Emily Dickinson’s Africa

June 19, 2013

Whitman’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (written during Sherman’s Savannah Campaign) has offended some readers; it also has the distinction of being set to music — by the African American composer, H.T. Burleigh.

Dickinson’s Ethiopia isn’t so well known, but the word — and what the word signals — arguably means more to her.

She was, after all, an avid reader of the Springfield Republican, as well informed as any about the Civil War.  Her seemingly secluded life in Amherst was permeated by the household presence of African-American servants: maids, seamstresses, gardeners, stablemen, as Aife Murray has recently documented.

And — perhaps more than Whitman — she might have a personal need for a vocabulary routed through these figures, turning their visible racial difference into the ontological ground for a psychic difference less visible and less describable.  In a poem from the 1860s, she wrote that, while for some, the “Climate of the Grave” is a “Temperature just adequate,” for others, “an Ampler Zero–/ A Frost more needle keen/ Is necessary, to reduce/ The Ethiop within.”

In the 1880s, bearing daily witness to the unstoppable love affair between her brother Austin and Mabel Loomis Todd (and reminded of Antony and Cleopatra’s Egypt), she wrote to thank Todd for a flaming red-and-yellow jug: “Thanks for the Ethiopian face.  The Orient is in the West.  “You knew, O Egypt”– said the entangled Antony –”

So I’m glad that, of all the poets, it’s Dickinson who goes to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about an unstoppable Congo.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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