The Civil War in Surprising Places – Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and the Pop Culture Delights of Dickinson

As a high school student I always dreaded our annual Emily Dickinson poem assignment, because, to be honest, the nineteenth-century poet from Amherst, Massachusetts didn’t speak to me. One can only consider ‘Hope is the Thing With Feathers’ so many times, after all. In graduate school, however, I underwent an attitude adjustment after taking a course entitled “One Hundred Years of American Poetry,” which covered the 1830s to the Great Depression. I entered the class fully convinced that I would carry on with my Dickinson disdain, but, then, ‘A Bird, came down the walk’ changed my mind. Meg Groeling’s ongoing ECW series on Walt Whitman has offered me a reminder of the profound and unexpected effects the Civil War had on American Literature. These effects are visible in both the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson, and are currently being delightfully investigated in the Apple TV+ series Dickinson (now in its second season).

The subject of the Civil War in American literature has been treated in a variety of ways. The works range from Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962), a Lost Cause-tinged forebear of the ‘Dark Turn’ in Civil War era studies, and more recently, Timothy Sweet (Traces of War [1990]) and Craig A. Warren (Scars to Prove It [2009]). There are few monograph length studies that treat Dickinson among the war poets or the war writers. Just as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women can be viewed as both a work of Civil War literature and perfect encapsulation of the experience of the Northern home front during the conflict, where the war intrudes enough to make the plot interesting, but causes no lasting damage to the March family (save for Jo’s loss of her “one beauty” after a haircut undertaken to fund a train ticket to Washington for Marmee), Dickinson’s work has often been seen, similarly, as of the war, but not a part of it.

Emily Dickinson’s writing life peaked during the Civil War (perhaps half her poems were drafted in the years 1861-65), though her poetry often shows little relation to the cataclysmic event of the American nineteenth century. As was her wont, Dickinson tended to write about the Civil War via metaphor, but she also contributed poems to a U.S. Sanitary Commission publication, her small, personal, contribution to the Union war effort. Dickinson’s brother, Austin, meanwhile paid $500 to hire a substitute to serve in his place. During the war, Dickinson maintained a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist literary critic who served as the colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of the first units of freedmen raised for Union service.

Emily Dickinson

All of these occurrences are yet to be investigated in Dickinson, which, now in its second season has reached the year 1859 (“it’s almost the sixties,” one character exclaims). Dickinson’s first season introduced audiences to Emily and her family—older brother Austin, younger sister Lavinia, father Edward, and mother Emily (Em) and the world of Amherst, where the arrival of the railroad is causing immense excitement and the Whig Party has selected Edward Dickinson as their candidate for Congress. Emily interacts, fancifully, with some of the leading literary lights of her era—including Louisa May Alcott (a cross-country running fanatic) and Henry David Thoreau (who isn’t nearly the transcendentalist Emily thinks he is).

Henry David Thoreau, as played by John Mulaney, in Dickinson.

The show embraces the weird qualities of Dickinson’s poetry—Death comes alive for Emily and she speaks to a giant bee more than once—but it also delves deeply into the complex and rapidly changing politics and social culture of the 1850s. One standout episode from the first season is “We lose – because we win” set on the day of the November hustings. Emily’s father nervously awaits the result which will tell of his successful election to Congress, worried that the Whig Party might be losing its grip on his Massachusetts district after a too-close-for-comfort race. Meanwhile, Lavinia and Emily gather with other young women from the village to cross-stitch and discuss the fact that “the Kansas-Nebraska act was just a massive overreach on the part of the Slave Power.” Lavinia explains that if she were allowed to vote, she would vote Republican. The girls also debate the possibility of secession, and Emily predicts that the nation is hurtling toward civil war, and that “one million men will die, and then a million snowflakes will fall on their graves.” Meanwhile, the Dickinson’s Irish maid tells Mr. Dickinson that her brothers were assaulted while trying to vote, by members of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. Such small details make the series constantly delightful for anyone steeped in nineteenth-century history and literature.

‘Nobody’ warning Emily about imminent events.

In the first three episodes of Season 2, the audience meets a new character who will only tell Emily, “I’m Nobody.” As it turns out, Nobody is a specter who haunts only Emily as she wrestles with whether to pursue fame and publish her poems. Nobody wears a white muslin shirt under a dark blue coat studded with brass buttons, and lighter blue wool trousers. Emily believes she recognizes him from somewhere, but he refuses to tell her more. To the historian’s eye, it appears that Nobody is a Union soldier with a serious warning for Emily about events to come. The mystery of Nobody seems set to occupy the rest of the season, and I am excited to discover whether he really is a soldier after all, and whether he might be Frazar Stearns, an Amherst college student, and good friend of Emily’s brother Austin, who was killed at the battle of New Bern, North Carolina in 1862. Stearn’s death likely prompted Emily to write a slate of her most explicit war poems—including ‘Victory comes late’ and ‘To know just how He suffered’.

Frazar Stearns

In either case, the Civil War appears very much to be catching up to Dickinson’s characters, who will soon be faced with decisions about loyalty, service, and the reality of death far from home. Anyone who enjoys pop culture with a historical bent will likely find something to enjoy in Dickinson, which satisfies not only visually and musically, but also factually. And anyone who hasn’t considered Emily Dickinson in a while, or who, like me, did not think they could find much to like in her poems, might think about her as a Civil War figure and a war chronicler. Though it did not touch her life immediately, Emily’s various responses to the war and her social circle’s abiding investment in ideas about abolition, politics, and feminism, represent the degree to which the war (and its years of coming) pervaded the lives of ordinary people.

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5 Responses to The Civil War in Surprising Places – Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and the Pop Culture Delights of Dickinson

  1. layeredpages says:

    What an insightful post! Love it!

  2. Charlie Downs says:

    The Washington Post Magazine from 12/30 had a very interesting article on Emily’s visit to Washington in February of 1855. Here is the link and hope it works: https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/12/30/retracing-emily-dickinsons-wild-least-her-excursion-washington/?arc404=true
    Dickinson was a very interesting character; I majored in American literature at the University of Maryland and one of my courses covered her in much detail.

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Cecily–so glad to see a mention of my Walt Whitman work. Thanks. Poetry is certainly one way of looking at war. Both World Wars had poets, and the Vietnam had anti-war poets. For Emily, who wrote to Walt, she is one more lens from which to view the Civil War. Poets see things differently, and these views enrich us all. We should get in touch and do a collaboration of Emily & Walt for the Whitman series–what fun!! Let me know! Again, thanks for the shout-out.

    • Cecily Nelson Zander says:

      Hi Meg! That sounds like fun! Maybe for women’s history month, if the Walt series is still going strong in March?

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