- Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America 1820–1885
Elizabeth Petrino’s Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America 1820–1885 carries forward the investigation of women’s verse-writing as context for Dickinson’s own unique achievements. After an overview of feminist discussions of Dickinson, Petrino examines Dickinson’s efforts in a sequence of contexts: publishing practices for women; the child-elegy, a popular genre for nineteenth-century women poets; epitaphs; floral dictionaries and conventions; and questions of female authorship. The women verse-writers most extensively brought for comparison and context are Lydia Sigourney, Frances Sargent Osgood, and Helen Hunt Jackson.
The book is most valuable when it reaches past the already established round of references to venture into, for example, children’s portraiture, graveyard inscription, and floral handbooks. Here, new materials are brought forward with very suggestive implications for Dickinson’s handling of some of her characteristic representations: her child’s voice, her voices of death, her flower imagery. Specific texts gain new illumination as references to widespread female discourses are uncovered in poems, including references to particular works that Dickinson knew. Petrino also shows how certain female conventions, such as flower images, offer more complex representation than has been generally acknowledged, both in Dickinson’s writing and beyond it.
Petrino’s project of reading Dickinson in terms of her women contemporaries is, of course, no longer new. Rather, she uses a method that has become widely accepted in Dickinson’s studies, in salutary counterweight against the older Dickinson-in-her-room school of criticism. There is certainly much to gain in the recognition that Dickinson wrote in the languages available to her and which she shared with other women contemporary to her. Yet, Petrino’s work also shows some of the weaknesses of this method. The cultural-historical contexts into which Petrino ventures remain rather limited: mainly to literary and almost exclusively to female relationships. This has, first, the problematic result of treating women’s history as though it were some separable, self-bounded set of issues, rather than as part of ongoing historical [End Page 110] events and developments in which women’s history also takes its place. It draws a circle around the lives of women in a way that diminishes a sense of the full impact of women’s lives on general culture. Second, even within the boundaries of women’s history, the book tends to rely on the historical work of other, mainly literary critics and to be descriptive rather than analytical of the hi torical materials it brings. Its presentation of the lives of nineteenth-century is weighted heavily toward the negative, as a story of oppression. Yet the record of achievements by nineteenth-century women in redefining the boundaries and terms of their lives seems to me nothing short of breathtaking.
Finally, the balance in this study between social-historical interests and literary analysis remains uneasy. I think it is undeniable that contemporary women’s verse is a useful context for studying, and appreciating, Emily Dickinson. But there is a danger of absorbing Dickinson into a general discourse in ways that obscure her unique achievement. Conversely, I wonder whether Dickinson is the best standard for judging the work of contemporary women’s verse. Against Dickinson’s accomplishment, the stature of other women tends to shrink, and their generic commitments, such as the child-elegy, to flatten. While Petrino’s analysis of Helen Hunt Jackson explores the complexities of her work, Lydia Sigourney risks being reduced to an untalented, predictable writer. She becomes mere foil, instead of courageous innovator writing a poetry of (some) complexity, irony, and self consciousness. I do not think this does her full justice.
Petrino’s study joins an important body of work exploring women’s verse, a subject long neglected and even repressed from American literary history. While she does not break new ground, she does cultivate paths worth cultivating, bringing to view a denser network of relationships, a closer scrutiny of...