Emily Dickinson and Political Philosophy: On "My Reward for Being," J343

I am so, so jealous of Dickinson's confidence in this poem.

Emily Dickinson and Political Philosophy: On "My Reward for Being," J343

Welcome! Some things of interest for you

Jonathan Katz's "Chamber Music" is not an essay I'll forget any time soon. He gives a sketch of the brutality of American empire, but his focus on the invisibility of it is particularly sickening and thought-provoking. A representative passage about how blind we can be to a machine we fund and man:

The two-time-Medal-of-Honor recipient Smedley Butler, who led a charge up Coyotepe Hill in 1912, caused a national scandal seventeen years later when he joked during a mainland speaking tour about how his Marines had fixed a Nicaraguan presidential election in the wake of the battle. Butler was shocked that an American audience had no idea what he and his fellow Marines had been doing in their name in Nicaragua and elsewhere.

Regarding the ignorance of the public—one thing I've been thinking about in this era of misinformation is how "nice" can be exceedingly dangerous. We'll constantly make excuses for people who are woefully ignorant because they're "nice." Not showcasing integrity, a willingness to serve, a desire to give and do more, an eagerness to appreciate others. Just "nice," while often being so ignorant as to be counterproductive or harmful. Judging from the passage above, this phenomenon has been going on a long time. The things which are indecent to say we pretend do not exist, even as they kill and maim in our name.

Another item of note is this report on an Alabama town which has arrested more people than it has citizens. The police force makes tons of money for the town and has undergone massive expansion, even as it consistently violates citizens' rights and has drawn the ire of other law enforcement. Nearly every paragraph of that report speaks a horror which makes me wonder what country I live in.

Below, I've posted some remarks on Emily Dickinson's magnificent "My Reward for Being." I hope you enjoy them. I hold the poem contains a fairly thorough critique of the foundation of American society, and I hope you find my argument thoughtful, if not convincing.

Emily Dickinson, "My Reward for Being"

My Reward for Being: I am so, so jealous of Dickinson's confidence in this poem. She has "Being," she exists, she is simply herself. For this, there is a "Reward." We are not told exactly what, but the effects are unmistakable. Royal titles beg for her attention—When Thrones accost my hands — / With "Me, Miss, Me"—and she shuns them. Her Premium is her Bliss, and she would not trade it for titles (Admiralty), power (Sceptre), or land (Realms).

My Reward for Being (343)
Emily Dickinson

My Reward for Being, was This.
My premium — My Bliss —
An Admiralty, less —
A Sceptre — penniless —
And Realms — just Dross —

When Thrones accost my Hands —
With "Me, Miss, Me" —
I'll unroll Thee —
Dominions dowerless — beside this Grace —
Election — Vote —
The Ballots of Eternity, will show just that.

A lot of my personal musing is dedicated to one theme: Can I be more of an adult? E.g. Can I take care of my health better, clean the apartment, be more professional? Compared to that, Dickinson's confidence is otherworldly. She is emphatically not disappointed by a lack of likes on Twitter.


Explicitly political imagery establishes her confidence. I do believe she intends a specific comment about American life. The second stanza introduces this, in outline. There, Thrones accost her; she responds by unrolling Dominions dowerless, bound to Ballots of Eternity. The conflict is akin to that which birthed the Declaration of Independence, monarchy vs. republicanism. The origins of the country are intertwined with her willing independence.

She sets the scene differently from some typical mythic narratives. There is nothing like Washington crossing the Delaware or Franklin pronouncing The Great Compromise. Rather, she is penniless, lacking far more than Realms. No property in a country where property is everything. Witness Madison, in Federalist 10, make a not-at-all exaggerated case for the centrality of private property. He's explaining the emergence of factions as a byproduct of liberty, and ends up saying a bit more:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

Property rights are tied to "the diversity in the faculties of men." When the government protects these faculties, it protects different ways of getting property and even different "kinds" of property. Property, then, is the fundamental expression of diversity, dividing society.

If you feel this might be crudely materialistic in the worst way, American society has proved you correct. The overwhelming emphasis on stuff blots out not just the amazing things people create, but the very experiences of others. Madison's logic quickly warped into "if you're poor, you have no experience worth speaking of," since the proof of such experience would be having property so you could have rights.

Dickinson operates with a critique like this in her poem. She is not only poor, but lacks any authority or possessions of significance. When Thrones accost my Hands — / With "Me, Miss, Me" can be said of any suitor. Anyone who has acquired, however little, and believes they must acquire has a "Throne." The royalty she disappoints is all too American. Everyone, in making their home a castle, has become King George, no less a tyrant.


They, of course, misunderstand her. They want to love her for what she isn't. Dickinson invokes the revolutionary potential of the republic in a way exclusive to her.

Her response to Thrones: I'll unroll Thee. Thee, meaning Dominions dowerless, My Reward for Being, My Bliss. What is Thee, exactly? It is the second person—the "you"—but with no definite object in mind. It is a space. A possibility which can be filled. She throws out words to elaborate on this: Grace. Election. Vote. The Grace of election and voting can be said to be grounded not in the result, but the freedom to do either in the first place. Dickinson's imagery breaks down a bit here, as only one is elect, only one vote matters—hers.

Still, the idea is that she has not been understood whatsoever, and this makes her discovery of the highest consequence. The Reward for Being is the fact suitors can't claim her. That love and individuality are, in fact, not property. And this greater truth gives her Ballots of Eternity. The life of the mind is alive and well in America, in spite of capitalism, and, to a degree, the framing itself.

There is a teaching here, not insignificant to the conduct of political philosophy and political theory. One might be tempted to say political and intellectual life are always in conflict. That the two can never be perfectly reconciled. This is true, but has the potential of being defeatist and terribly anti-intellectual. Obviously, there are other ways of conceiving what is good other than "property," especially when people's well-being is at stake. The lesson is that one has to have the confidence to see what others need, not just blindly follow tradition.