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  • Melinda Thomsen

Three Literary Sisters, Part #2

Updated: Apr 24

Emily Dickinson: "Seeing New Englandy"


“Emily Dickinson, half length portrait, circa 1846-1847,” photograph: daguerreotype, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, Amherst College Digital Collections

This blog on my three literary sisters now turns to Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is my second sister because she illustrates the geographical roots of my writing. This point may seem a bit odd at first, but if Jane Austen gives insight to how I value the social discourse and critical thinking of quieter women, Dickinson offers me better knowledge of how much New England Puritanism resonates in my writing. Like her, I was born in Connecticut to a long line of protestant ancestors descended from Jonas Weed, who first arrived in 1620 and settled in Stamford, C.T in an area later named New Canaan. Only recently when I was reading This Was a Poet – Emily Dickinson by George Frisbie Whicher, did I see how Dickinson’s location influenced her, and how my writing also reflects similar New England values.

The New England Mindset


My father’s line goes through the Weed family, but I never paid much attention to this genealogy growing up. My father was a bright, strict disciplinarian, who graduated from Amherst College, received a PhD from M.I. T. in mathematics, and taught at Haverford College before getting a job at I.B.M. in Armonk, N.Y. When reading The World of Emily Dickinson, I was struck by how the daguerreotype of Emily’s father Edward Dickinson reflected my own father’s outwardly demeanor (Longsworth 95). Growing up in the shadow of all of my father’s achievements, I thought I should excel, too. However, getting good grades was always a challenge for me. I did not have my father’s quick, adhesive mind. After he started his own non-profit statistical institute named S.I.M.S. (S.I.A.M. Institute for Mathematics and Society) at our home, I met his secretary, Thelma Breusch, who suggested I visit Mount Holyoke with her during my sophomore year in high school. After we first drove through the arches at Mount Holyoke College through the beautiful campus, Mount Holyoke instantly became my first choice college. With this as my new goal, I was determined to keep my grades up and increase my S. A.T scores. In addition to my weekly classwork, I drove 45 minutes each way to a Kaplan S.A.T. prep course in New Haven. I eventually raised my scores and was admitted to Mount Holyoke. I lived for almost four years in the vicinity of Emily Dickinson’s homestead, but never understood why I felt so comfortable there until I read about Dickinson’s life.

Now, before I go any farther, I need to step back and note that Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886, but her poems (except three) were not published until four years later in a collection edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. In February 1939, my father gets Whicher to sign his copy of This Was a Poet at Amherst College. This past winter, I started reading my father’s signed books of This Was a Poet, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Bolts of Memory, and Ancestor Brocades, all published in the 1930s and 1940s. These books gave me a glimpse of Dickinson's times by people who lived within a generation of her. The challenges of the editors, Mabel Loomis Todd, T. W. Higginson, Thomas Niles, Millicent Todd Bingham, and Martha Dickinson Bianchi, show how difficult it is to present an author’s work when the author cannot be consulted. I am grateful to these women and men who compiled Dickinson’s poems so I could read them almost a hundred years later. Her poems also show me how the voice of eternity echoes through nature, and what Whicher calls, “Seeing New Englandly.” He says that although Dickinson seems so modern as to almost “[obscure] her relations to time and place… her mind was formed in the three decades before the Civil War” in a Puritan New England society (153).

Seeing New Englandly? What a bizarre expression! But as Whicher proceeds, he explains how Dickinson’s poems sprang from her New England environment. She lived within a cold, severe Puritan container, which ultimately forced her to turn to her own inner resources. Like her, I had to decide to either continue my role of the eldest daughter, or follow what I felt God wanted to do with my life. So, to read about Dickinson and how she navigated this stern environment, I can appreciate her choice, for I came to poetry shortly after I chose to live independently of my parents’ expectations. Dickinson did not have that choice. She only had the choice of “eldest daughter,” but perhaps her separation occurred within the role of her home when she chose to remain upstairs writing.

Whicher contends that although Dickinson wrote during the mid to late 19th Century, her poetry more accurately reflects an earlier period in 19th Century with its three major trends: the Puritan tradition, Yankee humor, and spiritual longing (153). These three components reflected the New England culture I knew, too. When I consider my writing, I see the difficulties connecting religious ideology with the beauty and wildness of the natural world. In addition, I often use my “Yankee” humor to address larger issues through my list or persona poems, but I am of a different era, so my approach differs from hers. One of my favorite Dickinson poems is the following:

#328

A Bird, came down the Walk -

He did not know I saw -

He bit an Angle Worm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew

From a convenient Grass -

And then hopped sidewise to the Wall

To let a Beetle pass -

He glanced with rapid eyes,

That hurried all abroad -

They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,

He stirred his Velvet Head. -

Like one in danger, Cautious,

I offered him a Crumb,

And he unrolled his feathers,

And rowed him softer Home -

Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam,

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,

Leap, plashless as they swim (Dickinson 156).

The deadpan Yankee humor opens the first stanza. The angleworm is bit in half and then eaten raw (with commas to pause and add shock value). Of course, birds eat worms raw, but this bird is also a considerate creature who “hopped sideways to the Wall / To let a Beetle pass -” Her humor arises from observation, as does her accuracy. Her view of this robin’s flight is one more lovely than oars rowing or butterflies tossing in the air.


Spiritually Thinking


How could Dickinson, who watched the world so carefully, correspond her own belief system to the religious practices employed by Mary Lyon at Mount Holyoke Seminary to “save” young women? Dickinson was torn because she was a devout woman, who did not fit into the required categories Mary Lyon required of her students. Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah, that she could not “become a Christian….[because] it is hard for me to give up the world” (Whicher 76). Ironically, her Yankee mindset was based on facts, and if “the sayings of the Holy Writ were not sacred to her unless they proved true when tested by her own experience. One can almost see her poking them to make them come alive” (Whicher 154).

Since I am a New Englander, raised on the border of New York City, I never thought about the character of my region, but Whicher, writing in the earlier part of the 20th Century, helps me understand why Dickinson’s fact based writing fascinates me so. “She loved the concrete fact. It satisfied her desire for certainties. Faith she considered a ‘fine invention’ for those who are not in difficulty: But microscopes are prudent/ In an emergency” (156)! With this insight to why Dickinson’s poems intrigues me, I understand better how the New England mindset balances both the spiritual and natural worlds. Especially when I'm distressed, a butterfly tossing on a breeze can save me faster than a scripture verse.

Nevertheless, I have always viewed the church as a haven. Growing up, I found peace inside the brick walls of our Presbyterian Church in New Canaan, CT. The Sunday morning hours were when I could be still, look out through the stained glass, and not listen to the sermon. Instead, I spent the hour daydreaming. After I moved to New York, the first church that made me feel at home was the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. I sat down in a pew one Sunday morning transfixed by Dr. Boyd's sermon which united the spiritual with the natural realm in a thought provoking analysis. Here was an Irish minister from Belfast, who quoted poetry and had poems on the Orders of Worship. I was home, again. I found a congregation who loved how poems touched eternity, like Dickinson did:


#254

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me (Dickinson 116).

Because I spent years teaching Sunday School, Dr. Boyd asked me to be the Director of the Children's Church. I was determined to provide the children with a thought provoking curriculum. The City Church, New York worshiped a loving God, so I did not want to be a Sunday School teacher who made any child feel otherwise. By reading Dickinson’s poems, I learned she viewed nature as loving evidence of God where birds sing each morning embodying hope, love, and gratefulness. I also understand how Dickinson felt connected to ministers. Poets and ministers are both trying to make sense of the eternal with our earthly purpose. Perhaps, since poets look down to examine the earth, and ministers look up to contemplate the heavens, we are naturally drawn towards each other. In the last sermon I heard Dr. Boyd preach, he mentions the following poem:


#1691

The overtakelessness of those

Who have accomplished Death

Majestic is to me beyond

The majesties of Earth.

The soul her “Not at Home”

Inscribes upon the flesh-

And takes her fair aerial gait

Beyond the hope of touch (Dickinson 690).

Dickinson's poems often indicate an upward viewpoint whereas I tend to look downward, earthbound, or perhaps I am still making my way there.


Raging Family Dynamics


When reading Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson, I was introduced to Dickinson's family members involved in posthumously publishing her poems and letters. Millicent Todd Bingham was the daughter of the Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited the first edition of Dickinson’s poems, so Bingham took over the writing of Ancestors’ Brocades after the death of her mother. In the book’s Preface, Bingham admits Emily Dickinson’s life has been shrouded in mystery, but she maintains, “If this book is to contain a true account of the literary debut of Emily Dickinson I cannot leave out any facts pertinent to it of which I am aware. The day of that is past” (viii). Before the printing of this book, Dickinson’s brother, sister, and sister-in-law had all died, so Bingham could tell the story behind the publication of Dickinson’s poetry. Unfortunately, as I read the book, there was never any reason given why Susan Huntington Dickinson, Lavinia Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd were so angry at each other.

This book gives a thorough account of Mabel Loomis Todd’s admirable editing process. However, Todd's straightforward analysis vanishes into judgmental comments when it comes to Susan Dickinson. Todd's journal entry says, “This fall has been in many respects one of the pleasantest I have passed here – in seven or eight years. To be sure, Susan and her progeny are still outraged at me, but everything else has gone very well. Now, that Emily’s Poems are actually out, and my name is on the title-page, they rage more than ever. Why, is a mystery to me, for they had the entire box of Emily’s MSS over there for nearly two years after she died” (Bingham 401). Because of Bingham's preface, I kept waiting for the background story. For an editor like Todd, she must have some theory, but none was offered. She danced around the reason why “they raged more than ever” by not suggesting a cause for their anger (Bingham 401).

Early on in Ancestors’ Brocades I learned that Susan Dickinson and Todd were not on speaking terms. After the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, Susan Dickinson writes to Colonel Higginson in January 1991 to tell him of a mistake in a poem where it was written, “the spectacles afar” but it should have been “ajar” (Bingham 92). However, Bingham writes, “Sue was right about the spectacles. But instead of calling the mistake to the attention of her neighbor [Mabel Loomis Todd], Mrs. Dickinson had notified Colonel Higginson…In spite of the welter of the Dickinson animosity in which my mother was involved, however – and by now she and Sue were not on speaking terms—she was able to detach herself sufficiently to acknowledge that Sue had caught her in a mistake” (92-93).


Bingham later refers to “the awful pressure under which Austin, Emily and Vinnie lived; the stern, austere unaffectionate character of Edward D. [father], and the soft, yielding, rather unstable one of his wife [their mother]…the shadows played a big part in the lives of the three I have just mentioned, as long as they lived. Sue had a fearful influence over the three, as each one found out to his or her sorrow (374). Even in the closing pages, the reader does not know what provoked Susan Dickinson’s malice. Bingham even ends the book with a cliffhanger, “What a novel could be written about the D. family – equal to tragedies to 'The Forsyte Saga.' Only the absolute truth need be revealed, and that would be startling & sensational enough for the most rabid devourer of novels” (Bingham 374).


Since Bingham never explained the estrangement between Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-laws, husband, and Todd, I found her credibility undermined, so it made me question her motives. If she hadn’t prefaced the book with “I cannot leave out any facts pertinent […] of which I am aware,” I would not have expected clarification on the animosity between the families that was so often mentioned (Bingham viii). Only until reading later accounts, did I learn that Todd had had an affair for years with William Austin Dickinson, Susan Dickinson’s husband, and it was common knowledge at the time (Longsworth 108-109).

Bingham could have revealed this backstory in 1945, but it also highlights the historian's ability to present events in context without the emotional biases.

Although Whicher had less poems and letters available to him than we do now, he let the reader know that some rumors about Emily Dickinson were probably not true. According to Whicher and the social norms of that time period, she was not a “partially cracked poetess” (139). In her forties, she suffered from ill health, but as an unmarried woman, she also had to do the housekeeping, cooking, and baking of bread for her father, who ate no bread but hers (Whicher 137-138). As Whicher explains, “the Puritan strain in her revolted at the dissipation of her gift of life. She had more poems to write than she could find to write them in” (138). She had limited time and refused to neglect her poetry, so she chose isolation.

In the light of later research, I hope that Dickinson will no longer be viewed as an odd, white wearing recluse, but more as a typical 19th century unmarried New England woman responding to both her limited time on earth and infighting going on in the rest of the house. My parents’ marriage was very unhappy, so I understand why writing poetry can help a child make sense of the world they inhabit. Poetry brought me closer to the natural, more joyful world living outside my windows. Those creatures surrounded me and pointed to a calm acceptance of life, and Dickinson's poems have guided me to how much there is to learn from our own backyard. For both Dickinson and myself, our natural response was to turn inside, away from the noise.




Works Cited

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestor’s Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson.

Harpers & Brothers Publishers, 1945.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H.

Johnson, Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

“Emily Dickinson, half length portrait, circa 1846-1847,” photograph:

daguerreotype, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, Amherst

College Digital Collections, https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:784828,

Accessed 8 Apr 2020.

Longsworth, Polly. The World of Emily Dickinson: A Visual Biography. W. W. Norton &

Company, 1990.

Whicher, George Frisbie. This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography. Charles Scribner’s

Sons, 1930.

 
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