restricted access A Route of Evanescence: Emily Dickinson and Japan

Emily Dickinson never traveled to Japan, but her work has had a passionate Japanese readership, and many of her early admirers in the West were connoisseurs of Japanese culture. Among these were Mabel Loomis Todd, Ernest and Mary Fenollosa, and Amy Lowell, along with the Boston-based expert in Asian art Kakuzo Okakura. My essay ventures three explanations for why Dickinson seems at home in Japan: biographical, cultural, and interpretive. Dickinson's temperament recalls the Asian tradition of the scholarly recluse, and so do her haiku-like nature poems and inscrutable letters. Her cultural situation in Calvinist New England has parallels with an older Japan, before Commodore Perry's "opening" of 1854. There was much East-West cultural exchange in the rise of Emersonian Transcendentalism, on which Dickinson also drew. The reception of Dickinson's poetry in the West has Asian resonances. The successive spikes in her reputation—during the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1950s—correspond to periods of heightened American awareness of Asian culture. For a hundred years and more, American readers have read and interpreted Dickinson's work through a Japanese lens.