‘Fortune’s expensive smile’: the white elitism of Emily Dickinson

Karl Marx believed that the way people think and behave in society is determined by their social class. Identity is created by people’s behaviour and thoughts. Therefore, identity is reinforced by class, with systems that are constructed to safeguard that of a certain class, namely, the elite. In nineteenth-century America, the upper echelon—consisting mainly of large-scale farm owners—protected their status and wealth at all costs. Initially copying the English style feudal system, they gradually created a graded social system that God supposedly intended. A triumvirate formed, to safeguard the elite identity: divine right, isolation from the masses, and imperialism hidden by myth. Emily Dickinson was part of this elite, and although none of her works are outspoken in politics, a current of elitism, colonialism, and the wealthy language of divine right threads through all her poems. Using various language and style choices, Dickinson’s poetry is adept in the ‘clubbishness’ that was American high society’s identity.

When the first settlers arrived in the New World, it was a fresh start, a clean slate free of the oppression and claustrophobia of Europe and the United Kingdom. Most well-off immigrants were younger sons, looking for the large tracts of land available to remake themselves as lords. Unfortunately, although their middle-class wealth might have been seen as lordly in the New World, there was no structured class system with a proletariat in place to serve the aspiring bourgeoise. Something had to be done. The first Governor of Massachusetts noted that ‘God … hath disposed of the Condicion of mankind, as in all times some must be … highe in power, others in sucession (beneath)’. A system was created where the officials in Britain allocated enormous swathes of land to favoured individuals, complete with indentured labourers, to act like an English feudal estate. Laws of primogeniture were made.

After the War of Independence, the elites disassociated with anything English, instead basing their identity and therefore power off the amassed wealth and clear distinction between Us and Them, ordained by God in Calvinist and Puritan tradition.

The most important part of the elite identity is being part of a select few that have rights and resources many do not. Dickinson grew up in the clique and alludes to its desire for veneration through isolation in many poems, as well as stating it clearly in her letters.

The Dickinson estate is referred to interchangeably as the ‘homestead’ and the ‘mansion’, a typically American uncertainty between a colonial and older English order. By using this language, American estate owners connected themselves with the monarchical orders of England. Although they would have renounced England after the War, the power of the ancient feudal system was irresistible. It also helped largely baseless migrants in a strange land find a foothold—identity—from which disinherited younger sons could easily replicate the power of their elder, English brothers. Poem #411 by Dickinson illustrates this grappling for an identity which would afford its owner feudal power, the childish repetition of ‘Mine – ‘ asserting the persona’s right to power, and through this, an identity, the right to be someone.

Mine – by the Right of the White Election!
Mine – by the Royal Seal!
Mine – by the sign in the Scarlet prison –
Bars – cannot conceal!

Mine – here – in Vision – and in Veto!
Mine – by the Grave’s Repeal –
Titled – Confirmed –
Delirious Charter!
Mine – long as Ages steal!

The poem uses many exclamation marks, the persona proclaiming their power against an invisible antagonist. There is no mention of another person, so the persona dominates an empty room. Who would the estate owners need to prove their rights to, after they have secured their land? Every person working it was known to be subservient.

The enduring need to assert dominance, to claim an identity other classes should see as set in stone, derives from the fear that having so much could result in someone taking it all away. Elites proclaimed from parapets of their homesteads to the already converted audience that they had this right to power. This identity was theirs.

Dickinson’s friend Emily Ford wrote Dickinson was driven by an ‘ungratified desire for distinction’. In #234, Dickinson uses religious allegory, describing ‘the way is narrow/And difficult the Gate’, as if the persona were telling ‘You’ how to get into Heaven.

You’re right — “the way is narrow” —
And “difficult the Gate” —
And “few there be” — Correct again —
That “enter in — thereat” —

‘Tis Costly — So are purples!
‘Tis just the price of Breath —
With but the “Discount” of the Grave —
Termed by the Brokers — “Death”!

And after that — there’s Heaven —
The Good Man’s — “Dividend” —
And Bad Men — “go to Jail” —
I guess —

The persona’s ‘You’re right’ and ‘Correct again’ are separated by dashes, as though marking a student. ‘You’ is assessed whether their answers are sufficient to warrant entry, akin to a member of the upper-class surveying if someone may perhaps be admitted into the Us, from the Them. In the end, it does not matter how many correct answers the ‘You’ gives, for God has preordained who is a ‘Good man’ and who are ‘Bad men’, drawing on Calvinism of the time. This preached how a select few had been predetermined by God to be ‘saved’, while the rest of humanity goes to hell.

A divine admittance system reinforced the elites’ detached exalted detachment from the masses.  If God had ordained their right to distinction, then it was the truth, and the upper classes were the ones most likely to have large amounts of money to build their own schools, or pay for an elaborate Christian funeral. Who else could God possibly choose as his Saved? Dickinson displays a preoccupation with money, and of keeping it within the family as part of the deserving few. Despite the basis of Christianity being charity, #234 combines religion with metaphors of economics, the ‘Costly’ price of entering the gate, the ‘Discount’ of the grave and the ‘Brokers’ term of death. Part of remaining one of the elite is to keep hold of wealth, to amass it. Charity is frowned upon, the American Dream ensures all have the chance to ‘make it’, without interference. Consequently, money must be kept in the family, because they have made it, they deserve it. (Disregarding the fact the wealth came from a privileged background or the use of slave labour.)

Even in death the elite are venerated from the masses by their grand marble mausoleums. The American Dream says anyone can win a place in the ivory tower. Poem #303 describes a ‘low Gate’, the capitalising suggesting it is continuing the Pearly Gates imagery, suggesting that the Gate is easily stepped over, anyone can do it. That is ironic, given the aristocratic, upturned nose of the rest of #303’s imagery, of ‘Chariots’, societies, ‘One’ and ‘Emperor’.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The nineteenth-century American upper-class, born of disinherited Englishmen, promised themselves that they were gods venerated by masses, screaming their dominance to already converted ears, dragging bureaucracy and legislation into place to protect their power, their wealth, their false godliness, and therefore their identity. These themes run through Dickinson’s poetry, evident in her words and metaphors, her style.

Hand in hand with declaring yourself a sanctified individual, comes isolation. Living in mansions on sprawling estates, the elite families of nineteenth-century America were naturally isolated. Enhanced, this condition became a part of elite identity, that one was separate from the rest of humanity.

Dickinson kept to her room, writing poems, isolated. An ideal paradigm of an elite. Her years of time spent writing, musing, having deep probing thoughts, were paid for by poor who would work up to eighteen-hour days for a pittance, often dying from accidents. Dickinson did not write for them, her form of expression—poetry—was a genteel pastime, her heavy use of metaphor and symbolism contrary to how she, and other elites of the time, would imagine their workers’ stereotypical simplicity. In a letter to the local paper, Dickinson complimented the editor on articles about ‘funny accidents where … gentlemen in factories get their heads cut off quite informally.’

Very few of Dickinson’s works were published in her lifetime, and remained undistributed amongst the masses. #303 tells of how ‘The Soul selects her own Society/Then – shuts the Door-’. Dashes bracketing ‘shuts the Door’ mimic the sound of a door latching. No more, room is only for the Society, shut away from the rest.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The Society, capitalised, depicts a few defined by the belonging to an enclave. Again, this is a Them and Us situation. We are an Us, we are someone, we have an identity. The poem’s persona instructs ‘Majority/Present no more —’ the dash again acting like a punch, a curt instruction not to allow any ‘majority’ to be seen.

Isolation, of course, feeds off fear, fear of that isolation being punctured. Dickinson herself wrote letters to her brother about fears of the estate being overrun by Mexicans, of ‘poor Irish boys … I should like to have you kill some, there are so many now there is no room for the Americans.’ In contrast to the image of the Land of the Free, Dickinson and the elite wished for a safe identity, knowledge of being special, instead of American blood being diluted, and the identity of a white, Protestant ruling class being deflated. Books were imported by the thousands from Paris on how to be a proper member of the bourgeoisie, instructing men and women on dress, manners, duties, topics of conversation. All of these instructions, of course, focused on differentiating yourself from the Masses. The wealth and power that supposedly created a person’s identity must be kept in the family, preserved and tended, and what better way than to keep it out of everyone else’s reach?

The last member of the elite’s triumvirate of protection is an imperialist worldview, and subsequent denial that such a thing existed. America, emerging successful from its War of Independence from the British Empire, proclaimed itself an egalitarian dream for refugees. Whilst this propaganda occurred, the country reinforced its class system. It stated that the white landowners had been divinely ordained to conquer the New World. It continued its widespread use of slaves thirty years past the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Unlike other colonies, the United States wished to emulate their imperial abusers down to the last letter. America invaded and conquered Cuba, Hawaii, and other neighbouring island nations, imposing a white capitalist system of government upon them. White people spread from the shores of America, swarming over the centre, eagerly snatching land, thrusting the indigenous people away and often killing or torturing them in what has come to be known as a genocide. The American Dream and Calvinist belief of America as the modern Holy Land, its people the Elect, engendered a beast of egocentricity and holy purpose in the hearts of upper-class Americans.

Dickinson is a perfect representative of this imperial beast. Imbued with a strong sense of white American superiority, her poems use people of a different race or ethnicity as either entertaining diversions or irritating insects. When her Irish servant buried his fever-killed son in her huge garden, she wrote of distress—over the crushed flowers. In The Malay took the Pearl, Dickinson speaks of how a ‘Swarthy fellow swam-/and bore my jewel – home – ‘, describing the jewel (pearl) as her own, despite earlier on suggesting that the swarthy Malay was the one who dived for and obtained the pearl in the first place. Descriptive language of ‘swarthy’ implies a thick, uncultured appearance, so different from the pale, thin skin she herself would have had, a rich lady remaining indoors.

The Malay — took the Pearl —
Not — I — the Earl —
I — feared the Sea — too much
Unsanctified — to touch —

Praying that I might be
Worthy — the Destiny —
The Swarthy fellow swam —
And bore my Jewel — Home —

Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I — the Jewel — got —
Borne on a Dusky Breast —
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber — fit —

The Negro never knew
I — wooed it — too —
To gain, or be undone —
Alike to Him — One —

The poem continues, ‘The Negro never knew’, with a notable absence of punctuation or dashes, accentuating a smoother, more languid quality in comparison to the rest of the poem, or indeed her works. In this softer sentence, Dickinson offers a glimmer of forgiveness to the nasty man who stole her jewel, saying that he could not have known … which turns to be a double edge sword, implying the man is sluggish, dull-witted.

This is a remarkably similar attitude to the British, Spanish, and French subjugating the Indigenous people of each colony in turn, proclaiming white superiority in creating empires. Imperialism contradicts the idea of America as a Land of the Free.  Yet it runs throughout American society, and slips into visibility through the common usage of an Us versus Them binary. The elites managed to use a double negative to great effect, at once defining themselves against the colonial Empires—‘we are not’—and defining an identity by being enveloped in that colonial power. Dickinson uses this double identity to great effect.

In My Country’s Wardrobe, America is contrary, and therefore heroic.

My country need not change her gown,
Her triple suit as sweet
As when ‘t was cut at Lexington,
And first pronounced “a fit.”

Great Britain disapproves “the stars;”
Disparagement discreet, —
There’s something in their attitude
That taunts her bayonet.

England cannot deal with the stars, with the greatness of America. It is stodgy and disapproving. America ‘taunts her’. Dickinson barely ever uses military imagery in her poetry, in spite of writing during wartime, so it is strident when she does use it. Obviously, America’s prowess in outdoing England is a point strongly felt.

Contrary to this clean, progressive image, Dickinson advocates ‘Colour – Caste – Denomination’ (#970), confirms ‘You’re right – ‘the way is narrow’’ (#234) and informs that it is all ‘Mine – as long as Ages steal!’ (#411). At once, she defines America, and more specifically herself and her class, as not English, yet displaying the essence of English values of the time. Thus, the dual identity is created.

Naturally these antitheses must be bridged, and what better way than the age-old aristocratic practice of lying. The titular line in Tell the Truth but Tell It Slant is a neat summary.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Here Dickinson personifies the Truth with a capital letter, warning of ‘The Truth’s superb surprise/As lightning’. Truth released will be awfully destructive, causing ‘every man be blind’. The poem’s unmistakable affinity with a politician’s promise frames it as sweet propaganda, promoting and protecting the elite’s identity, and therefore, elite power. My Country’s Wardrobe adds to the smooth lack of punctuation and long lines, with ‘My country need not change her gown’ reading like a lady’s conversation, insisting softly that America is innocent. Why does one need to proclaim innocence? Only if one has been accused, or if one is guilty. Subjugated classes, the Irish serfs dead in Dickinson’s garden, are not in a position to accuse those Chosen. Guilt is consequently the answer. The  elites unwittingly call attention to the fact they have committed a crime, by endeavouring to cover it up.

Imperialism, colonialism. Even today, 85 per cent of Americans think of Christopher Columbus as the ‘heroic discoverer’ of America. Nothing is said of the people who were already living there. Cover up the truth of imperialism, save it from dissection by the masses and so preserve the elite who live off it. Dickinson participates devotedly to the double negative, clear in many of her poems.

The triumvirate of divine right, isolation, and secret imperialism protected the amassed wealth and power of nineteenth-century American elites. Dickinson illustrates this in her works, threading elitism and racism in poetry alongside a proclamation of divine right. Despite being founded as a refuge, America soon turned into an imperial power with an entrenched class system, of which Dickinson is a paradigm.


Image: Emily Dickinson’s House (Ryan Scott)

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Elisabeth Hughes

Elisabeth Hughes is a writer based in Perth, Australia, and is researching Early Modern history at the University of Western Australia.

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  1. Brilliant deconstruction of Dickinson, a social isolate in her both cloistered and deathly poetic world, and the history supporting US ideology as well as the Dickinson myth: all being propped up by the movement of capital.

    ‘warning of ‘The Truth’s superb surprise/As lightning’.

    Gaslighting being the current term, a post election haunting.

  2. ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’

    Poetry has always been more of a middle class navel gazing phenomena.
    That’s not to say it isn’t worth enjoying.
    The middle class feel anxiety and ennui the same as the working class, albeit in a more comfortable setting.
    Emily could only see the world through her own taught ignorance.

    Philip Larkin, another poet, said it best:

    ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself’

    The working class expressed themselves through folk, jazz, blues, country and rap music.

  3. Larkin, eh – dull old librarian from Hull (rather than hell) – could turn his hand to decent poems that usually went nowhere – such as Whitsun Weddings – perhaps his most famous – where’s this heading – Larkin on parenting – don’t like cynicism myself – doesn’t have to be that way – have two now grown up once kids who travel the world working in creative industries – from my experience you’ve got to give them love as guidance – and know how and when to let them go – and the rest is their life – their world …

    Agree with most of your comments though – Cheers!

  4. “Dickinson kept to her room, writing poems, isolated. An ideal paradigm of an elite.” This must be satire.

      1. How did Marx put it? Something along the lines of if you are freezing to death in the wilderness and have a thousand dollars worth of notes on you you will willingly burn them to stay alive a little longer (material use value trumping now immaterial exchange value being the point), whether elite or not.

  5. This article is particularly relevant today as the US struggles to grapple with its problematic past which reverberate today. I can’t wait to read more from this author.

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