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  • Emily Dickinson and the Limit of War
  • Tyler B. Hoffman (bio)

In 1958 Thomas Johnson could claim of Emily Dickinson without serious contest: "the fact is she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current" (Letters 1: xiv).1 More recently, however, critics have begun to challenge this very limited and limiting point of view. Perhaps their most significant effort has been to reconnect her to the most overwhelming event to happen in her lifetime, an event which coincides with her most prolific period—the American Civil War. Against Johnson's belief that the war was simply "an annoyance" for Dickinson, that a "shallow facetiousness" was the only note she could sound on the subject, contemporary critics have looked to her poems for a more complicated history of the relationship (Letters 1: xiv). In the most comprehensive of these studies, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, Shira Wolosky argues that "the presence of war in Dickinson's poetry has been greatly underestimated," proposing that the poet's work "be placed, not only within the intellectual and literary currents of the period, but also into the realm of concrete historical events" (37, 34). Wolosky's deconstruction of the myth of Emily Dickinson as a self-enclosed persona, one with no interest in events of public history, represents a valuable historical correction.2 [End Page 1]

But as important as this correction is, the urgency of Wolosky's revisionism occasionally leads her into overstatement. Ignoring the very real limits imposed on Dickinson as a result of her location on the home front, Wolosky insists on the poet's total identification with the "strife of objective battlefields," arguing without exception that "combat penetrates Dickinson's private world," making "every civilian . . . a soldier" (55-56). In blurring the distinction between civilian and soldier, she mitigates the reality of Dickinson's mediated relationship to the war, missing the ways in which the poet turns the limits of her condition to rhetorical advantage. Ultimately, Wolosky fails to account for poems like "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" (P656), which are specifically about the inability of the civilian to identify fully with the experience of war, to be wholly integrated into its frame of violence.3

"The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," which Johnson dates circa 1862, was first published in Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892 (Poems 2: 506). It is a poem that would appear to take as its subject the seasonal shedding of leaves at "the dying time of the year" (St. Armand 286):

The name—of it—is "Autumn"—The hue—of it—is Blood—An Artery—upon the Hill—A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—And Oh, the Shower of Stain—When Winds—upset the Basin—And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—It gathers ruddy Pools—Then—eddies like a Rose—away—Upon Vermillion Wheels—

Significantly, this poem did not appear in Youth's Companion under the title "'Autumn,'" which would have maintained Dickinson's quotation of the word in the first line of the poem; instead, it was called more simply "Autumn." The editor's refusal to acknowledge Dickinson's quotation of the word when assigning the poem a title, while it may make for easier reading, [End Page 2] neglects an important, defining fact of the text. Mabel Loomis Todd took similar liberties with the poem when she edited it for inclusion in Bolts of Melody (1945), where it appears without dashes, without capitalization (except at the heads of lines), and without quotation marks around the word "Autumn" in the first line (38). Todd further circumscribes the meaning of the text by fixing it under the subject heading "The Round Year," a gesture that effectively seals its status as a nature poem.

Despite Todd's editorial license, the evidence of Dickinson's poetry suggests that when she frames an expression in quotation marks, isolating it from its cultural context, it cannot be so easily dismissed. Usually when she quotes a word or phrase, she is holding that utterance at arm's length as she calls its integrity into question. Often it signifies her interrogation of...


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