What does Emily Dickinson have to do with abolition? Is Susan Howe deploying chattel slavery as a metaphor in order to politicize her Dickinson? I asked over and again over in the seminar. This was 2011; there were no answers.
To quell my rage, I ended up writing a final paper on the assigned text, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. I wanted to understand the relationship between poetry and colonial history and examine whether metaphor is an aestheticization of violence. I argued that Marcel Duchamp, Santiago Sierra, Andrea Fraser, and Susan Howe, abstract violence as their art. At what point is this abstraction the perpetuation of violence? Does metaphor further the distance between an analysis of racial capitalism’s material conditions and towards its normalization? In the essay, I wrote sentences like: “who is a body that can be abstracted? Who becomes metaphor?” The premise was perhaps, polemic, extreme, too stringent, unnuanced. I believed, and still believe, in taking a position that forces me to be clear about what I am saying. The stakes are too high.
My professor disagreed. The essay, titled “A Discussion of Fountain, My Emily Dickinson, 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People and Untitled: The Aesthetic and the Economic in Modernism and the Practices of Rebranding: Who is a Body that can be Abstracted? Which Labors Fiction?” was returned to me with three typed pages of single-spaced comments. The preliminary criticism concerned spelling and grammar, but the primary criticism was my reading of Howe (Note 1). Howe, I was told, is not abstracting violence. I have misread her and do not know enough about her work. The instructor concluded by challenging me to examine Howe’s archives—held by my graduate institution—to see for myself how and why I was mistaken.
This essay is about my still unpublished article about white feminist poetry and its deployment of chattel slavery as metaphor (Note 2). It’s about why I wrote it, how I constructed it the way that I did. It’s about my time in Susan Howe’s archive at the Archive for New Poetry. It’s about graduate school gaslighting. It doesn’t say all that it must because it is the first part of many essays about the process and life behind what is finalized as the scholarly text.
First published in 1985, My Emily Dickinson garnered almost exclusive praise amongst critics and readers. Noted for its inventive blending of essay and poetry, the text has been translated into multiple languages and is in its sixth edition. The book is a meditation on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “My life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” and begins by placing Dickinson in direct lineage to pioneer settler John Winthrop, who arrived in 1630.
Howe re-writes and re-envisions “My Life” while bringing in canonical writers such as Robert Browning, Shakespeare, and Dickinson’s personal letters to argue for the interconnections between politics and aesthetics in the poet’s world and particularly, “My Life.” My Emily Dickinson forges a feminist critique of Dickinson’s initial anonymity. In situating this argument, the poet’s words, personal narrative, and US history become politicized. Of Victorian women, Howe writes, “During the nineteenth century, a wife was her husband’s property…” (Howe 133). Then drawing parallels between chattel slavery and marriage, states, “Northern women, children, the maimed, infirm, and old men, waited at home until war was done. A Slave was often referred to as a child, a Woman as a girl. An original Disobedience: A girl in bed alone sucking her thumb…Wives and slaves were thumbs” (Howe 119). Akin to white women’s early tactics in the suffrage movement, Howe links white women’s oppressions to enslavement. Not only does Howe make this equivalence, towards the end of the book, “My Life” becomes a poem about slavery and emancipation.
Howe’s politicization of Dickinson opposes previous apolitical renderings of the poet. Acknowledging this, she writes, “Emily Dickinson, who is so often accused of avoiding political issues in her work, certainly did not avoid them here. As she well knew, the original American conflict between idealism and extremism was being acted out again” (Howe 74). Thus, for Howe, not only is Dickinson political but, in My Emily Dickinson, Howe alludes to how the poet’s position in the original American conflict—slavery—was its abolition.
Howe contends that Dickinson’s poem “My life” could be close read as a poem “triggered by parts of it” (Howe 125). The “it” refers to “Nat Turner’s Insurrection” written by Thomas Higginson, an abolitionist and an editor at the Atlantic Monthly. However, there are no passages from Higginson’s essay and no analysis to support such claims. Neither are there drafts in Howe’s archive that outline or deepen this argument. With this, Howe adds, Higginson “was intrigued by black music” and wrote about it (Howe 125). She then goes one step further. She makes an association between a letter written by a Black soldier to Higginson to describe her Emily Dickinson. I cite the full passage and its formatting:
The Members of Higginson’s regiment seem to have been fond of him. Years after the fighting, he received a letter from a former South Carolina volunteer:
I met manny [sic] of the old Soldiers I Spoke of you—all hailed your name with that emotion (that become you) of the Soul when hearing of one who when in darkness burst light upon their pathway [end of letter]
In April 1862, Emily Dickinson, soul in the darkness of utter poetic anonymity wrote to Higginson. (Howe 126)
The letter writer is a Black soldier, and its recipient is a white abolitionist, a coconspirator. Higginson supported Nat Turner’s insurrection and volunteered to fight in the Civil War, specifically, in the first Black brigade. The US Civil War dates from 1861 to 1865, and the end of the Civil War does not signal the abolition of white supremacy and antiblackness; these forces continue, transformed. Yet the dates are of importance because, in 1862, Higginson and Black soldiers are fighting. The unnamed Black soldier writes to Higginson and says something about a burst of light. Is this description a metonym: might the darkness be chattel slavery and light its abolition? Though this interpretation may conform to a pre-existing racialized discourse concerning lightness as good, and darkness as not and thus, “darkness burst light” as a metonym, the inverse—darkness [abolition] ruptures and covers that which has become light for the United States [chattel slavery]—could also be true. The imagery is familiar and difficult to know for sure, yet the stakes are clear. For abolitionists to meet each other is an encounter of recognition. Someone to fight alongside you—physically and politically towards a world, unlike the one we already know. Burst.
In contrast, Higginson is also the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Dickinson is an unknown poet. Higginson could publish Dickinson. With no analysis of the initial letter or its context, Howe takes language from the Black soldier—“soul” and “darkness”—to describe her Dickinson.
The toils of being unknown as a writer—who is talented, prolific—the toils of being unknown because of gender because of structural injustice—such was Dickinson’s predicament. To be sure, there is pain in misrecognition; there is pain in dismal: the pain of wanting to be read and understood, of wanting to be read and grappled with—I think we can navigate this pain without the instrumentalization of slavery or abolition. In fact, I think perhaps Howe’s white feminist critique of Dickinson’s anonymity and lack of reception, and her careful reading of “My Life” become eclipsed through her abstraction of slavery and its abolition. To be unknown as a poet is painful, but this pain must be tended to with a full account of Dickinson’s whiteness, her settler lineage, her silence and more.
Once more: Higginson was an abolitionist. He was also a writer, an editor, and a publisher of poetry. Dickinson corresponds with him about poetry. Does Higginson’s politics—as a white abolitionist—transfer over to Howe’s Emily Dickinson, because they wrote to each other a few times, about poetry? The linkage between Higginson to Dickinson is reminiscent of the: I have an xyz friend, and thus the critique made of me is invalid but made on behalf of someone else. To what ends?
In this light, I become curious about how to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What would happen if Dickinson’s politicization was not the affordance of white feminist idealization but an investigation of the writer’s body, race, language, and context. What might occur to Dickinson’s works if she said nothing about abolition during her lifetime—because she did not—and is a woman and white. How would we read “master,” “aborigine,” and “servant’ and “White Creator” in her poetry, then?
I think about Christina Sharpe’s articulation about the tension between being and instrumentality and how the space in between materializes the presence of slavery. Sharpe writes,
We must think about Black flesh, Black optics, and ways of producing enfleshed work; think the ways the hold cannot and does not hold even as the hold remains in the form of the semiotics of the slave ship hold, the prison, the womb, and elsewhere in and as the tension between being and instrumentality that is Black being in the wake. At stake is not recognizing antiblackness as total climate. (Sharpe 21)
Howe politicizes Dickinson by instrumentalizing chattel slavery. Black writers—the excerpted letter that grounds her politicization and defense—are naturalized as unnamed and segregated from the world of My Emily Dickinson. However, this naturalization will be broken here. The tension between “being and instrumentality that is Black being” will be centered here as Sharpe reminds me that what’s at stake is not recognizing antiblackness as total climate. Sharpe provides me with the language to explode the deployment of slavery and abolition as metaphor in My Emily Dickinson and the courage to state: no more metaphors until this tension breaks.
You go to the archive in search of proof. I enter the archive looking for proof that I am wrong. I enter this way because I am more and still convinced that I do not know enough, that I must learn more before I say the bombastic and instinctual things that I sometimes say and then write. I go and look through Howe’s archive, all the folders concerning My Emily Dickinson. I find gossip (she too was rejected from major grants!); I find arguments between her and editors. I find her many drafts of the book. I read through the drafts. All of them because I don’t want to make easily dismissible arguments against the Empire. The stakes are too high. I read her research notes. I learn many things, but I do not find proof that I am wrong.
I entered the archive with specific questions. What was Howe’s research on abolition, and which Black studies texts did she consult? Are there articles on Dickinson and chattel slavery that Howe examined in writing this book? In looking through the folders, I learn that Howe spent time revising her description of Dickinson. I read the line: “Aborigine of the Sky” again and again in the drafts, sometimes on its own, typed on a page, and sometimes incorporated into the text. I learn that this line is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Mr. Clark in 1886, in reference to someone else. In Howe’s drafts, Dickinson appears as the line, “Aborigine of the sky” (“aborigine of the sky / a synthesis), other times appearing as “aborigine of the sky (Original).” [A]borigine of the sky” is written in 12 different drafts in box 7 folder 2 and twice more in folder 6 (Note 4). Though it disappears in the published form, this is the research I was chided into consulting.
What does aborigine mean? Is sky a metaphor? What meaning do these words have for Howe and Dickinson? I am confronted by what I know would be its defense (freedom, metaphor, abstraction). Yet, as I remember “Aborigine of the Sky” with Howe’s description of Dickinson’s “Puritan Ancestors,” I grow increasingly suspicious and irritated. I consider this line to be Howe’s concrete thesis—that Dickinson is the founding and original US poet: that she is an entity so sacred and singular she invented the space up there, the space of contemporary abstraction in which poetry lives. This is a violent, evasive, and colonial rendering of poetry and space; it’s everything that I have worked to fight against. I’m such a petty materialist that each time I see “Aborigine of the Sky,” all I can think about is how Dickinson’s ancestors were settlers, and she was a settler who lived through a Civil War and she either had nothing to say about any of it, or according to Howe, she’s possibly an abolitionist. The word aborigine feels real. Embodied. I tell someone I trust about how I feel whenever I see this line and my instincts and they respond that this is a paranoid reading (Note 5). Probably. I am probably paranoid when I read. I work so hard to materialize the lot of them that rooted the aestheticization of politics. I’m probably paranoid and surrounded by evidence.
In the drafts, I do not find Howe’s engagement with Indigenous studies, Black studies, or abolitionist writings. I read descriptions that make me spin, such as, “her ancestors in New England were fugitives,” that they “uprooted themselves from their origin” (Note 6). In the published form, this becomes a discretionary act, as they “voluntarily severed themselves from their origins to cross the northern ocean on a religious and utopian errand into the wilderness” [emphasis mine] (Howe 38). These words have meaning, history, stakes. From the archive I piece together the materializations that ground the broad description of Dickinson’s lineage; how it was clear but then abstracted in its published form.
And there are other linked possibilities. In the archival notes, Howe writes, “My life” was a “poem [that] could only have been written by an American and by one who came from years of Puritan Ancestors” (Note 7). And I recall this passage from the published text again: “Emily Dickinson, who is so often accused of avoiding political issues in her work, certainly did not avoid them here. As she well knew, the original American conflict between idealism and extremism was being acted out again” (Howe 74). Does the poem mediate the original conflict [chattel slavery, settler colonialism] or is the poem the aesthetic manifestation of settler colonialism and chattel slavery?
Life reminder: language is not abstract and their abstractions are rooted in materiality.
This sentiment is clarified in another draft. Howe writes, “The Civil War coincided with Emily Dickinson’s greatest period of poetic energy. History collapses on itself in ashes of victory” (Note 8). There are two more drafts with this line before it becomes: “Emily Dickinson’s period of greatest productivity as a writer was during the turbulent 1860’s” (Note 9). This sentence does not appear in its final published form, but now I want to know about every word. What is the relationship between writing and violence? What is the relationship between whiteness, writing, and violence? What is the relationship between productivity, whiteness, writing, and violence?
In other drafts, Howe argues that Dickinson’s poem, “Here words (and names) are primitive things. Savage here words are alive” (Note 10). Once again, what does primitive and savage mean? Fugitives. Origins. Wildness. Primitive. Savage. Aborigine. I read these words again and coil. The narrative of suffering and sacrifice surrounding Dickinson’s ancestors is expected and revolting. Though never articulated as such, whiteness looms over the drafts and fortifies its published form.
To take up an author’s drafts to mend together their politics is as absurd as asking a student to look through an author’s archives to mend together their research in an effort to discipline the student about the author’s better politics. In order for me to critique the politics of a text, the confident white professor shifted the labor of proof onto me, and in refusing dereliction yet unable to back the fuck down, I enter the archive to shift it once more, into what is and is not there in the folders, boxes, drafts. I am shifting the onus of proof from me back onto the archive of whiteness, which is the archive of colonialism where neither good faith nor innocence—but my paranoia—can be found.
A disclaimer: I was not selectively assigned My Emily Dickinson. This was not my chosen text. The text was selected on our behalf for its use, its goodness, its engagement, and approximation to the canon. Familiarity with the canon is demanded of literature students and aspiring writers. Toni Morrison told us: “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense” (Morrison, 31).
I was supposed to be impressed by the grandeur of white literature, not enraged. Who am I—an Asian American woman in her then twenties—to question a beloved text and a canonical poet? We were all assigned the books and I was selectively disciplined into the archives.
We were assigned to admire the text and I amended the assignment; I amend all of the assignments and all writing to include the context of colonialism which is the history and presence of the world as we know it.
They continue to insist great literature lives in one place and colonialism elsewhere: amend all assignments amend all of their assignments
It feels important to point out that scholars have presented arguments on how Dickinson was likely against the abolition of slavery. In “Auctions of the Mind: Emily Dickinson and Abolition,” Benjamin Friedlander argues that Dickinson was not only not an abolitionist, she was critical of the abolitionist movement. Considering Dickinson’s father was an elected government official, and the poet an avid reader of the news and literature, Friedlander tends to how her silence on chattel slavery may have been purposeful and at the behest of the status quo. Analyzing her use of “Auction” and “White Creator” in the 1863 poem #709, Friedlander posits how it is more likely that Dickinson’s politics conformed to notions of US private property and the racial order established prior to the Civil War (aka white supremacy). Karen Sànchez-Eppler’s in-depth study of feminist abolitionism argues that Dickinson’s position is one of the “imaginary (Sànchez-Eppler 106)” rather than politics. More plainly, there is much to be studied regarding what Morrison described as the present absence of whiteness and slavery in the works of US literature, and I would add Dickinson, and little to no way to contend her as an abolitionist.
To desire Dickinson to be one—an abolitionist—is about the sanctity of lineage. Paranoid reading: Howe situates Dickinson to be an abolitionist because what would it mean if she weren’t when this is her chosen poetic tradition? The lineage of Howe’s poetics is not rooted with Higginson, John Whitter or Mary Shelley (who were abolitionists!) or the Black soldier, but with Dickinson and what does that mean. Howe situates Dickinson to be an abolitionist because Howe needs her to be.
In writing about her Emily Dickinson, Howe rifts,
Soul under stress, thread of connection broken, fusion of love and knowledge broken, visionary energy lost, Dickinson means this to be an ugly verse. First I find myself a Slave, next I understand my slavery, finally I re-discover myself at liberty inside the confines of known necessity. (Howe 118)
She further says,
During the nineteenth century, a wife was her husband’s property, and a woman lacked the power to vote in a Democracy. Not to be able to vote leaves one powerless to effect change. (Howe 133).
Sharpe materializes the history of slavery, writing,
Slavery, then, simultaneously exhausted the lungs and bodies of the enslaved even as it was imagined and operationalized as that which kept breath in and vitalized the Black body. We, now, are living the wake of such pseudoscience, living the time when our labor is no longer necessary but our flesh, our bodies, are still the stuff out of which “democracy” is produced. (Sharpe 112)
Howe uses “slavery” and “democracy,” the ways white and non-Black people say, “don’t police me” when they mean, don’t be mean to me, or more often, don’t criticize me. “Don’t police me” transforms the police from a verb into the metaphor of criticism, to express unpleasurable affect. Here, metaphor is a conduit for abstraction—for an approximation that can never be.
The police is not a metaphor; they are the material forces that uphold and maintain unfreedom. To be policed is the unfreedom legalized and structured into Black and Indigenous communities. To be policed is a verb that expresses violent state action. To be policed is not a simile, and each time it is deployed this way—as metaphor—to express the affect of white and non-Black people who have never been policed a day in their lives—
This turn, this turning into metaphor, this instrumentalization works to normalize violence, and this violence, as Sharpe clarifies, is “the stuff out of which ‘democracy’ is produced.”
“This is not a metaphor.” Natalie Diaz writes.
“He is not an abstraction” Wendy Xu writes. (Note 11)
Thus, one step further in wanting to push against this tradition of instrumentalization further. Dickinson writes, “aborigine of the sky” and four years later the US army massacres three hundred Lakota people at Wounded Knee (Note 12). Dickinson and Howe write, “aborigine of the sky,” as indigenous people across the US fight and continue to fight settlers. Dickinson and Howe write, “aborigine of the sky,” as chattel slavery structures e v e r y t h i n g that is the United States. Dickinson writes, “aborigine of the sky,” and who knows what else could this mean, but Howe takes this up as a guiding metaphor for her work on a book about Dickinson’s deference and originality. Howe inputs “aborigine of the sky” again and again into the drafts I have been relegated, and I want to dig Dickinson up from the grave and claw her eyes out for this compression, this space, this making into metaphor the lives of others. The violence I exclaim is literal I can feel it inside me waiting for opportunity. Thus, one step further: fuck metaphor. If I never write a metaphor again I have already written too many.
Look through the drafts and tell me I am wrong. I have nothing but time to tunnel through evidence in search of documents that might finally and one day be accepted as proof. This have I accepted as my life
This essay exists in relation to the love and care of Yelena Bailey, who sat in class in with me and sighed the sighs, making the first iteration of this possible. Fatima El-Tayeb and Page DuBois read the earliest iteration of this work and encouraged me to continue working on it. Yelena Bailey, Kim Nguyen, Carrie Nakamura, provided formidable feedback during the drafting process, and I want to credit Carrie for pointing me to Friedlander’s essay. Reading Sumita Chakraborty’s “Anthropocene Ethics and its Lapses: Lyric Eros, Racism, and the Example of Sylvia Plath’s Bees,” provided strength and guidance. Being part of Natalie Diaz’s “Migration the Loop” on the study of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake catalyzed the finishing of this essay, I am ever grateful for the creation of this space. Lastly, I thank Suzi F. Garcia for inviting me to contribute to this forum.
- At some point, we will need a conference to discuss how white aggression is channeled through grammar & copyediting.
- I gave up on the article a few years ago, but decided I wanted to finish it so I’m currently editing the article and will be submitting it for peer review.
- It should be noted that for Howe, the word slave is sometimes capitalized and at other times not.
- University of California, San Diego. Archive for New Poetry, Susan Howe Papers, 1942-2002, MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 2, 6
- See, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” By Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
- MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 3
- MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 2, Folder 4
- MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 5
- MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 5
- MSS 201 Box 7 Folder 2, Folder 4
- This is from Natalie Diaz’s “The First Water Is the Body.” And Wendy Xu’s “Notes for an Opening.”
- I wrote this while rereading Mishuana Goeman’s Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Diaz, Natalie. Postcolonial Love Poem. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2020.
Friedlander, Benjamin. “Auctions of the Mind: Emily Dickinson and Abolition.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, vol. 54 no. 1, 1998, p. 1-26.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, 1995
Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” The Black Feminist Reader. Ed. James, Joy and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, 24-56.
Sànchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the
Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, Duke University Press. 2016.
Xu, Wendy. “Notes for an Opening,” Bettering American Poetry, Bettering Books, 2016