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  • Sexual Metaphors in Emily Dickinson's Letters to Susan Gilbert
  • Lena Koski (bio)

The twentieth-century tendency to view human love and sexuality within a dichotomized universe of deviance and normality, genitality and platonic love, is alien to the emotions and attitudes of the nineteenth century and fundamentally distorts the nature of [nineteenth-century women's] emotional interaction.

(Smith-Rosenberg, 1985: 58-9)

As the above quote aptly points out, there is a difference in the sociohistorical interpretation of the construction of female sexuality between this and the previous century. Homosocial ties between women were not condemned but rather encouraged and socially accepted in the nineteenth century (Smith-Rosenberg 1985). In that era women had a certain freedom to express their romantic or sexual attachments to each other in both actions and words which today would not be possible without sexual aspects being superimposed on these expressions. Bearing this in mind, I intend to examine the sexual language in the love letters Dickinson sent to Susan Gilbert in the early 1850s. Some of the sexual expressions are interpreted in both centuries as expressing similar feelings, whether affectionate or erotic, whereas those I have termed "romantic" form a "gray" area in that they can be interpreted differently in the different eras.

Dickinson's letters to Gilbert express strong homoerotic feelings. Therefore, I will begin by briefly discussing the notion of lesbianism as it is presented by Adrienne Rich (1980). Rich suggests that, rather than to think of hetero- and homosexuality as two dichotomized opposites, it is more fruitful to view them as opposite ends of a continuum along which any individual may vary. She defines the continuum as: [End Page 26]

a range—through each woman's life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience: not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.

(Rich 1980: 648)

In other words, Rich states that all women exist on the lesbian continuum, whether we define ourselves as lesbians or not, no matter in which century we live.

Rich's theory has been criticized from both communities because she effectively forces the label "lesbian" on heterosexuals, thereby both reducing the special qualities of lesbianism and also inaccurately defining heterosexuals as gay. I do not wish to either defend or attack her on this issue here. I do, however, support Rich's attempt to break down the inflexibility dichotomies. Dickinson's work cannot be rigidly categorized as exclusively heteroor homosexual. Thus, Rich's notion of the "lesbian continuum" is useful in the study of Dickinson's sexual language, but the continuum needs to be expanded to include not only different sexual orientations and different expressions of desire but also to allow for different interpretations at different time periods. I will discuss Dickinson's early correspondence with Susan Gilbert as a test case for the general notion of "a lesbian continuum."

Based on the intensity of the sexual imagery in Dickinson's letters to Gilbert, I have grouped the language of these letters under the following three (by no means rigid) headings: AFFECTIONATE, ROMANTIC, and EROTIC. I will begin by briefly discussing and exemplifying the categories of "affectionate" and "erotic" language and then move on to examine in slightly more detail what I have termed "romantic language."

1. Affectionate

"Affectionate" language includes expressions commonly used among young adolescent females in both the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Through this type of language women express tenderness, utter confessions of loneliness and emotional dependency (Smith-Rosenberg 1985):

I have not said to you in so many or so few words that I was happy with you during those few so incredibly short weeks but surely you do not need words to tell you what you must know [—that] we might be sufficient for each other. [. . .] Imagine yourself kissed many times by one who loves you so dearly."

(Smith-Rosenberg 1985: 57)

In the very early letters from Dickinson to Susan Gilbert we find similar affectionate expressions: [End Page 27]

Oh my darling one [. . .] How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel—how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear...


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