- Emily Dickinson‘s Encounter with the East: Chinese Museum in Boston
The subtitle of the first international conference of the Emily Dickinson International Society held in Asia (August 2007), “Like Fabrics of the East,” comes from one of Dickinson’s poems written in approximately 1878:
His Mind like Fabrics of the East - Displayed to the despair Of everyone but here and there An humble Purchaser - For though his price was not of Gold - More arduous there is - That one should comprehend the worth, Was all the price there was -(Fr1471)
Referring to the difficulty of understanding God’s “Mind” even while it is “displayed” to “the despair / Of everyone,” these lines bear uncanny resemblance to the sample sentence for the word “display” in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language (1828): “The works of Nature display the power and wisdom of the Supreme Being.” However, the poet also notes that “His Mind” requires “More arduous” “price” than “Gold,” that is, “More arduous” effort is necessary to “comprehend the worth.”
Dickinson also implies that only a “humble” person might be able to accept the supreme “Mind.” A “humble” person is, according to the same dictionary, supposed to be “modest” or to have “a low opinion of one’s self, and a deep [End Page 43] sense of unworthiness in the sight of God . . . in an evangelical sense.” As the following sample sentence suggests, the “humble purchaser” who knows his or her own “unworthiness” and tries “more arduous” efforts may be more likely to understand God’s “Mind” than others: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5.5). Similar “despair” and “arduous” efforts marked the poet herself, when she was “the despair” of everyone around her because she could not accept Christ at the religious revivals in her youth, as she writes in an 1846 letter to Abiah Root, “Friends reasoned with me & told me of the danger I was in of grieving away the Holy spirit of God. I felt my danger & was alarmed in view of it. . .” (L11). In an 1850 letter addressed to Jane Humphrey, Dickinson writes, “Even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him [Christ], and I am standing alone in rebellion, growing very careless” (L35).1
By employing commercial terms such as “Displayed,” “Purchaser,” “price,” and “worth,” Dickinson hints at an ironical attitude toward the religious revivals current in Amherst, as she writes in a letter, “It seemed as if those who sneered loudest at serious things were soonest brought to see their power, and to make Christ their portion” (L10). She thus casts the “Fabrics of the East” in wondrous, exotic, or mysterious hues, metaphorical “fabric[ations]” conjuring comparisons to God’s “Mind.”
Similarly, Dickinson associates the word “Oriental” with the mythical or fantastic:
Reportless Subjects, to the Quick Continual addressed - But foreign as the Dialect Of Danes, unto the rest.
Reportless Measures, to the Ear Susceptive - stimulus - But like an Oriental Tale To others, fabulous -(Fr1118)
Although something wonderful is always “addresse[d]” or “displayed,” as stated in “His Mind like Fabrics of the East,” only “the Quick” can recognize it. On the other hand, to “the rest” or “others” who are less refined and have no “Ear,” such mysteries are like a “fabulous” “Oriental Tale.”2 Thus, to Dickinson, “Oriental” things or things of “the East” must have embodied the “fabulous” that may be subtly connected with God’s mind. [End Page 44]
What kind of “Oriental Tale” might Dickinson have heard and what kind of “Fabrics of the East” might she have seen during her two visits to Boston in the 1840s? Her perceptions from these trips may have influenced her later life as well as her poetry.
I. The Norcross Families in Boston
In the nineteenth century, New Englanders had many opportunities to encounter the East, especially the culture of China, owing to the long history of the Chinese trade in New England.3 According to Carl L. Crossman’s A Catalogue of Chinese Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver and Other Objects, in Salem, which John Rogers Haddad calls “a thriving center of maritime commerce” (“Introduction” 3),
between one tenth and...