The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000) 134-141
[Access article in PDF]
A Critique of American Identity
Dickinson's work, in its recalcitrant selfhood, specifically recalls Emerson's writings, and it also more broadly refers to the general and looming concern with autonomy and individualism so central to American culture. But Dickinson's poetry offers a selfhood that remains extremely problematic. Her poetics of retraction extend to her treatments of autonomous unity and self-reliance. Almost any text that seems to assert the power, completeness, and sufficiency of self also questions, exposes, and subverts such assertions. In this, Dickinson both offers a critique of American notions of selfhood and explores a gendering that American ideologies of selfhood, without acknowledging it, fundamentally assume.
It is very tempting to see Dickinson's retreat into the self as an accession to power, making limitation into expansion, intensity into extension, constrictive circles into infinite circumferences. 1 In a number of poems, Dickinson of course does this. This model of sacrifice/conversion is one she herself wished, at times, to accomplish. Yet what often occurs is the failure, or at least severe qualification, of any such conversion. When, for example, "The Soul selects her own Society, / Then - shuts the Door" (and she does so with puns on electoral politics: hers is a "Majority," which she chooses "from an ample nation;") the act may declare her independence. But she also finds her self to be a prison, as "The Valves of her attention" close deathlike, "Like Stone" (J303 / Fr409). If "A Prison gets to be a friend," it does so not through expansive transfiguration, but rather because its "narrow Round" exchanges "Hope - for something passiver." "Liberty" in this poem, far from being achieved, is "Avoided - like a Dream" (J652/Fr456). The soul is "an imperial friend" but equally "the most agonizing Spy" (J683/Fr579). Examples multiply almost beyond counting.
Dickinson in such texts invokes a transformative power which then, [End Page 134] however, is stymied. But we fall into her trap. We see "Renunciation" as "Virtue" and overlook that it is also "piercing," discounting the syntactic obfuscations which make it impossible in this and so many poems to weigh what is gained against what is lost (J745/Fr782). We read Dickinson as urging extreme self-reliance:
On a Columnar Self -
How ample to rely
In Tumult - or Extremity -
How good the Certainty
That Lever cannot pry -
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction - That Granitic Base -
Though none be on our side -
Suffice Us - for a Crowd -
Ourself - and Rectitude -
And that Assembly - not far off
From furthest Spirit - God -
But reading Dickinson doubly, as Suzanne Juhasz describes it, 3 we can see how desperate, and how self-defeating, this "Columnar Self," for all its array of certain, granitic, language, also is. Posed almost frantically against tremendous, threatening forces -- "Tumult," "Extremity" -- and assaultive intrusion -- a "Wedge" that threatens to "divide;" this self stands in utter isolation -- "None be on our side." And the self's rescue costs in fact the self itself: its liberty, its mobility, indeed consciousness itself -- for here, again, Dickinsonian selfhood is lapidary, a downward metamorphosis from motive, sentient, conscious being into inorganic stone. What first appears, then, to be a declaration of absolute independence, emerges instead as a defensive, ambivalent contraction of selfhood, unto its own undoing.
But our stubborn Emersonian/American paradigm seduces us to see independent, autonomous selfhood as ideal and obtainable, even if at a price, blinding us to the disturbing disjunctions Dickinson's poems offer. Nor is Dickinson's problem only her exclusion from autonomous independence because of gender restrictions. Rather, her gender may allow her a critical stance on ideologies of the self that dream of releasing it from social, cultural, or religious constraints: constraints that, however, in other ways are constitutive of identity and, while on one level limit, on others extend the [End Page 135] self beyond its own boundaries. The burden of self-sufficiency, as Dickinson shows, can be crushing.
Emerson, whose Essays, Second Series (1844) Dickinson read in 1850, uses specifically...