Love and Emily Dickinson
I am going out on the doorstep, to get you some new—green grass—I shall pick it down in the corner, where you and I used to sit, and have long fancies. And perhaps the dear little grasses were growing all the while—and perhaps they heard what we said, but they can't tell!
– Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson (L 85, 1852)
Seventy-five years after the 1890s publication of the premier volumes of Emily Dickinson's poetry, critics still squabble about the poet's possibly lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. Indeed, the specifics of Dickinson's relationship to Susan are ambiguous at best. All of the critical attention that her mysterious sexuality receives reflects our culture's urge to sectionalize great literary icons into our own personal niches, thereby absorbing them as our “group's” own voice. The poet, not the poetry, assumes the center of the discussion. The critics, whether arguing for or against a lesbian interpretation of the famed couple, are like two disgruntled neighbors arguing over a tree known for its particularly incendiary wood. They no longer focus on this evergreen's innate beauty but, rather, on whose property it resides and who has the right to cut it down to ignite their cause. In all actuality, we will never know the truth about the pair's physical relationship; the evidence is too ethereal to assume a definable substance. And, in part, this predictable public response motivated Susan Gilbert's reluctance to release Dickinson's poems and letters after the poet's death.
Emily Dickinson's life has been thoroughly explored by scholars and critics. Her extensive correspondence with all of her family and friends has left fruitful ground for biographers to frolic. During the span of her life, she wrote over 2000 poems that have been discovered and hundreds of letters. She sent more poems and letters to Susan Gilbert than any other correspondent, over twice as many than were addressed to her next most frequent recipient, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Smith, “Belle,” 25). The two shared a correspondence that spanned thirty-six years, beginning six years before Gilbert's marriage to the poet's brother, Austin, and continuing until Dickinson's death in 1886. What makes this correspondence so remarkable is the close proximity of their residences. Dickinson was Susan's next door neighbor for thirty years and still she felt the need to write volumes of letters to her. This, as well as offering plenty of innuendo to the sexuality gossips, stresses the importance of the written word shared between the two.
Some scholars claim it is impossible for the actual nature of their relationship to be discovered due to the supposed differences in our cultures' views on female interaction. Expressions that are today seen as characteristically romantic and erotic are not believed to have been subject to the same socio-sexual judgments in...