“Her style is incomparable” – Susan Evelyn Dickinson in the Coal Region

In her time, few women exerted more power and influence in Northeastern Pennsylvania than did writer and poet Susan Evelyn Dickinson.

Dickinson came to the Coal Region in the 1870s and became a powerful force for social change, advocating on behalf of miners seeking better working conditions and women in their pursuit of equal suffrage.

She wrote for numerous local newspapers, but also submitted stories to prominent newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, providing in-depth coverage on events and issues in the anthracite coal fields.

In 1880, the History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming Counties, Pa gave Susan Evelyn Dickinson nearly a full page of coverage in their pages.

Miss Susan Evelyn Dickinson

Miss Susan Evelyn Dickinson, whose initials are familiar in the pages of the New York Graphic, the Philadelphia Press, and other prominent journals, where her delightful letters from the interior of Pennsylvania are eagerly scanned by a large clientage, is one of the most diligent workers of the day, and has done more than any other writer to present to the world the bright and best side of life in the Coal Regions.

Previous to her advent to the Wyoming Valley many metropolitan readers were inclined to doubt whether there was any bright side to the coal fields. The dark side had been given in all its somber depth, and it remained for Miss Dickinson to show the silver lining. From her home among the willows of West Pittston she took long trips up and down the valley in quest of information for whatever theme she proposed writing upon, deeming no amount of personal privation or inconvenience too great in getting at some new phase in the social condition of the mining masses. No one could be more industrious than this fair little woman, pushing her way like a messenger of light among the grime and dust of coal breakers, the roar of machinery, or along the subterranean chambers of the mine; while her face is familiar at all the… literary and musical gatherings of the Welsh, as well as the Father Matthew and other temperance conventions of the Irish.

The result of her observation and research is shown in her admirable letters to the papers already named. She writes with the earnestness of profound conviction, and her style is incomparable for its amplitude and elegance. She has not sought the surface, like many of her sex of much inferior ability, who have become noted writers of fashion and gossip; because she feels it her duty even in the ordinary pursuit of life to be doing good – righting some wrong, correcting some error, suggesting some reform by which men and women would be their better selves.

She has not ventured on the uncertain sea of popular applause, but, enjoying life most when she worked the hardest, has preferred that sphere –

“The can, the world eluding, be itself

A world enjoyed, that wants no witnesses

But its own sharers and approving heaven;

That, like a flower deep hid in rocky cleft,

Smiles through ‘tis looking only at the sky.”

Susan Evelyn Dickinson was born at the old homestead in Berks County, but as her life from childhood was passed in Philadelphia she delights in being known as a Philadelphian. Her ancestors came to this country in William Penn’s time, and she was brought up in the Society of Friends, but joined the Protestant Episcopal church after leaving school.

Her talent as a writer was developed early – even as a schoolgirl – and her verses over the signatures of “Effie Evergreen” and “Ada Vernon,” in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, and “Violet May” in the Boston True Flag attracted attention and favorable comment. Subsequently she discontinued writing for several years, the earlier ones being occupied as a teacher in the public school of Philadelphia. In 1872 her pen was employed during the Greeley campaign, and in 1874 she accepted an engagement on the New York Herald staff, beginning with the admirable report of the great Empire mine fare at Wilkes-Barre. Since then she has done some excellent special department work on that journal, and furnished it with occasional correspondence from the Coal Region, beside contributing a valuable series of Northeastern Pennsylvania letters to the Graphic and Philadelphia Press and writing several pleasant sketches and short stories.

Justly proud of her sister Anna’s brilliant talents, Miss Susan E. Dickinson in another and equally important sphere is still exerting, by means of her facile pen, her power for good on the public mind, and residing with her venerable mother in the romantic retirement of fair Wyoming.  

The article’s reference to Susan Dickinson’s sister Anna reveals only a small part of this family drama. During the Civil War, Anna Dickinson became a powerful orator and activist, gaining a name for herself across the North. However, by the 1870s, her career had stalled just as her sister’s writing career took off. This led to bitterness that boiled over in 1891. Susan was attacked by her sister, an event that led to Anna Dickinson’s committal to Danville State Hospital. Anna never forgave her sister.

Anna Dickinson (LOC)

Susan Dickinson continued to write on the events of the Coal Region into the 20th century. She lived in West Pittston with her mother until Mary Dickinson died in 1889; in the years that followed Dickinson moved to Scranton where she lived until her death November 16, 1915.

Dickinson 3
Susan E. Dickinson, 1893 (Women of the Century)

“Her Quaker courage born in her has carried her over obstacles that seemed insurmountable.” – Quote from a profile of Susan E. Dickinson, Women of the Century, 1893. 

Featured Image: Susan Evelyn Dickinson (History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming counties, Pa, 1880)

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