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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 1-21

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Emily Dickinson and Photography

Adam Frank

This essay locates aspects of Emily Dickinson's writing and writing-system as it registers and participates in the disturbance or emergence of photography. It is not only that the materials and discourses of photography were present to the poet and used to poetic effect, as I describe in the first section of this essay. In addition, Dickinson's writing, especially about loss and "sundered things," analogized and competed with the uses of photography as a sentimental technology of preservation and revelation in mid-nineteenth-century United States. Dickinson's writing and larger writing-system, I argue here, negotiated the new value of publicity attendant on a photographic dissociation of "self," a value that continues to set the terms for the poet's reception.

I begin by taking a little too literally Thomas Johnson's characterization, in his edition of her letters, of the poet's "acute sensitivity" and "susceptibility to atmosphere" a little too literally, for this figures the poet's person in specific, photographic terms. These terms of Johnson's introduction helped to set up one of the critical problems for Dickinson studies, the problem of how to specify the relation between the poet's immense productivity during the years of the Civil War -- the approximately nine hundred poems she wrote and transcribed onto stationary paper, many of which she bound -- and the events or fact of the war. He writes: "one of course turns to the letters of 1861-1865, and the years that follow, for an interpretation of events. But the fact is that she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current" (L xx). Johnson participated in creating New Criticism's closed, transcendent Dickinson, in specific contrast with the Walt Whitman who "projected himself into the world about him so intensely that not only the war but the nation itself is continuously the substance of his thought . . . The reverse was true for [End Page 1] Dickinson, to whom the war was an annoyance" (L xx).

The gendered terms of this assumption of excessive interiority have been part of Dickinson's reception since Thomas Higginson's introduction to the first posthumous book publication of her poems in 1891. Virginia Jackson writes of how the introduction to this first book publication continues to structure the poet's reception in terms of a "published privacy -- a privacy that circulates": "those first readers of the poems in 'print' knew that what they were being allowed to read was not intended to be read by them. To this admonition the response in the 1890s was immediate and popular interest" (77). Dickinson's privacy or interiority seems to be a condition of the popularity of her writing, both in the 1890s and today. For some criticism, her writing becomes a kind of enigma or impossibility on par with "the" unconscious or "the" body -- an encrypted space that results from an inward turn so entire as to leave one breathless. 1 These approaches to Dickinson's writing as enigma or riddle may be guided by a notion of "self" that emerges in relation to a kind of perception transformed by photographic materials.

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes attends to what he calls the quality of "That-has-been" or the "Intractable" of photography: "what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred . . . [i]n Photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric" (77-8). Barthes emphasizes, in C.S. Peirce's terms, not the iconic value of the photograph (relations of likeness to the thing represented), but its indexical value: as a bullet hole is an index to the bullet that has passed through the wall, so a photograph is a physical index of or to the scene that was once in front of the camera. 2 This past presence rather...


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