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Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (December 19, 1830 – May 12, 1913) was an American writer, poet, traveler, and editor. She was the sister-in-law of poet Emily Dickinson. Recent scholars such as Patterson, Lillian Faderman, and Woodul have argued that Emily Dickinson's "seemingly curious" life makes sense if seen from a lesbian perspective that includes the many women who were close to her, such as Sue Gilbert and Kate Scott Turner. The poet Emily Dickinson fell in love with her friend Sue Gilbert, who later married Dickinson's brother. In 1852 Dickinson wrote to Gilbert: “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . 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.”
Margaret Fuller's 1842 translation of the correspondence between Karoline von Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim, two German writers who had loved each other at the beginning of the century, was the inspiration for many of the letters and poems written by Emily Dickinson to her friend Sue Gilbert. After Gilbert's marriage to Austin (Dickinson's brother), Emily fell in love with Sue's school friend, Kate Scott. Their romance lasted for a number of years, culminating in the summer of 1860, when they spent a night together. Emily commemorated this event in one of her poems (1862) to Kate, describing it as a symbolic marriage.
Susan Huntington Gilbert was born December 19, 1830, in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of six children born to Thomas and Harriet (Arms) Gilbert. She was orphaned by the time she was eleven years old, after her mother died in 1837 and her father in 1841. Gilbert lived with her aunt, Sophia (Arms) Van Vranken, in Geneva, New York, until the late 1840s. She then lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her sister Harriet and brother-in-law William Cutler. In Amherst, she attended Utica Female Academy and Amherst Academy for one semester in the fall of 1847. In 1853, she was engaged to Austin Dickinson. Their marriage in the Van Vranken home on July 1, 1856, was "a quiet wedding" with "very few friends and [only Susan's] brothers & sisters, a little cake–a little ice cream." Although the young couple contemplated moving to Michigan, Austin's father Edward Dickinson ensured they would stay in Amherst by making Austin a law partner and building the couple a made-to-order house, the Evergreens, on a lot next door to the Dickinson Homestead. A generous dowry from Susan's brothers helped furnish the Evergreens, a fashionable home with oak sideboards and a green marble fireplace adorned with Antonio Canova's sculpture Cupid and Psyche, Gothic chairs, and Victorian paintings. Susan and Austin Dickinson had three children: Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861–1898), Martha (Mattie or Mopsy) Dickinson (1866–1943), Thomas (Gib) Gilbert (1875–1883).
Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson was viewed as the "most graceful woman in Western Massachusetts", "astute and cosmopolitan", as well as "The Power" increasingly given to "frivolity, snobbery, and ruthlessness". She was known as a "sensitive editor" who was Emily Dickinson's "most responsive reader", a "remarkably perceptive... mentor of some standing" who supposedly refused to edit Emily's poems for publication. She was affectionately called "Dollie" by Emily, and characterized as an "Avalanche of Sun", a "breath from Gibraltar" uttering "impregnable syllables", "Domingo" in spirit, and "Imagination" itself whose words are of "Silver genealogy."
Emily Dickinson often described her love for Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. In various letters, Emily compared her love for Susan to Dante's love for Beatrice, Swift's for Stella, and Mirabeau's for Sophie de Ruffey, and compared her tutelage with Susan to one with Shakespeare. Emily appears to have valued Susan's opinions about writing and reading. On Emily's "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers", Susan wrote that the first verse was so compelling that "I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again;" a few years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson paraphrased Emily's critical commentary, echoing Susan's –"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. . ."
According to Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, Susan's enactment of simple ritual for profound utterance is perhaps best displayed in the simple flannel robe she designed and in which she dressed Emily for death, laying her out in a white casket, cypripedium and violets (symbolizing faithfulness) at her neck, two heliotropes (symbolizing devotion) in her hand. This final act over Emily's body underscores "their shared life, their deep and complex intimacy" and that they both anticipated a "postmortem resurrection" of that intimacy. Besides swaddling her beloved friend's body for burial, Susan penned Emily's obituary, a loving portrayal of a strong, brilliant woman, devoted to family and to her neighbors, and to her writing, for which she had the most serious objectives and highest ambitions. Though "weary and sick" at the loss of her dearest friend, Susan produced a piece so powerful that Higginson wanted to use it as the introduction to the 1890 Poems [indeed, it did serve as the outline for Todd's introduction to the second volume of Poems in 1891]. Susan concludes the obituary pointing readers' attentions to Emily as writer, and to the fact that her words would live on. Among her daughter Martha's papers is evidence that these same four lines were used again in a Dickinson ceremony, perhaps to conclude Susan's own funeral: Morns like these we parted; Noons like these she rose, Fluttering first, then firmer, To her fair repose.
Susan Dickinson wrote essays, reviews, journals, poems, letters, and memorials constantly throughout her life. She also produced commonplace books and scrapbooks of her own publications in the Springfield Republican, as well as of clippings about admired figures such as Queen Victoria. She published several stories in the Springfield Republican–"A Hole in Haute Society" (August 2, 1908), "The Passing of Zoroaster" (March 1910), "The Circus Eighty Years Ago" (early 1900s), and possibly "The Case of the Brannigans" (though this may be by her daughter, Martha). In January 1903, writing from Rome, Susan published a lengthy review of "Harriet Prescott's [Spofford] Early Work" as a letter to the editor of the Republican. Arguing for republication of Spofford's early work, she quotes "my sister-in-law, Emily Dickinson" as an authority, reiterating the latter's delighted reader's response–"That is the only thing I ever saw in my life I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes"–and quoting Dickinson's declaration, "for love is stronger than death", in her own critique of Prescott's "Circumstance". In "Annals of the Evergreens", a typescript that was not published until the 1980s, Susan praises Prescott's "Pomegranate Flowers" at the outset, then proceeds to describe an Evergreens life rich in cultural exchange, reading Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Thomas de Quincey, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Carlyle, and Shakespeare, and entertaining many distinguished visitors–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, landscape designer Frederick Olmsted.
Susan Dickinson was criticized for not seeing Emily's poems published. In the 1890 letter to Higginson, Susan described how she had imagined a volume of Emily's writings with "many bits of her prose-passages from early letters quite surpassing the correspondence of Gunderodi[e] with Bettine [von Arnim] [a romantic friendship celebrated by Goethe]. . . [using] quaint bits to my children. . . Of course I should have forestalled criticism by only printing them." In a March 1891 letter to Ward, she elaborated on her vision for such a volume which would also include Emily's "illustrations", "showing her witty humorous side, which has all been left out" of the 1890 Poems. Susan's outline for the volume shows that she would not have divided the poems into the conventional categories of "Life", "Love", "Time and Eternity", and "Nature" but would have emphasized poetry's integration with quotidian experience.
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