readership and in this way her words gain a sort of immortality.
This was brought up again in 354 when we discussed the poem contained in this letter. This poem seems to strike a similar chord as “The brain is wider than the sky” in that it brings up the idea that a persons intellect supersedes such vast ideas as “Space” and “Dominion.” For ED, the very fact that the “smallest Human Heart” can take these vast concepts and “Reduces it to none” is another way in which the mind/thoughts/feelings gain immortality in their control over these almost uncontainable concepts. Something interesting that we noted in regards to this letter is that in the line “How lonesome to be an Article! I mean—to have no soul” the word “Article” can have a double meaning; it can refer to an object or a newspaper/magazine article. If we take the second meaning, then this line sets up the same idea as above; the idea that certain words, not those in articles, have a soul and are able to exist independently of their writers. Again we see the value that ED puts in the written word. Karl brought up an interesting question that I think warrants some discussion; what did she value more the words themselves and the power/immortality they gained through readership or the reactions of the readers that were receiving her letters?
Class MVP: Sam for rigging a sweet pulley
Choke of the Day: Sam for spending the time rigging a sweet pulley when it wasn’t even her day for treats. (Bright side: we got double treats)
Quote of the day: Ummm…think of your own (small groups remember)
During today’s class we were asked to discuss what kinds of things stuck out to us in our recent reading of ED’s letters from 1866-1883. When we got back to large group a lot of us talked about ED’s views on death and immortality, what her letters showed about her domesticity and what she felt and thought about her family and home. But one of the major topics I don’t think our class touched upon was ED’s letters to Judge Otis Lord. Alyssa was in my small group and seemed to be thoroughly annoyed (correct me if I’m wrong!) by these letters. I agree with her sentiments. They were just like the Master letters, in that she sounded way to desperate and whiny. None of us want to picture our bff Emily Dickinson this way! But this connection got me thinking… Why were Emily’s letters to Sue, Otis, and the unknown “Master” so different than all the rest? Why is she taking on this persona we don’t like for only certain letters. This does not seem like something she would do. I was just wondering what other people’s thoughts were about this or just about the Judge Otis letters in general.
In E.D.’s letter to Mrs. Holland, dated August 1881, she wrote “When I look in the Morning Paper to see how the President is, I know you are looking too.” I found that description a little too vague for just how bizarre those news reports were for the time, so here’s a little bit of what they would have been reading about Garfield’s condition:
In the two and a half months separating his July 2 shooting and his death on September 19, the people were obsessed, transfixed, following the daily, sometimes hourly, dispatches on the dying president’s condition as if the progression of his blood poisoning was the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals, as if a movie star in a tuxedo were slowly opening the Best Picture envelope at the Academy Awards. The citizenry not only scoured their newspapers for word of every rise and fall of Garfield’s temperature, his blood pressure, pulse, swelling, each “free discharge of healthy-looking pus.” People regularly stopped by newspapers offices so as to check on the latest telegraphed update from the president’s surgeons.On July 29, for example, a wire issued at 8:30 AM notes that Garfield “has had quite a nap since the noon bulletin was issued.” On August 8, the surgeons reported that it had “become necessary to make another opening to facilitate the escape of pus.” On August 11, at 12:30 PM, “his skin is moist, but without undue perspiration.”
Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Vowell points out how weird this is all is, and she has a point. “How intimate. How embarrassing,” she writes of just how well people know what was going on with the president’s body. I noticed this while reading ED’s letter. It appears that Garfield’s assassination brought people together, but it seemed to do so on a very sentimental level for her. She continues to Holland “and for once in the Day I am sure where you are, which is very friendly.” For ED, this is a bonding experience. Because the whole country was so fixated on Garfield’s condition, she knows that her friends are reading the exact same news that she is. What I’ve found so interesting about ED’s letters is that they are very good markers of social history. I think her comments on Garfield’s condition show how much communication was changing and what a novel concept it was that someone in another town could be reading the exact same news at the same time. It made me realize that even though we think of her as the Myth of Amherst, she was very connected with the outside world in a way that she couldn’t have been just 50 years before.