This is part 2 of our conversation with Ivy Schweitzer, Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and the driving force behind “White Heat,” a blog that chronicles Dickinson's creative life and poetry week by week for the crucial year 1862, and provides cultural and historical contexts to this poet’s notoriously difficult work.
p.s. You can read part 1 here.
R: So how do you structure the posts in “White Heat”?
I: After we choose our theme for the week, we go off and do research for the sections called “This Week in History,” and “This Week in Biography.” The first contains snippets from newspapers and magazines we know Dickinson read, and the second summarizes relevant biographical information from letters, etc. Then, we choose a group of five or six texts, mostly poems from this period, but also letters, that illuminate the weekly theme, and write a short introduction, “On Choosing the Poems,” that talks about literary influences and important elements in the poetry. For each poem, we reprint a transcript of the manuscript, give links to the EDA, and offer some suggestions on how to approach the poem, what to look for, questions to ask.
What I'm trying to do is not give you a reading or interpretation of the poems, because I don't believe in that. My students always say, "What does it mean?" And I reply, "No, let go of that." I don't know what it means and, with Dickinson, it never means only one thing. We're never going to figure that out and it’s not the most important part of reading poetry. We have to pay attention to how the poem make its meaning and what it does to us, the readers. How does it make us feel? And Dickinson's poems can elicit a wide and deep range of feelings from frustration to existential angst to “transport,” one of her favorite terms.
R: That's absolutely one of my favorite things about what you're doing, aside from all the rich content, is that, as odd as it seems, though there are links to the poems, the poems are not central, they're all throughout, but not the only focus.
I: That’s right. I am trying to show that they're not hermetically sealed off from the history and biography, yes. And the more I work with them, the more I see how she filtered so many aspects of her world into her work. For example, I did a post on Astronomy, on the discovery of the comet, and found Dickinson wrestling with the ideas of Darwin and other prominent scientists of her day. In another post on volcanoes, she enters the raging debate at the time about geology and whether it could be squared with Christian doctrine.
S: So, you're trying to encourage people to look beyond figuring out what her poems mean...
I: Right. I say to my students, "If you try to lock down the poem’s meaning and understand it, you're nailing it down, it’s finished." You don't let all the other connotations swirl around. Also, given the variants that Dickinson provided, you are going against the little glimpse we have of how she wanted her poems read; not as finished products but as always in process, always evolving. That's what's interesting about all the new work being done on the fascicles, including by my recent Honor’s Thesis student, Madeline Killen. She worked on Fascicle 18, put together in 1862. A chapter from her thesis was selected as the Best Undergraduate Research Essay this year from the Emily Dickinson International Society. I was so proud. Many scholars are now saying that the Fascicles are the closest thing we have to how Dickinson herself wanted her poems to be presented.
It's not really self-publication, but a kind of self-editing, or organizing. Why did she put those poems next to each other in those groups?
It’s an amazing story and the beginning of the bloody editorial history of Dickinson’s body of work. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia found the forty fascicles and loose pages in her dresser drawer. They knew she was writing poetry, but not at that rate or with that intensity. Lavinia [Dickinson’s sister] gave them first to Sue and asked her to publish them, but Sue didn’t act quickly enough for Lavinia, and so Lavinia took them back and asked a young woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, to edit them and Mabel promptly snipped the fascicles and cut them apart. Mabel had become lovers with Austin, Dickinson’s brother and Sue’s estranged husband. So, Lavinia really pissed Sue off by going to Mabel.
R: That's snipping apart of the fascicles is a really interesting mindset...
I: It is. Of course, we have to love Mabel because, with the pull of Higginson, she published several volumes of Dickinson’s poems after her death, while Sue didn’t publish any of the hundreds of poems she received in letters; her daughter took that on. Martha Nell Smith makes an argument that Sue was preparing a volume that was much more wholistic about Dickinson and that Mabel's volume is much more literarily edited and conventional. I know there's the Camp of Sue and the Camp of Mabel and never the twain shall meet, but I like them both. I think both did good things and not-so-good things to the Dickinson editorial history, which is complicated and, as I said, bloody––hence, the mutilations, probably done by Mabel and Austin who wanted to eradicate any trace of Sue in Dickinson’s work.
While Mabel got Dickinson’s work out there—the first Poems 1890 sold out quickly––she also went around lecturing and portraying Dickinson as the “White Myth of Amherst.” And she regularized the poetry to conform to current standards of taste. But Dickinson was a maverick, a rebel (that’s why I love her). As I mentioned earlier, Sharon Cameron's brilliant book Choosing Not Choosing argues that Dickinson deliberately chose not to choose. It wasn’t that she couldn’t decide. She deliberately chose, not indeterminacy, but multi-vocality, dynamism, freedom… I think she didn't want us as readers to be tied to a final version. She deliberately set it up so that we had to see those two words or phrases—the variants—working in a poem. It's kind of like hypertext before hypertext. It's like saying, okay, well, you can read the poem this way, you can read the poem that way, or then you could…
R: Choose your own adventure…
I: Exactly! I mean it's really like digital before the digital.
S: Do your students take turns with you writing? Or how does the collaboration work?
I: I'm not a control freak and I think the more the merrier. But I do like getting in there and being able to do it and I have a vision of how I want the posts to be and I don't want it to be super scholarly. I want it to appeal to scholars, but…
S: You want it to be accessible.
I: Exactly. And I want to reach all those zealous Dickinson fans out there who don't know what "performative" might mean or who don't know what structuralism is. I don't want to scare them away with that jargon. Even the post about the Dickinson’s meter . . . I was nervous about not getting too technical, but I think some technical is good.
R: I like the way you did it because you include a little bit of the technical information and then you give a link. You're saying, "Here, if you want to know all about meter, go over here."
I: That's what a digital site is great for. You can do layers and give options. This is how we worked. Each team member picked out which themes we wanted to work on. That person then writes the short overview in the beginning about the theme and suggests a few poems/letters that will work with it. Then we kibbitz back and forth on what poems we want, etc. So, for the first six months we were really writing the posts together. This summer, with the students away, I've been doing the posts myself, with Emily providing the historical material. I have also been asking friends, colleagues, and scholars to write the reflections, so there is a kaleidoscope of views and voices.
S: There're so many side projects you could do in addition to what you already have.
I: I really want to add lots more. Harriette created a White Heat YouTube channel and we've started uploading videos of my daughter Rebekah Schweitzer singing the Aaron Copland song cycle of 12 Dickinson poems set to music. It’s really challenging stuff, but she is doing a great job, accompanied by Annemieke McLean on piano. I want to include more audio because Dickinson was a skilled pianist and improviser. There's one whole post on Dickinson and music.
I have to say the other part I'm really loving about this project is the linking. Of course, this is dangerous because you don't know when your links are going to disappear. I've linked a lot to Wikipedia, because, frankly, I don't think Wikipedia is going to disappear. And lots of people start with Wikipedia. I don't think we should end there, but it's not a bad place to start.
S: Right. You want to make it accessible to people, like you said, who don't necessarily come with a scholarly background.
I: Exactly. And they can go from there and get into it more deeply if they want. So, the links to me are really important, to be able to read along and be able to just click and find out what you need to know…
I really wanted this site to be cultural. I wanted to be able to see images and picture Dickinson’s world: what members of her family and friends looked like, what Frazar Stearns looked like, what the Confederate cannon looked like that they sent to Amherst in his honor, what the Homestead looked like. I'm fascinated with that. But it's touchy because if the pages go away, then there are broken links. People hate broken links. When we do the eBook, it might be that I have to scale down a little bit or choose where I link to.
The fun part is feeling like you have it all at your fingertips. This is what the web was meant to do, to give us a sense that it's all here. And we use it for the larger purpose of creating a very rich context for the poems, to help us read these challenging poems in a more informed way. I think Dickinson has been read in little vacuums. We read an individual poem that blows our mind. I'm trained as a close reader. I love to do that, but when you read poems in a larger context like the Fascicles, or the context of the Civil War, or Dickinson’s relationship to Higginson or Emerson, or Thoreau, or her knowledge of volcanoes, then the poems take on a totally different, richer meaning.
So that's part of what I’m trying to do, to expand our view, because I am sensitive to the power of the “myth” and I want to counter it. When I introduce Dickinson to students and ask, "What's your image of her?" they say, "She was a recluse and she lived in her dad's house for her whole life and she never married and..."
R: And her white dress.
S: And her white dress.
I: And her white dress. That's what they say. "The Belle of Amherst!"
I really want to provide a different version. Look at the post on “White” and you will see how resonant this color is in her work. It doesn’t just mean purity or innocence but is a very multi-faceted symbol. I want to present Dickinson in the World. A citizen of the World, even if she was just living in her father's house. She traveled the world in her imagination. She was networked. She wrote to everyone who was anyone, she received mail from around the world (from her missionary friends).
R: She wasn't oblivious to what was going on outside that house.
I: No. And in fact, there's a lot of evidence for her connections, if you look at the letters—the letters are amazing. That has been a real revelation to me. I'm trying to do a lot more with the letters to bring them to readers’ attention because she was a brilliant letter writer and that was another form of her creativity. They're aesthetic texts in their own right, you know what I mean?
What you see through the letters is that when she starts to go into seclusion in the 1860s, she starts to write to everybody and her letter production expands. She is withdrawing physically, but she's actually expanding verbally or textually, and she is really in touch with many people. I think there was a trade off for her and that's what Adrienne Rich says in her amazing essay from 1975, "Vesuvius at Home." That Dickinson knew that her genius wouldn't make it out there, that she would be misunderstood, criticized, or ignored and really driven mad by the restrictions. I think she knew she was sensitive, and she decided, "Ok, I'm not doing that. I'm going to be in here. I'm going to have my safe space. And I am going to write whatever I want to write in whatever way works for me.”
She could really control her life in the sense of keeping away the very negative parts. This is another thing my students don't really understand: how hard it was to be a woman in the 19th century. She had some things easy because was a member of an elite class, she had servants, but the constraints on women physically and psychologically were enormous. The whole “cult of true womanhood.”
I include in one post the image of a woman wearing the mourning dress of the times and it looks like a burqa. It's essentially a 19th century burqa, except she doesn't have the little eye holes.
S: She can't even see...
I: Right! What was it like to walk around like that? We forget how restrictive 19th century gender conventions were for women. So that's the context for the white house dress. Dickinson decided, "I'm not going to wear all that fancy, heavy stuff," I'm going to wear essentially what is the jeans and t-shirt, or sweatpants, of the 19th century! That's what she chose to wear.
R: With pockets.
I: Yeah, with pockets, so she could carry her little pencils and scraps of paper to write on in there. And buttons down the front so she didn't need somebody to help her dress.
S: That is radical.
I: That's why the context is important. Also, white was an important color to her, it had deep symbolism for her and also at a historical moment when the nation is fighting over slavery. You can’t ignore that. She wrote several poems scholars think are about racial issues; for example, “The Malay took the Pearl,” and “The Black Berry – wears a Thorn in his side.” Dickinson picked the white dress because it was easy and because she didn't want to walk around in corsets and stays or in black because many people around her were dying. Perhaps it was also a way to refuse the color of mourning.
There are so many layers, so many connections. This project has been a real mode of discovery.
One thing I’ve learned about teaching—and I learned this from my collaborator Pati Hernandez and from my spouse Tom Luxon— is that teaching should empower people. Knowledge should empower people, not humiliate them or intimidate them. And that's what I want this project to do. I know Dickinson can be really hard—and maybe that's why I picked Dickinson, she's hard, there are riddles, the center is missing, there's complicated symbolism, allegory, there is so much she's not really telling us... but, it's our responses to the language that's important. How does it make us feel? What does it do to you? Emily Dickinson is one of our great poets because she questioned everything. Her poetry is profoundly moving. The more we let go of “solving the riddle,” of what it means, the more it gives you.
Ivy’s Tips on reading the poems
Read them out loud. As you read, think about how the words and images and dashes and rhythms make you feel. Look at how the poem makes its meaning. Let the poem speak to you in its form, in its layers. What happens when the rhythm falls apart? Circle the words that interest you - go to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon to see how Dickinson uses and reuses words, what they meant to her. Circle places where you begin to stumble and ask why? Maybe she wants you to stumble there, to stop and think about it. She is a disrupter, a maverick. Look at the breaks in sentences; she wants to make her point using the literary tools available to her.
Recommended Online Resources
The Emily Dickinson Archive (EDA) – This site makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives available in open access. The present version includes images for the poems identified in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998), and allows you to search by poem number, first line or words, acting as a virtual concordance to the poems.
Dickinson Electronic Archive 1 (DEA 1) and Dickinson Electronic Archive 2 (DEA 2) – These two websites (the second is an expanded version of the first) are “a scholarly resource showcasing the possibility of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and exploring the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts.” The DEA devoted to the study of Emily Dickinson, her writing practices, writings directly influencing her work, and critical and creative writings generated by her work. It contains archives of manuscripts by Dickinson and members of her circle, as well as critical essays and teaching resources.
The Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon, edited by Cynthia L. Hallen – This website helps illuminate Dickinson's word choice by examining the meanings recorded in Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1844 printing of 1841 ed.), which she used throughout her writing life, and also listing the usages of words in Emily Dickinson's writings. Indispensable.
The Emily Dickinson Museum – The home of Emily Dickinson, a National Historic Landmark owned by the Trustees of Amherst College, and well worth a visit. Their web site also includes information about the Evergreens, home of Susan and Austin Dickinson, and provides a good introduction to Dickinson and Dickinson-related topics.
Below are just a sampling of books about Emily Dickinson. Books marked with an asterisk (*) are some of Ivy’s favorites and a great place to start if you’re just beginning to plunge into the deep waters of Emily Dickinson studies.
*My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Alfred Habegger – Ivy’s favorite of the biographies
Emily Dickinson, by Cynthia Griffin Wolff – A feminist and interpretive biography
The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Richard B. Sewall – A standard biography
The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, by Jay Leyda –A daily view of the lives of the Dickinson circle through major events
*The Value of Emily Dickinson, by Mary Loeffelholz – Concentrates on the poems as both literary texts and material objects
Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century, by Cristanne Miller – Treats Dickinson as part of her historical moment, looks at the publication issue
Emily Dickinson in Context, edited by Eliza Richards – Collects short essays by the best of Dickinson scholars
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, by Helen Vendler – Discusses how forms makes the meaning; how form and content work together
An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, edited by Jane Eberwein
All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World, edited by Wendy Martin
Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson, by Sharon Leiter – Published by facts on file; does great critical reading of the poems
*Amherst: A Novel, by William Nicholson
*Austin & Mabel, edited by Polly Longsworth – Letters between Austin and Mabel that details their 12-year affair—sizzling!
A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, by Jerome Charyn – A great read, the work of an obsessive mind
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel, by Jerome Charyn
For even more resources, see DEA’s Emily Dickinson Bibliography.