Contemporary Contexts:

Tropes of the east pervade not only Dickinson's writings. In 1851, after giving Nathaniel Hawthorne a copy of Moby Dick, and receiving an appreciative letter in return, Herman Melville wrote to his friend, "you have now given me the crown of India" (17 November 1851). Melville and Hawthorne had became friends in the last year, despite Hawthorne's famous reserve, and although the friendship ended suddenly when Hawthorne moved away, it was an intense friendship, especially for Melville. Melville was working on Moby-Dick when he met Hawthorne, and he dedicated the novel to Hawthorne: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."

As Melville turns to the language of empire and the east to describe how moved he is by his friend's appreciation of his literary efforts, so Dickinson similarly refers to India in a poem about blissful moments. In "It would never be Common--more--I said", Dickinson describes the experience of bliss as a moment when the common is made uncommon. She writes:

I walked - as wings - my body bore -
The feet - I former used -
Unnecessary - now to me.
But then the poem considers the loss of such bliss:
suddenly - my Riches shrank -
A Goblin - drank my Dew -
My Palaces - dropped tenantless -
Myself - was beggared - too --
It is a poem about sudden shifts in emotional wealth, and although it seeks reconciliation with the loss of bliss, it ends with one final note of longing:
But where my moment of Brocade --
My - drop - of India?

Thus, as Melville imagines winning the crown jewel of the British Empire (India) when a friend he deeply, passionately admired offers praise, so Dickinson remembers lost passion (perhaps the early days of her relationship with Susan before Susan married Dickinson's brother) and longs for just a drop of the riches Britain claimed in India.

What can we make of these two uses? Wai-Chee Dimock suggests that we can hear a rhetoric of imperialism and U.S. expansionism in Melville's notion of authorship. Melville speaks of needing "plenty of sea-room" to speak the truth, and he imagines that only "the man who, like Russia or the British Empire, declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) amid the powers of heaven, hell, and earth" may apprehend and tell "the absolute condition of present things" (qtd in Dimock 3, 7). Critics have heard similar desires for space in Walt Whitman and they have similarly linked Whitman to a national desire for expansion. Traditionally, Dickinson is understood as a miniaturist in contrast to Whitman's expansiveness: short lines and compact poems in contrast to long lines and lengthy poems, to cite only the most obvious evidence. Her "drop - of India" compared to Melville's "crown of India" might seem to further such a reading of Dickinson as the feminine minimalist in contrast to the masculine empire-builders. But such a reading does not do justice to what Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman share when they turn to the east to write of passion. Melville's letter to Hawthorne is a deeply intimate and wildly passionate letter.

[17?] November 1851 Pittsfield

Pittsfield, Monday afternoon

My dear Hawthorne:

People think that if a man has undergone any hardship, he should have a reward; but for my part, if I have done the hardest possible dayís work, and then come to sit down in a corner and eat my supper comfortably - why, then I donít think I deserve any reward for my hard dayís work - for am I not now at peace? Is not my supper good? My peace and my supper are my reward, my dear Hawthorne. So your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter is not my reward for my ditcherís work with that book, but is the good goddessís bonus over and above what was stipulated for - for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory - the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity. In my proud, humble way, - a shepherd-king, - I was lord of a little vale in the solitary Crimea; but you have now given me the crown of India. But on trying it on my head, I found it fell down on my ears, notwithstanding their asinine length - for itís only such ears that sustain such crowns.

Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewoodís, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous - catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I canít write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then - your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in Godís. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Romeís Pantheon. It is a strange feeling- no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content - that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips - lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. Now, sympathizing with the paper, my angel turns over another page. You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book - and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, - the familiar, - and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes.

My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning. Farewell. Donít write a word about the book. That would be robbing me of my miserly delight. I am heartily sorry I ever wrote anything about you - it was paltry. Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; - I have heard of Krakens.

This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it - for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! itís a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.

What a pity, that, for your plain, bluff letter, you should get such gibberish! Mention me to Mrs. Hawthorne and to the children, and so, good-by to you, with my blessing.


I canít stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of Magians, Iíll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand - a million - billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question - they are One.


Donít think that by writing me a letter, you shall always be bored with an immediate reply to it - and so keep both of us delving over a writing-desk eternally. No such thing! I shaínít always answer your letters, and you may do just as you please.

[Source: Herman Melville, Correspondence (Chicago: Northwestern University Press and Newberry Library), 1993, pp. 210-14. ]

Introduction | Lalla Rookh | He Touched Me | Contexts
Critical Issues | Student Projects | Bibliography