Humanities at Large

Emily Dickinson and Notions of the “Energy Unconscious”

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on October 25 2019.

Alan Ackerman led the last of the introductory Fellows’ Lunch presentations from a summary of two suggested readings (below) through to a close reading of Emily Dickinson’s poem #556.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson
Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, c. early 1847. It is presently located in Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Image in the public domain.

Alan began by writing Emily Dickinson’s poem #556 on the whiteboard instead of using PowerPoint—and asked us to think about how energies and technologies have altered the relationship between the material world and our bodies. How has electricity shaped our understanding of ourselves and cultures in ways we take for granted?

Alan noted that electricity is a vital metaphor used by many Romantics like Percy Shelley (who talks about “electric words”). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in trying to create life by controlling electricity, shows us the outcome can be disastrous. Other writers like Walt Whitman (“I Sing the Body Electric”) wrote during a time period that saw the rise of the telegraph—another modern technology that separated language from body. Electricity also became an idea essential to modern ideas of genius.

Patricia Yaeger wrote about the “energy unconscious” (modelled on Fred Jameson’s “Political Unconscious”) and Alan asked us to consider whether “energy unconscious” was a useful term or concept. Yaeger writes, “this inquiry about energy’s visibility or invisibility might change our reading methodologies.” How might we read for energy? What might we look for? How do we think of utility and poetry together?

Alan’s talk then moved on to determinism—the Greeks and Emerson talked about “fate; elements of Darwin began to appear in literature and literary naturalism when authors created characters as products of their environment. Authors like Zola or Wharton crafted characters that were shaped by their social class and the ways they had been brought up, so much so that they seem unable to exercise free vote. David Nye’s chapter addresses technological determinism—which became a common concept in the late 19th and early 20th century—the idea that technology shapes social structures and cultural values, though Nye argues the other way around.

Most of the Fellows’ discussion centred on Emily Dickinson and her poem, #556.

“The Bobbin Girl" by Winslow Homer, 1871
“The Bobbin Girl" by Winslow Homer, 1871

Alan offered some context for the poem by providing background information about the Industrial Revolution in America and the cotton mills of Massachusetts (the dominant commodity in the 19th century was cotton). Almost everyone in Massachusetts was involved in the cotton mills in one form or another. By the time Dickinson wrote the poem (ca. 1862), water power was being supplemented by steam engines in mills. Coal power was on the rise and supplanted water power by the end of 19th century. Lowell, Dickinson's hometown, was an industrial capital where many young women came from farms to work in the mills. Dickinson would have encountered some of these women when she went to college in the 1840s. She could hear whistles and see smokestacks of the mills from her home.

Emily Dickinson, #556

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
'Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

Our discussion centred on connotations of specific words like groove (train of thought, powered looms), splinter (accidental, mechanical, interruption), swerve (atoms and free will), and current (water or electrical; flow and transmission). Some noted the increasing force of power or energy—or the progression of violence—in the poem. A seemingly normal current turns into floods, then floods changing the landscape and creating something new. In the end the floods cause destruction. We talked about light (out of the box thinking) and dark (madness, or illness or anxiety) readings of the poem.

Alan summed up with an anecdote about one of the worst industrial accidents in American history that happened in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1860. A mill collapsed and later burned down, killing an estimated 145 workers and injuring over 160, many of them young women. Dickinson knew about this disaster and wrote letters about it—certainly, this poem is neither sentimental nor nostalgic.