- The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson
Wendy Martin’s lucid introduction to Emily Dickinson provides newcomers with a vivid description of the poet at different, crucial stages of her life; a glimpse into the religious, political, and cultural landscape of mid-nineteenth-century New England; readings of several of Dickinson’s now-best-known poems; and a brief version of the publication and reception history that unfolded after Dickinson’s death. Because the readers of this book will most likely be high-school and college students who are not yet familiar with Dickinson’s life and work, Martin is faced with the challenge of making accessible one of the most complicated stories of poetic production and reception in American literary history. While potentially frustrating to readers already acquainted with this story or to those interested in recent critical debates about the writer, The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson provides students with the basics. Martin unfolds the enormous body of Dickinson’s writings, communicates the awe that one should feel in the face of them, and lays out the specific conditions and circumstances under which this oeuvre was produced, generating an enthusiasm and curiosity in her reader that might very well lead to further study.
To introduce Dickinson in less than 150 pages and in four discrete sections—Life, Context, Works, and Reception—is a feat in and of itself, and it is only possible here because Martin employs the very kind of concision and precision that Dickinson herself mastered. Her sentences gesture at larger complexities without reducing or flattening out their elements. For instance, when she writes “Poetry enabled Dickinson to achieve an equilibrium between personal autonomy and emotional dependence,” she crystallizes an issue that all of Dickinson’s readers will encounter and presents the opportunity to think about each of its terms further (41). At other moments Martin collapses the distance between [End Page 96] Dickinson and her readers in a way that urges them to read on: “Readers tend to approach Dickinson’s poetry much the same way Dickinson approached life; feeling overwhelmed, fearful, and excited about the ensuing moment, they find great satisfaction in persevering” (47). Much like these sentences, the compact close readings of several difficult poems—such as “Because I could not stop for Death - ” (Fr479) and “I am afraid to own a Body - ” (Fr1050) —introduce students to the wide range of Dickinson’s poetic subjects and strategies, and to Martin’s own succinct method of analysis.
Although this book is aimed primarily at students who are new to Dickinson, there are several things that even the most knowledgeable Dickinson aficionado will appreciate. Martin presents a more positive view of Lavinia than we are used to, arguing that she provided a partial release from domestic chores that made Dickinson’s writing possible, and she establishes a connection between Dickinson and her mother by suggesting that they both displayed “the same paradoxical mix of compliance and quiet rebellion” (4). Such attention to the Dickinson women— a perspective Martin employed in her 1984 book An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich—is still refreshing. She also articulates an important link between Dickinson’s focus on her friendships and the nature of her religious faith (arguing that her friends became her own saints and angels), and explores at some length Dickinson’s love of her garden, her relationship to the writings of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and the many biblical references and allusions in her poetry. These topics are not new in Dickinson studies, but this book does not claim to be doing original research.
Martin also posits, instead of argues, that Dickinson was a product of her time by highlighting the cultural constraints that she thinks Dickinson chose to work within and drawing connections between the political, religious, philosophical, cultural, and social movements of the nineteenth century and Dickinson’s poetry. This is not to say that Martin takes Dickinson’s poems to be overt representations of nineteenth-century America; instead, she writes that Dickinson’s poetry was a mirror of what occurred...