White Heat

Interview: Ivy Schweitzer (Part 2)

This is part 2 of our conversation with Ivy Schweitzer, Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and the driving force behind “White Heat,” a blog that chronicles Dickinson's creative life and poetry week by week for the crucial year 1862, and provides cultural and historical contexts to this poet’s notoriously difficult work.

p.s. You can read part 1 here.


(continued from part 1)

R: So how do you structure the posts in “White Heat”? 

I: After we choose our theme for the week, we go off and do research for the sections called “This Week in History,” and “This Week in Biography.” The first contains snippets from newspapers and magazines we know Dickinson read, and the second summarizes relevant biographical information from letters, etc. Then, we choose a group of five or six texts, mostly poems from this period, but also letters, that illuminate the weekly theme, and write a short introduction, “On Choosing the Poems,” that talks about literary influences and important elements in the poetry. For each poem, we reprint a transcript of the manuscript, give links to the EDA, and offer some suggestions on how to approach the poem, what to look for, questions to ask.

What I'm trying to do is not give you a reading or interpretation of the poems, because I don't believe in that. My students always say, "What does it mean?" And I reply, "No, let go of that." I don't know what it means and, with Dickinson, it never means only one thing. We're never going to figure that out and it’s not the most important part of reading poetry. We have to pay attention to how the poem make its meaning and what it does to us, the readers. How does it make us feel? And Dickinson's poems can elicit a wide and deep range of feelings from frustration to existential angst to “transport,” one of her favorite terms.

R: That's absolutely one of my favorite things about what you're doing, aside from all the rich content, is that, as odd as it seems, though there are links to the poems, the poems are not central, they're all throughout, but not the only focus.

I: That’s right. I am trying to show that they're not hermetically sealed off from the history and biography, yes. And the more I work with them, the more I see how she filtered so many aspects of her world into her work. For example, I did a post on Astronomy, on the discovery of the comet, and found Dickinson wrestling with the ideas of Darwin and other prominent scientists of her day. In another post on volcanoes, she enters the raging debate at the time about geology and whether it could be squared with Christian doctrine.

S: So, you're trying to encourage people to look beyond figuring out what her poems mean...

I: Right. I say to my students, "If you try to lock down the poem’s meaning and understand it, you're nailing it down, it’s finished." You don't let all the other connotations swirl around. Also, given the variants that Dickinson provided, you are going against the little glimpse we have of how she wanted her poems read; not as finished products but as always in process, always evolving.  That's what's interesting about all the new work being done on the fascicles, including by my recent Honor’s Thesis student, Madeline Killen. She worked on Fascicle 18, put together in 1862. A chapter from her thesis was selected as the Best Undergraduate Research Essay this year from the Emily Dickinson International Society. I was so proud. Many scholars are now saying that the Fascicles are the closest thing we have to how Dickinson herself wanted her poems to be presented.

It's not really self-publication, but a kind of self-editing, or organizing. Why did she put those poems next to each other in those groups?

It’s an amazing story and the beginning of the bloody editorial history of Dickinson’s body of work. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia found the forty fascicles and loose pages in her dresser drawer. They knew she was writing poetry, but not at that rate or with that intensity. Lavinia [Dickinson’s sister] gave them first to Sue and asked her to publish them, but Sue didn’t act quickly enough for Lavinia, and so Lavinia took them back and asked a young woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, to edit them and Mabel promptly snipped the fascicles and cut them apart. Mabel had become lovers with Austin, Dickinson’s brother and Sue’s estranged husband. So, Lavinia really pissed Sue off by going to Mabel.

Mabel Loomis Todd     Image   : Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Mabel Loomis Todd

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

R: That's snipping apart of the fascicles is a really interesting mindset...

I: It is. Of course, we have to love Mabel because, with the pull of Higginson, she published several volumes of Dickinson’s poems after her death, while Sue didn’t publish any of the hundreds of poems she received in letters; her daughter took that on. Martha Nell Smith makes an argument that Sue was preparing a volume that was much more wholistic about Dickinson and that Mabel's volume is much more literarily edited and conventional. I know there's the Camp of Sue and the Camp of Mabel and never the twain shall meet, but I like them both. I think both did good things and not-so-good things to the Dickinson editorial history, which is complicated and, as I said, bloody––hence, the mutilations, probably done by Mabel and Austin who wanted to eradicate any trace of Sue in Dickinson’s work.

While Mabel got Dickinson’s work out there—the first Poems 1890 sold out quickly––she also went around lecturing and portraying Dickinson as the “White Myth of Amherst.” And she regularized the poetry to conform to current standards of taste. But Dickinson was a maverick, a rebel (that’s why I love her). As I mentioned earlier, Sharon Cameron's brilliant book Choosing Not Choosing argues that Dickinson deliberately chose not to choose. It wasn’t that she couldn’t decide. She deliberately chose, not indeterminacy, but multi-vocality, dynamism, freedom… I think she didn't want us as readers to be tied to a final version. She deliberately set it up so that we had to see those two words or phrases—the variants—working in a poem. It's kind of like hypertext before hypertext. It's like saying, okay, well, you can read the poem this way, you can read the poem that way, or then you could…

R: Choose your own adventure…

I: Exactly! I mean it's really like digital before the digital.

S: Do your students take turns with you writing? Or how does the collaboration work?

I: I'm not a control freak and I think the more the merrier. But I do like getting in there and being able to do it and I have a vision of how I want the posts to be and I don't want it to be super scholarly. I want it to appeal to scholars, but…

S: You want it to be accessible.

I: Exactly. And I want to reach all those zealous Dickinson fans out there who don't know what "performative" might mean or who don't know what structuralism is. I don't want to scare them away with that jargon. Even the post about the Dickinson’s meter . . . I was nervous about not getting too technical, but I think some technical is good.

R: I like the way you did it because you include a little bit of the technical information and then you give a link. You're saying, "Here, if you want to know all about meter, go over here."

I: That's what a digital site is great for. You can do layers and give options. This is how we worked. Each team member picked out which themes we wanted to work on. That person then writes the short overview in the beginning about the theme and suggests a few poems/letters that will work with it. Then we kibbitz back and forth on what poems we want, etc. So, for the first six months we were really writing the posts together. This summer, with the students away, I've been doing the posts myself, with Emily providing the historical material. I have also been asking friends, colleagues, and scholars to write the reflections, so there is a kaleidoscope of views and voices.

S: There're so many side projects you could do in addition to what you already have.

I: I really want to add lots more. Harriette created a White Heat YouTube channel and we've started uploading videos of my daughter Rebekah Schweitzer singing the Aaron Copland song cycle of 12 Dickinson poems set to music. It’s really challenging stuff, but she is doing a great job, accompanied by Annemieke McLean on piano. I want to include more audio because Dickinson was a skilled pianist and improviser. There's one whole post on Dickinson and music.

I have to say the other part I'm really loving about this project is the linking. Of course, this is dangerous because you don't know when your links are going to disappear. I've linked a lot to Wikipedia, because, frankly, I don't think Wikipedia is going to disappear. And lots of people start with Wikipedia. I don't think we should end there, but it's not a bad place to start.

S: Right. You want to make it accessible to people, like you said, who don't necessarily come with a scholarly background.

I: Exactly. And they can go from there and get into it more deeply if they want. So, the links to me are really important, to be able to read along and be able to just click and find out what you need to know…

I really wanted this site to be cultural. I wanted to be able to see images and picture Dickinson’s world: what members of her family and friends looked like, what Frazar Stearns looked like, what the Confederate cannon looked like that they sent to Amherst in his honor, what the Homestead looked like. I'm fascinated with that. But it's touchy because if the pages go away, then there are broken links. People hate broken links. When we do the eBook, it might be that I have to scale down a little bit or choose where I link to.

Frazar Stearns

Frazar Stearns

The fun part is feeling like you have it all at your fingertips. This is what the web was meant to do, to give us a sense that it's all here. And we use it for the larger purpose of creating a very rich context for the poems, to help us read these challenging poems in a more informed way. I think Dickinson has been read in little vacuums. We read an individual poem that blows our mind. I'm trained as a close reader. I love to do that, but when you read poems in a larger context like the Fascicles, or the context of the Civil War, or Dickinson’s relationship to Higginson or Emerson, or Thoreau, or her knowledge of volcanoes, then the poems take on a totally different, richer meaning.

So that's part of what I’m trying to do, to expand our view, because I am sensitive to the power of the “myth” and I want to counter it. When I introduce Dickinson to students and ask, "What's your image of her?" they say, "She was a recluse and she lived in her dad's house for her whole life and she never married and..."

R: And her white dress.

S: And her white dress.

Photo   : Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

Photo: Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

I: And her white dress. That's what they say. "The Belle of Amherst!"

I really want to provide a different version. Look at the post on “White” and you will see how resonant this color is in her work. It doesn’t just mean purity or innocence but is a very multi-faceted symbol. I want to present Dickinson in the World. A citizen of the World, even if she was just living in her father's house. She traveled the world in her imagination. She was networked. She wrote to everyone who was anyone, she received mail from around the world (from her missionary friends).

R: She wasn't oblivious to what was going on outside that house.

I: No. And in fact, there's a lot of evidence for her connections, if you look at the letters—the letters are amazing. That has been a real revelation to me. I'm trying to do a lot more with the letters to bring them to readers’ attention because she was a brilliant letter writer and that was another form of her creativity. They're aesthetic texts in their own right, you know what I mean?

What you see through the letters is that when she starts to go into seclusion in the 1860s, she starts to write to everybody and her letter production expands. She is withdrawing physically, but she's actually expanding verbally or textually, and she is really in touch with many people. I think there was a trade off for her and that's what Adrienne Rich says in her amazing essay from 1975, "Vesuvius at Home." That Dickinson knew that her genius wouldn't make it out there, that she would be misunderstood, criticized, or ignored and really driven mad by the restrictions. I think she knew she was sensitive, and she decided, "Ok, I'm not doing that. I'm going to be in here. I'm going to have my safe space. And I am going to write whatever I want to write in whatever way works for me.”

She could really control her life in the sense of keeping away the very negative parts. This is another thing my students don't really understand: how hard it was to be a woman in the 19th century. She had some things easy because was a member of an elite class, she had servants, but the constraints on women physically and psychologically were enormous. The whole “cult of true womanhood.”

I include in one post the image of a woman wearing the mourning dress of the times and it looks like a burqa. It's essentially a 19th century burqa, except she doesn't have the little eye holes.

Mrs. Howes in deep mourning, c. 1860s

Mrs. Howes in deep mourning, c. 1860s

S: She can't even see...

I: Right! What was it like to walk around like that? We forget how restrictive 19th century gender conventions were for women. So that's the context for the white house dress. Dickinson decided, "I'm not going to wear all that fancy, heavy stuff," I'm going to wear essentially what is the jeans and t-shirt, or sweatpants, of the 19th century! That's what she chose to wear.

R: With pockets.

I: Yeah, with pockets, so she could carry her little pencils and scraps of paper to write on in there. And buttons down the front so she didn't need somebody to help her dress.

S: That is radical.

I: That's why the context is important. Also, white was an important color to her, it had deep symbolism for her and also at a historical moment when the nation is fighting over slavery. You can’t ignore that. She wrote several poems scholars think are about racial issues; for example, “The Malay took the Pearl,” and “The Black Berry – wears a Thorn in his side.” Dickinson picked the white dress because it was easy and because she didn't want to walk around in corsets and stays or in black because many people around her were dying. Perhaps it was also a way to refuse the color of mourning.

There are so many layers, so many connections. This project has been a real mode of discovery.

One thing I’ve learned about teaching—and I learned this from my collaborator Pati Hernandez and from my spouse Tom Luxon— is that teaching should empower people. Knowledge should empower people, not humiliate them or intimidate them. And that's what I want this project to do. I know Dickinson can be really hard—and maybe that's why I picked Dickinson, she's hard, there are riddles, the center is missing, there's complicated symbolism, allegory, there is so much she's not really telling us... but, it's our responses to the language that's important. How does it make us feel? What does it do to you? Emily Dickinson is one of our great poets because she questioned everything. Her poetry is profoundly moving. The more we let go of “solving the riddle,” of what it means, the more it gives you.


Ivy’s Tips on reading the poems

Read them out loud. As you read, think about how the words and images and dashes and rhythms make you feel. Look at how the poem makes its meaning. Let the poem speak to you in its form, in its layers. What happens when the rhythm falls apart? Circle the words that interest you - go to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon to see how Dickinson uses and reuses words, what they meant to her. Circle places where you begin to stumble and ask why? Maybe she wants you to stumble there, to stop and think about it. She is a disrupter, a maverick. Look at the breaks in sentences; she wants to make her point using the literary tools available to her.

Recommended Online Resources

  • The Emily Dickinson Archive (EDA) – This site makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives available in open access. The present version includes images for the poems identified in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998), and allows you to search by poem number, first line or words, acting as a virtual concordance to the poems.

  • Dickinson Electronic Archive 1 (DEA 1) and Dickinson Electronic Archive 2 (DEA 2) – These two websites (the second is an expanded version of the first) are “a scholarly resource showcasing the possibility of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and exploring the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts.” The DEA devoted to the study of Emily Dickinson, her writing practices, writings directly influencing her work, and critical and creative writings generated by her work. It contains archives of manuscripts by Dickinson and members of her circle, as well as critical essays and teaching resources.

  • The Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon, edited by Cynthia L. Hallen – This website helps illuminate Dickinson's word choice by examining the meanings recorded in Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1844 printing of 1841 ed.), which she used throughout her writing life, and also listing the usages of words in Emily Dickinson's writings. Indispensable.

  • The Emily Dickinson MuseumThe home of Emily Dickinson, a National Historic Landmark owned by the Trustees of Amherst College, and well worth a visit. Their web site also includes information about the Evergreens, home of Susan and Austin Dickinson, and provides a good introduction to Dickinson and Dickinson-related topics.

Recommended Books

Below are just a sampling of books about Emily Dickinson. Books marked with an asterisk (*) are some of Ivy’s favorites and a great place to start if you’re just beginning to plunge into the deep waters of Emily Dickinson studies.

Primary Sources




Critical Works


Fun Stuff

And more…

For even more resources, see DEA’s Emily Dickinson Bibliography.

Interview: Ivy Schweitzer (Part 1)

It’s a sunny, cool but nearly warm early spring day. Snow piles are still lingering here and there, but flowers are just beginning to pop up outside Ivy Schweitzer's home in Norwich, Vermont. Ivy greets us warmly and gives us a tour of her office with its towering stacks of books about Emily Dickinson and her greenhouse, looking more like summer than spring. Her home is welcoming and warm, her desk is overflowing with books and notes and screens, all devoted to her current obsession: Emily Dickinson.


Ivy is a Professor of English at Dartmouth College and we talk of colleges, English majors, experiential learning, working with incarcerated women, and the "Grace Paleys" of the world who want to change the system.

We first met Ivy a year ago when she had just been to The Morgan Library in NYC to see the exhibit, "I'm Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Times of Emily Dickinson." This morning we are meeting up with Ivy to hear more about her latest project, "White Heat," a blog that chronicles Dickinson's creative life and poetry week by week for the crucial year 1862, and provides cultural and historical contexts to this poet’s notoriously difficult work.

After a tour of her office and greenhouse, Ivy invites us into her kitchen for tea and snacks and we begin to talk...


Shari: What is it about Emily Dickinson that you were so drawn to her?

Ivy: In reality, I’m an early Americanist. I teach American Literature courses about the 17th, 18th, and a little bit of the early 19th centuries. I always teach Dickinson and Whitman and Emerson and all those writers, but I never really focus on them.

And then I did a digital project on Samson Occom, an 18th century Mohegan Indian who was converted to Christianity by the brother-in-law of the founder of Dartmouth College, Eleazer Wheelock. Occom turned out to be a brilliant student and gave Wheelock the idea to create an Indian charity school that eventually became Dartmouth.

In 2007 I started a project at Dartmouth to create a digital scholarly edition of the papers we hold in our special collections by Occom and also about him. It's called “The Occom Circle.” I had so much fun. In researching Occom, I came across the Emily Dickinson Archive, the EDA, which is an archive that Harvard University and the Houghton Library put together along with Amherst College and the other large holders of Dickinson manuscripts to create what is essentially an amazing, useful, and revealing resource.

From there, I then found the DEA, the Dickinson Electronic Archives. This was started by a group of scholars to share their work and collaborate around Dickinson based on the digitization of Dickinson’s manuscripts. When the EDA made available online Dickinson’s manuscripts that Ralph Franklin published in 1981, that changed Dickinson studies forever.

Rebecca: Everything was revealed then.

I: Everything was revealed. It was revealed how Thomas Johnson, who edited the first complete collection (The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955) and Franklin (who brought out his Variorum edition in 1998) made editorial choices and didn't actually print what Dickinson had written in the fascicles, the 40 booklets of fair copies she started to put together and hand-sew in 1858—a form of self-editing.

But Franklin’s books are very expensive. Only a certain number of people could see those manuscripts. When they were digitized and put online, everybody could see them and see for themselves what Dickinson wrote. We're still trying to figure that out!

The DEA was set up by scholars who want to work and share digitally. The materials on that site are fantastic. There's a whole section on mutilations. People—we think we know who they are—mutilated some of the Dickinson manuscripts.

R: I saw the poem about Sue, Dickinson’s beloved sister-in-law, that was completely obliterated!

"Once sister have I in our house / And one hedge away"    Credits :   Amherst College, Amherst MA    Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80 Amherst - Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80 - There is a word - asc:12107 - p. 9

"Once sister have I in our house / And one hedge away"

Credits: Amherst College, Amherst MA
Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80
Amherst - Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 80 - There is a word - asc:12107 - p. 9

I: The entire poem! You have to be really pissed off to do that. It's not like you just said, "Oh, I don't like this word," or, "Let's get rid of her name." No, no, they scratched out every line, with a vengeance.

R: And whoever it was didn't shred it, didn't throw it away, just carved it up with a pen and left it there.

I: Exactly. Something like that doesn’t get into a “Collected Works.”

Dickinson scholars like Martha Nell Smith and Marta Werner have been using the digital platform to undertake what they call "unediting Dickinson." That is, working from her manuscripts, not from versions created by, largely, male editors, stripping all that away. Editors always want to arrive at an “authoritative” version; they don’t like ambiguity. In fact, Cristanne Miller just brought out an edition of Dickinson that reproduces the fascicles called Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. I know my project, “White Heat,” might seem like it's kind of re-editing her, but we're working from the manuscripts and curating her; every transcription of her poems and letters we offer is based on the manuscript version, not on Franklin or Johnson’s version.

S: Why is the version of her poems so important to reading Dickinson?

Because Dickinson was an incredible innovator in style and form. All of the poems published during her life (10 in total) were regularized to fit the conventions of the day. Even after her death, her editors regularized her poems, removing capitalizations and dashes, changing words they thought odd, organizing them into sappy categories like, Life, Love, Nature and Time and Eternity, and giving them reductive titles like “The Chariot” for the mind-boggling poem “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.”

I remember the first time I taught the course that I developed as preparation for this project, called "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn." We were using the hard copy of Franklin’s edition, and I said to the students, "Now I want you to find the poem you're working on in the EDA, look at the manuscript and compare them," and they came in and were so angry! They said, "He didn't put that in! Where's that dash?! He gets that word wrong!" My students were up in arms over how Dickinson had been forced to conform to current publishing conventions.

R: Do you think there’s value in studying the edited versions of Dickinson’s poems?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Franklin did a great job and we're beholden to him for all the work he's done, but ... it's edited. And scholars are right in saying we still don't really have an adequate understanding of what Dickinson wrote. This is why I insist on having the images of the poems available through links to EDA, why I wanted to do a digital project. I wanted everybody to be able to look at the images and see what she wrote and also how she wrote it. Her handwriting is incredibly expressive in itself. Some scholars like Susan Howe think we should treat the manuscripts like works of visual art as well. After all, Dickinson refused print publication; she was more than happy to circulate her poems in letters to friends.

Even with the EDA, which is very good, I check their transcriptions against my reading of the manuscript and sometimes I find small errors. I also don't like the way they've incorporated the variants. Dickinson was unique in including variant words and phrases in the fair copies of her poems. This was her way of saying, in effect, the poem is never really finished or static and resists closure, or as Sharon Cameron, another brilliant Dickinson scholar, said: she chooses not choosing. Marta Werner calls them “acts of freedom.”

EDA puts the variants in a parenthesis before the word. I like the parenthesis because what it says to the reader is, "This word is part of this poem. You can't read the poem without this variant." I get that. But Dickinson usually put them at the end of a poem, or to the side of the line and indicated their presence with a little plus sign.

The manuscript of "From Blank to Blank" show two variants: "reached" for "gained" at the end of the first line of the second stanza, and "firmer" for "lighter" in the last line of the poem.     Credits   :    Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA    Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library - (166c) From Blank to Blank, J761, Fr484

The manuscript of "From Blank to Blank" show two variants: "reached" for "gained" at the end of the first line of the second stanza, and "firmer" for "lighter" in the last line of the poem.

Credits: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Houghton Library - (166c) From Blank to Blank, J761, Fr484

If you look at my website, at first, I used the parentheses, then I put the variants on the side, and finally I decided to put them at the end of the poem, with the plus signs before the word with a variant, as Dickinson most often did. A little indication that says, in her coy way: wait, there’s more. I want the transcripts to look like her manuscripts because that's the closest we can get to what she wanted us to see.

R: Did this have something to do with the genesis of your project?

I: Yes. Looking at the amazing work of EDA and DEA, I thought about how the digital tools allowed me to put Occom at the center of an international circle of networks and associations and essentially displace Wheelock, the eminent white settler-colonialist, who is usually at the center of the story and occludes Occom. I wanted to do a similar thing with Dickinson—to reinforce the recent feminist scholarship that counters the myth of her quaintness and her withdrawal from the events of the world. I wanted to portray her, in the words of the Morgan Library’s exhibit, as “the Networked Recluse,” a play on her many epistolary connections and the revelations brought about by the digitalization of her writing.

Also, I really wanted to move into the poetic side of my career. Originally, this project was to help me to focus on my own poetry by focusing on Dickinson’s poetry. My earlier critical work is mostly on male writers. She seemed the right person. Something about her and her poetry called her me and so here we are!

S: How did you put together your team? We know you are working with Harriette Yahr, who we’ve met and love.

I: Yes, Harriette is the skilled web designer. I've known her for years and she's a Dartmouth alum. I knew her as a filmmaker, but I didn't realize that she was also good at web design; she really knows the ins and outs of it.

I also taught two seminars at Dartmouth, with mostly juniors and seniors. Three of those students—Victoria Corwin ’19, Raul Rodriguez ’19, and Joseph Waring ’18—have been a central part of the team, doing research for the posts, writing the posts, and uploading to the WordPress site. At an early stage, Victoria helped me think through how to research and write the sections of the site. This summer I had a fabulous first year student, Emily Bjorkman, do all the historical research. She loved reading the Springfield Republican, Hampshire Gazette, Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s for 1862 and picking out tidbits to illuminate Dickinson’s world.

The seminar was very intense. We used Franklin’s Reading Edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, supplemented by the EDA manuscripts. I divided Franklin’s edition into sections; each student took three sections and had to read their section of about 30 poems and pick five for us to concentrate on in class. We also read letters she had written during those years. I can’t say enough about how powerful her letters are, and how much they augment a reading of the poetry.

We essentially worked our way through the entire Franklin edition—nearly 1800 poems–– over the term. Everybody read some poems from a section. So they gained a real sense of the scope and evolution of Dickinson’s poetry.

R: That was a good deep dive.

I: It was a very deep dive. It gave them a sense of how she sounded in the beginning and what happened at the end of her life. And then, about midway through, we got into the digital part of course and I had them do mock-ups of posts for the project, some of which got included in the posts that were published on “White Heat.”

I said, "Here's your challenge: using WordPress, create a blog post that includes the history, the biography, the literary context, and then a reflection on the experience." I asked them to pick a week that meant something to them. And they picked their birthdays or ... one student picked the Battle of Antietam, another picked the week in April when Dickinson wrote two letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the social radical and literary editor who becomes her “mentor” and pen pal for the rest of her life. It was her contacting Higginson in 1862, her “coming out as a poet,” and the heating up of the Civil War, that convinced me to pick this year to focus on.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

R: You must have been so excited by what you saw from your students!

I: It was so exciting! We studied websites and looked at what makes a good blog post, but I gave them carte blanche to create what they wanted. At the end we examined all of them and decided what elements we liked and that’s how we designed the present “White Heat” project.

The students basically designed the project, with my original vision and input. I wanted a site that would appeal to this generation of digital natives. Much more then my generation, they go to the web and even social media for their information. Some people criticize this, but I think, "We created these technology tools, why not use them to give access to sites that advance literature, poetry, the humanities in general?" We brought in my IT consultant, who worked with us to put together the elements of the site, and then Harriette designed the web page.

Eventually, what I want to do when we finish this year of blogging is to turn it into an eBook using Scalar or Gesture—I’m always pushing to learn new skills and expand the range of the digital tools we have to create pedagogical resources and give users access to the humanities and to poetry, especially.

S: We were talking about that, about what are you going to do when you get to the end of the project.

I: We'll see what we've got and, yes, we'll see if an eBook works, because we'll have 52 chapters of about 10 to 15 pages, so it's going to be huge, but if it's an eBook that doesn't really matter.

R: Okay, so you've planned out 52 chapters, more or less, with different themes…

I: Actually, I made up a schedule with every week for the year 1862 and then I went through Jay Leyda’s crazy book, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, which traces her life and the lives of her family day by day; consulted the biographies by Richard Sewall and Alfred Habegger; looked at all the letters she wrote during this time and the important dates in her world that we know about; and then plugged that all in to the schedule.

When we have a week with no compelling event or theme, we get our focus from events recorded in the newspapers as happening in Amherst, the nation, or the world. For example, the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet in July 1862, a call to increase immigration to supply the loss of men in the farmlands of the west, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Dickinson attended for two terms in 1847-48.

R: What are some of the other themes you have focused on?

The Civil War, of course, and the six letters Dickinson wrote during this year to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the man who became her “Preceptor” (I put this in quotations because he is really learning from her), and other important people around her—Sue, her father, mothers, Samuel Bowles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emerson and Thoreau—as well as literary topics like her use of meter, of Gothicism, her attitude to publication, and some of the topics she focuses on in her poetry like illness, foreign travel, Eastern thought, gardens (she was an avid gardener), music (she was a wicked improviser on the piano), marriage, school, wealth, bees, birds, home, and circumference.

S: And do you tie the poems directly to these themes?

I've had to be very flexible about timing because you can't tie any single poem to a specific day or even week or year. Dickinson didn't date her poems or her drafts, or fair copies, or even her letters. But other people dated their letters to her, so we can learn a lot from that. She also revised her poems many times. Just because she put a fascicle together in the fall doesn't mean that she wrote those poems in the fall.

For example, we know that she read Higginson's “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly on April 15, 1862. He records receiving her letter to him about reading this essay on April 16.

R: So you took key events in the year 1862 and then you're sort of filling in where you have other interests in topics.

I: Exactly right. … The Atlantic Monthly came out on the 15th of the month, but the newspapers got wind of what was in it beforehand, because there's a notice in The Springfield Republican on the 25th of March that says, "This April's edition of The Atlantic Monthly is the best ever. The lead article is Higginson's “Letter to a Young Contributor. Everybody should read it."

Now, I'm sure Dickinson read that notice, because her very good friend Samuel Bowles was the editor of The Republican, and she once commented that reading the paper every day was like getting a personal letter from him.

What I would also say about this year is that Dickinson tells Higginson in a letter about having a “terror” since September but doesn’t specify what. There are a lot of theories of what this might have been, usually disappointed romance, but I like to stay away from that and not define her life or work by men. Also, she and Sue, her sister-in-law, are at odds at this point in her life because Sue is busy with her first baby and building up her social status in Amherst.

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson     Image   : Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson

Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)

For example, in this period Dickinson sends Sue the poem, "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers," which is a little masterpiece. Sue says, "I don't like the last stanza." Dickinson writes another version. Sue doesn't like the second version. I think at that point Dickinson gives up on Sue as a poetic interlocutor. She might be an emotional and affective kind of touchstone for Dickinson—I think she always was—but, by 1862, Dickinson needs another literary person in her life. And that's why she very uncharacteristically writes to Higginson, a complete stranger and someone outside the tight family circle.

Also around this time occurs the death of Frazar Stearns, a 21-year-old Amherst College graduate, at the battle of New Bern, a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother, and all the emotion around that gets connected with Dickinson's writing to Higginson and coming out as a poet.

(Our conversation continues in part 2)