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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 68-74

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Book Review

Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception

Mitchell, Domhnall. Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

In his magisterial work of historical scholarship, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, Jay Leyda observed that "a close study of the facts of Emily Dickinson's life shows that she wrote more in time, that she was much more involved in the conflicts and tensions of her nation and community, than we have thought." "Only the closest juxtaposition of her poems," he argues, "with a complete chronology of her life and times (and completeness, of course, is forever beyond our reach) would reveal how much a part of her world she was." 1 Despite Leyda's emphasis as early as 1960 on the role that an historically grounded scholarship might play in illuminating what he aptly calls the "omitted center" of Dickinson's letters and poems, biographers and critics have tended to treat Dickinson as an isolated literary genius, a primarily private poet whose writing exists apart from the messiness of history and the political and social struggles that marked her time. Although Dickinson lived and wrote during a time of national political crisis and civil war when the linked issues of race, class, gender, capital, technology, industry, and territorial expansion exposed major contradictions in the ideology of the American republic, her biographers, editors, and critics have tended to focus on the primarily personal sources of her crisis and the uniquely psychic, textual, and aesthetic dimensions of her work.

Over the past decade, however, critics have begun to turn with renewed attention to the social and political histories that Dickinson lived, suffered, wrote about, and resisted. Reading Dickinson's poems in the context of the Civil War in Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, Shira Wolosky argues that Dickinson's poetry "can be seen as profoundly engaged in problems of the external world, and aggressively so." 2 And in "Emily Dickinson and [End Page 68] Class," I seek to relocate Dickinson within rather than outside of history by reading such poems as "The Soul selects her own Society -," " "Color - Caste - Denomination," "I'm Nobody! Who are you?," and "Publication - is the Auction" in relation to the social, sexual, racial, class, industrial, and labor struggles of her times. 3 The publication of Franklin's new variorum edition of Dickinson's Poems -- which provides multiple textual variants and new dates for several poems and letters -- and recent historical scholarship on Dickinson make it apparent that there is a pressing need for a new biography of Dickinson and her times and a major critical reevaluation of her poems and letters that would be more fully attuned to the multiple social, historical, political, and cultural locations of her life and writing. 4

Domhnall Mitchell's new book Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception provides an excellent example of the enriched understanding of Dickinson's life, letters, and poems that can come from a socially and historically grounded approach to her work. Arguing that even those critics who "claim that Dickinson was not a private poet tend to re-privatize her writerly practice by concentrating on its cultural, religious, or textual-biographical aspects" (1), Mitchell "aims to amend the tendency to privatize Dickinson's literary documents and to look instead at how and why her poetry relates to the social spaces and languages that surrounded it in nineteenth-century Amherst" (2). Mitchell's approach is well-illustrated by his opening analysis of the word "Stone" at the end of "The Soul selects her own Society - ." Examining the various "social nuances" of "Stone"-- from the fact that large stones were a common feature of the New England landscape, to the garden cemetery movement of the 1840s, to the rebuilding of the United States Capitol in 1850-51, to the simultaneously aesthetic and ideological meanings of commemorative architecture -- Mitchell effectively demonstrates that words in Dickinson's poems are never simply transparent; they are always in Bakhtin's terms charged with social meaning. "The stone at the end of the...


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