1853–1855: Springfield and Washington
In September 1853, Dickinson agreed to go on a rare trip outside of Amherst. Josiah Holland and his wife Elizabeth, treasured family friends of the Dickinsons, had urged Dickinson and Lavinia to travel to Springfield to visit them. Dickinson adored the Hollands. The relaxed atmosphere of their household was a comfortable contrast to the reserved Dickinson household. Dickinson enjoyed watching the unabashed affection between Josiah and Elizabeth and their young daughter Annie, as well as Elizabeth Holland's unmarried sister Minnie Chapin. The Hollands' easy affection seemed foreign to both Dickinson and Lavinia. Their own father grew more and more stubborn and complex with each passing year. He ran a cold, formal house.
Although a doctor by trade, Holland found he was attracted to the literary life and longed to write. He founded a newspaper, but it went bankrupt in six months. In Springfield, Holland ran into Samuel Bowles, a friend and the editor of the Springfield Republican. Samuel Bowles offered Dr. Holland the opportunity to write book reviews and oversee a religion/ethics department on the newspaper. Holland accepted. Dickinson met Samuel, not through her Josiah Holland, but through her brother Austin. Samuel would become a very important force in Dickinson's life.
In December of 1853, Edward Dickinson was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was called to Washington for two years while Congress was in session. There was much at stake during the Thirty-Third Congressional session. The Kansas-Nebraska bill was working its way through the Senate. This bill intensified the slave debate in America, because it directly contradicted provisions in the Missouri Compromise barring the extension of slavery into new states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act said that the legality of slavery would be decided by "popular sovereignty," or by the inhabitants of the new territories.
Edward Dickinson traveled back to Amherst several times during the winter and spring of 1853–1854. He asked his wife and Lavinia to join him for a few weeks in Washington. Dickinson, he knew, preferred to stay home–her inclination for isolation was already apparent. The family, minus Dickinson, eventually joined Mr. Dickinson in Washington for six weeks. Susan Gilbert moved into the Dickinson house for a time and John Graves, Dickinson's cousin, looked in on the women every night.
On March 3, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 37–14. On March 21 it was introduced in the House. Edward Dickinson, a House member, fought against the bill along with forty-three other Northern Whigs. Despite their efforts, the bill passed, allowing new states to adopt slavery. A few nights later, Edward held a meeting with other Whig Party members at his Washington D.C. boarding rooms. The men decided to create a new political party–the Republican Party.
Dickinson eventually traveled to Washington in 1855, spending three weeks there with her father, mother, and sister. Dickinson had a long-standing interest in politics and always kept abreast of current events. Even though she had been unwilling to leave Amherst, Dickinson adored Washington. She and her family rode a boat down the Potomac River, visited Mount Vernon and the Capitol, and attended numerous Washington parties. It was at these gatherings that the shy poet shined. Dickinson dazzled her father's political cohorts. Her insights into world affairs and her dry sense of humor bewitched almost everyone who met her at these functions. Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was especially enchanted by Dickinson. The Dred Scott case was hanging over his head; he had spent most of the evening discussing it, and found Dickinson's wit refreshing.
While in Washington, Dickinson ran into one of her childhood friends, Helen Fiske, and Fiske's husband, a soldier named Edward Bissell Hunt. Dickinson found Hunt captivating, and Hunt was fascinated by Dickinson. Some scholars have said that Dickinson fell in love with Edward Hunt, although there is no evidence to back up this claim. However, Dickinson did write in a letter at the time that Edward Hunt intrigued her more than any man she had met before.
After three weeks in Washington, Dickinson traveled to Philadelphia to visit with her old school friend Eliza Coleman. Eliza's father, Reverend Lyman Coleman, was pastor of the Presbyterian Academy of Philadelphia, and through him Dickinson made the acquaintance of a serious, dark-eyed man named Dr. Charles Wadsworth. Wadsworth was a preacher at Arch Street Presbyterian Church. He was a brilliant man, and Dickinson felt immediately drawn to him. He was married, but he took to Dickinson immediately and when she left, they began a long correspondence. Wadsworth occasionally visited Dickinson in Amherst. Dickinson turned away more and more visitors as the years passed, including her good friend Samuel Bowles, but she never turned away Dr. Charles Wadsworth.
Dickinson's trip to Washington proved that she had both the social and the intellectual gifts to be part of that world. However, after returning home from her trips to Washington (and subsequently Philadelphia), she retreated for good into her cloistered, self-made world. Three portraits hung on the walls of her room: George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle and Dr. Charles Wadsworth.
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