A viral January 12 2022 tweet purportedly quoting a letter by Emily Dickinson to a female friend (“I tore open your letter and licked the envelope’s seal for any lingering taste of you”) quickly spread in screenshots on Facebook and Imgur:
emily dickinson really wrote to sue "i tore open your letter and licked the envelope's seal for any lingering taste of you" and historians thought they were just friends
— rosé (@fairydreamys) January 12, 2022
Gal Pals and Live-in Gal Pals are jokes popular in the LGBTQ community made to mock heteronormative media’s erasure of bisexuality among women.
Text of the tweet referenced author Emily Dickinson and a letter recipient identified only as “Sue”:
emily dickinson really wrote to sue “i tore open your letter and licked the envelope’s seal for any lingering taste of you” and historians thought they were just friends
It contained a claim and a sub-claim, one being that Dickinson penned the “licked the envelope’s seal for any lingering taste of you” letter. A second sub-claim was that historians remained ignorant of Dickinson’s affection for a woman named Sue, dismissing the purported writings as those of “just friends.”
Emily’s Letter to Sue: ‘I Tore Open Your Letter and Licked the Envelope’s Seal for Any Lingering Taste of You’
A search for “‘i tore open your letter’ and licked the envelope’s seal for ‘any lingering taste of you,'” partly in quotes, returned only eight results on January 14 2022 — all related to the tweet. Restricting the results to any before December 1 2021 returned only misdated content related to the January 2022 tweet.
Single-digit Google search results could hint at a fabricated quote or something novel, but searching for “I tore open your letter” and “Emily Dickinson” together returned 33 results. One of the results was a 1996 article in a biannual academic publication, The Emily Dickinson Journal.
A Spring 1996 entry, “Suing Sue: Emily Dickinson Addressing Susan Gilbert,” identified “Sue” as Susan Gilbert Dickinson. It began with the quote, and indeed framed the relationship between Dickinson and “Sue” as a “long friendship”:
I tore open your letter and licked the envelope’s seal for any lingering trace of you
Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a person of primary significance to Emily Dickinson, as testified to by the long friendship they maintained through written correspondences. Yet in Dickinson’s poems, letters, and letter-poems, Sue’s name begins to stand for an abstract idea of friendship rather than a particular friend. Her name is the answer to a riddle, a rhyme word, and a pun, as when she plays with the double meaning of “to sue” (either to petition for grace or to put on trial for a wrong committed), though it remains an identifiable individual’s name. It is the disconnecting of the name from the incarnate person, the transformation of her into a figure, which makes Dickinson self-conscious. The most telling example of this self-consciousness comes in a late letter-poem sent to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, which begins “Morning / might come / by Accident—,” and the related texts which cluster around it. I argue that this letter-poem simultaneously proclaims how much the addressee matters to the poet as an incarnate person and displays how much she has come to function as a figure in Dickinson’s imagination. The tension between the two roles the writer assigns Susan is what animates Dickinson to continue to tell her friend why she cannot see her, and why her presence, even if only imagined, means so much to her …
Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson was the subject of an entry on the website for the Emily Dickinson Museum, which referenced their “intimate correspondence”:
Susan had become close friends with Emily Dickinson in 1850. Their intimate correspondence, occasionally interrupted by periods of seeming estrangement, nevertheless lasted until the poet’s death in 1886. Susan, a writer herself, was the most familiar of all the family members with Dickinson’s poetry, having received more than 250 poems from her over the years. At least once she offered constructive criticism and advice. Susan wrote the poet’s remarkable obituary, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886.
Dickinson’s letters to “Sue” were also the subject of a 2018 article on the website TheMarginalian.org (formerly Brain Pickings), “Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert”:
Four months before her twentieth birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) met the person who became her first love and remained her greatest — an orphaned mathematician-in-training by the name of Susan Gilbert, nine days her junior. Throughout the poet’s life, Susan would be her muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World.”
I devote more than one hundred pages of Figuring to their beautiful, heartbreaking, unclassifiable relationship that fomented some of the greatest, most original and paradigm-shifting poetry humanity has ever produced. (This essay is drawn from my book.)
A tempest of intimacy swirled over the eighteen months following Susan’s arrival into the Dickinsons’ lives. The two young women took long walks in the woods together, exchanged books, read poetry to each other, and commenced an intense, intimate correspondence that would evolve and permute but would last a life- time. “We are the only poets,” Emily told Susan, “and everyone else is prose.”
By early 1852, the poet was besotted beyond words. She beckoned to Susan on a Sunday:
Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!
Although the quote was perhaps not widely noticed until it was highlighted by the viral tweet, it appeared in academic publications as early as 1996.
‘… And Historians Thought They Were Just Friends’
“Historians thought they were just friends” was a common facet of the “just gals being pals” meme — but it also raised the question of how historians viewed Dickinson’s expressions, and whether the view had changed over the years.
Tumblr users frequently posted content about Dickinson’s sexual orientation; the following post was published in May 2017:
Dickinson’s lengthy Wikipedia entry had a “Poetry: Reception” section, which concluded:
Some scholars question the poet’s sexuality, theorizing that the numerous letters and poems that were dedicated to Susan Gilbert Dickinson indicate a lesbian romance, and speculating about how this may have influenced her poetry. Critics such as John Cody, Lillian Faderman, Vivian R. Pollak, Paula Bennett, Judith Farr, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith have argued that Susan was the central erotic relationship in Dickinson’s life.
A Fall 1995 item also published in The Emily Dickinson Journal, “Neither Lesbian nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poetry,” began:
Among Dickinson critics, there is little question that Emily Dickinson’s love poetry is sexually and erotically charged. However, the exact nature of the sexuality and eroticism she incorporates into her poems seems to be less clear. Giving rise to much ambiguity, both homosexual and heterosexual elements pervade her work. In numerous poems, it is impossible to determine the genders and sexual identities of Dickinson’s speakers and addressees. These cases show that a simple homo / hetero divide does not suffice to comprehend the poet’s range of eroticism. Close examination of Dickinson’s poems and their manuscripts reveals that the eroticism presented is often neither only lesbian nor only straight. Instead, it is simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual, or in between homo and hetero. Far from limiting erotic possibility, Dickinson allows the sexual identities of her speakers and addressees to oscillate between lesbian and straight, thus letting the erotic experiences she describes in her love poetry shift back and forth along a continuum of multiple eroticisms.
In 1998, two related pieces in the New York Times addressed homoerotic content in Dickinson’s writings at length. A literary blog post by English professor Santi Tafarella in 2008, “Emily Dickinson, Lesbian?: Her Letter to Susan Gilbert, in June of 1852, Might Tell Us Less Than You Think,” discussed a schism in academic views of Dickinson’s private writings:
Was Emily Dickinson lesbian?
Some scholars think so.
Below is a letter that Dickinson sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.
It certainly sounds like a letter written by a lesbian.
But is this just an artifact of our being 21st century, post-Freudian readers?
Would the innuendos that, to us, seem to jump off the page, have jumped off the page to a 19th century reader?
If not, would we say that the lesbianism is present, but simply sublimated?
Although barely 150 years have passed, why is it that scholars cannot agree on the implications of this letter?
A March 2009 item in the English Journal, “Wasn’t She a Lesbian?’ Teaching Homoerotic Themes in Dickinson and Whitman,” addressed the nuances of examining such themes in Dickinson’s work in the classrooms of the day:
Drawing on published scholarship and her own high school teaching, the author describes how works by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman can be used to integrate GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) issues into English classes. The author can’t imagine a single high school that doesn’t include Whitman and Dickinson at some point in its curriculum, so she has chosen to focus on these two writers as examples of how teachers might begin to integrate GLBT issues into their teaching. She offers suggestions for how teachers unfamiliar with these topics might work them into units covering Whitman and Dickinson. These are approaches she has found successful with high school juniors and seniors and in lower level college literature classes.
Finally, several news organizations covered a 2018 film about Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily. A 2019 Vox.com article, “A new movie remembers the real Emily Dickinson — passionate, ambitious, and queer,” began:
The great American poet Emily Dickinson is, in the popular imagination, a recluse, a shut-in, a woman scribbling alone in her room for her own pleasure, her work only really discovered after her death in 1886. She’s thought to have been longing for some man, called “The Master” in notes she wrote, the identity of whom has preoccupied scholars for years. But she was a lonely spinster her whole life.
Or was she? Scholarship lately has indicated that Dickinson had a lifelong love affair with her childhood friend Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law after she married Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson. They lived next door to each other throughout their adult lives. But, it seems, Austin’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd — who was Emily’s first posthumous editor — literally erased references to Susan from Emily’s letters and worked to paint Susan and Emily’s relationship as frosty. Now scholars dispute that narrative entirely.
A January 12 2022 tweet maintaining that Emily Dickinson “really wrote to sue ‘i tore open your letter and licked the envelope’s seal for any lingering taste of you’ and historians thought they were just friends,” is a two-level claim. The first was whether Dickinson wrote the quoted content; she did, and it appeared in an academic journal in 1996. The second was whether historians overlooked the fact that Dickinson’s writings contained homoerotic themes, which was not entirely inaccurate — Dickinson’s sexuality and relationship with “Sue” is the subject of ongoing analysis, discussion, and academic arguing. However, acknowledgments of homoeroticism in Dickinson’s letters and other works also appeared as early as the mid-1990s, so it was slightly inaccurate to say “historians thought they were just friends” — a concept under dispute. As such, we’ve rated the claim Decontextualized.