In the spring of 1992, I was teaching a graduate seminar in Dickinson. As teachers generally do, I took pleasure in reading selected poems aloud. In the middle of "The Malay - took the Pearl" (F451, late 1862), however, I stopped dead, unable to go on. I had read this poem dozens of times before and written on it as well; but this was the first time I saw it not as a Dickinson poem, but as a nineteenth-century text, one of many texts in which the denigration of people of color is treated so casually one barely registers it's there. Certainly, the racism of the lines I had just read--"The Negro never knew / I - wooed it - too"--never jumped out at me the way it did then. I remember the pause so well because it went on so long. What appalled me was not the recognition of Dickinson's racial slur but, as I told my students, that it had escaped me heretofore. Why had I been so blind? Or, put another way, what had allowed me to see "The Malay's" racism now when I had not before?
What had changed, I believe, was that for the preceding two years I had increasingly focused on other nineteenth-century women poets, working with a group of writers who, whatever else one says about them, were directly engaged in the great social issues of their day in ways that Dickinson was not--at least not as I had always read her. In the process, I had developed a much broader grasp of the possibilities of nineteenth-century women's verse, one encouraging me to view Dickinson in a new way--not just as a unique genius of unequalled metaphoric power but also as one more nineteenth-century poet and a woman of her time and place. This is the Dickinson I will discuss here, not to tear her down--to me she remains the century's most powerful poet, arguably the strongest writer of short lyrics in the Anglo-American literary tradition--but to set what I now see as much needed limits on her "greatness" in other respects. It is not simply that Dickinson held, as Betsy Erkkila has forcefully argued, her class's con servative social values; she shared its racial attitudes also. And this is howl will engage her here, treating her racism as one small piece in a much larger cultural whole. I will then explore how the failure to acknowledge Dickinson's racism speaks to the reading of her generally and to the risks taken when a single writer (no matter how deserving) is canonized in a field that is otherwise understudied at best.
Despite recent efforts of U.S. literary and cultural historians to deal frontally with the nineteenth century's racist environment, it remains difficult to appreciate just how extensive, vicious, yet at the same time absolutely casual, the period's racism was. Deployed by minority groups against each other, as well as by the dominant white Protestant population against everyone else, a fully elaborated discourse evolved around what the period frankly and ubiquitously defined as racial types: German, British, Jewish, Chinese, Mexicans, etc. Among minority groups, Jews, the Irish, Blacks, Native Americans, and belatedly, the Chinese, were subjected to the most persistent and abusive stereotyping. Periodicals and newspapers as diverse as the Irish World, New Varieties (a "humor" magazine), the Youth's Companion, Harper's Weekly, Harper's Bazar, and the Springfield Republican routinely gave space to "racist" articles, cartoons, poems, jokes, and stories, much of the material presented like the following "miscella neous news-item" from an 1860 issue of the Springfield Republican with a gratuitousness that may boggle some readers' minds:
A big buck nigger eloped from Boston, a year or two since, with a white woman, leaving his black wife and children behind; and now, after living with this woman in Carbondale, Pa., he has again eloped, taking this time her white niece. The Negro is 50, the girl 17. The deserted aunt has a little milk-and-molasses baby by which to remember her sin and shame. …