- Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics by Alexandra Socarides, and: Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century by Cristanne Miller
Two recent studies of Emily Dickinson bring innovative approaches to bear on the poet's work while also extending ongoing critical discussions of her poetry. In Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Alexandra Socarides argues that careful study of the paper on which Dickinson wrote can offer new ways of understanding her writing process even as it foregrounds Dickinson's connectedness to nineteenth-century practices for copying and collecting poetry. In Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century, Cristanne Miller reads Dickinson's work in relation to both formal concerns and political questions, situating her analyses in the context of the periodicals Dickinson read. Both Socarides and Miller thus take up the kinds of questions that Virginia Jackson proposes in Dickinson's Misery, in which she argues that we misread Dickinson if we only and always read her poems as participating in the discursive systems of the lyric.
Although manuscript study has been a well-established field in Dickinson studies for many years, Socarides's careful attention to Dickinson's use of paper yields fresh insights. While acknowledging the shaping influence of manuscript studies on the questions she is pursuing, Socarides also positions her project in the comparatively new field of media studies, arguing that Dickinson's sewn fascicles, loose sheets, and poems written on scraps of household paper compel us to read not only the text of the poems but also the media that worked to shape and disseminate them. Socarides tracks individual poems through the multiple manuscript contexts in which they appear, tracing Dickinson's process and poetics throughout.
Reading Dickinson's career chronologically through the manuscripts, Socarides structures her study around five distinct compositional practices: copying poems onto folded pieces of stationery, embedding poems in letters, sewing sheets together as fascicles, using loose sheets, and writing poems on scraps of household paper. In chapter 1, Socarides situates Dickinson's practice of copying poems onto folded pieces of stationery in the context of nineteenth-century practices for copying poetry and making hand-bound books. While earlier scholars have argued that Dickinson intended the fascicles to function as books, Socarides counters that Dickinson uses not the fascicle but rather [End Page 405] the individual folded sheet as "her primary unit of construction" (26). While Dickinson will include more than one poem on the four sides of a folded sheet, only once does she allow a single poem to spill beyond the bounds of one folded sheet. Thus, in Socarides's reading, the unit of the folded sheet allows Dickinson the freedom to explore partial clusters or pairings of ideas rather than having to collect poems into large, more totalizing wholes. Responding to the many critics who have read for thematic or sequential groupings within the fascicles, Socarides argues persuasively that it is through the unit of the folded sheet that Dickinson explores questions of narrative, sequence, and fragmentation.
In reading Dickinson's practice of including poems in her correspondence, Socarides's second chapter suggests that Dickinson neither upholds nor undoes the generic boundary between epistolary and poetic writing; rather, like her contemporaries, Dickinson finds in the epistolary context a site for thinking about the instability of both modes of writing. Strongly countering the school of criticism that reads Dickinson's letters as lyric undertakings, Socarides holds that we need to consider with care the criteria we use in determining what constitutes a Dickinson poem. Ultimately, Socarides suggests that Dickinson's play with epistolary and poetic conventions reverses the public-private opposition that structures many critical approaches to women's writing in the nineteenth century: By enclosing the same seemingly private poem to different addressees in different letters, Dickinson marks the poem, rather than the letters, as the more public of the two acts of writing. The...