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Approaching Emily Dickinson

Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960

Fred D. White
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 239
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  • Book Info
    Approaching Emily Dickinson
    Book Description:

    When Klaus Lubbers's meticulously detailed Emily Dickinson: The Critical Revolution appeared in 1968, examining Dickinson criticism up to 1962, a second revolution in Dickinson criticism was already gathering force, as a new generation of scholars represe

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-788-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-ix)
    Fred D. White
  4. Note on References
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    In the forty years since Klaus Lubbers published his bibliographic survey Emily Dickinson: The Critical Revolution (1968), the number of academic studies of Dickinson and of literary and artistic creations inspired by her life and work has greatly exceeded that of the hundred-year period (1862–1962) covered by Lubbers, thus creating an urgent need for a new survey.

    What has contributed to such a proliferation of Dickinson criticism and belletristic writing? I see three major factors. The first and most obvious is the steadily growing appreciation of Emily Dickinson’s extraordinarily brilliant, innovative, complex artistry — an artistry that both extends and...

  6. 1: Approaching Dickinson’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Stylistics
    (pp. 12-39)

    Although Emily Dickinson left us with no ars poetica per se, many of her poems can be regarded as “dramatic speeches” in Aristotle’s sense of the term.¹ Archibald MacLeish notes that more than 150 of her poems begin with the word “I,”² which he calls “the talker’s word,” adding that “few poets … have written more dramatically than Emily Dickinson, more in the live locutions of dramatic speech, words born living on the tongue, written as though spoken” (103–4; emphasis MacLeish’s). But is Emily Dickinson engaging in oratory? Helen McNeil, for one, says no. Unlike Whitman, who seems to be...

  7. 2: Trends in Dickinson Biography and Biographical/Psychoanalytic Criticism
    (pp. 40-64)

    How is it possible in nineteenth-century Calvinist, patriarchal New England, students of Emily Dickinson inevitably wonder, that a young woman from a distinguished family rejects her family’s and her culture’s faith (or at least the protocols of that faith), chooses not to marry and raise a family, and — most astonishingly — “shuts the door” on society and throws away the key to pursue the vocation of poetry in her own utterly uncompromising manner? Formalists, of course, do not consider the question relevant to their critical agendas (although that does not preclude their being fascinated with the poet’s life), but biographers and...

  8. 3: The Feminist Revolution in Dickinson Studies
    (pp. 65-84)

    Feminist literary criticism does not appear until the mid-1970s, nearly a quarter century after the rise of modern feminist writings such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (originally published in France as Le Deuxieme Sexe in 1949; in the United States in 1953). Of course, feminist writing has a long and varied history that can be traced back centuries. Two treatises in English, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1797) and Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) are foundational.

    Despite the widespread influence of Beauvoir’s book, augmented in the following decade by Betty Friedan’s...

  9. 4: The Manuscripts of a Non-Print Poet
    (pp. 85-105)

    Venting her anger in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson over the way one of her poems, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (Fr1096B; J986) was misprinted in the Springfield Weekly Republican (the details of which I will get to shortly), Emily Dickinson asserted that she “did not print.” She had chosen her words carefully. “Print,” unlike “publish,” conjures up conventions of typography, not just conventions of literary taste, and she concluded that those conventions would not and could not accommodate her conception of how a poem should appear before readers’ eyes. If she had been undecided before writing to...

  10. 5: Dickinson in Cultural Context: Principal Critical Insights
    (pp. 106-124)

    Jack L. Capps notes in the opening line of the preface to his Emily Dickinson’s Reading (1966) that the poet’s “voluntary seclusion has often been mistakenly equated to intellectual isolation” (vii). Dickinson, as Capps’s book demonstrates, was highly attuned to her society. She was an avid reader of current events, literary journalism, contemporary as well as classic literature, and, especially in her formative years, a devotee of innovative religious and scientific discourse. She was privy (despite the restrictions imposed on her gender) to her lawyer/civic activist father’s and brother’s professional activities. Her personal and family friends included journalists, theologians, educators,...

  11. 6: Probing Dickinson’s Poetic Spirituality
    (pp. 125-145)

    Studying Emily Dickinson in cultural context brings her “flood subject” of immortality (and all of the spiritual motifs associated with it) into focus. One does not spend much time with Dickinson’s poetry before realizing that it is infused with rich and complex spiritual themes — themes that have commanded the exclusive attention of several Dickinson scholars — hence the need for this separate chapter.

    Elisa New, in her 1993 book The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry, building from Yvor Winters’s theory that American poetry is essentially about “human isolation in a foreign universe” (qtd. New 2), regards American poetry...

  12. 7: Scholarship on Archetypal and Philosophical Themes in Dickinson’s Poetry
    (pp. 146-161)

    To perceive a literary work from an archetypal perspective is to disregard the author as an “isolate self” — to use Frank Lentricchia’s term from After the New Criticism (1980) — in order to foreground the author’s universal patterns of thought, or the Jungian “collective unconscious.” Such universal patterns or archetypes are what, presumably, have given rise to the ancient myths. Myth, according to Northrop Frye in his landmark Anatomy of Criticism (1957) “is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136). For Frye any school of criticism that searches for “a limiting principle in literature … is...

  13. 8: Reassessing Dickinson’s Poetic Project: A Postmodern Perspective
    (pp. 162-175)

    Literary critics today not only deconstruct texts but, to paraphrase J. Hillis Miller, show how texts deconstruct themselves — by contradicting their own tacit assumptions that they refer to pre-existent features anchored in the world “out there,” that is, to transcendental signifieds. But as Ferdinand de Saussure theorized in his Course in General Linguistics (1916; trans. 1959), linguistic signifiers speak to, formulate, or reformulate mental representations (“signifieds”) of those language signifiers. Abolished was the assumption that words refer to transcendental signifieds — that is, to a universally agreed-upon objective reality. Jacques Derrida in turn argued that signifiers relate only to other signifiers,...

  14. 9: Celebrating Emily Dickinson in Belles Lettres, Music, and Art
    (pp. 176-186)

    Emily Dickinson and her work have served as subject matter for poets and fiction writers, painters, sculptors, and composers going back to the poet’s own lifetime. The protagonist in Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Mercy Philbrick’s Choice (1876) is said to have been modeled after the poet, a friend since childhood.¹ Artistic works based on the poet have proliferated over the decades, yet have only very recently begun to receive serious critical attention. Bibliographic surveys include those by Klaus Lubbers (1968), who comments briefly on poems, novels, and dramas about the poet’s life published or produced through 1957; by Carlton Lowenberg,...

  15. 10: Concluding Reflections
    (pp. 187-192)

    Emily Dickinson, like other major authors, produced a body of work that has commanded many critical approaches and has inspired creative artists the world over. With its seemingly unfathomable riches, this body of work constitutes a “compound vision” of philosophical, spiritual, psychological, historical, and aesthetic power — or simply “poetic” power, as I think Emily Dickinson conceived of that word. The themes and critical or artistic perspectives I have brought into focus by way of an examination of the work of dozens of exemplary Dickinson scholars may not quite form a coherent vision of the poet’s life and work, but they...

  16. Selected Editions of Emily Dickinson’s Poems and Letters
    (pp. 193-194)
  17. Works Cited
    (pp. 195-214)
  18. General Index
    (pp. 215-224)
  19. Index of First Lines of Poems Discussed
    (pp. 225-230)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)