A Long-Ago Letter Conveys Prescient Advice For Turbulent Times

Feb 21, 2018

Samuel Bowles was the editor of The Springfield Republican. As a young man in the 1850s, he transformed the Republican into one of New England’s most admired newspapers.

Emily Dickinson believed Samuel Bowles could see what others could not. In every way, she wrote, "his nature was Future."

Someone once said all Sam Bowles had to do to demonstrate his influence was to empty his pockets.

There might be a note from a London editor, a letter from a United States senator or even a verse from a shy young woman who lived nearby.

Samuel Bowles knew Emily Dickinson from years of reporting in Amherst.

He became the first editor to publish her poetry and — over her lifetime — published more of her poems than anyone else around.

When doing some research on Dickinson, I happened upon an 1865 letter Bowles had written.

He described what it was like to sit in the congressional gallery the day lawmakers voted to amend the Constitution and end slavery.

It had been a long road to that moment, and Bowles felt it deeply. He remembered nights at the Republican after printing long lists of Civil War casualties when he sat, unable to move. Staring at the fire, he’d wonder if his country could ever right itself again.

From his perch in the gallery that day, Bowles could feel the tension: no one knew which way the vote would go.

But when the final ballot was cast, and slavery was abolished, “The galleries rose to their feet,” he wrote. “Ladies floated their gauze handkerchiefs and clapped gloved hands. The members on our side threw up their arms wildly and embraced.”

Original daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken in 1847.
Credit Amherst College Archives & Special Collections / Public Domain

The Connecticut River valley photographed from Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation in Massachusetts.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

But it was what he wrote next that startled me.

He spoke of how proud he was of Massachusetts. He thought of the graceful curve of the Connecticut River, the rounded peak of Mount Tom, and all that was good, decent and enduring.

“You must never give up Massachusetts,” he wrote.

Those last lines caught in my throat.

Emily Dickinson believed Samuel Bowles could see what others could not. In every way, she wrote, "his nature was Future."

Reading that long-ago letter felt as if Sam Bowles was reaching across the centuries and telling me to prepare for a long haul.

He also was reminding me that when it comes to defending what we hold dear, our greatest strength comes from home.

Martha Ackmann is author of forthcoming "Vesuvius at Home: Ten Days in the Life, Loves and Mystery of Emily Dickinson."

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a portrait of a person a Cincinnati Art Museum donor says is Samuel T. Bowles, 1797-1851. While Samuel Bowles II lived the same years, the portrait is not verified as the same person, so it's been removed.