Emily Dickinson and the Civil War


While Emily Dickinson is generally viewed as a recluse, who shielded herself from the world and created her poetry from her own private world, this view has been increasingly challenged. It is now pretty well accepted that the Civil War years had a profound impact on her poetry.

Consider her friendship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the writer and abolitionist who was among the first to command black troops during the war. This friendship was documented in the recent book by Brenda Wineapple, White Heat.

Higginson wrote a series of essays for The Atlantic that were later published as Army Life in a Black Regiment.

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About marcferguson

I teach history, including the American Civil War Era, as an Adjunct at American International College in Springfield, Ma. I also teach survey courses in U.S. history, Western Civilization, and World History, and have taught at other area colleges, including the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and Holyoke Community College. While my academic background is in European History, my interest in the American Civil War began about a decade ago. Other areas of interest include Modernism, 20th century World Thought and Culture, The Rise of the West after 1400, 19th c. American Society and Culture, Central and Eastern European History and Culture, and Local History. I have in recent years cut back my teaching drastically in order to devote more time raising my kids (15 year old twins now), including working part-time at their elementary/middle school for the past 6 years, they are now launched and off to High School, and I plan to crank up my involvement in teaching history and local history projects, particularly in light of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial.
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2 Responses to Emily Dickinson and the Civil War

  1. MDTillyer says:

    Composed in 1859, the year of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, “Success is Counted Sweetest” , while as abstruse to explication as all her poetry can be, seems clearly marked as a sympathy for the dying soldier’s realization of his failure. Found in a version published in the Brooklyn Daily Union on April 27, 1864 it reads

    Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne’er succeed.
    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need.

    Not one of all the purple Host
    Who took the Flag today
    Can tell the definition
    So clear of Victory

    As he defeated—dying—
    On whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear.

    How would she know of these things of war but by sheer sensitivity to them; war was not near to her quiet life, but apparently she heard its roar, perhaps from direct testimony of her friend Colonel Thomas Higginson. On the one hand poem seems nearly reportage except for exquisite aesthetic which elevates it to the universal sorrow of the remains of warfare.

    “Not one of all the purple Host” is most enigmatic to me because while the capitalized Host combined with the color purple feels Anglican and religious, yet on the other hand–and more likely I suppose guessing her agnosticism–the color might describe a uniform, a sash perhaps. If known to be a regimental color, the poem could be connected to a specific campaign and the specific moment, “Who took the Flag today” , and the largeness of the loss become more clear, like that of a personal loss; however, I don’t have the connection made and have not been able to discover one. So the line’s chiaroscuro effect has to gather my love for her power of suggestibility only.

    Her later publisher though, the Brooklyn Daily Union, maybe had a sense of the suitability of the poem to its time, the year’s events of the Great Rebellion. From it perch in 1859, perhaps the poem was prescient of the trouble to come.

    A nice discussion of her work and mystery is found under the title ”Emily Dickinson,
    the Problem of Others.”, by Christopher Benfey, see New York Times Book Review; 5/18/1986, p1, 0p

  2. MDTillyer says:

    Addendum: On reflection of the comment I recently posted, I am a little uncertain now if the version of the poem under inspection is that that was published since I think this comes from the collection assembled by Mabel Todd, who took the audacious liberty to edit at will the hand-scripted originals found in the poet’s folios. What I miss most from the edited versions is the strokes at her line endings which function like the em dash but seem to me to be more of a breath, which would suit her attitude of the word as a living thing. Though this may be a little off the focus of the Civil War by its focus on an interesting character in the backdrop of American cultural life of the era, as I have no copy of the version as published in the Brooklyn Daily Union, my curiosity is piqued if any other readers can provide light on the matter of this version or its explication. Come to think of it, what additional role did the Brooklyn Daily Union have in shaping the reading public at the time?

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