Sunday, July 25, 2010

`By Chums That Passed Away'

Dave Lull, as always, comes to my rescue. About Saturday’s post linking Sir Thomas Browne and Emily Dickinson he writes:

“Richard Sewall says in his biography of ED that `Emily's reading list (Keats, the Brownings, Ruskin, Browne, 'the Revelations') is as misleading, in what it says and what it omits, as anything in the letter. Ruskin and Browne seem to have been of minor importance to her; perhaps she mentioned them because Higginson did in his article.’ (The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), volume two, page 543).

“Alfred Habegger says in his biography of ED only this about Browne: `Of course, Dickinson threw dust in her advisor's eyes. There is little evidence that for 'Prose' she went to Ruskin or Thomas Browne . . . .’ (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: the Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001), page 456)

“But maybe Mr Sigler has evidence that these two biographers weren't aware of, or that came later than their books.”

I don’t have access to the appropriate scholarship but kinship not influence is of more interest to me – elective affinities among writers, acknowledged or not. Habegger takes his title from a poem Dickinson wrote during the Civil War, around 1862 when she was in her early thirties:

“My Wars are laid away in Books —
I have one Battle more —
A Foe whom I have never seen
But oft has scanned me o'er —
And hesitated me between
And others at my side,
But chose the best — Neglecting me — till
All the rest, have died —
How sweet if I am not forgot
By Chums that passed away —
Since Playmates at threescore and ten
Are such a scarcity —”

Imagine if Dickinson had written “Friends” for “Chums.” The affectionate informality of the latter is a perfect choice for use in a death-haunted poem. Etymologists trace chum (as in friend, not salmon) to the 1680s: “university slang, alternative spelling of cham, short for chamber(mate), typical of the late-17c. fondness for clipped words.” Browne (1605-1682) might have known the word. And of course his biographer, Samuel Johnson, was called The Great Cham, said to be a corruption of khan. In Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008) Jeffrey Meyers writes:

“Johnson’s paternal role permitted him to address his chums with familiar nicknames. He called Mrs. Thrale’s eldest daughter, Hester Maria, `Queeney’ (after the biblical Queen Esther); the writer Arthur Murphy was `Mur’; Garrick, `Davy’; Hawkins, `Hawky’; Langton, `Lanky’; Beauclerk, `Beau’; Frances Reynolds, `Renny’; Edmund Burke, `Mund’; Boswell, `Bozzy’; Goldsmith, `Goldy.’ The names Burney and Percy came ready-made. Yet no one dared to call Johnson `Sammy’ or `Johnny.’”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

For more on the Browne influence, see Arthur Versluis, "Esoteric Origin."

I haven't read Sewall's biography, having been converted to Martha Nell Smith's "Rowing in Eden" theories a long time ago.