A photo suspected to be Emily Dickinson dated 1860, found in Richard B.Sewall's Biography:
Emily Dickinson: Lover of Science & Scientist
Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, from major and university presses, editor of two prize winning anthologies of world literature, winner of The John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, Member of the Dickinson Scholars Registry, and leader of a seminar: The Transcendental Thread Through American Poetry, for Poets House, New York City, 2011. Barbara Kelly, Book Review Editor of The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin wrote in reviewing Wild Nights, Wild Nights: "Daniela Gioseffi's page-turning book imagines a bitter sweet love affair....thawarted by Dickinson's father, Edward.... Gioseffi, a compelling storyteller, cleverly incorpoates Dickinson's poems, capturing the intellectual, cultural and political ideas and voices of the 19th century, from the stern Calvinist voices of Mary Lyon and Reverend Aaron Colton to the domestic Irish lilt of Margaret Maher. .... the novel is alive with detail and heartfelt emotion.... Gioseffi introduces a Dickinson most readers have not met before." Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet who has written on Dickinson, wrote: "An interesting and stunning essay that should be a book..." Alice Quinn, Dickinson scholar and Director of the Poetry Society of America, called the essay "fascinating and convincing." Robert Hass, Former Poet Laureate of the USA, wrote, "I like the way the essay richly evokes the life and times of Dickinson." Nona Balakian, formery of the NY Times wrote: "Gioseffi's work overflows with poetic vision." Mary Pardt in Library Journal wrote: "Gioseffi's writing is startling, voluptuous, mythopoeic." The non-fiction afterword upon which the novel is based, presented here below, first appeared in The Chelsea Literary Review #81, 2007, pp.109-140. (C) 2007 by Daniela Gioseffi, and was reprinted in Wild Nights, Wild Nights. (C) 2010, Plain View Press: Austin; TX. All rights, including electronic, are reserved by the author and her publishers.
Because of the connection to her creativity during its most emergent period, the identity of the mysterious “Master Figure” of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, has been a matter of great speculation and pointed disagreement among Dickinson scholars for over a century. Connie Ann Kirk in her 2004 biography Emily Dickinson, Greenwood Press, wrote: “…a scholar or historian who could somehow prove ‘Master’s’ true identity would solve one of the greatest mysteries in American literature.” We know a good deal about the life of our other most singular icon of 19th Century American Poetry, Walt Whitman, but details of Dickinson’s personal life have become so mythologized that we can’t see as clearly the edifying connections between her biography and poetic output. One can contend, as the poet Susan Howe does in My Emily Dickinson ((See bib.) that this circumstance leaves many of her poems elliptical or impenetrable. Of course, the most famous of her works— those anthologized, recited, remembered, and taught— are not among such texts. The poet left behind about 1,800 poems, only eleven were formally published, and those anonymously, in her lifetime. The rest, many unfinished, were posthumously collected in her complete works.
Dickinson’s “Master Figure”
Scholars and biographers all agree that it was an emotional trauma that ignited the poet’s imagination and enormous creative powers, but that crisis has remained a mystery until now. A new, carefully researched thesis by Ruth Owen Jones, professional historian of Amherst, Dickinson scholar, and guide at the Dickinson Museum since 1979, may change our reading of the poet’s work forever. Jones’s thesis is revelatory, because she has espoused the most plausible idea for Emily Dickinson’s “Master Figure” ever to emerge from research within both the poet’s texts and times. In her article, titled “Neighbor—and friend—and Bridegroom—” published in The Emily Dickinson Journal, Volume XI, Number 2, Winter, 2002, Jones proposes that Emily Dickinson’s Master, the person she loved when she was thirty, and for whom she wrote hundreds of poems and the three “Master Letters,” was an Amherst College professor of chemistry, botany, and zoology, and a Civil War hero by the name of William Smith Clark, a prominent figure of Dickinson’s village, particularly during the period of her greatest output and creativity. He lived from 1826 to 1886 and died just a few weeks before Dickinson. Jones first presented her idea to the Emily Dickinson International Society in Trondheim, Norway, in 2001.
Many of the poet’s poems, particularly the love poems, yield greater clarity when professor of science, William Smith Clark, a Colonel of the Civil War, is known to have been their inspiration. Jones’s research into the historicity of the poet’s village, as a former chairperson of the Amherst Historical Commission, and Vice President of the Amherst Historical Society, led her to discover the identity of “The Master Figure,” and his effect upon the poet’s writing where literary scholars who have searched mainly in the texts have failed. Yet, Jones has offered much textual evidence as well. This solution to the mystery that has plagued the many Dickinson biographers helps readers of the poet to understand why she wrote as she did, and how much she was effected, like Whitman, by the Civil War and The American enlightenment, known in literature as the Transcendental Movement which espoused the divinity of humankind and a communion with the realities of the natural world as the proper road to spiritual and moral growth. It praised emotional truths of humane conscience and the realities of scientific inquiry over the dogma of organized religion and literal interpretations of scripture, just as free thinkers and rational scientists do today. Many feel that this movement is still the best part of our American literary heritage.
The two most highly rated icons of American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson—still entirely relevant to poets and students of poetry in our time—lived and wrote through “Dark Days of the Republic” as scientific reason struggled to be born amidst fanatical religiosity. Many American poets and writers of today feel they are living through and dealing with similar “dark days.” Because the poetic styles of these two great icons are so completely dissimilar, and the social classes that produced them quite different, we do not tend to see how much the same forces, The Civil War and ‘The Great Revival” influenced their work or how alike they were in theme and content. So concerned with “schools” and “style” are we, that we do not see how similar our struggle to produce relevant poetry resembles Whitman’s and Dickinson’s—both of whom wrote in rebellion of the accepted styles of their day, both of whom espoused themes celebrating scientific enlightenment over religious and social dogma, just as poets do today.
Also, because these two giants of American poetry wrote in very divergent styles— they have left younger poets a legacy of freedom to chose their prosody in great variety, from tight and pithy lyricism to rambling narrative free verse, but, their content jibes similarly with the times through which they wrote. Repulsed by hypocritical elements of fanatical religious fervor, and social class, and attracted to scientific truth and social equality as fostered in the Transcendental movement of their era, both of these iconic poets were concerned with striving for freedom from dogma toward egalitarian ideals, just as many contemporary poets are concerned with how “The War on Terror” and “Religious Fanaticism” are impeding humane progress and retarding our democracy.
Two big upheavals, The Great Revival and The Civil War, permeated the atmosphere of Emily Dickinson’s village and motivated her poetry much more than is realized by many readers of her work. Evangelical Puritanism swept through her valley and threatened her spirit with its Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The Temperance Movement that her prominent father joined was much enhanced by its forces, as well. Dickinson’s poems and letters are fraught with spiritual conflict over the evangelical fervor that gripped her New England valley. The horror of The Civil War, which took over 600,000 lives and shook the faith of many, garnered the most able-bodied men away from Dickinson’s village. Then, too, the Westward movement and Gold Rush took eligible men away from the New England region, when the poet was in the prime of her life. During her most marriageable years, there were five women of her social class for every one eligible male. This fact offers good reason as to why she remained unmarried, and why she might have an affair with a married man like Professor Clark who was married to Dickinson’s distant cousin, Harriet Richards Williston.
Ruth Owen Jones new thesis on the life of Dickinson is bound to change the way Dickinson scholars view the impact of the Civil War upon her poetry. The war may well have taken her cherished lover, a married man, away from her. His presumed death in combat, when he was reported in local papers in September of 1862 as missing in action, coincides exactly in time with the mysterious trauma that all of her biographers agree marked her life and work.
Before this revolutionary thesis concerning Professor Clark, first Ph.D. scientist of Amherst College—founded and fostered by Dickinson’ grandfather and father—is doubted as solving the great mystery of the “Master Figure,” the myriad of evidence supporting it should be examined. First, scholars generally agree that it was during the Civil War years that Dickinson produced her greatest poetic output. On the first page of his introduction to the definitive edition of Dickinson’s poetry— published at the Belknap Press, Harvard, 1999—R.W. Franklin writes: “She was most active in 1862 (227 poems), 1863 (295), 1864 (98), and 1865 (229), much of the latter two years while—under the care of a Boston ophthalmologist — she was sharing living arrangements in Cambridgeport with her Norcross cousins, Louise and Frances.” After those years, her output slowed considerably. Indeed, Franklin notes on page 639 of his complete volume of ED’s poems, that in 1866 she wrote ten poems, and in 1867, only 12. Quite a notable drop-off in output!
Clark, when serving as state representative after the war, spent the same years and periods in Cambridgeport, sometimes at his brother-in-law’s home a stone’s throw away from where Emily boarded with her “Norcross cousins. Jones surmised that the affair was broken off after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, when many were reassessing their lives and Clark was planning to move away from Dickinson’s neighborhood, with his wife and family, to found The University of Massachusetts as a college of agricultural science.
Since Dickinson’s greatest literary output occurred during the years just before and through the time that Clark was at the front in the Civil War— Jones proposes that the original hand-sewn booklets, or now famous fascicles, as scholars call them, were made for Clark and sent to him in the field, via Samuel Bowles, editor of The Springfield Republican, and later by Elizabeth Holland, wife of Josiah Holland, assistant cultural editor. Emily wrote to Mrs. Holland prior to the war, March 2, 1859, saying. “Sister, You did my will. And I thank you for it…” Was she thanking her for forwarding letters to William Smith Clark? From the front lines, Clark mailed war correspondence to editors, Bowles and Holland, who were therefore in close touch with his movements. Professor Clark, like his father-in-law, Samuel Williston, had been an outspoken anti-slavery activist prior to the war. Samuel Bowles, Josiah Holland, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, other editors of Dickinson’s circle, were financial supporters of John Brown’s well-known 1860 rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. These three editors, or households, with whom Emily corresponded, and to whom she sent poems, moved in the same intellectual and ideological circles as Professor, later Colonel, Clark, and all three might well be aware of his whereabouts and exploits during the war.
By aligning the chronologies of Dickinson’s and Clark’s lives, Jones shows us the impetus that stirred Dickinson’s poetry during the years 1857 to 1865. Her thesis leads us to a whole new reading of the poet’s work, and helps us to understand the “trauma,” referred to by all Dickinson scholars, which led the poet to a somewhat reclusive life after the age of thirty-five when her affair with Clark had no doubt ended.
As biographers all point out Dickinson was quite social prior to the age of thirty-five and was considered one of the eligible belles of Amherst, a charming party attendee with friends and gentleman suitors, and far from reclusive. Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father, was a prominent lawyer of the town who served as a state representative, then state senator, and on the governor’s council through the late 1840’s and then was elected to serve in 1853 as a representative in the 33rd Congress of the United States. Emily with her sister, Lavinia, visited him and toured the national Capitol in March and February of 1855. Emily is known to have charmed with her wit the Washington, D.C. society that she encountered during her stay at the famous Willard’s Hotel, hub of the social and political scene there. She dressed in uncharacteristic, finery and felt, she said, “like an embarrassed peacock” out of her rural element. Clark’s Grandfather Smith had also been a statesman, as Clark was to become a state legislator after the Civil War. Dickinson and Clark shared common political concerns in their families.
Jones was writing an introduction for a book she was preparing on Dickinson’s flower poems, when she began to look around Amherst for which contemporaries of Dickinson were avid gardeners. In researching the gardens of 19th century Amherst, Jones, also a gardener, stumbled upon Clark’s eminence with horticultural in Dickinson’s day and his influence upon the landscaping of her village where many trees brought back by Clark from Japan were planted, some still found on the grounds of the Emily Dickinson Homestead Museum. It is obvious that the Master of Dickinson’s poems and letters was familiar with flowers and the meaning of flowers. As a chief botanist of the region, Clark helped Austin, Emily’s brother, to plant many trees and shrubs around the poet’s town. Clark traveled to Europe and the orient and brought back exotic plants. Both Emily and her brother Austin were greatly interested in horticulture and had exotic species as part of their landscaping. Emily cherished her year-round plant conservatory in the Dickinson homestead. It occupied her as much as her poetry. Professor Clark, as Dickinson’s nearby neighbor, had a professional greenhouse at his home as early 1856. His house, which he shared with his wife and children, was located on a hill just behind The Dickinson Homestead during the period of Dickinson’s greatest poetic output. Note these Dickinson stanzas:
Jones began to discover more information about Clark, i.e. that he taught chemistry and then botany at Amherst College adjacent to the Dickinson’s homestead— and led horticultural walks to which women of the village were invited despite their inability to matriculate at the all male institution. Emily’s father often held parties and dinners for trustees, students, and professors, like Clark, at the Dickinson home where Emily is known to have served his guests along with her mother and sister, Lavinia. Clark and Emily’s brother, Austin, appear together as speakers on a program at Amherst College, in 1849, when the poet returned from her one year of study at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Commencement parties were held annually at the Dickinson home.
There is plenty of historical evidence that Emily as a young woman was a needed hostess and conversationalist at her father’s gatherings and that Professor Clark would have been present at some of them. Susan, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, also held literary salons at her elegant Italianate home next door, “The Evergreens,” attended by prominent intellectuals and writers from Samuel Bowles to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and no doubt Professor Clark, a most cosmopolitan neighbor. Clark no doubt found the lively, witty Emily a likely candidate for a flirtation. By all accounts Clark enjoyed women and was a daring risk taker by nature.
Dickinson is known to have recited her poems and played her lively compositions on the piano, at Sue’s soirees. One of her favorites, she titled “The Devil.” Habegger, among other biographers, mentions the late night revelry that brought her father’s reprimand. He quotes Catherine Scott Turner, Sue’s friend and guest known as Anton, concerning her pleasure in spending visits, between 1859 and 1863, at the Evergreens: “Those celestial evenings in the Library—the blazing wood fire—Emily—Austin, —the music— the rampant fun— the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen—our most congenial circle.” Kate remembered “Emily with her dog & her lantern….” used by the poet to see her way across the side lawn from the Homestead at night to the Evergreens and back. Kate Turner, a favorite reveler of Emily’s goes on to remember Emily “often at the piano playing weird & beautiful melodies, all from her own inspiration, oh! she was a choice spirit.” Kate recollects the time Emily’s father appeared grim faced with his lantern to summon his reckless daughter home because her revelry had gone on too long into the night. The lovers could easily have met on one of these evenings.
Clark may well have walked Dickinson home on “the path just wide enough for two lovers,” mentioned in her writing. He could easily have had trysts with her late at night in what she dubbed her ‘Northwest Passage,” after walking her home from Sue and brother Austin’s house next door. Dickinson’s “Northwest Passage,” ( Note the similar name of the famed explorers, Lewis and Clark.) was a secluded back hall with easy escape exits to five parts of the mansion where Dickinson liked to meet with friends and relatives to read them poems or converse privately. This is documented in various sources. (See bib.)
Professor Clark believed deeply in a woman’s right to an education and professional life in a time when many did not, and he read and reviewed books and art, often by women, for The Springfield Republican. In his letters found in the library of The University of Massachusetts, we know that he encouraged his sister to “improve her poetry” and have a profession as a teacher of writing. In later years, Dr. Clark lobbied for women’s right to an education before the board of the Massachusetts Agricultural College. We also know from Jones and Clark’s biographer, John Maki, plus from local newspapers, that Clark was involved with the poet’s father and brother in business ventures and horticultural projects, i.e. the county fair, the replanting of the Amherst Commons. Jones searched for connections between the Clark and Dickinson families and found many, including the fact of many plantings of Asian species of trees on Dickinson properties.
Jones realized that the lack of surviving correspondence between the two families was very suspicious, given the way that Clark does appear in two of the poet’s surviving epistles as a familiar neighbor. In Thomas Johnson’s and Theodora Ward’s volume of the poet’s letters from The Belknap Press at Harvard, Clark is mentioned in Letter 158 to her cousin Louisa Norcross and in Letter 255 to her brother, Austin. It’s clear that Dickinson and her family were thoroughly aware of this man of science and intimate with him as an important personage on the Amherst sociopolitical and intellectual panorama.
More important and prominent than Dickinson in Mid-19th century New England, William Smith Clark was the first Ph.D. professor of Amherst College to be trained in Europe and a leading horseman and horse trainer of the area, who led the 21st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to the front of the Civil War. He was among the founders and the first president of The University of Massachusetts to oversee students at the college for agricultural science— which the poet’s father also helped to found— and he was married to the adopted daughter of Samuel Williston— one of the wealthiest men of Western Massachusetts who provided him with the goodly estate on the hill behind Dickinson’s home. For further evidence, Clark’s biographer, John Maki, on page 10 of his book, writes: “For about ten years the Clark and Dickinson families were near neighbors. Emily Dickinson was born four years after Clark and died just over two months after he did. Clark and William Austin Dickinson, (the poet’s brother)… were well known to each other as leading citizens of the village….”
It is particularly important, one realizes, to emphasize that Professor Clark was a leading teacher of the scientific subjects most found in Dickinson’s poetry: horticulture, botany, zoology, chemistry, and mineralogy. For example, in 1861, Dickinson wrote:
And note the second and last stanza of this poem written around 1865:
Or, for just one more example of many, these stanzas written around 1859:
There are many more poems too numerous to mention here that show Dickinson’s interest in subjects taught by Clark who was instrumental in stocking the flora, fauna, and geological, specimen cabinets of Amherst College. That college was then a Puritan Seminary developing into a viable institution of higher learning, including the study of various sciences, while her father, Edward Dickinson, and later her brother, Austin, served as treasurer on the Board of Trustees. At the same time, Samuel Williston, Clark’s father-in-law, also a staunch Calvinist like Emily’s father, was an important benefactor of the college, endowing two prestigious chairs in the 1840’s and later financing “Williston Hall and Barrett Halls,” including a large chemistry laboratory on its ground floor—especially for his son-in-law, Clark, to teach in. Given both Edward Dickinson’s and Samuel Williston’s positions as leading citizens of the developing region, with the well-being of the college in mind as leading trustees together on the board, neither family would have exposed the extra-marital love affair even if they had known of it.
In 1857, Clark was appointed by Governor Gardner to be the chemist on the State Board of Agriculture. Emily won her prize for “Indian and Rye Bread” at the country fair in 1857 when Clark was judge of the baking contest. In 1860, Clark over saw the building of the first fairgrounds and the Dickinson family was always involved with the cattle shows and country fairs that were held there. Clark became president of the “Hampshire Agricultural Society” from 1860 to 61 and later in 1870. No doubt, as Jones explains, Clark would have walked past Emily’s windows on his way to teach at Amherst College every day. An admired orator, he may well have been “the Whippowil that sang… on the Orchard fence,” mentioned in a letter from Cambridge, July 1864 to her sister, Lavinia (L293.) Jones notes that Dickinson tells Lavinia to meet her at the train in Palmer, alone, because she may go home with “the Whippowil… who drove to the South…and returned” and would be with her on the same train from Cambridge. The train came to the depot at Amherst near her Main Street home. Did she ask Lavinia to meet her with their carriage, alone, at Palmer so that she would not alight at Amherst Station from the same train as her secret lover, State Representative Clark, who had once gone South to the Civil War?
Indeed, it is impossible that Dickinson would not have met Clark on many occasions in both her brother’s and father’s homes and at various college socials. In 1880, brother Austin owned land with Clark at Orient Springs in the Pelham Hills (evidenced by a Deed 358:151 in the Hampshire County Registry.) They founded the Amherst Water Company together. Dickinson would have known Clark far better than any other man who has been posed as the possible “Master figure” of her letters and poems, as an outstanding student of Amherst College, and subsequently, as one of its leading lecturers on the natural sciences that captivated her most.
We also know, from much textual evidence, that Emily loved to “go rambling” in search of wildflowers with her large Newfoundlander dog, Carlo, mentioned to her “Master” as a companion for their proposed meadow walk in the second “Master Letter.” It is more than likely that Emily Dickinson, after her one-year education at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, attended the charming and charismatic Professor’s chemistry and botany lectures, held adjacent to her home in 1853. He planted a state-of-the-art garden on campus with his students, and installed the statue of a naked nymph, Sabrina, therein, an act that caused a scandal in the town. He was a bold man. Emily would have been witness to all his industry and admired him greatly for his warm style of inspirational teaching. Upon Colonel Clark’s return from the Civil War, he served as a state representative for three terms, very coincidentally, during the exact same period that Emily visited and lived in Cambridge, ostensibly to visit ophthalmologist, Dr. Williams. Dickinson never wore glasses and the eye malady for which she lived away from home for long periods of time is unknown. Jones explains:
In the second Master Letter (L248), Dickinson recalled not flinching “Thro that awful parting.” In the third Master Letter (L233), Dickinson asked “Could you come to New England would you come to Amherst—Would you like to come, Master?” It has, therefore, long been thought that the Master figure was not from Amherst. However, when Clark was away in the war, he did not always come to Amherst when on furlough. He would go to Easthampton where his wife and children were staying with her parents. Emily mentioned her Master’s beard, [Clark wore a beard.] and asked him, “Could you forget me in fight, or flight—Or the foreign land?” and “I wish with a might I cannot repress—that mine were the Queen’s place—.” She longed to walk in the meadow with her Master and her dog, Carlo, with no witness other than the bobolink—who wouldn’t tell. [ p. 63, Jones, “Neighbor—and friend—and Bridegroom—“. See bib.]
Clark was known as “Master Clark” at Williston Academy, which her brother had attended when Clark had been a teacher there, prior to their attending Amherst College together Clark’s wife, Harriet Keopulani Richards Williston, was nicknamed “The Queen,” because she had been named for Queen Keopoulani when her father was a Christian missionary in Hawaii. Much evidence points clearly to Master Clark, botanist and ornithologist, as the recipient of “The Master Letters.”
Clark was a forceful and respected man of the poet’s region, and full of initiative, a statesman, like her admired father, but without the Puritanical stuffiness, the sort of man who therefore, one can easily surmise, would have attracted her attention. Clark while serving in the state legislature, sometimes stayed with Lyman Williston, his Transcendentalist brother-in-law, a few blocks away from Emily’s boarding house in Harvard Square. Lyman had been struck with German Pantheism while studying in Germany, as Clark had, and Emily’s Norcross cousin had attended a school for girls founded by that very brother-in-law who was a Unitarian, like Emerson, in rebellion against Calvinism.
The orphaned Norcross cousins, with whom Dickinson boarded in Cambridge were the children of the poet’s favorite, deceased Aunt Lavinia, a poet who had first inspired Emily early on. These cousins were also intellectual rebels escaping Calvinism. They were great readers of progressive books who often supplied Emily with the volumes she desired to read and could not purchase in Calvinist Amherst. It is hard to imagine that they would not have read with her Walt Whitman’s, notorious Leaves of Grass, known to be admired by Dickinson’s idol, Emerson, especially since they later became members of Emerson’s Literary Salon in Concord.
Many American students and poets are mistakenly of the opinion that Emily disparaged Whitman when all she is ever actually quoted as saying is, “I hear he’s disgraceful,” when answering a query as to whether she had read his book. She would be compelled, because of her father’s social position, to pretend not to have read Whitman. It’s clear from all of the biographies about the poet that she was often forced into a “ladylike pose,” because of her father’s social and political position and her dependency upon him for sustenance.
Dickinson’s orphaned Norcross cousins, whom she addressed as “Little Cousins” probably knew more about the poet’s inner life than any others, but their correspondence with her was highly expurgated by them to spare the details of her personal life to which they were no doubt privy as chief confidants. Though we have a significant number of the letters of Dickinson, we have few to her closest intimates, her “Little Cousins” and Mrs. Holland.
One may reason that Dickinson bid her sister and life long house companion, Lavinia, to burn any letters to and from, or about Clark, that would have embarrassed Clark’s wife and children—still living in the town and attending the Dickinson family church at the time of Clark’s and Emily’s death a few weeks apart in 1886. The Williston-Clarks and the Dickinsons both had prominent family pews in the First Congregational Church of Amherst. Most of Clark’s correspondence is also oddly missing. The lost letters would undoubtedly have revealed that “The Master” was a married man, and were destroyed for the sake of the lovers’ reputations as well as to avoid the public ignominy to which their families would have been exposed.
Keeping in mind that George Eliot ( Marian Evans of Coventry)— one of Emily’s favorite writers— spent her life “living in sin” with a married man, Henry Lewes, and the fact that Austin, Emily’s married brother, took a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, as his mistress in 1882— it is not improbable to imagine Emily doing the same. Mrs.Todd was the wife of the astronomy professor at Amherst College. It was Mrs. Todd who edited and saw to publication of Dickinson’s first volumes of poetry after her death. Mabel Todd’s drawing of “Indian Pipes,” one of Emily’s favorite wild flowers, adorns the cover of the poet’s first posthumous volume of poetry. The affair of Brother Austin and Mabel Loomis Todd is well known and the subject of non-fiction as well as a novel. (See bib.) It demonstrates that the Dickinson children were not above straying into clandestine affairs, in rebellion against the strictness of their Puritan forebears. Edward, the statesman, was often busy and away in Washington or Boston and “when the cat’s away the mice will play.” His law practice throughout his life kept him frequently away arguing cases in neighboring districts. Biographers know that Emily and Austin gave a forbidden dancing party, and probably more than one, when their parents were out of town.
Moreover, both Lavinia and Emily Dickinson condoned Austin’s affair and facilitated it to the consternation of Susan Gilbert Dickinson who is known to have withheld sexual attentions from Austin. Austin turned to Mabel Loomis Todd for physical affection denied him by Susan’s Puritanical stance and fear of childbirth. Many women, like Susan’s older sister Mary, died in painful childbirth in Mid 19th Century America. Susan had good reason to fear pregnancy and plenty of motivation for using valued, Puritanical mores, usual in her day, to withhold conjugal bliss from her husband. There were Calvinist religious tracts advising women to do just that for the good of their husband’s souls. Perhaps, Clark’s wife did the same, daughter of zealous Puritan missionaries that she was.
The majority of Dickinson’s surviving letters were preserved by recipients. These letters rarely deal with the intimate issues of Dickinson’s adult life, with the exception of her letters to Judge Otis Lord, written late in the poet’s life after the death of her father in the 1874. These letters show her to be far from prudish. They are the erotically suggestive writings of a woman aware of sexual desires and experienced in love, not the letters of a virginal spinster in tone or content. It’s interesting that Lord’s niece is reported to have called Emily, “a man-crazy hussy,” hardly the extreme statement that even a vindictive or jealous person could easily get away with saying about a virginal recluse.
Most importantly, Jones refers to the many references to “Will” as double entendre in Dickinson’s poems. “The Red upon the Hill, [the carnage of the Civil War] taketh away my Will.” Dickinson poems often play on the word “Will” the way Shakespeare does in his sonnets. Colonel Will Clark nearly met death twice at the front. The famous period of trauma, referred to by Dickinson scholars, Johnson, Wolff, and Habegger, (See Bib.) and other analyzers of Dickinson’s work, matches near death experiences in Colonel Clark’s war years. Dickinson’s famous lines to Higginson in her 1862 letter: “I had a terror since September— I could tell to none— and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid,” (L. 261)—coincide with a time when Colonel Clark missing on his way to the front and then reported dead at The Battle of Chantilly in September, 1862. Also note, the image Dickinson uses is very like a Civil War one, where boy soldiers sang beside the burying ground, in the field, where often there was no Chaplain available to lead them in prayers or hymns. “That awful parting” which Dickinson refers to in the second “Master Letters,” cited earlier, was very likely her parting with Clark as he went off to the war front and her anxiety when he was reported dead at Chantilly. Jones’s thesis solves the mystery of that famous trauma, or “terror” spoken of by all Dickinson scholars that inspired her writing. It fits well her letters and poems where textual evidence substantiates it.
Also, “Mine by the right of the white election…!” a mysterious poem, was written soon after Clark was mistakenly reported dead at the battle front, very likely referring to the body of Clark and the poet’s secret union with him. Once found, his corpse would be returned to Massachusetts, and his wife, Harriet, for ceremonial burial. That poem, when read with the idea that the poet claims the right to her lover’s body for burial, as his true soul mate, yields its enigmatic meaning— emphasizing the importance of Jones’s theory for readers of Dickinson’s poetry. There is more writing about the Civil War in Dickinson’s poems than some scholars attest to. This is made clear by Shira Wolosky in her article “Public and Private in Dickinson’s War Poetry,” as well as in her earlier book, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. (See bib.) There is one poem that talks of her absent Master written when Clark was at the front. “I tend my flowers for thee, bright Absentee…”
There is another which refers to “Neighbor and friend and Bridegroom” spinning upon the shoals,” when Clark was part of a stranded fleet of ships with other men of his 21st Massachusetts Regiment as ships sank on their way South and Massachusetts soldiers were drowned. The many examples of the poet’s writings that have to do with the Civil War are beyond the scope of this essay. Only a few of those having to do with Clark are quoted herein.
Another telling fact is that William Smith Clark was an affectionate letter writer to his students and family. His letters are very similar in tone to Emily’s warmly demonstrative ones, not emotionally detached like her father’s or brother’s prose. Clark was known to have adopted European styles of kissing and hugging and showing affection, demonstrations that were markedly missing—according to all biographical accounts—from Emily’s Puritan home and family style. Biographers have quoted reputable sources who observed that the Dickinsons, though fiercely loyal to each other, never touched, hugged or kissed. One can imagine the more affectionate Clark introducing Emily to the subject of “Wild Nights” of ecstasy, or “Rowing in Eden,” and the suggestive bee and flower pollination of her clearly erotic imagery. “Did the harebell loose her girdle/ To the lover bee?” Quoting and demonstrating the many poems that seem to be addressed to “Will” Clark, botanist, would comprise a long essay in itself.
Ruth Owen Jones also points out that there is a gold ring in the Dickinson Collection at Harvard that Dickinson is supposed to have worn most of her life. Inside the band is inscribed the word “Philip” which means “horseman or horse fancier” in Greek. Both Dickinson and Clark knew their Greek and Latin, and Clark was among the best horse trainers and riders of the area. Emily’s father and brother would, no doubt, have bought their horses with Clark’s advice. He trained Morgans which were ridden by the ladies of the era as the high-stepping carriers who gave a smooth ride to women – not jogging them out of their side-saddles or making their skirts fly high in the wind. Indeed Morgan horses are still trained at The University of Massachusetts, Then, too, there is a curiously enigmatic poem which mentions a “Philip” who “–when bewildered/ Bore his riddle in!” [Franklin, 20, p. 27. Dated 1858.]
As if forecasting Jones’s discoveries, Cynthia Griffin Wolff is one, among other, skilled biographers who does not believe the theories of the Master figure as either Samuel Bowles, or, the often mentioned, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, as plausible. Wolff in 1986 speculates that some other party, unknown thus far to scholars of Dickinson, is more likely the “Master.” Cynthia Wolff writes in her Radcliffe Series biography Emily Dickinson:
Is it more than coincidence that Dickinson succumbed to death just a few weeks after Clark? Her last letter, written to her “Little Cousins,” shortly after Clark’s death, a few days before her own, says merely: “Called back.” As Jones points out, the last book Emily Dickinson was re-reading, before she died in May 1886, was “Romeo and Juliet.” She died just a few weeks after William Smith Clark who died in March of that year. Dickinson is known to have highlighted the phrase in her text: “I remember an apothecary…” spoken by Romeo who wishes to commit suicide after hearing of Juliet’s death.
Jones’s idea of Dickinson’s “Master” makes others’ older theories—concerning Samuel Bowles of Springfield; Reverend Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia; or Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her sister-in-law next door—pale in the light of historical discoveries and the supportive evidence cited within the texts of the letters and poems themselves.
Three Unlikely Persons Traditionally Proposed as “Master”
If one truly considers the evidence, others traditionally proposed as the “Master Figure” are not likely candidates compared to Colonel Clark. Samuel Bowles, influential editor of The Springfield Republican, thought by some eminent biographers to have possibly been Emily’s “Master,” was a married man who lived farther off in Springfield, and, there is much evidence in his correspondence that he was attracted to Emily’s sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. He was not taken to gardening or rambling in search of wildflowers as Clark was and as the intended recipient in Dickinson’s love letters certainly appears to have been. Samuel Bowles actually took a close associate, Maria Whitney, Dickinson’s cousin, and Clark’s wife’s cousin, into his home as a sort of governess and secretary. Many scholars imagine from his correspondence that he had a love affair with Whitney. Bowles more than once arrived at Susan’s and Austin’s home next door to Emily’s with Maria Whitney on his arm. Emily’s cousin, Maria, was a scholar with whom Emily shared sympathies, perhaps because she was committed in a “secret marriage” (Title divine -- is mine!/ The Wife – without the Sign! .…) to be the mistress of William Smith Clark, just as Maria Whitney was the confidante, literary secretary, and likely mistress, of Samuel Bowles whose wife, Mary, was incapacitated by childbirth, confinement, miscarriages and still born children, much as Clark’s was.
These facts, along with a study of the extensive correspondence between Emily and Bowles in which she always addresses him as “Mr. Bowles”—never “Master”—and her empathetic correspondence with Maria Whitney, with whom Bowles was enamored, makes it extremely unlikely that Samuel Bowles could have been “The Master.” Emily appears very incidentally in Bowles’s correspondence with others, and he is far more concerned with Susan Dickinson’s or Maria Whitney’s attributes when he writes. Bowles in one of his letters to his friend, Austin, refers to Emily as “The Queen Recluse.” Was he implying she was the reclusive “Queen” of Clark in contrast to his public wife who was called “The Queen,” after the affair was known and Emily had retreated to a more exclusive society to avoid gossiping women?
Another usual candidate for the “Master” figure, Reverend Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia, was a very happily married man who also lived far off. One surmises from the formal tone of his only surviving letter to the poet that he was more of a spiritual advisor to her than a lover. Emily knew so little of Wadsworth that she had to ask many questions about him of his surviving kin in letters written after his death. He did not wear a beard as the Master figure and Clark did, nor was he particularly involved with flowers as Emily and Clark and the recipient of the “Master Letters” was. He would have had to live in the town to be intimate with her dog, Carlo, and her walks in her meadow as the Master appears to have been. The only extant letter from Wadsworth is quite cool, addressing the poet as “Miss Dickenson,” and even misspelling her name, something her intimate “Master” would not have done.
Wadsworth even forgets to sign his letter with a signature as if he were dashing off several letters to various parishioners who had asked for counsel. Not evidence of any great intimacy, the letter offers to give communion concerning her trauma about which he says he knows nothing, so how could he have been the cause of it? It’s clear that Emily sought his advice and admired his sermons, which preached redemption in Presbyterian style— something absent from the sermons of the Calvinist ministers of her town. One imagines she asked Reverend Wadsworth for advisement on “redemption” for her sins, as Clark might have during his weeks spent in Philadelphia shopping for chemical laboratory supplies.
Wadsworth’s interest in “Miss Dickenson,” daughter of a federal politician, might well have been a desire to convert her to his Presbyterian sect because she was troubled over the dogma of her father’s Calvinist theology. Presbyterianism was quite radical in Dickinson’s Amherst circles, but it’s likely that Clark, a world traveler who frequented Philadelphia, was familiar with its progressive ideals and attracted to it’s doctrine of redemption. It was Wadsworth’s mission to spread the ideas of his revolutionary sect wherever he could among influential people. The poet’s final one of only two Amherst meetings with the reverend, when they went for their famous carriage ride together, more likely concerned her secret conversion to the Presbyterian sect, rather than a love affair.
Though respected Dickinson scholars, Ellen L. Hart and Martha Nell Smith, have expounded in Open Me Carefully upon the love relationship between Emily and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson—there is much evidence that Emily had a falling out with the religious, born-again, Susan. Emily could never give in to the Puritan Revivalism that surrounded her. She’d been too thoroughly enthralled by her tutor, Benjamin Newton, who introduced her to Emerson’s poems, and therefore to Emerson’s essays on “Self-reliance,” “The Poet,” and “Nature,” imbued with Transcendental philosophy. Many readers today seem unaware that Emerson ended as a non-theist and a Buddhist and was considered scandalously radical for his day. Though Susan and Emily were very close in their youth, prior to Susan’s marriage to Emily’s brother, and though Emily, no doubt, had a youthful crush, even homoerotic feelings for Susan— there is much evidence that she fancied male students and apprentices, i.e. Benjamin Newton, Leonard Humphrey, George Gould, Henry Vaughn Emmons, and very likely William Smith Clark, among the interesting young men living in the vicinity and on campus of Amherst College next door to her home.
Vivian R. Pollack and Marianne Noble state, in the Oxford University Press Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson; “Historians of sexuality, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lilian Faderman, have supplied further context for understanding the homoerotic and possible proto-lesbian elements of Dickinson’s desire, as expressed in the letters to Sue. Romantic same-sex friendships were the norm during the antebellum era…” In any case, it is also speculated that Dickinson was helping her brother, Austin, with whom she closely identified, to court Sue with fervent letters, hoping to bring Sue into the intimacy of the family as a sister and confidant, as well as the intellectual companion, and independent, female role model, she needed. Neither her mother nor Lavinia were fond of reading, writing and thought in general, but were more concerned with household duties and church going than books.
At any rate, Susan and Emily had the sort of literary and intellectual camaraderie that is usually attributed only to male writers. Susan was not only intelligent, well read, and a gifted talker with a talent for writing, herself, but instrumental to Emily Dickinson’s development as a poet and writer. Though Martha Nell Smith’s research is vital, Clark is far more likely the major inspiration of the poems Emily sewed into fascicles or booklets, nearly all written while he was at war. Clark, as Dickinson’s lover, would likely have encouraged her to write her poems, and interestingly, as Jones notes, five of her eleven anonymously published pieces appear in newspapers that also publish writing by Clark. Did Professor Clark assist in getting some of Dickinson’s work published?
Also, “The Master letters” are addressed to “Master” not “Sue” or “Susie” as Dickinson’s many surviving letters to Susan Gilbert are. Also, “Master” is sometimes called “Sir,” and has a bearded face. (See bib. The Master Letters, Franklin.) Sue was an adventurous young woman early on compared to Emily, and she studied at a more sophisticated school in Geneva, New York. Dickinson definitely admired her independence and may have used the excuse of eye-trouble for coming to Cambridge to rendezvous with Clark—just as Sue, according to her letters, had done some years earlier in 1853, in order to travel to Boston unescorted to meet with Austin at the Revere Hotel prior to their marriage. Dickinson would have had to feign a vital reason for escaping her father’s domain, and the dutiful care of her ill mother, in order to live in Cambridge during the same, extended periods that Clark served in the state legislature there, sometimes living a stone’s throw from where Dickinson boarded with her “Little Cousins,” and sometimes living at the Revere Hotel in Roxbury, where Austin had met with Susan. There is little doubt that Susan helped Dickinson to become her own person with the courage to pursue her literary creativity as well as to escape the confines of her father’s home.
Ruth Owen Jones’s theory of “the Master figure,” better than any other, explains the extreme secrecy surrounding the poet’s life and the elliptical quality of some of her poetry, as well as her relative seclusion, after age thirty-five, within her family compound and grounds.
The Poet in Pursuit of Science and Emotional Truth
In summary, Dickinson’s poetry shows her to be more involved with the pursuit of science and a belief in emotional truth as the Transcendentalists defined it. The German pantheists of her day influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Smith Clark. Both worshipped Nature for practical and spiritual reasons. New England could not have thrived without such men at her intellectual helm. The extremes of the Puritan mind and the Evangelical Fundamentalist spirit would have held America back from growing into the prosperous and influential nation it became under the growing ideals of the transcendental enlightenment that espoused the importance of scientific pursuits. Ironically, Dickinson, a woman, is one of the most scientifically aware poets America produced during that period of the great rebellion of The Brahmins of New England who defied “The Great Revival” of Puritanical dogma which sought to repress both scientific knowledge and women’s liberties.
As such, her poetry is a bastion of light for our own dark times when ideas of Creationism threaten to submerge the truths so painstakingly proven by many great scientists since Darwin first pioneered evolutionary biology. Needed progress in stem cell research that could cure so much suffering from various diseases, as well as vital environmental facts regarding global warming are again being repressed by misguided religious extremists. Yet, America has built her egalitarian hopes upon scientific truths, and the separation of church and state is so utterly vital to her democratic freedoms. When we reread Dickinson’s poems with the ideals of Emerson and Clark and the pursuit of nature’s chemistry and scientific truth in mind—even as we come to better understand the passions and disappointments that inspired her love poems of erotic joy, loss, and frustration — we can celebrate her intelligence and progressive mind as a lover of science and scientist, a thinker who heralded the acceptance of Darwinism to come, and who found spiritual solace in understanding the beauty and wonder of the ways of the natural world.
Other Misleading Myths Undone
Many readers of Dickinson continue to blame Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s estimation of the poet’s work as her main reason for not gaining more publication of her poetry in her lifetime, but actually Higginson had little to do with her desire not to publish. Elizabeth A. Petrino in Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries, Women’s Verse in America, 1820-1885, explains that women writers of Dickinson’s day and social class were considered to have abandoned their roles as wives and mothers if they published. Women were supposed to write pleasant effusions to augment their roles as the moral upholders of Puritan society and the spiritual guardians of their households. Women of the educated classes of New England did not attempt to publish for remuneration. Only women who were struggling to make a living would do so, not the daughters of statesmen or well-to-do members of the community.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s well known evaluation of the poet’s work as too innovative and unconventional in form, probably had little to do with her ultimate refusal to publish under her own name. Dickinson herself wrote on many occasions that her poetry was meant for private spiritual enrichment. There’s epistle evidence that she argued with Samuel Bowles, progressive editor of The Springfield Republican, on this point. Bowles believed in women having public careers, where Josiah Holland, cultural editor of same paper, and later of Scribner’s Magazine, argued that a woman’s place was in the home. This debate raged on in print all during the century of women’s struggle for suffrage.
Like Holland, Edward Dickinson, along with other Calvinists, insisted that a woman’s education was strictly for the spiritual enrichment of her family, not the commerce of literature for public consumption. Edward Dickinson, as an adamant Puritan gentleman and prominent statesman, greatly concerned with appearances, would have frowned severely upon his daughter writing for commercial publication. His own published writings speak of a woman’s place as bound by the home. Dependent upon her respected father’s fortunes, out of necessity, Dickinson sided with Josiah Holland’s views. Mrs. Josiah Holland was Dickinson’s closest and most valued friend throughout her life. Dickinson admired the peace and security of Elizabeth Holland’s good marriage and her happiness as a wife and helpmate to Josiah, her intellectual husband. This is clear from Dickinson’s correspondence. Mrs. Holland’s contentment in the role of wife, rather than independent writer or professional woman, had its influence on Dickinson.
Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the poet’s sister-in-law, girlhood friend, and close confidant through her youthful years, seems to have agreed with Edward Dickinson and Josiah Holland. After Emily’s death, Susan wrote in a Dec. 1890 letter to Colonel Higginson, editor with Mrs. Todd, of Emily’s first published volume of poems: “I sometimes shudder when I think of the world reading her [Emily’s] thoughts minted in deep heartbroken convictions. In her own words (after all the intoxicating fascination of creation) she as deeply realized that for her, as for all of us women, not fame, but love and home and certainty are best.” (p. 86, Ancestor’s Brocades. See bib.) Note the word “heartbroken,” which implies a lost love.
No doubt Susan Dickinson was pleasing her father-in-law, and his Puritan social class, with her proper behavior. She seems to have somewhat repressed any desire to be a published author and had ambiguous feelings about the independence of a wife, enjoying most of all her position as a captivating hostess and conversationalist. After all, Edward Dickinson’s son, Austin, gave his wife, the orphaned Susan, the social standing which she appears to have craved, and her father-in-law, Edward, built a large, quite modern, and stylish Italianate home next door to the Dickinson family home, especially for Susan and Austin upon their marriage. Emily’s biographers agree that Emily had much to do with matchmaking Austin’s marriage to her school chum “Susie” from Amherst Academy. Edward was pleased with his son’s choice, too. Emily was herself much enamored of Susan’s charms as her letters show, as well as involved with the maintenance of the Dickinson home, reputation, and social affairs as Susan was.
Though both Bowles and Holland, important editors, were her friends, Emily clearly sided, at least outwardly, with Holland’s beliefs, as well as Susan’s and her eminent father’s, in the societal debate over women publishing their writing. As her eminent biographers, including Alfred Habegger, point out, the impropriety of publication runs throughout her poems and letters. In the following lines, she might be speaking of both her love affair with a married man and her love affair with writing poetry:
Harriet Martineau and George Eliot were accused of being unnatural and manly because of their writing profession. Louisa May Alcott, for one example, published her work out of the necessity of earning a living and because her father, Bronson Alcott, was a very progressive educator who was, along with Margaret Fuller, in rebellion against Puritan restrictions of women and children. Emily herself wrote:
Emily often sent versions of the same poems to various friends and neighbors, and possibly the same poems to Susan as to Clark, maybe testing them out on Susan for her editing advice prior to sending them onto Clark. Dickinson did have an important readership in her lifetime, if not much commercial publication. Nearly 600 poems were sent to forty readers who sometimes passed them to others to read, a form of publication in the scribal sense.
Not a Maiden Recluse Who’s Poetry Blossomed in Confinement,
Dickinson is not the little rural recluse who blossomed, oddly, out of nothing, that the myths surrounding her imply. Sue’s and Austin’s library next door at The Evergreens held the most stimulating texts and periodicals of Dickinson’s day and the poet spent much time there, reading and exchanging ideas with Susan and her worldly guests. Dickinson lived in the midst of literary people with whom she corresponded often. Though some 600 poems were circulated in letters among more than 40 known correspondents, there were probably many more unknown readers of her poetry as well.
Feminist writers are pleased to know that, Helen Hunt Jackson, a poet whose novel, Ramona, was a bestseller in Dickinson’s day, was a former schoolmate, friend and correspondent who encouraged Dickinson writing with great praise. One of the best known of Emily’s works, “Success is counted sweetest” was published anonymously by Jackson in her anthology of prominent poets: A Masque of Poets issued in 1878. Many readers imagined Emerson had written Dickinson’s anonymous poem. Jackson, a very successful writer, wrote to Dickinson more than once, urging her to publish and even offering to serve as her literary executor. “You are a great poet,” wrote Jackson to Dickinson, in 1876. “It is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy!”
The idea that Dickinson was a recluse who had little encouragement for her writing is much overplayed. Stimulating people surrounded her far more than many poets of our time who have lived in much greater seclusion. Her talents were encouraged by literary minds like Austin Dickinson, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Benjamin Newton, Henry Vaughn Emmons, George Gould, Samuel Bowles, Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who called her poetry “great” even though he thought it too ephemeral and unconventional for publication. Isn’t it wrong to allow young poets of today to think that they can really write well in a reclusive vacuum without “feedback” or encouragement or other minds around for intellectual stimulation because the great poet, Emily Dickinson did?
The poet had two Irish immigrant servants daily in her home with whom she was emotionally close: Tom Kelly and Maggie Maher, along with her sister, Lavinia, a few feet across the hall. She had her highly intellectual sister-in-law, Sue, and learned brother, Austin, and their educated children a few yards away in the house next door. She had her invalid mother at home and six part-time field hands and handymen now and then working her grounds and barn at various seasons. She chose these earthy laborers to be her pallbearers over others of her class she could have elected. There were the students and professor friends of Austin at Amherst College coming and going in her home or at The Evergreens next door. For much of her life, she had her father traveling home from Boston and Washington, as well as Northampton and other towns, bringing news of the world to her along with the society of his professional associates. This was true during many of the years of her so-called seclusion in which she received visits from Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles, two of the most influential editors of her time, and statesman, Judge Otis Lord, as well as the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, the popular Philadelphia sermonizer.
Also, Dickinson’s trusty, canine companion on her walks about the town and rambles through the countryside, the large, black Newfoundlander, Carlo, had died, in January 1866, by the time the poet did not travel beyond her father’s properties. Daniel Lombardo in Hedge Away regarding annals of the poet’s village, (See bib.) describes a period in which it is known many rabid, stray dogs prowled the streets of Amherst causing havoc in the town. Emily was diminutive. Perhaps, part of her keeping to her father’s grounds had to do with fear of these rabid strays from which big, loyal Carlo could no longer protect her. Biographers tell us, her sister, Lavinia, had once been bitten by a dog so fiercely on her hand when going visiting in the village, that she had never been able to write well again. Perhaps, at least, part of the poet’s desire to keep to her father’s property was simply a practical matter.
Jones points out that in Emily’s day, women gossiped fiercely about other women’s indiscretions, and always blamed the woman who dallied with a married man not the man. Men were accepted as animal in nature, but women were supposed to uphold propriety and have no sexual feelings. Dickinson may likely have been avoiding nasty, gossiping women who got wind of her affair. We know she abhorred the “dimity convictions” of gentlewomen.
In addition, the myth that Dickinson wore white as emblematic of being a virgin or nun-like creature married to Christ, needs much modification. Far too much has been made of the white dresses Dickinson seems to have favored from age thirty-five on. There were several reasons why she might have worn these undyed, pique housedresses. For one thing, such housedresses were commonly worn by all women at home in place of the heavier formal dyed fabrics, i.e. brocades, woolens, satins, or linens, they might wear for travel or visitations out of doors. White housedresses were easy to wash without dyes running or fading, and lightweight in summer, comfortable for gardening and baking, and relaxing at home. Also, there was a rebellion against dyed and starched clothing as labor unions were forming to protest textile sweat-shops and boiling, hot, laundry factories, where workers suffered horrid and dangerous conditions and little pay. Bronson Alcott, one of the leaders of the Transcendental Movement had started a boycott of dyed and manufactured clothing in solidarity with the working classes. He and his followers wore white, homespun, or washable type clothing, as did Dickinson after thirty-five, in protest of workers poor labor conditions in textile dying and laundering factories.
Then too, as Judith Farr has explained at length in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, (See bib.) the poet, like her brother, was taken with the Pre-Raphaelite paintings commonly found in upper class halls and parlors of the period. These paintings often depict little white clad figures of women, or men, or angels, against huge and grandiose natural settings and are emblematic of the Romantic movement toward wonder in the natural landscape and awe of the vastness of nature and its superior powers over man. Such paintings were no doubt admired and viewed often by Dickinson, a great lover of Romantic novels like the Bronte’s Wuthering Height,s or Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, as well as a reader of Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, particularly Barrett Browning’s novel in verse titled Aurora Leigh, not to mention again the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, so influenced by Bronson Alcott’s oratory. One thinks, too, of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The May-pole of Mary Mount” in which the bride and groom wear simple white clothing in their rural pagan celebration in contrast to the black clothing worn by the Puritan priest who disrupts the ceremony with his Age of Iron mentality and Calvinist dogma.
No doubt Dickinson read that story of her popular contemporary, too. Dickinson’s white garments may have been a commitment to her Transcendentalism.
Dickinson’s wearing of lightweight, washable, white pique housedresses might as well be a matter of practicality more than Romantic pose, especially for a woman who liked to ramble through the woods, meadows, and gardens of her father’s properties and who spent much of her day in her conservatory planting pots, or in her scullery, baking ginger bread, or churning butter. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was far more known for her baking skills and her gardening than her poetry in the village of her time.
In Conclusion: Poet of the American Enlightenment;
By painstakingly searching through old copies of The Springfield Daily Republican and Hampshire Franklin Express, as well as Amherst Record where Clark often appears on page one, as well as other primary sources—historian, Ruth Owen Jones has discovered what other Dickinson readers and scholars have missed. More than any other person on the poet’s horizon —William Smith Clark, eminent scientist of Amherst, is a logical candidate for “The Master” of Dickinson’s writings as carefully explained and footnoted in her thesis, “Neighbor—and friend—and Bridegroom—.” Agricultural science was greatly promoted in Dickinson’s day because many young men were deserting the Northeast to adventure to the expanding West. New England farmland, full of rocks and stumps, had a short growing season compared to the cheaper, better, farmlands men were leaving Massachusetts in droves to acquire in the West. Professor Clark, his father in law Williston, and Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson attempted to encourage young farmers to work the lands of their Pioneer Valley rather than migrate West. They were comrades in a cause of their region. With many of the young men of the area killed in the Civil War, or gone off to Western ventures—it is no wonder that Emily Dickinson and her sister, Lavinia, never married. It is not surprising that the poet had an affair with a charming botanist, who was a Civil War hero, a captivating speaker, and a staunch anti-slavery advocate— as well as business associate of her brother and father? There is no doubt she would have known and respected Clark highly, as the “Master Letters” tell of admiration for a master teacher.
Readers might be empathetic, rather than judgmental, in realizing that if Dickinson and Clark had fallen in love when Clark was a young student, before he went to Germany and returned to marry Williston’s daughter—they would have been star-crossed lover. Clark was the son of a poor country doctor, born in a little clapboard farmhouse in the hill town of Ashfield, and would not have been in any position to ask for Emily’s hand. According to his surviving letters, he afforded his education at Amherst College with financial difficulty and almost left part way through his freshman year for lack of funds. Dickinson’s father would likely have snubbed him because of his financial status. Biographers have pointed out that the poet’s father opposed his daughters’ suitors if they were not financially secure. His father, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, had bankrupted himself founding Amherst College and Edward was traumatized by monetary difficulties early on. As an oldest son, he’d had to rebuild his family fortunes from the ground up which he did with the help of his wife and children. Emily and her siblings were part of Edward Dickinson’s industrious efforts to regain financial security, good reputation, and help his community to thrive. He would not have brought an impoverished young man, such as Clark was prior to his marriage, into his family to support when he had his own son, Austin, to encourage and finance. Once Clark returned to the town and married the adopted daughter of a wealthy man, taking up life in his goodly residence, possessed of several acres and a horse-trotting track, on a hill behind the poet’s homestead—the star-crossed lovers could easily have met secretly, and Emily might well have envied “the Queen’s place.”
In summary, the scientific terms in Dickinson’s poetry— dealing with botany, chemistry, mining, gemstones, zoology—all specialties of Professor Clark—can be found by a study of the concordance to her poetry. She was part of the American enlightenment that espoused the observation of nature as a spiritual pursuit. This was the philosophy that Clark shared with Emerson, and President Hitchcock of Amherst College, as well as in later in life, with his Japanese students in Haikkaido where he traveled to found a College of Agricultural Science in Sappora, and where he was dubbed “Master” in Japanese by his devoted students. There is still a shrine to Master Clark there. Transcendentalism blends well with, and is derivative of, Taoist and Buddhist traditions of the East where gardens and pine groves are sites for shrines of worship. Emily’s greatest occupation, aside from her poetry, was her plant conservatory and gardening.
Clark was the embodiment of Emersonian ideals, so admired by Dickinson, as he strove to replace the darkness of Puritan dogma as a champion of science. Emerson, inspired by Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, foresaw the work of Darwin and heralded scientific inquiry, disavowing scripture as literal. As writers and intellectuals of New England traveled to Europe, like Clark, Ph.D. of Gottingen, they were attracted to German pantheism. Meantime, a desire to foster an original American literature was burgeoning along with egalitarian ideals. Whitman and Dickinson deliberately broke the strictures of old European styles of prosody, rhyme, and meter to consciously create an American style of writing based on free thinking.
Austin Dickinson’s graduation speech from Amherst College was on the theme of creating a new American culture out of the glories of the Connecticut River Valley. President Hitchcock of Amherst College, a geologist who had discovered dinosaur fossils in the valley, and Dickinson’s favorite sermonizer, Reverend Parke, had earlier espoused the same, declaring that a great poet would arise from their valley’s inordinate natural beauty. Were they not prophetic? And was not Dickinson attempting to quietly fulfill their prophecy—by her late night oil lamp, secretly writing her new American, Transcendental art, dreaming of her scientist lover with his deep knowledge of nature and cosmopolitan culture. Little did she know that she was that great dreamed of poet!
Yet, it’s important for young poets to realize that she did not write in a vacuum, a recluse, or “mad woman in the attic.” All of her life, she was surrounded, or in correspondence with, learned and worldly family and friends, scientists, writers, editors, intellectual confidantes and working class servants who gave her their point of view as well. She had more of a daily support group than most contemporary writers who often write in rooms all by themselves without local professors and worldly editors as a constant part of their society. Isn’t it wrong to mislead young poets into thinking they can write well as a recluse because Dickinson did?
As was demonstrated, there are many myths about Dickinson that need undoing. Reading her poems with her lover and mentor, William Smith Clark in mind, deepens their meanings and opens some of their opaque qualities to better understanding. It is why Ruth Owen Jones’s thesis about the “Master” of Dickinson’s work is important to American writers and poets— not for the scandal it must have stirred, nor for the gossip it likely brought down upon the poet causing her to flee into a more socially exclusive society, not to add to the speculation about her love life— but for a clearer reading of her poetry!