"Neighbor -- and friend -- and Bridegroom --": William Smith Clark as Emily Dickinson's Master Figure

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The Emily Dickinson Journal 11.2 (2002) 48-85 Since the 1890s, when Emily Dickinson's poems and letters became public, there has been constant speculation about the identity of the Master figure. I propose that Emily Dickinson's Master, the mysterious person she loved when she was about thirty, and for whom she wrote hundreds of poems and the three Master Letters, was William Smith Clark, who lived from 1826 to 1886. In the past Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, Otis Lord, and Sue Dickinson have been looked at as candidates, but Clark is more likely than any of them to have been Dickinson's muse and audience from 1857 until 1865. Dickinson's love for William Smith Clark explains most of her reclusive behavior, much about her poetry and letters, and why her work was so severely censored by her family before being published. The story needs to be told in order to understand Dickinson and her writing at all. Clark, a near neighbor, was connected to Dickinson by dozens of shared friendships and even kinship. He went to the same church, and he would have been in the Dickinson houses often throughout his life. He is reported to have died from "an affection of the heart" just two months before Dickinson's own death (Goodell, "William Smith Clark" 520-523). A young, spirited, and dashing man, William Smith Clark was, "personally and socially attractive, a brilliant talker, a good listener too, fond of telling stories full of anecdote and adventure and wit and repartee. Col. Clark was the life of the social circle, the faculty meeting, the gathering at the corner of the streets, the legislative hall or the popular assembly" [Begin Page 50] (Tyler, "Ex-President" 3-4). He rode his beautiful horses with a power and style that even newsmen admired. He was cocky, a bit conceited, yet a good listener, a gentle, sensitive, and educated man, a man who encouraged the women in his life to use their minds, and a man who was an aspiring writer himself. William Smith Clark was born July 31, 1826, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, the son of Atherton Clark, an impoverished country doctor, and Harriet Smith Clark, the daughter of another physician. Clark grew up primarily in Easthampton, Massachusetts, fourteen miles from Amherst. He studied at the new Williston Seminary and entered Amherst College in 1844. In college he thought of medicine as a career. He had always been interested in science, especially the study of caves and caverns, precious metals, gemstones, mining, and meteorites, but later he became devoted to botany. A graduate of Amherst College in 1848, Clark later taught botany, zoology, and chemistry there. He and Edward Dickinson often disagreed but were the two most effective founders of Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst), and Clark worked closely with Austin Dickinson on numerous town and Amherst College projects. Clark taught at and was President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and he also founded, taught at, and was President of Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido Imperial University) in Japan. When Clark graduated from Amherst in 1848, he had been in college with Austin Dickinson for two years at a tiny school that had only eight professors and about 140 students. The students were thrust together in chapel twice each day and at other convocations often. Clark was not a member of the oldest social fraternity at Amherst, Alpha Delta Phi with Austin Dickinson, but in the upstart rival, Psi Upsilon. Both young men were among the very few from Amherst classes graduating before 1853 to be elected retroactively to Phi Beta Kappa. They spent the Amherst commencement week of festivities each summer at congenial meetings of the alumni and Phi Beta Kappa, jockeying for leadership. William S. Clark taught science at Williston for two years, earning money for graduate school. In 1850 he went for his Ph.D. at Georgia Augusta University in Göttingen. On the way to Germany, Clark spent six weeks in London and fell in love with Kew Gardens and the botanical collections of Linnaeus at the British Museum. He also found extensive botanical gardens at Göttingen. In Germany...

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In the 1870s, William Smith Clark was a successful botanist and president of Massachusetts Agricultural College. Nevertheless, frustrated by university politics, financial difficulties, and perhaps a midlife crisis, Clark was recruited by the Japanese government to establish an agricultural college on the northeast Asian island of Hokkaido, where Japan had recently begun an ambitious settler colonial project. In this mutable context, Clark skilfully combined numerous masculine identities, including scientist, missionary, teacher, and explorer, to craft a flamboyant persona that won him lasting respect in Japan. Less suited to Massachusetts, Clark’s inflated persona destroyed his academic and scientific career after his return, however. This chapter explores the construction of personae in “home” and “abroad” contexts and the tensions and opportunities that emerge from travel between them.
Emily Dickinson never traveled to Japan, but her work has had a passionate Japanese readership, and many of her early admirers in the West were connoisseurs of Japanese culture. Among these were Mabel Loomis Todd, Ernest and Mary Fenollosa, and Amy Lowell, along with the Boston-based expert in Asian art Kakuzo Okakura. My essay ventures three explanations for why Dickinson seems at home in Japan: biographical, cultural, and interpretive. Dickinson's temperament recalls the Asian tradition of the scholarly recluse, and so do her haiku-like nature poems and inscrutable letters. Her cultural situation in Calvinist New England has parallels with an older Japan, before Commodore Perry's "opening" of 1854. There was much East-West cultural exchange in the rise of Emersonian Transcendentalism, on which Dickinson also drew. The reception of Dickinson's poetry in the West has Asian resonances. The successive spikes in her reputation—during the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1950s—correspond to periods of heightened American awareness of Asian culture. For a hundred years and more, American readers have read and interpreted Dickinson's work through a Japanese lens.
:Dickinson's poems and letters include a menagerie of creatures. From her beloved dog Carlo to the birds flying through her garden, Dickinson's animals provide a rich opportunity to study her descriptions of external objects as understood by human perception. This essay uses the debates surrounding anthropomorphism in Dickinson's time to provide a framework for understanding her own use of the human to describe the animal. For generations, scientists found that human concepts and emotions could productively aid in their study of animal life and activity. Charles Darwin, for example, uses anthropomorphism in order to describe his observations on the Galapagos Islands. Yet the emergence of Darwin's theories helped accelerate a shift away from these approaches toward the stance of scientists such as Louis Agassiz, who believed that humans could perceive and describe animals in a way that effaced an anthropocentric bias. Dickinson's own poetry evinces skepticism about both sides of this debate. Her work demonstrates the impossibility of eliminating this anthropocentric approach as we observe the external world. At the same time, these poems unsettle the reliability of the very human perceptions we cannot escape. This dual uncertainty is common in many of Dickinson's anthropomorphized descriptions, and it makes her animal poems a revelatory if often overlooked scene of her contemplations on human knowledge and consciousness itself.
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