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Dickinson’s Civil War

To the Editors:

In her letter to the editor [NYR, May 11], Joyce Carol Oates observes that Emily Dickinson never wrote about the Civil War, and in her letter [NYR, May 25], Claudia Roth Pierpont agrees. But this is not true. Although it was not her primary subject, Emily Dickinson did write about the Civil War in both poems and letters. One of her most passionate is the following:

It feels a shame to be Alive—
When Men so brave—are dead—
One envies the Distinguished Dust—
Permitted—such a Head—

The Stone—that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we—possessed
In Pawn for Liberty—

The price is great—Sublimely paid—
Do we deserve—a Thing—
That lives—like Dollars—must be piled
Before we may obtain?

Are we that wait—sufficient worth—
That such Enormous Pearl
As life—dissolved be—for Us—
In Battle’s—horrid Bowl?

It may be—a Renown to live—
I think the Men who die—
Those unsustained—Saviors—
Present Divinity—

Dorothy Huff Oberhaus


Professor of English
Mercy College
Dobbs Ferry, New York To the Editors:

I am grateful to Joyce Carol Oates for her illuminating defense of Eudora Welty’s (and every writer’s) right to choose freely the subjects she writes about. But Oates is mistaken in believing that Emily Dickinson “failed to write specifically of the Civil War.” In several letters and poems, Dickinson has written searchingly about those who fell in battle (among them the son of the president of Amherst College).

…The seeing pain one can’t relieve makes a demon of one,” she wrote of the war. In one poem (“It feels a shame to be Alive—“), she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and closes by asking why “such Enormous Pearl” as life should be dissolved “In Battle’s—horrid Bowl….” In a letter to her Norcross cousins, she conveys surprise at seeing a new poem by the recently widowed Robert Browning “till I remembered that I myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps.”

Benjamin Lease


Professor Emeritus of English
Northeastern Illinois University
Chicago, Illinois
Joyce Carol Oates replies:

Emily Dickinson never wrote specifically and “realistically” about the Civil War; her poetic strategy is always elliptical, and timeless. My original point was that it does not matter in the slightest whether Dickinson did, or did not, write about the Civil War or about any recognizable social or political subject; her genius transcends such expectations.

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