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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 52-67

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The Poetics of Political Involvement and Non-Involvement

Daneen Wardrop

To study the history of Dickinson scholarship is in some ways to apprehend the major confrontations of our culture as they reveal themselves. Find the cultural conflicts that separate differing parties and we will find the places at which Dickinson scholarship comes to a boil. As literary critics, we continue to work out gender roles, sexuality, the identity formed by the "I," and textual issues, even as Americans work out the same or corollary issues on a larger cultural screen. How we fulfill or fail our conception of the American dream, reconsidered over each decade, has flash points of correspondence in Dickinson scholarship over each decade. One can say this, of course, of nearly any author -- that the current criticism reflects the cultural milieu of the critic -- but one can say it resoundingly for Emily Dickinson. (Perhaps it happens in the dashes -- she gives us so much space, paradoxically, to argue in.)

During the spring of 2000, I participated in a session entitled "Emily Dickinson's Civil War" at the American Literature Association conference in Long Beach. My part was merely supportive. I introduced the participants -- Cristanne Miller, Karen Dandurand, and Vivian Pollak (who had organized the excellent session). The panel's topic represents the turn Dickinson studies is taking, I believe, corroborated by the scheduling of another session on Dickinson and the Civil War at the MLA conference later that year. The direction, quite baldly stated, is that of claiming Dickinson for her culture and history.

It is an important claim -- one that approaches mission, it seems to me, if I read aright the fervor of literary criticism as a whole. We Dickinson scholars need Dickinson to be grounded in her culture or else we will get left behind. I might add that I think of myself as part of this mission, no less invested [End Page 52] than others. It seems necessary to champion Dickinson as one who lived through the strains of the Mexican War, the enormity of the Civil War, and the disillusionment of Reconstruction. It also seems equally important -- in fact, essential -- to prove she in some way registered it. We feel it incumbent upon ourselves to prove that she had an opinion of the enterprise of American politics and war. She lived through arguably the most cataclysmic era in United States history and she must -- we tell ourselves -- have responded to it.

Of course she did. Of course she was a product of her time. Of course language flows through her culture and through her. Her language is not a kind of autism of privacy that only circulates from her mouth to her ear; she circulates through the economy of the signifier as does everybody else. But what's equally interesting, possibly, is the sweep of decades needed for us to come to this nexus point in the reading of the poems of Emily Dickinson. Her reclusion prompted critics of the early part of the twentieth century (largely male) to paternalize and protect her. She posed herself to them as an anomaly, seemingly as good as major male poets, but too different, really, to be relevant to the perceived standards for great art. Her appeal to feminists in the later decades of the twentieth century prompted critics (largely female) to protect her for women's literature; Dickinson was a pristine example of noncorruption by patriarchal forces. She stood as an important exemplar to us; we had someone untainted.

A new study guide book by Harold Bloom offers an interesting example of Dickinson scholarship through the decades. He presents, among three case studies, a case study of the old workhorse poem, "Because I could not stop for Death - " (Fr479), including critical responses from 1932 through 1993. The early critics, Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, see the poet, respectively, as intellectually deficient, though brilliant, and as attempting experience that is fraudulent, though exquisite. Both appreciate her but they remain disgruntled about their appreciation, as if she were...


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