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The Dickinsons and Class

In studies of Emily Dickinson and her family, class is one of the most underinvestigated topics. Two articles, both published in the 1990s, focus on class and the Dickinsons, and are good places to begin analyzing the implications of class for understanding the Dickinsons and their relationships to society and its various issues:

Erkkila, Betsy. "Emily Dickinson and Class." American Literary History 4.1 (Spring 1992): 1-27.

"...If in relation to the larger social and industrial transformation of the US in the nineteenth century, the Dickinson household appears to represent the interests and economy of an emergent middle class, in the Amherst community, it enjoyed the status and rank of an aristocratic and feudal estate..."

Murray, Aife. "Miss Margaret's Emily Dickinson." Signs: Jounal of Women in Culture and Society 24.3 (Spring 1999): 697-732.

"How did Emily Dickinson manage to be so prolific in the nineteenth century, an era when household work was so labor intensive?...In Dickinson's story, women and poetry came together because of the presence of another woman, Margaret Maher, whose life was consumed with the daunting detail of nineteenth-century housework. Dickinson's voice, in a sense, had depended on Maher's silence..."

Murray's article is thoroughly researched, using both primary archival materials and secondary historical and theoretical studies. In her research, Murray uncovered various discrepancies between accounts that have been used and recycled as "facts" and the actual witness of historical records. Most of these "facts" appear first in writings by Millicent Todd Bingham and then are repeated and/or elaborated in Richard Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974), often quoted without question. And most of these "facts" use the words of Mabel Loomis Todd, her daughter Bingham, or their friends and dispute and label as "fiction" the testimony of Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson's niece, and her friends. Yet in querying Sewall himself about some of the "facts" in dispute, Murray received this candid response, which calls some of his biographical account into question: "I understood from Mrs. Bingham that. . . .I'm not sure, though, that she had it right. I know nothing about Bianchi's relations w/Maggie. Bianchi may be right in this instance" (September 19, 1994, letter, quoted in above article, n39).

Erkkila's article is well researched as far as sociohistorical contexts of the Dickinsons, their public lives, and their class status go, and is very valuable for substantiating that they were indeed upper class and not upper-middle class folks. However, she repeats some of the errors inscribed in Richard Sewall's 1974 biography of Emily Dickinson, most notably errors about Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, her family (the Gilberts), and their class status. In his 1984 Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul's Society, Barton St. Armand corrected some of these errors, pointing out that Susan Dickinson's brothers furnished Susan and Austin Dickinson's house, the Evergreens, and rescued Austin from debt not once, but twice, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. An important fact about the Newman sisters (Clara and Anna), who lived with Austin and Susan for years and whom Erkkila discusses, is that they had class anxieties of their own that complicated their relationship to the Evergreens couple considerably. In fact, the Newmans' anxiety about their own status recasts Sewall's and others' understandings of their commentary on the Gilberts. In particular, the Newmans' class anxiety seems to have been displaced onto Clara's derogatory misdescriptions of the class status of Thomas Gilbert, Susan Dickinson's father. Yes, he was a tavern owner in antebellum New England, but that did not necessarily mean that he was of a lower class. He was in fact always called "General" by his peers (in honor of his service in the War of 1812), and was elected to numerous civic positions before his death. 

Research questions interrogating the meanings of class during the nineteenth century might begin with:

  • What's a tavern? What difference did it make if the tavern is a stagecoach stop? What if it serves for postal service?
  • What's a boarding house?
  • What about the research methods? How might one go about evaluating the reliability of evidence? Of the sources used by both Murray and Erkkila?