Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson

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Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson
Daguerrotype of Susan Dickinson with Frame.jpg
Born(1830-12-19)December 19, 1830
Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, US
DiedMay 12, 1913(1913-05-12) (aged 82)
Amherst, Massachusetts, US
  • Writer
  • poet
  • editor
(m. 1856; died 1895)
RelativesEmily Dickinson (sister-in-law)

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (December 19, 1830 – May 12, 1913) was an American writer, poet, traveler, and editor. She was the sister-in-law of poet Emily Dickinson.


The Evergreens, home of Susan and Austin Dickinson, contributed by the Emily Dickinson Museum of Amherst

Susan Huntington Gilbert was born December 19, 1830, in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of six children born to Thomas and Harriet (Arms) Gilbert. She was orphaned by the time she was eleven years old, after her mother died in 1837 and her father in 1841. Gilbert lived with her aunt, Sophia (Arms) Van Vranken, in Geneva, New York, until the late 1840s. She then lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her sister Harriet and brother-in-law William Cutler. In Amherst, she attended Utica Female Academy and Amherst Academy for one semester in the fall of 1847.[citation needed]

In 1853, she was engaged to Austin Dickinson. Their marriage in the Van Vranken home on July 1, 1856, was "a quiet wedding" with "very few friends and [only Susan's] brothers & sisters, a little cake–a little ice cream."[1] Although the young couple contemplated moving to Michigan, Austin's father Edward Dickinson ensured they would stay in Amherst by making Austin a law partner and building the couple a made-to-order house, the Evergreens, on a lot next door to the Dickinson Homestead.[citation needed] A generous dowry from Susan's brothers helped furnish the Evergreens, a fashionable home with oak sideboards and a green marble fireplace adorned with Antonio Canova's sculpture Cupid and Psyche, Gothic chairs, and Victorian paintings.[citation needed]

Susan and Austin Dickinson had three children:

  • Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861–1898)[2]
  • Martha (Mattie or Mopsy) Dickinson (1866–1943)[3]
  • Thomas (Gib) Gilbert (1875–1883)[4]

Public view of Susan[edit]

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson was viewed as the "most graceful woman in Western Massachusetts",[5] "astute and cosmopolitan",[6] as well as "The Power" increasingly given to "frivolity, snobbery, and ruthlessness".[7] She was known as a "sensitive editor" who was Emily Dickinson's "most responsive reader",[8] a "remarkably perceptive... mentor of some standing" who supposedly refused to edit Emily's poems for publication.[9][10]

She was affectionately called "Dollie" by Emily, and characterized as an "Avalanche of Sun",[11] a "breath from Gibraltar" uttering "impregnable syllables",[12] "Domingo" in spirit, and "Imagination" itself[13] whose words are of "Silver genealogy."[14][15]

Susan and Emily Dickinson[edit]

Epistolary relationship[edit]

Emily Dickinson often described her love for Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. In various letters, Emily compared her love for Susan to Dante's love for Beatrice, Swift's for Stella, and Mirabeau's for Sophie de Ruffey,[16] and compared her tutelage with Susan to one with Shakespeare.[17] Emily appears to have valued Susan's opinions about writing and reading. On Emily's "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers", Susan wrote that the first verse was so compelling that "I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again;"[18] a few years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson paraphrased Emily's critical commentary, echoing Susan's –"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. . ."[citation needed]

Emily's death[edit]

According to Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith,[19]

Susan's enactment of simple ritual for profound utterance is perhaps best displayed in the simple flannel robe she designed and in which she dressed Emily for death, laying her out in a white casket, cypripedium and violets (symbolizing faithfulness) at her neck, two heliotropes (symbolizing devotion) in her hand.[20] This final act over Emily's body underscores "their shared life, their deep and complex intimacy" and that they both anticipated a "postmortem resurrection" of that intimacy.[21] Besides swaddling her beloved friend's body for burial, Susan penned Emily's obituary, a loving portrayal of a strong, brilliant woman, devoted to family and to her neighbors, and to her writing, for which she had the most serious objectives and highest ambitions. Though "weary and sick" at the loss of her dearest friend, Susan produced a piece so powerful that Higginson wanted to use it as the introduction to the 1890 Poems [indeed, it did serve as the outline for Todd's introduction to the second volume of Poems in 1891].[22] Susan concludes the obituary pointing readers' attentions to Emily as writer, and to the fact that her words would live on. Among her daughter Martha's papers is evidence that these same four lines were used again in a Dickinson ceremony, perhaps to conclude Susan's own funeral:

Morns like these we parted;
Noons like these she rose,
Fluttering first, then firmer,
To her fair repose.


Susan Dickinson's work[edit]

Susan Dickinson wrote essays, reviews, journals, poems, letters, and memorials constantly throughout her life. She also produced commonplace books and scrapbooks of her own publications in the Springfield Republican, as well as of clippings about admired figures such as Queen Victoria.[citation needed]

She published several stories in the Springfield Republican–"A Hole in Haute Society" (August 2, 1908), "The Passing of Zoroaster" (March 1910), "The Circus Eighty Years Ago" (early 1900s), and possibly "The Case of the Brannigans" (though this may be by her daughter, Martha)..[citation needed] In January 1903, writing from Rome, Susan published a lengthy review of "Harriet Prescott's [Spofford] Early Work" as a letter to the editor of the Republican. Arguing for republication of Spofford's early work, she quotes "my sister-in-law, Emily Dickinson" as an authority, reiterating the latter's delighted reader's response–"That is the only thing I ever saw in my life I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes"–and quoting Dickinson's declaration, "for love is stronger than death", in her own critique of Prescott's "Circumstance". In "Annals of the Evergreens", a typescript that was not published until the 1980s, Susan praises Prescott's "Pomegranate Flowers" at the outset, then proceeds to describe an Evergreens life rich in cultural exchange, reading Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Thomas de Quincey, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Carlyle, and Shakespeare, and entertaining many distinguished visitors–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, landscape designer Frederick Olmsted.[citation needed]

Susan's involvement with Emily's publications[edit]

Susan Dickinson was criticized for not seeing Emily's poems published. In the 1890 letter to Higginson, Susan described how she had imagined a volume of Emily's writings with "many bits of her prose-passages from early letters quite surpassing the correspondence of Gunderodi[e] with Bettine [von Arnim] [a romantic friendship celebrated by Goethe]. . . [using] quaint bits to my children. . . Of course I should have forestalled criticism by only printing them."[citation needed]

In a March 1891 letter to Ward, she elaborated on her vision for such a volume which would also include Emily's "illustrations", "showing her witty humorous side, which has all been left out" of the 1890 Poems.[citation needed] Susan's outline for the volume shows that she would not have divided the poems into the conventional categories of "Life", "Love", "Time and Eternity", and "Nature" but would have emphasized poetry's integration with quotidian experience.[citation needed]


Susan's poems[edit]

Susan Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem "One asked, when was the grief." The poem was likely written after the death of her youngest son Thomas (Gib) Gilbert Dickinson. Courtesy of Writings by Susan Dickinson

Besides publishing critical pieces and stories, Susan published at least one poem, "Love's Reckoning", in the Republican, and wrote quite a few others:

Drafts of her "Oh" and "A Dirge" ("Feb/95") are recorded in her Florentine commonplace book. Though more conventional in form than Emily's, Susan's poems attend to many of the same subjects–"There are autumn days of the Spring" distinctly echoes both "These are the days when Birds come back"[23] and "The Crickets / sang / And set the / Sun",[24] and "The Sun kept low as an oven" recalls the "Stooping as low as the / kitchen window – " of "Blazing in Gold – and / Quenching – in Purple!"[25] and "The sun kept stooping – stooping – low."[26] Their correspondence was a creative wellspring for Susan as well as for Emily—on Susan's copy of "The Crickets / sang / And Set the / Sun" are several lines of Susan's response to Emily's work, recounting a few lines from Milton's "Comus":

I was all ear
and took in strains that
might create a seal
under the ribs of death

Where John Milton had written "create a soul", Susan wrote "create a seal", perhaps because she was recalling the lines from memory or revising them a bit. And, upside down, Susan added a few lines from Scott's Redgauntlet:

Despair is treason
towards man
and blasphemy
to heaven.

Natural and spiritual inspiration[edit]

John Frederick Kensett, Sunset with Cows, 1856. Oil on canvas, Emily Dickinson Museum

Susan Dickinson's writing suggests she had a profound appreciation of nature. She favored landscape paintings depicting the splendors of the natural world.[27] In the Evergreens, John F. Kensett's Sunset with Cows (1856) bears Susan's name on the back, and in one of her manuscript poems, she wrote -"I'm waiting but the cows not back."[28]

Late in her life, Susan turned increasingly to the rituals of High Church and considered becoming a Roman Catholic. [29] In the 1880s, she spent almost every Sabbath for six years establishing a Sunday school in Logtown, a poor village in present-day Belchertown[30] not far from Amherst.


Secondary sources[edit]

  • Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1932.
  • Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth. Various Writings. References to manuscripts will use the initials "A" (Amherst College), "BPL" (Boston Public Library), "H" ( Houghton Library, Harvard University) and the library catalog number. References will also include the Harvard University Press printings by Johnson and Franklin.
  • Dickinson, Susan Huntington Gilbert. "Annals of the Evergreens" and other manuscripts. H Box 9, Houghton Library, Harvard University. "Annals" abridged version published as "Magnetic Visitors", Amherst (Alumni Quarterly) 33.4 (Spring 1981): 8–15, 27.
  • Dickinson, Susan Huntington Gilbert. H Lowell Autograph, letters to William Hayes Ward. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • Dickinson Susan Huntington Gilbert. Commonplace Book. 16:35:1. The Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University.
  • Dickinson Susan Huntington Gilbert. Scrapbook. "Martha Gilbert Dickinson / The Evergreens / Amherst Massachusetts." St. A 126. The Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University.
  • Eberwein, Jane. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.
  • Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge & London: Harvard UP, 1992.
  • Franklin, R.W., ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge & London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1981. References to this edition will use "F" or "Set" and the fascicles or set number assigned by Franklin.
  • Franklin, R.W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Cambridge & London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1998. References to this edition will use "FP" and the number assigned by Franklin.
  • Hart, Ellen Louise. "The Encoding of Homoerotic Desire: Emily Dickinson's Letters and Poems to Susan Dickinson, 1850–1886." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 9.2 (Fall 1990): 251–272.
  • Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998. References to this edition will use "OMC" and the number assigned to the poem, letter, or letter-poem.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. and Theodora Ward, eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge & London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1958. References to letters in this edition will use "JL" and the number assigned by Johnson.
  • Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge & London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1955. References to poems in this edition will use "JP" and the number assigned by Johnson.
  • Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.
  • Mudge, Jean McClure. "Emily Dickinson and 'Sister Sue.'" Prairie Schooner 52 (1978): 90–108.
  • Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: "The Anxiety of Gender". Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 1984.
  • St. Armand, Barton. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge UP, 1984.
  • Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
  • Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992.
  • Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan & Emily Dickinson: Their Lives, in Letters", Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge U P, 2002), 51–73.
  • Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson" (78–82), "Cartoons" (42–43), "Humor" (149–150), An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, ed. Jane Eberwein (Greenwood P, 1998).
  • Smith, Martha Nell. "Suppressing the Books of Susan in Emily Dickinson", Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture, ed. Amanda Gilroy and Wil Verhoeven (U P of Virginia, 2000), 101–125.
  • Smith, Martha Nell, Lauth, Laura, and Lara Vetter. “Writings by Susan Dickinson.” Dickinson Electronic Archives. 1997. Online. A critical edition of previously unpublished papers.


  1. ^ Leyda 1:342
  2. ^ "Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861–1898), nephew – Emily Dickinson Museum". Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  3. ^ "Martha Dickinson (Mattie) Bianchi (1866–1943), niece – Emily Dickinson Museum". Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  4. ^ "Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875–1883), nephew – Emily Dickinson Museum". Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  5. ^ Bianchi q. Samuel Bowles, 149
  6. ^ St. Armand 23
  7. ^ Farr 110
  8. ^ Eberwein 44, 131
  9. ^ Sewall 201; 219
  10. ^ Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, 1830–1913: A brief account of her life". Retrieved 2021-12-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ H B188; OMC 228
  12. ^ H B89; OMC 22
  13. ^ H B51; OMC 233
  14. ^ Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, 1830–1913: A brief account of her life". Retrieved 2021-12-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  15. ^ H B134; OMC 247
  16. ^ H B95; OMC 165
  17. ^ OMC 229
  18. ^ H B74b; OMC 61
  19. ^ Smith, Martha Nell (2002). "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters" in The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge University Press. p. 70. ISBN 9780521001182. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
  20. ^ St. Armand 74–75
  21. ^ Hart 255; Pollak 137
  22. ^ Smith 207–208
  23. ^ F 6; OMC 25
  24. ^ H 325; Set 6c; OMC 122
  25. ^ F 13; OMC 68
  26. ^ F 8; OMC 52
  27. ^ JL391
  28. ^ H Box 9
  29. ^ St. Armand 84
  30. ^ Kenney A. Dorey, Belchertown Town History, 1960, rev. by Shirley Bock, Doris Dickinson, and Dan Fitzpatrick, 2005. Logtown is described in the Belchertown Town History as being later known as Dwight Station.

External links[edit]