- On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature, and: Lyric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, and: Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet
Anyone who wishes to be reminded just how much "our" Emily Dickinson has changed over the decades has only to read through Edwin Cady and Louis Budd's collection of essays culled from past issues of American Literature. On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature offers fascinating reading. Not only does the volume present a wide range of approaches to Dickinson's poetry from 1929 to 1988, but it also provides a reader with a sense of literary and theoretical history. Beginning with Anna Mary Wells' essay "Early Criticism of Emily Dickinson," published in 1929, the volume concludes with a recent essay by Maragret Dickie.
The essays that make up Cady and Budd's collection are for the most part valuable ones. It is fascinating to find Anna Mary Wells arguing as early as 1929 that Dickinson was neither iconoclast nor solitary, refuting much of the "myth" that grew up around the Amherst poet. Other statements made by Wells, however, are troubling to a contemporary reader, even at times [End Page 100] amusing. Wells wonders, for instance, if Dickinson wrote "awkwardly, ungrammatically," because she knew no better. Perhaps most amusing to us now in the early 1990s is the essay's conclusion that Dickinson "remains one of the most interesting of our minor poets" (17).
As the collection continues, a reader has a sense of the critical community's growing understanding of the complexity, of the depth and breadth of Emily Dickinson's life and art. Helpful biographical information is included in George Whicher's essay of 1934, "Emily Dickinon's Earliest Friend," in which Whicher argues that it was Ben Newton, not Leonard Humphrey, who was Dickinson's "earliest friend," her "preceptor." Charles Anderson's essay from 1959, "The Conscious Self in Dickinson's Poetry," is interestingly characterized by a tone that has enraged many women readers: Dickinson's writings are "scattered pensées," her aphoristic habit "became a mannerism indulged in," and, he insists, "it would do violence to her distinction as a poet to claim for her the status of a great thinker" (34-5). I had never known of Judith Banzer Farr's essay "'Compound Manner': Emily Dickinson and The Metaphysical Poets," published in 1961, in which Farr makes the case that like Donne, Dickinson "sought release in a poetry of paradox, argument, and unifying conceits," that Dickinson's poems recreate experience "in terms of multiple connections and infinite semblances, often conveying its highly personal and analytic vision in the arresting manner of the metaphysical" (53).
Farr's essay appeared thirty years ago; nine of the fourteen essays of this collection were published since 1975. Lois A. Cuddy's "The Latin Imprint on Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Theory and Practice" (1978) seems to answer Anna Mary Wells concern with the reason for the poet's irregular syntax. Cuddy convincingly demonstrates that Dickinson's syntax often follows the grammatical structures of Latin. Vivian Pollak's "Thirst and Starvation in Emily Dickinson's Poetry" (1979) and Betsy Erkkila's "Dickinson and Rich: Toward a Theory of Female Poetic Influence" (1984) are examples of two solid, significant recent feminist essays. Other fine essays are by Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, Timothy Morris, Joan Burbick, and Heather Kirk Thomas. Overall, this collection is a varied and valuable one; it concludes with an essay by Margaret Dickie, "Dickinson's Discontinuous Lyric Self," which appeared in 1988. [End Page 101]
Dickie's book, Lyric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, expands upon the essay published in On Dickinson three years ago; her full-length study is not only scholarly, insightful, and engaging reading, but it also accomplishes that most difficult of all tasks when writing about Dickinson: it posits a clear...