Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson

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A daguerreotype of a young Susan Dickinson with a frame, contributed from Dickinson Family Photographs (MS Am 1118.99b). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (December 19, 1830 – May 12, 1913) was a writer, poet, traveler, and editor, as well as the sister in law of the American poet Emily Dickinson. Born in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts Susan was the youngest of six children, born to Thomas and Harriet Arms Gilbert.


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

Susan Huntington Gilbert was born December 19, 1830. She was orphaned by the time she was eleven years old, after her mother died in 1837 and her father in 1841. From that time until the late 1840s, when she came to live in Amherst with her sister Harriet and brother-in-law William Cutler, Susan was reared by her aunt, Sophia Arms Van Vranken, in Geneva, New York, where she attended Utica Female Academy. Susan did attend Amherst Academy while she was living with her sister Harriet, but only for one semester in the fall of 1847. In 1853 she and Austin Dickinson were engaged, and then married July 1, 1856, in the Van Vranken home, "a quiet wedding", with "very few friends and [only Susan's] brothers & sisters, a little cake–a little ice cream."[1] Though the young couple contemplated moving West, to Michigan, where Susan's older brothers lived, Edward Dickinson ensured their never leaving Amherst by making Austin a law partner and by building them a made-to-order house, the Evergreens, on a lot next door to the Homestead. Susan's generous dowry from her brothers helped to furnish the Evergreens, a showcase with oak sideboards, a green marble fireplace adorned with Antonio Canova's sculpture Cupid and Psyche, Gothic chairs, and Victorian paintings where the young wife-to-be imagined treating her brothers to "an oyster supper some cold night" (August 1855 letter). The Evergreens was where she entertained most guests. Susan and Austin had three children:

  • Edward (Ned) Dickinson born 1861
  • Martha (Mattie or Mopsy) Dickinson born 1866
  • Thomas (Gib) Gilbert born 1875

Both of her sons preceded Susan in death (Gib in 1883 and Ned in 1898).

Public view of Susan[edit]

Susan has been called the "most graceful woman in Western Massachusetts",[2] "astute and cosmopolitan",[3] "The Power" increasingly given to "frivolity, snobbery, and ruthlessness",[4] a "sensitive editor" who was Emily's "most responsive reader",[5] a "remarkably perceptive... mentor of some standing" who supposedly refused to edit Emily's poems for publication.[6]

By Emily Dickinson she was affectionately called "Dollie", and with unfailing admiration characterized as an "Avalanche of Sun",[7] a "breath from Gibraltar" uttering "impregnable syllables",[8] "Domingo" in spirit, and "Imagination" itself[9] whose words are of "Silver genealogy."[10] Susan and Emily Dickinson's forty-year relationship has by all accounts been seen as one of crucial importance, even by those who seem intent on calling Susan's character into question. A powerfully intellectual (she was a mathematician and math teacher in Baltimore in 1851–52), vivacious, charismatic, sometimes arrogant, often generous, acutely and astutely well-read woman and devoted mother, Susan Dickinson, her life stories, and their meanings for Emily Dickinson almost inevitably became sites of contestation in a culture with limited storylines for women, their accomplishments, and their contributions to the literary, artistic welfare of society.

Susan and Emily[edit]

Epistolary relationship[edit]

Emily Dickinson frequently described her love for Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson's work through literary metaphor in various letters: comparing her love for Susan to Dante's love for Beatrice, Swift's for Stella, and Mirabeau's for Sophie de Ruffey,[11] and comparing her tutelage with Susan to one with Shakespeare.[12] Clearly, she valued Susan's opinions about writing and reading, and both women shared an affective theory of poetry. Of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers", Susan wrote that the first verse is so compelling that "I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again;”[13] 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. . .”

Among Susan's surviving papers are hundreds and hundreds of letters which show her to be a most attentive mother and friend, numerous essays on subjects as diverse as the valiant work of nurses and the art of architecture, reviews of "Autumn's Divine Beauty Begins" (an essay celebrating the season printed in the Republican ) and of the work of Arthur Sherburne Hardy's Wind of Destiny, which she finds most "refreshing" because "it does not presuppose idiocy in the reader but makes a little demand upon a moderate equipment of mind and imagination" (a remark which just as well characterizes her appreciation as Emily's most staunch contemporary audience). Besides collecting paeans to Queen Victoria, Susan's own writings honor strong pioneering women. Her memoir of Elizabeth Blackwell (the first female doctor in the United States, known not only for her medical practice but also for working to open the profession to women), relates how "of course women deplored" this intellectual female working out of her sphere but speaks of her with great admiration and within the context of Susan's own quest for knowledge, a lifelong journey to which her thousands of books attest.

Emily's death[edit]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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).[16] 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.


Dickinson's work[edit]

While scholars have assumed that the literary relationship between Emily Dickinson and Susan Dickinson was such that Emily was the writer and Susan the reader,[citation needed] Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson wrote essays, reviews, journals, poems, letters, and memorials constantly throughout her life and 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, and of favorite poems, essays, and stories of other writers, including Emily. Early on, Dickinson enthuses over "Susie" keeping a journal, exclaiming that she wants "to get it bound – at my expense",[17] and among the papers found in the Evergreens is a journal Susan kept of a trip to Europe in the early 1900s, when she was seventy-five years old. As an elderly traveler and inveterate writer, Susan visited Paris, Nice, Cologne, Zurich, Verona, Venice, Florence, Rome, the Hague, and London, revellng in the architectural majesty of church buildings and in the sublime beauty of the "Alpine peaks snow tipped... all so wholesome after Paris" and taking care to record her observations and encounters with acquaintances new and old, usually in a literary or poetical vein. On the ship returning home, her journal entries compare "layers of butts" to the "White Alps pointing upward".

Besides apparently keeping journals throughout her life, Susan 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). 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. Personalities more intimately associated with the Dickinson circle also grace these pages as Susan relates luscious accounts of lunches with "fresh asparagus" and "salad from our own garden" and dinners of "very nice lamb and strawberries" with editor Samuel Bowles, his wife Mary, friend Maria Whitney, Josiah and Elizabeth Holland, and Judge Otis P. Lord, whose recital of a hymn complemented by "a most remarkable artistic performance" by Vinnie (Lavinia) the "Annals" recount fondly.

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

By folks who knew her as intimately as Lavinia, her sister-in-law a little more than two years younger, Susan has been roundly criticized for not seeing Emily's poems into print with good speed. Indeed, this is an important part of her story as it bears on study of Dickinson. By her own account in the aforementioned 1890 letter to Higginson, Susan describes 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." In a March 1891 letter to Ward, she elaborates 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.

Susan describes a much more holistic volume than the epitome of the late nineteenth-century poetry book produced by Higginson and Todd. Hers would have been filled with drawings and jokes as well as profound lyrics, and her outline for the production 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, Emily's intellectual prowess, and her philosophical interrogations of the spiritual, corporeal, emotional, and mental realms. Her critiques of the printed volumes and descriptions of how she would have managed preparing a production performance of Emily's writings for "Auction"[18] to the world are, for late twentieth-century readers immured in mechanical and high-tech images of print and screen, avenues into the nineteenth-century manuscript culture of literary exchange in which Susan and Emily were constant participants.


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"[19] and "The Crickets / sang / And set the / Sun",[20] 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!”[21] and "The sun kept stooping – stooping – low."[22] 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

As is evident from many of Susan's titles, from her journal entries, and from the subjects of her reviews, a profound love and deep appreciation for nature pervades her sensibilities, and she clearly favors art focused on the natural world's splendors, on the "Eden, always eligible."[23] In the Evergreens, John F. Kensett's Sunset with Cows (1856) bears Susan's name on the back, and one of her manuscript poem seems a direct response to the painting--“I'm waiting but the cows not back."[24] Her regard for nature is intense enough to be characterized as religious or spiritual, and Susan was indeed devoutly religious from her late teens and throughout her adulthood. Late in her life, Susan turned more and more to the rituals of High Church and even pondered becoming a Roman Catholic, but was dissuaded by Bishop F. Dan Huntington, "who himself had abandoned Harvard Unitarianism to don the sacerdotal robes of American Anglicanism.”[25] Yet her religious devotions were far more than ceremonial, for Susan spent almost every Sabbath for six years in the 1880s establishing a Sunday school in Logtown, a poor village 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. ^ Bianchi q. Samuel Bowles, 149
  3. ^ St. Armand 23
  4. ^ Farr 110
  5. ^ Eberwein 44, 131
  6. ^ Sewall 201; 219
  7. ^ H B188; OMC 228
  8. ^ H B89; OMC 22
  9. ^ H B51; OMC 233
  10. ^ H B134; OMC 247
  11. ^ H B95; OMC 165
  12. ^ OMC 229
  13. ^ H B74b; OMC 61
  14. ^ St. Armand 74–75
  15. ^ Hart 255; Pollak 137
  16. ^ Smith 207–208
  17. ^ H L18; OMC 7, April 1852
  18. ^ JP709
  19. ^ F 6; OMC 25
  20. ^ H 325; Set 6c; OMC 122
  21. ^ F 13; OMC 68
  22. ^ F 8; OMC 52
  23. ^ JL391
  24. ^ H Box 9
  25. ^ St. Armand 84

External links[edit]