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  • Law, Property, and Provincialism in Dickinson's Poems and Letters to Judge Otis Phillips Lord
  • James Guthrie (bio)

Family duties in Amherst and a busy docket in Boston compelled Emily Dickinson and Judge Otis Phillips Lord to pursue their autumnal love affair largely on paper rather than in person. They maintained a weekly correspondence of which only scraps survive, all written by her to him, yet these few remnants show that Dickinson and Lord negotiated at length with each other over such issues as how much sexual license she would permit him during his visits, if and when their relationship might be formalized, and whether she might ultimately move into Lord's house at Salem.1 Serious as all these topics were, the negotiations themselves are often couched in facetious metaphors based upon the law, an area in which she, a lawyer's daughter, possessed considerable lay expertise. Drawing upon her knowledge of the law in her communications with Judge Lord was a rhetorical strategy that may have had its origins in a series of humorous poems Dickinson wrote during the early 1860's, almost twenty years before the affair began. In this essay I will explore ways in which Dickinson's use of legal terms and concepts in these poems laid the groundwork for her later use of them in her letters to Judge Lord. [End Page 27]

Although we cannot be certain that he was indeed her lone, intended audience for these poems, circumstantial evidence and the frequency with which certain themes recur argue that she at least had Judge Lord in mind. The poems usually describe comic legal disputes over titles to rural properties or incursions made into rural spaces by characters who had once been tenants, concluding, typically, with an entreaty to some unnamed authority to determine who the property's rightful owner is or who the trespasser is. Dickinson apparently deployed these legal and rural tropes as part of a campaign to combat Lord's real or imagined disdain for all things provincial, including herself. Attracted to the poems initially by Dickinson's use of what she called "the Judge Lord brand" of humor and by the intrinsic interest of the legal issues she was raising, Lord may also have been persuaded to listen more attentively to what Dickinson had to say about the advantages and drawbacks of small-town life. Many years later, when she and Judge Lord began exchanging love letters, the subjects of rural property ownership and trespass reappear in a new context, one that is much more overtly erotic.

Dickinson's affection for Otis Phillips Lord dated from a period during which he became, according to Millicent Todd Bingham, her father's "best friend" (3). Edward Dickinson probably met the slightly younger Lord shortly after the latter's appointment to the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 1859. Mutual interests soon drew the men together: they shared an old-fashioned Calvinistic morality, conservative (even "hunkerish") political convictions, and a deep concern for what today would be called "law and order" issues, including all manner of criminal behavior ranging from public drunkenness to incitement to riot. Lord soon acquired a reputation for the severity of his sentences as well as for being, in Richard B. Sewall's words, "notoriously hard on divorce seekers" (648).2

Work or pleasure brought the Judge to the Amherst area frequently, either to preside over trials in Northampton or to attend alumni functions at Amherst College, from which he had graduated in 1832, only a year after Emily Dickinson's birth. On some of these occasions he and his wife Elizabeth called at the Homestead, where they were received by Mrs. Dickinson and her adult daughters, whom Lord called his "'Playthings'" (L750). With Emily he engaged initially in what Martha Dickinson Bianchi called "adventures in [End Page 28] conversation," or witty banter that arose, quite possibly, out of an almost comic inability to comprehend each other (Face to Face 36). His sense of humor may have been what first endeared the Judge to Dickinson, who told him "you have a good deal of glee. . . in your nature's corners." (L695), and, according to Mrs. Bianchi, Dickinson labeled the...


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