Consolation Literature

"[Elizabeth Stuart] Phelps has captured the reality
of how truly gorgeous sadness can sometimes be."
--Cali Arakelian

"It is enough the treasure of grief / and joy amassed"
--Susan Huntington Dickinson

[PLEASE NOTE: This site is under construction. Scheduled completion date is January, 2001.]

Using the Site

Consolation literature is read by those who mourn. It is a persuasive genre in which a writer, who has experienced some version of the crisis or dilemma faced by a reader, assumes a common bond with her audience as well as a shared sense of purpose. The writer enters into a process of assisting her reader in moving away from grief, doubt, or despair, toward acceptance, faith, and hope. The study of consolation literature raises key questions concerning the spiritual, moral, and national values of a society, culture, or national group at any particular moment in history.

This site focuses on the correspondence and collaboration between Emily Dickinson and Susan Huntington Dickinson. Friends, sisters-in-law, neighbors, these two writers were intimately connected for a period of more than thirty-six years through their mutual reading and literary production, and in their "thought." ("Thought," often with a capital "T," is one of the terms Dickinson uses in letters and poems to describe her writing,) Among the shared themes and concepts explored in Susan and Emily's work - love, poetry, politics, travel, nature, time, daily life - a central discourse is the language of consolation.

This site is designed to promote the study of writings by Susan Dickinson; to further the appreciation of Emily Dickinson's wide-ranging, and often contradictory, visions of heaven and the aferlife; to provide readers with a variety of writings on rites of dying, methods of grieving, and traditions of consoling in nineteenth century New England; and to teach readers to make cross cultural connections, and find parallels with contemporary attitudes, practices, and beliefs concerning death and loss.

The seven sections of this site are the following:

Note on Transcription

Translations into type can never reproduce Dickinson's manuscript features, yet punctuation, capitalization, spacing between words and phrases can appear as accurately as possible. And Dickinson's lines and line breaks in letters and poems can always be represented exactly.

Note on Line Breaks

[Note: this piece resides here temporarily. It is a sample entry drafted for the poem that begins "I dwell in Possibility - / A fairer House than Pros.e." Later for the introduction I'll rework some of this into a summary note on line division. The notes on each Dickinson poem, for which a Dickinson manuscript exists, will include a "Note on Line Breaks."]

I dwell in Possibility -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -

Of Chambers as the Cedars -
Impregnable of Eye -
And for an Everlasting
The Gambrels of the Sky -

Of Visiters - the fairest -
For Occupation - This -
The spreading wide my
narrow Hands
To gather Paradise -

     x     Gables -

The first stanza of "I dwell in Possibility" is a quatrain; manuscript line arrangements appear in the Johnson and Franklin editions. In the poem's second stanza, the lines "And for an everlasting / Roof" become: "And for an everlasting Roof." This arrangement allows Johnson and Franklin to establish a pattern of quatrains. In the poem's third stanza, "The spreading wide my / narrow Hands" is combined by Johnson and Franklin to make "The spreading wide my narrow Hands"; a third quatrain is formed.

Not only do Johnson and Franklin change the meaning of Dickinson's poems when they lengthen lines, combine and form new lines, divide the poet's lines according to their own editorial patterns. Arguably, these alterations cancel Dickinson's poem.

In destroying her lineation editors remove signs Dickinson created either for her own rereading or to guide her correspondents, her reader-recipients. Johnson and Franklin limit the number of words and syllables that can be stressed, which not only forces the reader to speed up, but also to overemphasize certain connections , while others are rendered invisible. The reconstructed lines interfere with Dickinson's multiple meanings and limit a reader's possibilities for interpretation. Line breaks create pauses, gaps and silences, signals that interact with other manuscript features - punctuation, capitalization, spacing - making up a set oft visual cues that Dickinson's mode of transmission, handwriting, allowed her to inscribe.

After a certain period, probably beginning in the late 1850s, Dickinson writes in short lines that redistribute the centers of her verse. Johnson and Franklin's combined lines - for example, "The spreading wide my narrow Hands " - push words together and rush them along. This pace is in direct contradiction to Dickinson's strategies that encourage readers to move slowly and attend to every syllable. Visually, Dickinson's line "The spreading wide my" fills out evenly the space across the page. Sonically, "my" echoes and emphasizes "wide." If the reader chooses to interpret and play with these visual effects, the spreading gets wider. Alone on the line that follows the hands are narrower.

Future Additions

The site will also feature a bibliography.

The introduction, when finished, will make reference to Susan's transcription of Emily's "Beauty crowds me" and Susan's poems "One asked, when was the grief?" and possibly "Love's Reckoning."

back to The Classroom Electric | feedback

This website is being developed by Ellen Louise Hart of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as part of The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman, and American Culture. I am grateful to Lara Vetter for her work on the design and implementation of this site.