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Reviewed by:
  • Dickinson and Audience
  • Ellen Louise Hart (bio)
Orzeck, Martin and Robert Weisbuch, eds. Dickinson and Audience. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996, 280 pp.

The twelve essays in this collection explore Dickinson’s concept of audience: for whom did she write; did she wish to publish her poems; was she seeking the perfect reader and who was that reader; what was her relationship to the public during her lifetime, to readers and critics now? The collection’s range of issues is clear from the first pair of essays: David Porter, in “Dickinson’s Unrevised Poems,” discusses her “glorious ricketiness, more authentic to her than finish” (27), her sacrifice of intelligibility and willingness to alienate an audience to maintain the intensity of her performance. Porter challenges Gender Studies to go beyond the “feminist biographical and ideological historicizing” that connects her poems to social issues (21). “We often hear it said that Dickinson ‘shunned an audience,’” Charlotte Nekola writes in “‘Red in my Mind’: Dickinson, Gender, and Audience.” “But perhaps it cannot truly be said that she had much of one, in her time, ready to understand the language of a red wound, or the language of a volcano, in the work of a female speaker” (47).

Although interesting contrasts are presented here, as a whole I find this volume disappointing. During an exciting period in Dickinson scholarship, Dickinson and Audience overlooks new questions raised in editing projects, in debates on how to read Dickinson’s variants and versions, in discussions of genre and the relationship between poems and letters. All the essays are useful, and three break new ground. But this ambitious topic calls for a more strategic, theoretical, and innovative arrangement, along with an introduction that orients readers in fields of previous thought, then speculates on new territory. Orzeck and Weisbuch’s “Introduction: Dickinson the Scrivener” seems to make a clever, comic parallel between Dickinson and Melville’s Bartleby who “would prefer not to.” Poems “finally pried postmortem from her,” Dickinson “appears to have elected herself to a job she will not perform” (1–2). Despite the editors’ playful intent, this analogy leads down a well worn road to the caricature of Dickinson as the artist wasting away passively, silently, in the triumphant agony of solitary defeat. The tale of Bartleby cannot frame or enrich the ideas in this volume. Readers need a better guide. [End Page 118]

In too many ways Dickinson and Audience looks backward rather than forward. Essay arrangement is aligned with the traditional view of Dickinson’s unseen future readers. The opening section on concept of audience is subtitled “‘The Pierless Bridge,’” or “Faith,” which supports “what We see / Unto the Scene that / We do not.” The title of the middle section is “Letters to the World,” whose “Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” Yet these letters and the hundreds of poems sent with letters or in letters or as letters went to hands she did see. The title of the third section, “‘A Fairer House than Prose’: Dickinson the Nineteenth Century Poet,” further exposes the unexamined link here between prose and poetry. Isn’t this poet the creator of a genre in letters for which we have no name? Dickinson’s writing subverts the literary hierarchy where poems are “higher art” than letters, and yet again and again her letters are described as the writer’s workshop rather than the writer’s work.

Still, the essays on four correspondences with women are informative. Orzeck points out that letters to Abiah Root “present an archetypal pattern that we can recognize as the poet’s eternal quest for an audience,” that here Dickinson “experimented with her persona and formulated a durable reader-writer relationship” (153). Betsy Erkkila, reading letters to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, looks at “Homoeroticism and Audience” and repeats a point first made by Martha Nell Smith, that “Master” may have been female; Erkkila argues persuasively that Dickinson Studies must “recognize the centrality of [the relationship with Susan Dickinson] in the text of Dickinson’s life and work” (177). Stephanie Tingley finds that through correspondence, Elizabeth Holland became the friend to Dickinson that Emerson had defined, someone with whom she...

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