Vista • Mount Holyoke College • Fall/Winter 2011 • Vol. 16 No. 2
Value of the Liberal Arts
By Christopher Benfey
“Your welcome letter found me all engrossed in the history of Sulfuric Acid!!!!!” The excited chemistry student was the 17-year-old Emily Dickinson, writing to her brother, Austin, from Mount Holyoke. She was two weeks into her second term, February 17, 1848, and her teacher was Mary Lyon herself, a trained chemist, during her final year of teaching at the innovative school she had founded 11 years earlier. Dickinson’s textbook was Silliman’s Chemistry, as she called it, by the pioneering Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman, a friend and associate of Lyon’s own mentor, the Amherst geologist Edward Hitchcock. Dickinson was getting the best scientific education money could buy, and she was excited about it.
It’s worth reflecting on what exactly Dickinson drew from her education at Mount Holyoke. Like other small colleges in the region, including Amherst and Yale, Mount Holyoke was beginning its momentous shift from its narrowly religious beginnings to an engagement with what we now recognize as the liberal arts. In her letters home, Dickinson proudly listed her subjects of study: chemistry, physiology, algebra, astronomy, rhetoric (lots of Alexander Pope), and so on. She also practiced the piano, as she put it, “only one hour a day.” Engaging with such a rich offering of study, Dickinson gained a highly sophisticated sense of the complexity of the modern world. She was fully aware, for example, of the growing tension between religious explanations of the world and newer, more scientific ideas, culminating in the debate over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Faith is a fine invention / When gentlemen can see,” she later wrote wryly, “But microscopes are prudent / In an emergency.” In her great poems, she often found metaphors in recent scientific discoveries. Recently, in a course I teach on Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke, in which all participants pursue original research in the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections, Alice Obar ’12 explored Dickinson’s excitement about the newly isolated element iodine, with its rich purple color. Iodine entered her poetry—or stained it, one might say—in her description of the sunset as “harrowing iodine.”
What most strikes a reader today in Dickinson’s letters home from Mount Holyoke is not her discomfort with religious strictures, though there is certainly some of that late in her time at the school. Instead, it is her dawning excitement about her expanding intellectual horizons in the classroom. “Miss Lyon is raising her standard of scholarship a good deal,” she wrote proudly. Meeting that high standard made Dickinson feel that her own words, her own emerging and powerful voice, mattered. That’s the voice we hear in her letter about the thrill of sulfuric acid. Dickinson increasingly learned, as she put it in one of her greatest poems, to dwell in possibility: “I dwell in Possibility / A fairer house than Prose.” In doing so, she found a new name for poetry, but also a new name for a liberal arts education, as valuable for an ambitious young woman in 1848 as it is today.
Christopher Benfey is the Mellon Professor of English and interim Dean of Faculty. He is a prolific critic, essayist, and author whose current research concerns New England literary and visual culture during the Gilded Age.
Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright ©1958, 1986, The President and Fellows of Harvard College; 1914, 1924, 1932, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi; 1952 by Alfred Leete Hampson; 1960 by Mary L. Hampson.
| Page 2
| Page 3
| Page 4
| Page 5
| Page 6
| Page 7
| Page 8