Emily Dickinson and the Spanish Civil War

Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886 effectively robbed her of the opportunity to participate in the Spanish Civil War, whether on the side of the Republicans or indeed, that of the Nationalists. Here, on this blog, we think she would certainly have thrown her lot in with the former and moreover, we imagine that after reluctantly joining the CPUSA (being unfortunately too old for the Young Communist League), Dickinson, an avowed American, would have rushed to the ranks of the Lincoln Battalion of the XV International Brigade.

Despite her indifference to Stalin and her complete ignorance of the workings of the Comintern, Dickinson appears to have avoided being identified as a political dissident by the SIM, the Stalinist secret police, which spent much time and energy rooting out Trotskyists from the ranks. While Dickinson has never been associated with Trotskyism or even the 4th International, several searches through the archives of the IWW have failed to find definitive evidence of her membership of the Wobblies. Her adherence to class war politics is, of course, a constant theme running through her poetry. Her thoughts on Trotsky per se, are, as of yet, unknown. Or can it really be that simple?

Dickinson as a young Party member, practices semaphore

Despite a tenancy on the part of a certain cabal of literary critics to lap up every drop of ink from her very fascicles, her apparent disinterest in Trotskyism has been ignored, or at least blithely disregarded, until now. Few indeed are the published accounts of her hawking around copies of the Amherst Spartacist and one can safely assume, that in her heart at any rate, she would have followed Bakunin out of the 1st International. Her youthful correspondence with Proudhon (sadly deliberately destroyed in the last weeks of his life) will be the subject of another post.

Many claim that Dickinson’s participation in the Spanish Civil War has had no obvious influence on her poetry, much of which was published posthumously after her death. But is this really the case? Have the critics been blind to her political activism (her organising, for example, a militant poetaster underground autonomous social centre in Amherst in the 1840s) and her obvious commitment to the defeat of fascism?

Towards the end of her life, she became increasingly intolerant of critics (Mitchell and Stuart 2009)

We believe that the several life-altering experiences Dickinson went through fighting in the defence of the Spanish Republic had a fundamental effect on the poetry she had written several decades previously, away from the trenches, the air raids and the deprivations of the front line, back in her native New England.

Take for example the miraculous survival of Joe Greenblatt, who along with Dickinson was the only member of No. 1 Company to live through a ferocious aerial bombardment during the defence of Teruel in January 1938. Dickinson had just received a parcel from Amherst containing a large jar of boiled sweets and a few cartons of cigarettes. On seeing this, Greenblatt insinuated his way into the poetaster’s tidy dug-out, and as the remainder of the unit ran across the snow to engage with the fascists on the next ridge, he sweet talked his way into her company with wildly fanciful tales of a  previous job as a telephonist and general handyman with a small New England undertaker, gist indeed for the poetaster’s mill.

He was sucking on his third boiled sweet as the first bombs fell. When the jar had been long finished and several of the cigarettes smoked, both the elderly poet and the young longshoresman poked their heads gingerly over the shrapnel-torn line of sandbags covering the entrance to their shelter. A scene of devastation greeted them with many of their comrades groaning in bloody heaps on the white snow as several more shot each other in the back of the head to remove themselves from their mutual misery.

Jeez, said Joe softly, if we weren’t such greedy bastards, that should be us out there…

Speak for yourself, said Dickinson, who had an abhorrence of vague expressions of sentimental serendipity, unless they assisted her versifying.

Emily asked Joe to bend over and resting her notebook on his back, she may have written the final stanza of No. 759, which she hadn’t been able to bring to a conclusion since the retreat from Belchite the previous July.

‘His Comrades, shifted like the Flakes When Gusts reverse the Snow – But He was left alive Because he was a Greedy Bastard’

It still didn’t sound right…

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