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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 35d - Emily Dickinson Goes to the Movies

Saturday, June 22, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 111 (previously 35d) - Emily Dickinson Goes to the Movies

(Originally aired 2019/06/22 - listen here)

(partial transcript, full transcript is pending)

Lillian Faderman's book Surpassing the Love of Men was one of two books I encountered in the 1980s that convinced me there were treasures to be found in the history of women's same-sex love. (The other one, of course, was Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women.) In the introduction to her extensive study of romantic friendship, Faderman notes that it "began as a study of Emily Dickinson's love poems and letters to Sue Gilbert, the woman who became her sister-in-law." Faderman may be exaggerating her reaction for the sake of a good academic sleuthing story, when she says the following:

"Although Dickinson had written the most passionate and sensual pronouncement of love to Sue Gilbert in the 1850s, there was never any suggestion that she felt the need to be covert about her emotions. If I had really uncovered a lesbian relationship, why could I not find any evidence of the guilt and anxiety, the need to keep secrets from family and friends, that I thought were inevitably associated with homosexuality before the days of gay liberation?"

Furthermore, she questions why Dickinson's editors and publishers--including individuals associated with her immediate family--took such pains to deny or excuse the romantic and erotic content of her poetry and letters, given that Dickinson herself had not seen any reason to conceal them.

Now, I have issues with some of Faderman's assumptions and premises--not only in this starting position as she describes it, but in her projections of the emotional and erotic lives of 19th century women. But the historic analysis inspired by her questions about Emily Dickinson remains of immense value. And her conclusions illustrate a pattern that has repeated several times across western history. She notes that in the 19th century:

"It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family, if not in lieu of them. When women's role in society began to change, however--when what women did needed to be taken more seriously because they were achieving some of the powers that would make them adult persons--society's view of romantic friendship changed. Love between women--relationships which were emotionally in no way different from the romantic friendships of earlier eras--became evil or morbid. It was not simply that men now saw the female sexual drive more realistically. Many of the relationships they condemned had little to do with sexual expression. It was rather that love between women, coupled with their emerging freedom, might conceivably bring about the overthrow of heterosexuality."

Applied to Emily Dickinson, Lillian Faderman's conclusion was that the content of Emily's writings was consistent with the social norms for women's emotional relationships with other women during her lifetime--that it was not evidence of what we would understand as a lesbian relationship--and that the later literal erasure of the place of Susan Gilbert in her life was due to this societal shift in how women's romantic friendships were treated, and therefore in how those who were handling her legacy wanted to present her life. Once the possibility of women experiencing sexual desire for each other was recognized--due to the writings of the sexologists and the rising field of psychiatry--the serpent had entered the garden and women's romantic relationships throughout time were retrospectively suspected of expressing deviant sexuality. Not until the rise of gay liberation, says Faderman, were we free to embrace our own same-sex erotic desire without guilt and shame. But as for the reality of Dickinson's life, Faderman says, "These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion. Thus they might kiss, fondle each other, sleep together, utter expressions of overwhelming love and promises of eternal faithfulness, and yet see their passions as nothing more than effusions of the spirit."

Well, if you want to know my issues with that interpretation, read the summary and analysis of Surpassing the Love of Men in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. But this show isn't about me or about Lillian Faderman's book, but about Emily Dickinson. And about the recent movie Wild Nights with Emily that very decidedly takes a position on Dickinson's sexuality that does not involve "having little sexual passion."

The movie takes its title from the following poem she wrote around 1861:

Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile -- the Winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden --
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor -- Tonight --
In Thee!

The homoerotic content of Emily Dickinson's work--and by extension, her life--has been a subject of debate from the start, with shifting sides depending on whether one viewed the topic as casting aspersions on that life or exploring its richness, and on whether one were a Dickinson fan or detractor.

Emily and Susan met in their late teens in Amherst Massachusetts where the Dickinsons were prominent among the social and intellectual elite of the town. Both women had literary pursuits throughout their lives and at the very least were each other's mentors and supporters in that field. They lived in an atmosphere where devoted romantic relationships between women were normalized and valorized. Emily spent a year at Mount Holyoke women's college, famous for romantic pairings among both students and faculty. The women's colleges of New England in the mid to late 19th century were so famous for relationships of this sort that the term "Wellesley marriage" competed with "Boston marriage" to identify committed female couples.

The correspondence that survives between Emily and Susan is full of not only romantic but sensual longing for each other's presence. In 1852, when Susan was away teaching in Baltimore, Emily wrote, "Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me ...? I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast ... my darling, so near I seem to you, that I disdain this pen, and wait for a warmer language."

Posterity has argued from opposite sides that this was purely conventional sentimental language that shouldn't be taken literally, and that such language is unambiguous evidence of physical erotic desire and most likely a physical relationship between the two women.

The year after that letter was written, Susan became engaged to Emily's brother Austin.

Once again, this simple fact has been interpreted from opposite poles. The heteronormalists argue that any marriage to a man negates all the potential evidence of same-sex desire. In similar circumstances for other women, it has been argued that any affection expressed from one woman to another was actually a coded "secret message" intended to be passed on to a related man. From the opposite pole, it is pointed out that women had a limited set of strategies for ensuring proximity and access to each other. If they were not of a social class and living in an era when it was possible to live independent economic lives, then creating a bond via a male relative produced some degree of stability. (I'm reminded of how actress Charlotte Cushman arranged for her lover Emma Crow to marry Cushman's nephew to create a similar recognized bond.)

Susan and Austin's marriage does not appear to have been particularly successful, despite three children. Austin entered a long-term relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of one of his employees. After Emily's death, there was something of a feud between Todd and the Dickinsons over who would manage the publication of Emily's poetry and curate her legacy. Todd published an edited selection of poems that were within her control in 1880. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Susan and Austin's daughter, published other editions based on the material within her control. Not until 1955 was a comprehensive collection published, restored to Emily's distinctive formatting and ordered in roughly chronological sequence.

This is the background of the story told in Wild Nights with Emily. The mythologizing of Emily Dickinson as an eccentric recluse, scribbling away at poems unknown to the rest of the world until after her death is challenged as being a deliberate fictional creation of Mabel Todd. The film tackles its topic with wit, creativity, and satire. I invited my friend Trystan L. Bass, from the historic movie website Frock Flicks, to join me to give our impressions of the film, along with a few remarks about other cinematic interpretations of Emily Dickinson's life.

[The interview portion of this episode is pending transcription.]


* * *


Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
And Immortality.

We slowly drove -- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility --

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --

Or rather -- He passed Us --
The Dews drew quivering and chill --
For only Gossamer, my Gown --
My Tippet -- only Tulle --

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground --
The Roof was scarcely visible --
The Cornice -- in the Ground --

Since then -- 'tis Centuries -- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity --

Show Notes

Was famous American poet Emily Dickinson a lesbian? The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast looks at her life through the lens of the movie camera, and especially the current film Wild Nights with Emily.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Trystan L. Bass and Frock Flicks Online

Major category: