The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.

Higginson’s June

Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.

When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.

We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.

Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.

However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.

One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.

Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.”  That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.

And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.

Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.

How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.

Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.**  He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:

“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”

This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.

Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:

June

I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t

 

It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.

The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor”  article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.

After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June”  and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic  reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic  prior to the “Young Contributor.”  Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.

**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson by Genevieve Taggard

I’ve mentioned in passing that I was reading Genevieve Taggard’s 1930 The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  this spring. The busy schedule of this project, and life in general, slowed my reading-rate, but I thought I’d share a few brief thoughts about it after I finished it.

Once I read about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. First, because I was so struck by Taggard’s poem “Everyday Alchemy”  I presented here, and because as one of the first (if not the first*) full-length biographies of Dickinson, Taggard had access to people who had first and second-hand experience of Dickinson while Dickinson was still alive. I’m not sure if journalistic style interviews were considered appropriate for literary biographies written in the 1920s, but despite Taggard’s limited use of some personal testimony in the book, I can’t help but mourn what could have been documented by a talented journalistic writer early in the 20th century investigating Dickinson and her milieu. Taggard as a feminist and as a person working in Amherst for awhile as a professor, writes in her book about the society of 19th Century Amherst, but she does not write this in a first person “walk with the reporter” kind of way were you could directly share how she evaluates and comes upon her information.

Such an imagined book would have been much longer, and Taggard’s shorter work was not a best-seller in 1930 either, but now that Dickinson’s stature as an American literary icon is established, such a longer form examination of her times from an intelligent reporter would be so illuminating.

Taggard-Dickinson Title Page

One of the lovely things about holding this copy were the “Minneapolis Athenaeum” stamps reflecting the history of this public library

 

If The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  was launched today the big PR hook would be that, from local testimony, Taggard believed she had identified the main male love** of Emily Dickinson’s life as George Gould, and that they were engaged, but Dickinson’s father forbid their marriage. Taggard’s detail on Gould’s life and its possible illumination of Dickinson’s interests via letters—an important way that Dickinson expanded her world and emotional circle—was fascinating to me, even when it was speculative.

Taggard seems to be using a Freudian outlook at times in her analysis of Dickinson’s life, and the other main relationship that she develops throughout her book is that between Emily and her father Edward, an attorney and major figure in the town of Amherst who served in both the national and state legislature. One doesn’t have to have the 1920’s intellectuals’ belief in Freud to agree that this is likely a key relationship, particularly considering that Emily speaks of her mother as being less significant to her (and there’s likely a story there too). I’m sometimes struck by how much some of Emily Dickinson’s poetic expression has an exact but slant-wise way about it that reminds me of some legal writing, such as in contract law. I see the same thing at times in Wallace Stevens (a lawyer/poet).***

In her concluding chapters, Taggard makes the case of Dickinson’s literary greatness, which the ensuing decades have continued to expand and endorse.

It’s a shame, but Taggard’s book is not easily available. It’s not been kept in print, and as far as I know, it’s still in copyright. At least when I looked, used copies are not inexpensively and plentifully available. I was able to read an original edition of The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  from my public library—a little bit worn, brittle and brown. I looked at the ink stamps on the checkout slip from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and wondered a bit about those readers and what they thought of it, but this reader found it well worth reading.

Taggard Check Out

Some of the readers added light pencil marks throughout the book too. I couldn’t help but ask each time I saw one what led to that mark, slowing my reading of Taggard’s book even more.

 

No new audio piece today, but maybe you haven’t listened to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “This World is Not Conclusion”  yet. It’s another of Dickinson’s skeptical hymns, this time full of abstractions and twists of that active mind that she charms us to follow anyway. Here’s the player gadget to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*Susan Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Bianchi published  The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson  in 1924, and I haven’t read it. I’m unsure how much of it is biography and how much is a letters collection, but Taggard politely notes in an appendix that Bianchi got a number of dates wrong.

**There’s a lot of modern interest in Dickinson’s sexuality, with attention being paid to the idea that she was lesbian or bi. Given the lack of the kind of deep contemporaneous social investigation of 19th century Massachusetts society, this may be impossible to determine to the modern gossip level of who engaged in what sex acts with whom. Even at the non-Dickinson-scholar level where I live, it’s apparent to me that Dickinson had a very active mind and was highly attracted to other minds that were similarly energized regardless of if the minds were in male or female noggins.

***I’m not sure how large that group, lawyer/poet, is. The only other one that comes to mind is Tom Rapp, the less-known-than-he-should-be songwriter of “The Sixties.”

Much more dour than Stevens and Dickinson, but I could even see a bit of that “Tell me what it is by telling me what it isn’t” expressive mode in Robert Mueller’s little farewell speech yesterday—but has anyone tried singing that to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”  I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi and William Barr could both read Dickinson’s “The World Is Not Conclusion”  and differ on what it says!

Angeline Palmer

Here’s a story. You can decide for yourself if it’s a sad or happy one.

It was a spring day in 1840 in a town in rural Massachusetts named Belchertown. For children you might expect that would be a fine day for play, but that’s not what this story is about, though it is about a child, one with a beautiful name: Angeline Palmer.

Angeline was a poor orphan and ten years old. Playtime was not on her mind. About a year back, the town poorhouse in which she’d lived since she was two years old had bonded her out as a servant to a prominent family in Belchertown. The town’s council ran the poorhouse, and Angeline was their ward legally, but such arrangements reduced the cost of running the almshouse.

I can’t be sure what work a nine or ten-year-old servant performed in those days in that place, but of course there were no appliances, and in rural towns there were not even stores stocked with things we might buy to save a household from having to make them. Households then were very labor intensive, so there must have been work for Angeline.

A servant like Angeline might dream of a better life on a spring day. Some would learn trades in household service that would allow them to start their own businesses. Or they might marry and start households of their own, where even if their lot would be the same sort of household work, they’d be servants of their own.

But Angeline wasn’t dreaming of a better life that day. Instead the future looked ominous. The man who owned the house was now staying in Georgia, looking for new business ventures. He had sent his wife all the way to Massachusetts to check on things at his house in Belchertown, and while she was there, a letter arrived. The letter had instructions for raising some money for his new business: ship Angeline Palmer down to Georgia. The letter figured she’d be worth $600 cash sold as a slave there. That’s about $17,000 today.

You see, Angeline Palmer was Afro-American. She was an orphan, poor, a servant—all things that limited her life, but she was free.

Servants in the house heard this letter being discussed, and quickly sent news of it back to the town where Angeline had been born. She had a half-brother there, Lewis Frazier, barely more than a teenager himself, he arranged a delegation to the town’s council, the men who were by law Angeline’s effective parents. The council wouldn’t take action.

Angeline was allowed to return to Amherst to say goodbye before the trip to Georgia and slavery. Her Grandmother was a servant at the home of the town’s postmaster. She asked him what could be done. Alas, the postmaster was the brother-in-law of the wife who’d been sent the letter. Instead of stopping this, he warned the Belchertown people that someone might be trying to stop the shipment of Angeline.

The postmaster worried someone might try to interrupt Angeline’s trip back to Belchertown by the scheduled stagecoach. Figuring they’d try something on the open road, he hired a liveryman to take her back by special wagon over a different route.

The postmaster was right. Angeline’s half-brother and a friend did flag down that stage, and of course Angeline was not on it. Slowly the pair walked back to town, sure that they’d failed.

But the liveryman had a servant too, and he knew the slower roundabout route the liveryman was taking back to Belchertown with Angeline. The town’s butcher loaned the liveryman’s servant a wagon and the now trio of rescuers sped off to Belchertown.

Despite the liveryman’s slow route, Angeline was already there, back in the house where she’d been a servant and from where she’d soon be shipped off to slavery. There was no time to waste, no one left to appeal to. Leaving the other two in the wagon, Lewis Frazier rushed into the house and found Angeline. Those in the house quickly reacted, and locked Angeline and her would-be rescuer in a room.

The other two men who’d raced from Amherst then left the safety of the buggy, ran up the stairs, pushed aside those trying to stop them, opened the door and took Angeline and her half-brother back down the stairs to their borrowed buggy. A crowd was beginning to form. Angeline and the three men didn’t wait to see what they might do, whipping back out of town as fast as their team could pull.

Angeline was secreted out of Amherst to an underground railroad safe house. Lewis Frazier and his two accomplices were arrested and charged. Though they’d stopped the fraudulent theft of a human being who would have been turned into property, who would have been owned along with her offspring, and bought and sold like livestock, the trio was charged with assault and kidnapping. The evil scheme of the man in Georgia was beyond the local court’s jurisdiction, and besides the three men had prevented that crime.

I don’t know how Belchertown looked upon this matter, but some in Amherst seemed to support the rescuers. Amherst’s most prestigious lawyer defended the trio of Afro-American men at the trial. That lawyer’s name was Edward Dickinson. Dickinson had a red-headed daughter, only a year older than Angeline Palmer, and her name was Emily Dickinson, who later would become known as a poet. Despite Dickinson’s efforts, the trio were convicted. They were given a sentence of 3 months, but it would be stayed if they would reveal where Angeline was hiding.

The dutiful trio didn’t take that deal, but the jailer seemed to be another who sympathized with them. While they slept in the jail at night during their sentence, he granted them liberty each day, and it’s said that townsfolk brought them gifts of extra food. The three men gave up some of their liberty for a short time but prevented a life of slavery.

So, what happened to Angeline Palmer? After a decade had passed, she returned to Amherst and married a relative of one of the men who had rescued her. She died, likely in childbirth, a few years after that. That may sound sad, but that was also the ordinary risk of a free woman living a married life in that time. They’d tried to steal her away and make her a slave, but a network of servants and three African-American men who cared for her risked all to prevent it. So, is that a sad story or a happy one?

For today’s audio piece, here’s my reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”  about a man who stole his own freedom. Thanks again to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company.

My chief source for the story of Angeline Palmer is this blog post by Cliff McCarthy of Belchertown. The web site that includes that post has  other stories about Afro-Americans in Emily Dickinson’s time and region.

The player gadget for my reading of “Frederick Douglass”  is below. The text of Hayden’s sonnet for those who wish to read along, is here.

 

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.

Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.”  In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.

I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,”  in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*

If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson at desk

Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?

 

“Emerson’s Wagon”  starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.**  In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.

OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.

Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.

Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.

Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?

Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.

Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.

An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.

To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.

 

 

 

*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.

**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?

***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.

Poppies on the Wheat. Before 1890 the most famous woman writer from Amherst wasn’t Emily Dickinson.

I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.

Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poemsCrushed Before the Moth.”  Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggard’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.

Helen_Hunt_Jackson_NYPL

Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.

 

Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.*  Taggard’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.

Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggard even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.**  While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest”  the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.

Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.

I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice  which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick  could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.

So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils”  poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,”  use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.

 

 

 

*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.

**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona  which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  only dealing with Native American mistreatment.

The Vanishing Red

Do you think you know Robert Frost? You know: steadfast New England farmers, Currier and Ives snowfalls, happy roads less traveled by. We might think of Frost as the friendly Modernist, with good ol’rhymes and rhythms and narratives of American scenes of Americans bearing up to the burdens of life.

Robert-Frost on a wall

Robert Frost. Wry poet of the good old days—or maybe not?

 

Today’s piece is instead the hard-boiled Robert Frost. It’s blank verse, but the beat is implied, the sentence structures beat against it, and my performance choice was to not emphasize the meter. What “The Vanishing Red”  portrays is, straight up, a racially-motivated murder, and the way Frost tells the tale uses sly ways to frame this story.

He doesn’t get out of the first line before he starts this framing. One of our characters is called the “Red Man” by history. A term roughly equivalent to the N-word for indigenous Americans, but one that in Frost’s time was not considered socially unacceptable.*  Frost wasn’t going to shock or disgust his readers in 1916 with that epithet at the start of his poem, like he might some today, but he wants us to know from the start that the race and history of this man is material to what is going to happen—but we don’t meet him yet.

Instead we meet another man, the Miller, who’s talking in a way we might find familiar. He starts out by telling us he’s not guilty of something before he’s even been charged with it, claims too that he’s not one of that PC brigade who “talks round the barn” instead of straight talk, that he’s a get-it-done doer.

Frost adds just a tiny bit of narration after the Miller’s speech. Some may read this narration as excusing the man, but the narrator’s pointing us to think about two things as the story will continue. The narrator says, let’s not consider this as history (“too long a story”) or politics (“who began it”). As we’ll soon see, we’re going to consider this as an Imagist poet would consider it, as a presentation of what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” History can be dulled by time. Politics says there are two sides.

Old Grist Mill

Nostalgic postcard or dark satanic mills?  Frost reports, you decide.

 

But first we have one more exchange of dialog. Our unnamed “Red Man” is at the Miller’s mill, and we hear nothing he says directly, but we do hear what the Miller puzzles about what the other man is communicating. The Miller portrays the other man as without English words, but he interprets some “guttural exclamation” anyway as surprise, and this is somewhat sketchy. Is the native American puzzled by the mill’s mechanism? Surprised at being seen by the Miller?

Is the Miller even reading the other man well? I think not. Afterall, the Miller has another reaction, stronger than his sense of what the other man may be feeling, and Frost’s narrator also doesn’t “talk around the barn:” it’s disgust. But that’s not what our Miller portrays in his next piece of dialog. He acts friendly, offers to show “John” his mill.**  Ah, the “Red Man” has a name, he’s not some reductionist cypher for an entire continent’s indigenous peoples, and since it’s an English name, we might surmise that he might even be one of the Massachusetts tribes that attempted to synthesize with the new rulers, taking to Christianity and living in “praying towns.”

And now the Imagist poem begins, ten lines. The Miller opens a trap door and shows John the water-power wheel, and a poem that has been entirely without imagery suddenly gets a vivid image. The wheel’s water forebodingly is like struggling, thrashing fish. The door closes, and the door’s handle (a metal ring) we are told makes enough noise with this shutting to be heard above the noise of the mill. And the Miller returns upstairs, alone. The wheel’s turned around to the beginning of the story where the Miller laughs, though it’s not quite a laugh. He meets a customer carrying more meal to be ground at the mill, who doesn’t understand what has just happened. We ourselves are just understanding what has happened.

What has happened? The racist Miller has thrown John, the “Red Man” into the mechanism and killed him. Frost wants you to feel that by showing you this moment in time, but he also wants you to vividly feel the lack of notice, the vanishing in the title, which isn’t some passive mystery, it’s an act of human cruelty.

Today’s music is two pianos, bass and drums. I’ve been suffering from a cold for the past few days which made completing today’s spoken word component a challenge, and I did miss one phrase in Frost’s text and didn’t get another one completely correct, but you didn’t get to hear any of the coughs and voice cracks from the bad tracks either. To hear “The Vanishing Red”  use the player below.

 

*For example, the college I went to over 50 years ago called its sports teams the Redmen then. I had a tiny part in the beginning of the process to change that.

**Acton Massachusetts had a grist mill and more. I can’t find any pictures of them, but the town still has a Grist Mill Road.