Our Emily Dickinsons situates Dickinson's life and work within larger debates about gender, sexuality, and literary authority in America. Examining Dickinson's influence on Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and others, Vivian R. Pollak complicates the connection between authorial biography and poetry that endures.
2016 | 368 pages | Cloth $55.00
Literature | Poetry
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Introduction. Dickinson and the Demands of Intimacy
Chapter 1. Helen Hunt Jackson and Dickinson's Personal Publics
Chapter 2. Mabel Loomis Todd and Dickinson's Art of Sincerity
Chapter 3. "The Wholesomeness of the Life": Marianne Moore's Unartificial Dickinson
Chapter 4. Moore, Plath, Hughes, and "The Literary Life"
Chapter 5. Plath's Dickinson: On Not Stopping for Death
Chapter 6. Elizabeth Bishop and the U.S.A. Schools of Writing
Conclusion. Dickinson and the Demands of Difference
Dickinson and the Demands of Intimacy
In an emotionally tense poem written when she was still in her early thirties, Emily Dickinson expresses this haunting thought about her role during the Civil War: "It feels a shame to be Alive—/ When Men so brave—are dead." Speaking as "one," "We," and "I" and as the possessor of a powerful conscience, she faults herself for escaping military martyrdom in "Battle's—horrid Bowl." Expanding the trope, she claims to envy the modern heroes who died for liberty, the ground that holds their bodies, and the stones by which they are memorialized. This remarkable confession prepares for an even more disturbing conclusion. Although any kind of living is an achievement, a sort of fame, it is not "Divinity." "Divinity," Dickinson suggests, is what the Union dead achieve by dying. Because the poem is not well known, I will quote it in full:
It feels a shame to be Alive -"It feels a shame to be Alive" inhabits several kinds of ambition. The first is the most sociable. It responds to a specific national emergency. The second is more personal, more complexly gendered. Unable to perform the heroic deeds associated with men, the speaker feels guilty. This emotion is partly displaced from the dead to the sacred ground in which they lie and to the headstones by which they are memorialized. By implication, the speaker who craves intimacy with the dead also wants to write words that are publicly recognized and that last. This speaker wants to disinter, to resurrect, and to give voice to an unlived life from which ugly feelings have been banished, but the dashes tell the story—they interrupt the flow.
When Men so brave—are dead -
One envies the Distinguished Dust -
Permitted—such a Head -
The Stone—that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we—possessed
In Pawn for Liberty -
The price is great—Sublimely paid -
Do we deserve—a Thing -
That lives—like Dollars—must be piled
Before we may obtain?
Are we that wait—sufficient worth -
That such Enormous Pearl
As life—dissolved be—for Us -
In Battle's—horrid Bowl?
It may be—a Renown to live -
I think the Men who die -
Those unsustained—Saviors -
Present Divinity—(Fr 524)
Suppose, then, that you are a person who thinks deeply about identities that have not yet been fully constituted. Suppose, too, that you are a person who wants to spare herself humiliation. What would it be like to compose "It feels a shame to be Alive" and to keep it to yourself? What would it be like to copy these publicly oriented words onto a sheet of paper and to use that sheet to conclude a poem sequence in which you declare "This is my letter to the World" (Fr 519)? What would it be like to keep that twenty-poem sequence, that Fascicle 24, in a locked box or dresser drawer and to make yourself your only continuously attentive reader? What would it be like to go back over that poem sequence and to take a poem from another fascicle, a poem about rewards, to recopy it, alter it, and to insert it into this newer grouping, while leaving the old one in its place (Fr 375, Fascicles 18 and 24)? What would it be like to be that brilliantly conflicted, that partly repressed, that angry, loving, home-keeping person, that Emily Dickinson?
In this book, I begin with a Dickinson who was driven by a sense of unrealized potential. The daughter of a public man and the sister of another, she might well describe herself as "unsustained" in the heterodox services she performed for her country. In intellectually challenging, emotionally arduous poems that invite and repel intimacy, Dickinson links what affect theorist Sianne Ngai has taught us to think of as ugly feelings (such as shame and envy) to what I will call trace scenes, scenes that evoke collective experience but mystify important personal particulars. The Dickinson I describe writes thinly descriptive poetry that refuses to satisfy the demands of her imagined audience for a fuller narrative of her life. If there is a center to what is by now the long history of Dickinson criticism, it is this: readers are curious about the person behind the poems. Although she did write, "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person," the women poets who interest me most deeply have been reluctant to separate the life and the work so neatly (L 268). Reading for both text and context, they are interested not only in Dickinson's literary self-expression and fictionalized persona but also in her psychological intimacies and social sources.
Dickinson's psychological ambivalence about her relationship to her actual and potential readers has been well established and continues to be documented with precision. I argue that this ambivalence, however productive, has significantly influenced her reception. It has interrupted what we might think of as a coherent genealogy of American women's poetry. Such a genealogy would transmit ideas from one generation to the next. It would demonstrate incremental continuity and patient connections intimately forged. In all probability, it would disseminate an idealized version of mother-daughter relationships and would reinforce the romance of what a later poet (Muriel Rukeyser) calls "group culture." I tell a somewhat different tale. The keenly observant Rukeyser, for one, believed that most Americans fear poetry because it takes us into unknown territory. It disorients us psychologically. It causes us to lose our emotional and intellectual equilibrium. With Rukeyser, I view Dickinson's achievement as an extended meditation on the risks of social, psychological, and aesthetic difference. In what follows, I will describe both neglected aspects of Dickinsonian difference and some of the social and psychological conflicts American women poets have encountered in her wake. To introduce my version of discontinuous, or "spasmodic" literary history, I will look more closely at Dickinson's role as marked by the sexual politics of the mid-twentieth century. I will look more closely at Muriel Rukeyser's hybrid manifesto, The Life of Poetry (1949).
In this underread classic of feminist critique, Rukeyser takes her time before mentioning Dickinson. Indeed, she is about a third of the way through the text when she glances at Dickinson's rhythms, which she compares to those of the muscular Gerard Manley Hopkins (briefly) and to those of the self-poised Walt Whitman (more extensively). "Emily Dickinson's strictness," she writes, "sometimes almost a slang of strictness, speaks with an intellectually active, stimulated quick music." Yet it is Whitman who "offers us the rhythms of resolved physical conflict. When he says, 'I have found the law of my own poems,' he celebrates that victory." From this perspective, it is apparent that Dickinson has not yet found the law of her own poems; she is still a poet in search of her fullest self. She is waiting to be liberated from the anxieties of audience which arrest her. Her rhythms represent the problems of the confined female self and of its access to cultural power. My point is that thinking about Dickinson makes Rukeyser uncomfortable. Recalling her own professional frustrations, she moves quickly into an irate account of her troubles as a biographer of J. Willard Gibbs, the nineteenth-century American physicist who was one of her culture heroes and whose genius, she believed, was overlooked. Like Dickinson, she was almost silenced, but Rukeyser has other versions of Dickinson in reserve.
Some years earlier, in a distinctly unauthorized biography of Gibbs, who never married, had no visible love life, and was content, Rukeyser had fastened on an exemplary vignette: "Think of Edward Dickinson, the father of the poet Emily Dickinson. . . . That father ran gasping up the steeple stairs of the Baptist Church in Amherst, and pulled and pulled on the bell-rope until the clanging startled the whole town, who turned to look, and saw the sunset. That was the gesture of a poet who does what his daughter was later to do : uses the old forms, pulls on the churchbell-rope, to call attention to the vivid and changing moment in an unheard-of way." Based on this episode, which embellishes a description in one of Emily Dickinson's early letters to her brother (L 53), what does her poetry effect? It empowers us to believe in newly created selves and in desires extended into what Rukeyser calls "our farthest range." Under normal circumstances, Edward Dickinson was a model of masculine discipline and self-restraint. He was celebrated for his emotional reserve, but even he was capable of surprising turns and startling gestures because of the poetry hidden in his nature. As Rukeyser suggests in the passage from the Gibbs biography cited above, poets consolidate an affective community by calling attention "to the vivid and changing moment in an unheard-of way." Breathing new life into the life of beauty, they encourage us to believe, as Rukeyser wrote at the conclusion of "Easter Eve 1945," "What fire survive forever / myself is for my time." Poetry begins as personal passion. It is clarified by time and vulnerable to its passage.
From the beginning of her multifaceted career, Rukeyser was committed to what Richard Rorty has called "achieving our country." In a continuing quest to alter national and global realities, she attended meetings, signed petitions, taught classes, worked for and against the U.S. government, and generally refused to conform to the expectations of her bourgeois Jewish parents and their friends. It is known that she had lovers of both sexes. It is known that she entered into a very brief marriage in 1945 to an artist whom she had met in San Francisco. Not at all well known is the fact that at this crisis in her erotic life, she read Bolts of Melody, the book of poems by Emily Dickinson just out. The journal she kept at the time states, "It seems impossible to go on completely by myself." What was the effect on her of this reading? On this point, her journal is silent.
The Gibbs biography, however, provides some clues. Here is what she wrote: "She [Emily Dickinson] is a close expression of American self-destruction with all its powers of communication heightened. . . . There was always this wish . . . to be her own absolute. . . . Science could not overtake that, she felt. She had reached her only equilibrium; and that was the only law." An emblem of American self-destructiveness. But why? Is it because in this telling, Dickinson wanted to live in her own world and risked madness as a consequence? Or was the madness wanting to live in her own world in the first place? Because this world has its own laws, its equilibrium, for the reader there is "clear joy, a gift in the hand that seemed nothing more bodied than broken light, as if one were to hold an invisible prism." But for the poet herself who is "cut off" and who has "made an image of that amputation," there is the "dry wine of logarithm." How can such perilous self-sufficiency suffice? Influenced by traditions of lyric reading, in which the poet is isolated by history, Rukeyser is nevertheless determined to historicize Dickinson, to situate her in New England literary culture and in a tradition of intellectual women whose limited access to cultural power she deplores.
Rukeyser's response is exemplary for my study of Dickinson's contradictory and complex legacy for several reasons. The women poets I discuss engage with her episodically rather than continuously. Influenced by changes in their personal and professional relations and in their actual and potential audiences, they exhibit a wide range of feelings toward Dickinson's achievement, and their attitudes toward her change over time. Consistently, however, they use Dickinson to clarify what is at stake in personal and professional battles of their own. "If we are free," Rukeyser wrote in The Life of Poetry, "we are free to choose a tradition, and we find in the past as well as the present our poets of outrage—like Melville—and our poets of possibility—like Whitman." That same year, more tentatively, she also wrote, "It seems to me that if we are in any way free, we are also free in relation to the past, and that we may to some extent choose our tradition." These are very different statements, and between them I locate my project. Whatever their differences, the women poets who interest me most deeply have found sources of strength in Emily Dickinson, together with the problem of being cut off.
"Breathe-in experience," Rukeyser wrote in the first line of her first book, "breathe-out poetry." At twenty-one, she knew it was not that easy. Between Theory of Flight, for which she won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1936, and 1949 when she published The Life of Poetry, Orpheus, and Elegies, Rukeyser had experienced the ups and downs of a career which had gotten off to a remarkably fast start. She was the author of seven books of poetry, and in 1950 she would be one of the two women featured in John Ciardi's anthology Mid-Century American Poets (the other was Elizabeth Bishop). At mid-century, she was "a figure impossible to ignore," and she was working tirelessly to bring poetry back into the mainstream of American life. Yet the Dickinson who spoke most poignantly in the wake of World War II was a consummate elegist. Here are the only lines by Dickinson she quotes in The Life of Poetry:
The things that never can come back are several—Affected by histories of Dickinson as a near miss, a poet who almost didn't happen because of litigious heirs battling over her estate, Rukeyser deployed Dickinson as a symbol of natural waste, loss, penalties, guilts. Under the heading "Certain Misfortunes," she discusses the pathological secrecy of Dickinson's legacy: "Emily Dickinson, whose unappeasable thirst for fame was itself unknown for years after her death, had to fight through her family—'Vesuvius at Home'—until a miserable lawsuit and the theft of a manure pile interrupted the posthumous publication of her work, and postponed for forty-nine years what may be her finest book." Although Rukeyser idealized Dickinson as the victim of cultural sin (the suppression of a writer under the sign of private property), she viewed herself as a champion of "the rights of the reader," which she equated with "the rights of the people." These rights, she insisted, were ignored not only in the case of Dickinson but also of herself. Thus, in The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser emphasized the link between Dickinson's genius and her troubles. These troubles, as she explained elliptically in Willard Gibbs, included a tragic love affair (Rukeyser had known several).
Childhood, some forms of hope, the dead;
But joys, like men, may sometimes make a journey
And still abide. . . .
Taking roughly one hundred years as its focus, Our Emily Dickinsons describes changing conceptions of Dickinson and the problem for women poets of being cut off from the social experiences which consolidate an affective community, however that community is defined. In my book, I begin in the nineteenth century, dwell in the twentieth, and do not get very contemporary. Without attempting anything so ambitious as a complete history of the bold misreadings that have shaped Dickinson's reception from her time to ours, I describe some of the intimate reading practices through which women poets interrogate Dickinson, her literary culture, their literary cultures, and themselves. My unifying claims are these. Today's Dickinson is less "spasmodic" (L 265) than she used to be. She has more agency and she arouses less anxiety of gendered authorship. She is a poet who is no longer quoted most frequently as a supreme elegist because informed contemporary readers, and they are many, have fuller access to her variant voices. They are also more interested in the generic innovations of her prose. Inspired by brilliant theorists such as Susan Howe, we are learning to forget that there was ever a Dickinson who was considered shameful. I want to take us back to an earlier time, when skepticism about the relationship between text and context organized logics of sexed and gendered self-representation.
In the wake of feminist, New Historicist, and cultural materialist critical practices, Dickinson's public, semipublic, private, and semiprivate contexts continue to be clarified. For example, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, which I edited, includes essays with the following titles: "'Is Immortality True?': Salvaging Faith in an Age of Upheavals," "Public and Private in Dickinson's War Poetry," "Dickinson and the Art of Politics," "Dickinson in Context: Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets," and "The Sound of Shifting Paradigms, or Hearing Dickinson in the Twenty-First Century." Despite their different emphases, critics Jane Donahue Eberwein, Shira Wolosky, Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker, and Cristanne Miller engage in a collaborative project. They demonstrate that Dickinson was not cut off intellectually. Extending their project of historical contextualization, I offer a fuller history of the social life of her emotions as interpreted by key interlocutors. I see this book as an intervention in that intersubjective history and as an experimental, collective psychobiography, organized around the themes of shame, envy, love, fame, and death, in which affective closure is not the goal.
"Who writes these funny accidents, where railroads meet each other unexpectedly, and gentlemen in factories get their heads cut off quite informally?" Dickinson asked her friends Elizabeth and Josiah Gilbert Holland (he was an owner/editor of her favorite newspaper, the Springfield Republican). "The author, too, relates them in such a sprightly way, that they are quite attractive. Vinnie [her sister] was disappointed to-night, that there were not more accidents—I read the news aloud, while Vinnie was sewing. The Republican seems to us like a letter from you, and we break the seal and read it eagerly" (L 133). Dickinson wrote this entertaining fan letter when she was twenty-two. In 1853, she had not yet reached either personal or poetic maturity, and only four of her poems can be dated before 1858, when she began making her manuscript books. While it is possible to argue that she became more self-absorbed intellectually and emotionally after 1864, when she stopped constructing these books ("fascicles"), the poets I discuss were not primarily concerned with periodizing Dickinson's oeuvre. In this regard, too, Rukeyser is exemplary. However much she wishes to locate Dickinson in history, there is a determination on her part to use the incomplete Dickinson for purposes of self-expression. Writing as both a poet and a critic, Rukeyser engages in a particular form of autobiographical self-representation or deflected lifewriting. Her critique throws into relief the close correspondence between impressionist literary criticism and biographical narrative.
I want to consider for a moment several discrete episodes in her use of Dickinson as the occasion for deflected lifewriting. In Willard Gibbs as in The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser quotes only part of a poem. She cuts the poem off. The excerpt from "How happy is the little Stone" (Fr 1570) shows us the upside of having no career to worry about. A stone has a "casual simplicity" lacking in human beings. A stone is complete in and of itself. It has no unrealized ambitions, no secret sorrows. A stone is
. . . independent as the sun,Dickinson cuts the poem off too. Her syntax suppresses some ordinary connectives; she does not tell us anything about the formal or informal association to which the stone belongs; about the content of the law, the "absolute decree" the stone obeys; about the judge who has issued an "absolute decree" rather than a "decree nisi," which is a provisional court order, especially about divorce; or about why she seems to believe, at least for the moment, that happiness depends on being sentenced to associate with no one but one's self. Yet if we read "How happy is the little Stone" in the three-volume Variorum edited by R. W. Franklin, we discover that Dickinson sent the poem to her sister-in-law Susan, who was one of her literary advisors; to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was another; to poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson, whose career I discuss in my first chapter; to Thomas Niles, an editor at Roberts Brothers with whom Dickinson was corresponding; to her cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross; and that she kept a copy for herself. This publication history was not available in 1942 when Willard Gibbs was published. Had it been available, Rukeyser might have been less insistent on Dickinson as an exemplar of gendered self-reliance. Deflected lifewriting that is historically situated need not be narcissistically self-enclosed. Unlike stones, poet-critics can change and can respond to changes in the social construction of texts as collective enterprises. Unlike stones, they are not simple.
Associates and glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.
We see this greater complexity and responsiveness to changing times in my second example. In June 1959, along with several other poets, Rukeyser participated in a reading in New York City for the Library of Congress. She read four of her poems and six by Dickinson. Rukeyser's evolving Dickinson was still an elegist, but she was more commanding and expansive, surer of her own choices. Oddly, Rukeyser's texts derive not, as we would expect, from the 1955 Poems of Emily Dickinson: Including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, which was authoritative then, but from Martha Dickinson Bianchi's 1924 Complete Poems, which was both incomplete and discredited. Perhaps Rukeyser was concerned about copyright issues. More likely she had grown accustomed to the earlier versions and was reluctant to give them up.
Several months later, in September 1959, Rukeyser published a review of Marianne Moore's O to Be a Dragon, in which she connects Dickinson more securely to a tradition of women's writing and to a specifically modernist tradition of women's spirituality. Moore, she explains, "has had in all her writing life a deep connection with the Psalms and with the hymns made out of their translated spirit. . . . [she] has a whole reach of followers to whom this relation with hymns will open up new fertilities, as does a similar relation in Emily Dickinson." Demonstrating her knowledge of hymns, hymn meters, and Isaac Watts's hymnbook (1855 version), Rukeyser takes Moore to task for inaccurate citation of the Twenty-Third Psalm, which Rukeyser describes as a "document." In a longer draft of the review, Rukeyser developed the hymn context even more emphatically and mentions a family legend in which she herself is descended from the great Jewish scholar Akiba, "who was responsible for getting the Song of Songs included in the Bible." In both the published and unpublished versions, Rukeyser mentions that Moore's reputation has been built on accuracy, that Elizabeth Bishop praises her on the book jacket as "the World's Greatest Living Observer," and that Moore's inaccurate footnote violates her own aesthetic scrupulosity. My claim is not that Rukeyser is deliberately (or only) engaged in feats of self-promotion. Her citation of Dickinson's relation to hymns and to Moore and to herself through hymnody registers real changes in Dickinson's reputation, changes which are easy to document in the contemporary reviews. In the Moore review, then, Dickinson is more connected than cut off.
The progressive phases of Dickinson's reputation I am tracking correspond to improvements in Rukeyser's personal and professional situation as well. She now has a child, a comparatively undemanding female lover, and a part-time position teaching creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. This association provides her with an income, protects some of her own writing time, and gratifies her desire to nurture the young and to function as a public intellectual. She has not resolved her quarrel with the father, Lawrence B. Rukeyser, who disinherited her, but it now appears that Dickinson, like Moore, has deep roots and that her "fertilities" extend in many different directions. Rukeyser's Vassar classmate Elizabeth Bishop is harder to transform, absorb, and recuperate, and I do not wish to exaggerate the degree to which Rukeyser has mellowed. Yet circa 1959, invoking Dickinson's name can strengthen Rukeyser's claim to literary authority. Rather than being an emblem of American self-destructiveness and feminized domesticity, Dickinson is associated with the feminist spiritual traditions of our country. So far as I have been able to determine, Rukeyser never wrote publicly about Dickinson again. With her own cultural authority more pronounced, to say nothing of Dickinson's, Dickinson seems to have interested her less. In terms of their mutual reputations, it was no longer the same appealing game of "loser wins," and it was no longer obvious that Dickinson needed to be rescued.
As Second Wave feminism took off, so too did Dickinson. Not only were her poems available in the three-volume Johnson edition which, we were taught, was definitive, but in 1958, Johnson and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward also had published an annotated, three-volume edition of her letters. It was reassuring that Harvard University Press was behind both ventures, and it seemed that editing troubles were a thing of the past. Johnson, moreover, had published a well-received 1955 biography, in which a new but not too new Dickinson emerged. As the distinguished literary historian Perry Miller, himself a Harvard professor, explained in the New England Quarterly, "With Mr. Johnson we may rest assured that we are in safe and informed hands." Following New Critical protocols, Miller heaped praise on Johnson's Interpretive Biography while suggesting that Dickinson, "a poet of authentic distinction," wrote many minor works. Miller also objected strongly to the enthusiasm of "cultists," whom Johnson's biography "quietly rebuke[s]."
The biography is, refreshingly, an "interpretive" one, not the vulgarization of a myth of eccentricity. It is a study of Emily Dickinson as poet, drawing upon biographical facts only at points where these facts become relevant to appreciation of the verses. The whole quagmire of scandal, rumor, and recrimination in which for weary decades discussion of the artist has foundered is skillfully ignored. The result is that Emily Dickinson emerges as a poet of authentic distinction, a more serious and sophisticated craftsman than ever her admirers had supposed. Or rather, the enthusiasm of the cult is quietly rebuked so that we can clearly perceive just what she actually did accomplish.Although Miller does not name either the cultists or the critical snobs who react against them, informed readers might guess that the cultists were mainly women and the critical snobs mainly men.
On the definitiveness of the Johnson edition, there soon emerged an important dissenter, voicing her opinion in "'I am in Danger—Sir—,'" a poem which etched itself indelibly on the consciousness of graduate students such as myself back in the day. Referring to "your variorum monument," Adrienne Rich took the Dickinson industry to task for its sexist presumptions. Rich's Dickinson "choose[s] silence for entertainment" and is "determined to have it out at last on [her] own premises." To Rich, it seemed that "garbled versions" of Dickinson's life and work had been "mothballed at Harvard." Beginning in 1963, Rich wrote trenchantly, brilliantly, poignantly about her own struggle to comprehend Dickinson without minimizing their differences. Rich's sustained engagement with a Dickinson who chose silence for entertainment and with other, less mysterious feminist heroines led to the landmark 1975 essay "'Vesuvius at Home': The Power of Emily Dickinson," which deeply influenced me and many of my closest women friends. Yet for the Rich who wrote in Necessities of Life that "whole biographies swam up and / swallowed me like Jonah," creating a new birth myth for herself included describing Dickinson as "masculine / in single-mindedness." Both "'I Am in Danger'" and "'Vesuvius at Home'" employ emphatically gendered language, and Rich speculates in "'Vesuvius'" that Dickinson was ambivalent about her powers: that being powerful, she risked experiencing herself as masculinized and consequently in some poems miniaturized herself.
Rich was angered by traditional characterizations of Dickinson's emotional dependence on a "Master" figure. In "'Vesuvius at Home,'" she does not appropriate Dickinson as a same-sex lover, unless we assume that the absence of an active sexual script encodes lesbian silence. Rather, she suggests that Dickinson, a poet of psychological compulsion, was remarkably self-sufficient and that her seclusion and presumed lack of an intimate erotic life was deliberately chosen to nurture her own genius. This idea was then and continues to be very appealing, especially for readers who value psychological autonomy as a desirable and/or achievable artistic goal. The greater the original artist, the greater the autonomy and agency—that is Rich's implied theory. Dickinson, I think, rebuts or modifies that theory in "How happy is the little Stone" (Fr 1570), which is just one among many poems in which interdependency, complexity, and vulnerability are valued. Paradoxically, in "'Vesuvius at Home,'" Rich also suggests that Dickinson's deeply felt insights into psychological turmoil empower her. Rich thus avoids the trap (as I see it) of sourcing these insights primarily in secondhand experience. This part of her essay could not be clearer: Dickinson, a woman who suffered, in some way found the life she needed and fought the battle she needed to fight. In some way, she had a life-struggle "out at last on her own premises."
On this point, Rich engages the debate that also concerns Rukeyser, who writes that "if we are free we may to some extent choose our tradition" (italics mine). Yet Rukeyser's hero Whitman can suggest otherwise, as at times does Thoreau, who notes in his Journal, "It is vain to write on chosen themes. We must wait until they have kindled a flame in our minds. There must be the copulating and generating force of love behind every effort destined to be successful. The cold resolve gives birth to, begets, nothing. The theme seeks me, not I it. The poet's relation to his theme is the relation of love." Whether or not Thoreau was sincere, his pose of passivity is nicely gendered. Enthusiastically, Rukeyser spoke of him as "this curious man who was like us in that he didn't 'match.'"
Our Emily Dickinsons is based on reading for biographically precise, historically situated connections between women poets and their critics of both sexes. Chapter 1 focuses on the literary connections forged by Helen Hunt Jackson, whose stellar reputation as a poet has not been sustained by posterity. Jackson was born in the fall of 1830 in Amherst (as was Dickinson) and died in 1885 (Dickinson died the next year). Like Dickinson, she was encouraged by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but unlike the Dickinson who circulated a portion of her handwritten verses to a coterie audience, Jackson successfully negotiated the demands of the literary marketplace. Choosing to "invest her snow," she did not find "Publication . . . the Auction / Of the Mind of Man" (Fr 788). Jackson knew Dickinson and her circle personally; an Amherst native, she was a successful poet, journalist, and fiction writer who is best known today for her protest novel Ramona. Jackson's earlier stories gratified the genteel public's hunger for romance and for wholesome literary heroines like Mercy Philbrick, whose "choice" of the life of the mind over a morally suspect lover reminded some inner circle, contemporary readers of—Emily Dickinson. Jackson forced one Dickinson poem ("Success") into print and would have liked to print others. Barring that, she wanted to be Dickinson's literary executor. Although this role was foreclosed by her death (if nothing else), her enthusiastic response to the "stingy" friend she tried to reform exposes the competing logic of Dickinson's hesitations.
Chapter 2 provides a context for understanding the so-called war between the houses as it was negotiated by Mabel Loomis Todd, who while not herself a poet was Dickinson's most energetic national publicist in the 1890s. Todd came from a family with ties to Thoreau, and her desire to please her father (and a father substitute, the poet's brother Austin) took unexpected turns, implicating her in Dickinson's fate and Dickinson in hers. With Higginson, she launched Dickinson into the print public sphere in the 1890s. Both were engaged in editing practices which now seem scandalous. Moreover, because of her hostile relationship to the poet's close friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson, it is easy to understand why recent criticism has marginalized Todd and ignored the depth of her influence on Dickinson's reception. I seek to accord her a truer place, both for her sake and for the sake of a more historically responsible, less anachronistic literary critique. Todd viewed herself as a feminist who challenged personal and professional orthodoxy. Although the Dickinson she projected is a poet of many parts, the Dickinson she constructed most consistently is wonderfully self-poised and spiritually uplifting. In different ways, modernist poets such as Marianne Moore agreed with her.
For example, Moore's 1933 review of a new edition of Dickinson's letters, which is discussed in Chapter 3, helps us to understand what the term "wholesomeness" meant in Moore's occluded reflections on a social life turned inward. I argue that reconsidering Dickinson's life during this difficult period of personal and professional transition in the early 1930s helped the modernist Moore to reconnect with the strengths of her literary past. Moving closer to the present time, Chapter 4 uses Sylvia Plath's personal letters, journals, and other prose writings to understand the networks she was trying to mobilize for herself in which Moore had a central position. "Moore, Plath, Hughes, and 'The Literary Life'" offers an account of Plath's ambitions and provides an ampler context for understanding both her ambivalence toward Dickinson and the rivalrous energies that structured Plath's more comprehensive imagination of female authorship. This "female author" construct imagines writing as a bloody act. It was shaped in part by various versions of Rich's problem of the masculine, but Plath's problem of the masculine is also a problem of the feminine, of motherhood and daughterhood. In Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg's terms, "When a Writer is a Daughter," problems of intimacy and autonomy are foregrounded.
Chapter 5 discusses Plath's early imitations of Dickinson and explores the roles of her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, and of her husband Ted Hughes in shaping Plath's literary taste and posthumous reputation. Both Aurelia Plath and Hughes were Dickinson enthusiasts, and they appealed to Dickinson's fame to validate Plath's oeuvre. Hughes's prominence in the project may seem surprising, but the logic of this choice will become clearer as the narrative unfolds. Just as there is no public Dickinson without Thomas Wentworth Higginson (pace Alice James), there is no public Plath without Ted Hughes (pace Robin Morgan and all those Second Wave feminists who taught us to despise him). An "Interleaf" shows Plath reading Bishop, whom she describes as Moore's goddaughter, only juicier. These transitional pages raise the question of whether Plath was beginning to construct a lesbian or bisexual identity for herself, her quest for (hetero)sexual normality notwithstanding.
Chapter 6 explains why Bishop, despite her admiration for the Ariel poet, couldn't complete her review of Letters Home, in which Plath performs the role of dutiful daughter. It offers an account of Bishop's deference dance with Moore, whom she reads in relation to personal and cultural mothers. I describe her responses not only to Dickinson as a self-caged bird but also to Whitman, who provides her with a "vista" she craves. For Bishop, the U. S. A. Schools of Writing are both ample and pathetically narrow, and her posthumously published story, "The U. S. A. School of Writing," touches on the homoeroticism and homophobia with which Dickinson is associated in Bishop's writings in the early 1950s. Bishop reviewed Rebecca Patterson's groundbreaking The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, and it infuriated her. She also reviewed a collection of Dickinson's letters to one of her closest women friends and wondered aloud about Dickinson's emotional neediness. "There is a constant insistence on the strength of her affections," Bishop wrote, "an almost childish daring and repetitiveness about them that must sometimes have been very hard to take."
The writings about Dickinson I examine are fractured self-portraits; they are self-questioning and self-justifying. Todd emphasized Dickinson's ability to withstand social pressure; Jackson focused on her supposed failure to help others; Moore questioned the wholesomeness of Dickinson's life; early on, Plath attempted to neutralize Dickinson as a rival, while exaggerating the sadomasochistic erotics that inform Dickinson's "Master" construct; Bishop found her an overly demanding friend. Reading Dickinson, these poets affirmed particular versions of themselves, as Dickinson did when writing about her personal heroine, the witchy "Anglo-Florentine" Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Fr 600). Which is not to deny that effective self-representation in poetry is also gender performance, that gender performance in poetry is a form of choosing traditions.
Feminist critics of American poetry have tended to define masculine and feminine literary traditions as mutually exclusive, but given the robustness of Dickinson's critical heritage, I assume that the poetry of Moore, Plath, and Bishop—like that of Dickinson herself, and of Rukeyser, Rich, and Susan Howe—oscillates between gendered traditions, which are themselves hybrids of various emotions, forms, and allegiances. Increasingly, feminist literary critics describe gender as a social construction that, in Rukeyser's words, can be imaginatively neutralized "to some extent." Therefore, I follow through on a claim advanced by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their important No Man's Land trilogy. Emphasizing gendered anxieties of authorship as constitutive of literary modernism, Gilbert and Gubar show that modernist women writers in search of cultural authority responded powerfully to male voices, but they tend to minimize conflict among women. Betsy Erkkila's The Wicked Sisters fills in this gap, and I build on the reconsideration of tradition announced in her subtitle, Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord.
Moreover, I am indebted to other studies of the sexual poetic for which Dickinson serves as compass and chart, such as Cheryl Walker's The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture Before 1900 (1982); Alicia Suskin Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (1986); Joanne Feit Diehl's Women Poets and the American Sublime (1990); Timothy Morris's Becoming Canonical in American Literature (1995); Cynthia Hogue's Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity (1995); Sabine Sielke's Fashioning the Female Subject: The Intertextual Networking of Dickinson, Moore, and Rich (1997); Elizabeth A. Petrino's Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women's Verse in America, 1820-1885 (1998); Lesley Wheeler's The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (2002); Zofia Burr's Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou (2002); Paula Bernat Bennett's Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry 1800-1900 (2003); Mary Loeffelholz's From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women's Poetry (2004); and Thomas Gardner's A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson (2006). Despite the uniqueness of each of these works, in all of them, Dickinson signifies (more or less) because of her critique of the traditional gendering of literary history, in which women are objectified, spoken for, and culturally silenced.
Yet unlike the Walt Whitman who was obsessed with his legacy and who explicitly addressed himself to poets to come, Dickinson more typically emphasizes the affective power of language as it concerns herself, rather than her readers in an actual present or imagined future. "What would the Dower be," she writes, "Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts—of Melody!" (Fr 348). And of her archetypal poet, whom she casually marks as male,
The Poet—it is He -Contemporary critics such as Virginia Jackson have reacted strongly against New Critical constructions of Dickinson as a lyric poet "Exterior—to Time," and generalizations about her relationship to time are, to say the least, notoriously difficult to sustain. In "This was a Poet," for example, from which I quoted, the speaker does not claim to be exterior to time; rather, she posits exteriority as a utopian goal. Reading poetry, she suggests, insulates her against an impoverished present. But if in reading poetry she feels connected to the immortals, it is less clear that she feels connected to other readers, even if those readers are reading her. Whether they be good, bad, or indifferent interpreters of her language, Dickinson's imagined readers would have the power to violate her "ceaseless Poverty." "Ceaseless Poverty" appeals to her; it disciplines and reorganizes confusion. In this poem, though certainly not always, its gendered contrasts are generative.
Entitles Us—by Contrast -
To ceaseless Poverty -
Of Portion—so unconscious -
The Robbing—could not harm -
Himself—to Him—a Fortune -
Exterior—to Time—(Fr 446)
That Dickinson ever experienced herself as disorganized is hard to credit today, when none of her markings on paper are readily accepted as casual, accidental, or unimportant. Visually and linguistically, even her "scraps" signify. To avoid confusion, and because of my focus on earlier readers and patterns of response, I usually cite R. W. Franklin's 1999 The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, which condenses his 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Yet even the Variorum is far from universally accepted, and a new Harvard website (edickinson.org) allows visitors to create immediate, individual hypertexts of her handwritten manuscripts.
Given this condition of textual indeterminacy, what would it mean to be an heir or heiress to Dickinson's "experimental method"? Addressing this issue, and anticipating Jackson's Misery, Zofia Burr argued in 2002 that "the haunting legacy of Emily Dickinson's life and work has shaped a romantic conception of women's poetry as private, personal, and expressive that has governed the reception of subsequent American women poets." Burr's Of Women, Poetry, and Power claims to demonstrate "how the canonization of Dickinson has consolidated limiting assumptions about women's poetry in twentieth-century America." Although her analysis is reductive in its understanding of a sharp distinction between public and private audiences, she raises a question that the women writers in my study address, both directly and indirectly. Is Dickinson's influence a good thing?
Leaving aside the question of Dickinson's rich borrowings from popular and elite transatlantic traditions, it is clear to me that her history of the social life of emotions was grounded in an experience of psychological difference. "I never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person" (L 271), she explained during her most artistically active years, cautioning her correspondent (in this instance Higginson) against locating her in a predictable or predictably gendered literary tradition. He had called her "'Wayward'" (L 271). Over time, as she gained confidence in her ability to reorganize and so to sustain those connections that mattered to her most deeply, she found herself needing to write less and, in a particularly lighthearted mood, once signed herself "America" (L 1004). Notwithstanding this aberration, her formative, ego-based experience of social and psychological isolation enabled a powerful critique of collective suffering, while the unpredictability of her language has made her available to writers whose subsequent relationships to more multicultural poetries she could not have imagined. To emphasize this point, I invoke the figure of Gwendolyn Brooks, some of whose early poems sound a good deal like Dickinson's and whose attention to female anger and social deviance can also be understood as Dickinsonian. Brooks has acknowledged her early debt to Dickinson, while also insisting, "Emily Dickinson and I are absolutely different in the details of our lives." In 1986, she explained, "I loved her poetry when I was young. I still go back to it from time to time. She was a good poet. She knew how to make a little powerhouse out of a phrase. She would string common words together and make magic. I can appreciate that." Lesley Wheeler insightfully links Brooks and Dickinson through an idiom of enclosure, and Brooks is on record as imagining herself invading Dickinson's space. After the first shock, she writes, Dickinson would have appreciated her hairstyle, her "natural." Detailing these appealing, multicultural connections between Dickinson and African American women poets is part of another project to which I hope to contribute in the future.
In her own time, and as a poet exemplifying the power of strangeness, Dickinson was ambiguously positioned in relation to sentimental structures of feeling that had deep roots in Puritan culture and were sustained with particular vigor in women's writing in the antebellum period. As interpreted by Dickinson, literary sentimentalism reaffirmed family ties, and Dickinson warned Higginson against reading her in this way. "I never had a mother," she told him, "I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled" (L 342b). Describing her aggressive alienation from her family and its religious practices, she further stated, "They are religious—except me—and address an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call their 'Father.' But I fear my story fatigues you—I would like to learn—Could you tell me how to grow—or is it unconveyed—like Melody—or Witchcraft?" (L 261).
Granted that some measure of egotism is a precondition for writing poetry and for literary writing in general, Dickinson's "'shunning Men and Women,'" as Higginson phrased it, posed problems for her early readers, as it posed problems for Dickinson herself. Rebuffing his curiosity, she explained, "They talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog" (L 271). This attempt to deflect the conversation from her person to her poetry failed to satisfy him. She had already told him about a "terror—since September" she identified as the source of her "palsy" (her nervousness) and her "Verses" (L 261, L 265). Whether or not Dickinson was exaggerating to get his attention—a distinct possibility—in letters to Higginson and to other members of her small contemporary audience, she frequently emphasized her social isolation and too intimate acquaintance with death. In the new century, Dickinson's supposed self-absorption remained a central problematic of her reception. For example, critic Ella Gilbert Ives, a Mount Holyoke graduate who wrote the first extended essay on Dickinson in the twentieth century, explained in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1907 that Dickinson was "arrogantly shy." Although Ives declared that her curiosity was satisfied by a visit to "'the house behind the hedge,'" it turns out that Ives had not ceased to wonder why, not really. Despite her wit, Dickinson was "the loneliest figure in the world of letters."
In Our Emily Dickinsons, my goal is less to unsettle the claims about Dickinsonian physical, mental, and emotional isolation—in Rukeyser's terms, her problem of being cut off. Rather, I will demonstrate their importance in constituting the myths of identity through which Dickinson has been read by American audiences and by women poets in particular. Moore, I will suggest, had a conversion experience; Plath died before she had time, but her interest in Dickinson's inner strength was growing; Bishop liked Dickinson better after meeting her in the Johnson edition, but as she explained to her friend Robert Lowell, Dickinson could still set her teeth on edge. There was a lot at stake for Bishop in identifying herself with the Dickinson to whom she was frequently compared, as was Moore, as was Plath. Moore did not seem to mind at all, Bishop resented the comparison, and Plath was thrilled. Yet at journey's end, versions of Rukeyser's question reverberated for all these poets with special urgency. To what extent are we free to choose our own traditions? Let me rephrase the question. If we read for both text and context, is it still possible to "dwell in Possibility—/ A fairer House than Prose?" (Fr 466). Reading for biographically precise connections, in Chapter 1, I will show that for women poets in Dickinson's sphere, there existed the immediate possibility of cultural relevance, especially if they also committed themselves to prose. But what did it take to organize a multigenre literary career in which cultural relevance was no shame? I turn now to Helen Hunt Jackson, whose canny example has much to teach us about the inner workings of the networks Dickinson both mobilized and didn't.