Was Emily Dickinson lesbian?
Some scholars think so.
Below is a letter that Dickinson sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.
It certainly sounds like a letter written by a lesbian.
But is this just an artifact of our being 21st century, post-Freudian readers?
Would the innuendos that, to us, seem to jump off the page, have jumped off the page to a 19th century reader?
If not, would we say that the lesbianism is present, but simply sublimated?
Although barely 150 years have passed, why is it that scholars cannot agree on the implications of this letter?
Is it politics? Homophobia? The shifting nature of language? And if we cannot agree on how this letter would have registered as a message to its first audience (Susan Gilbert), why are we so cocksure that we can readily interpret texts that are far older, such as the plays of Euripides or the Gospel of Mark?
Is a contemporary reading of an old piece of writing more a reading INTO something, rather than a reading OF something?
Or is this just too difficult a question to tackle? Should we just assume that our plain readings of old writings are what their authors would have intended us to have, and leave it at that?
By this reasoning, isn’t it obvious from the letter below that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian, or at least bisexual, and that Susan Gilbert would have read the letter as such?
But was she, really? Are you sure?
Here’s Dickinson’s letter, written June 11, 1852:
I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e’en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.
I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie — Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, don’t let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them! Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here — and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes. Three weeks — they can’t last always, for surely they must go with their little brothers and sisters to their long home in the west!
I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for till now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.
Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you — I at last say my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are — and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them — they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of something faithful which “never slumbers nor sleeps” — Keep them ‘neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the “blessed contrie”! You and I will have an hour with “Edward” and “Ellen Middleton”, sometime when you get home — we must find out if some things contained therein are true, and if they are, what you and me are coming to!
Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her’s, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?