- Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960
Fred White’s survey of Dickinson scholarship since 1960 is an essential resource for both long-term readers of Dickinson and those coming to her work for the first time. White’s book effectively picks up where Klaus Lubbers’s 1968 Emily Dickinson: The Critical Revolution left off, not only by providing a much needed history of recent Dickinson criticism, but also by conveying a sense of the excitement that has energized the field since then. The book will allow experienced Dickinson scholars to see more clearly how the work of predecessors and peers made their own thought possible, while it will provide readers new to Dickinson with an expanding panorama of interpretive possibilities that invite further contributions.
In an early section titled “Major Reference Tools Published Since 1955,” White quite properly identifies Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 variorum as the starting point for the period he examines. This makes sense because the full impact of the Johnson edition could not be fully appreciated at the time Lubbers’s book went to press. We can now more clearly see the extent to which Johnson’s three-volume Poems and the 1958 edition of the letters that he edited with Theodora Ward transformed the field. These works, together with R. W. Franklin’s 1981 The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, are the primary resources that have shaped the last era of Dickinson scholarship. White wisely organizes the consequent outpouring of criticism according to “approaches” that he describes as consistent with “the distinctive intentions of individual scholars” (2). This structure enables White to explore nearly half a century of Dickinson criticism as an ongoing conversation within which critical voices engage with key ideas and questions from multiple points of view. The concern with “currents” and “crosscurrents” that White identifies in his subtitle provides an effective framework for demonstrating the way the best criticism emerges through lively scholarly exchanges that promote, challenge, and redirect critical discourse. As a consequence, his historical overview presents contemporary scholarship as a dynamic field of study that continues to gather momentum as it moves into the twenty-first century. [End Page 119]
Precisely what White means by “approaches” is made clear through his chapter headings. Instead of using familiar labels such as “Psychoanalytical Criticism” or “New Critical Readings,” for instance, White chooses more capacious, less rigidly drawn categories, such as “Trends in Dickinson Biography and Biographical/Psychoanalytical Criticism” and “Approaching Dickinson’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Stylistics.” These more flexible groupings reflect White’s perception that scholars embrace multiple theoretical schools of thought and rarely if ever confine themselves to a single critical perspective. He states the matter plainly: “A cultural or feminist critic may well employ psychological, textual, archetypal, rhetorical, structuralist or poststructuralist methodologies” (2). An important benefit of this organizational scheme is that it allows readers to identify more easily those scholars whose work has had the broadest influence. White accordingly reinforces the established stature of central figures such as Richard B. Sewall, Jay Leyda, and R. W. Franklin, while also drawing attention to the contributions of scholars like Helen McNeil, Jane Donahue Eberwein, Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, Alfred Habegger, and Martha Nell Smith, whose impact on scholarship in multiple fields has become increasingly clear in recent decades.
White’s concern with approach rather than school of thought also establishes a productive critical context for thinking not only about lesser-known writers whose work rewards closer scrutiny, but also about developments in the field that may have escaped the attention of mainstream academics. Judy Jo Small’s 1990 Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson’s Rhyme serves as a prime example of scholarly work worth revisiting. As White explains, through this work, Small “conducts an unprecedented in-depth analysis of the poet’s intricate rhyming strategies and their contributions to the thematic and structural integrity of a given poem” (25). At a time like the present, when scholars are turning their attention once more to questions of genre and prosody, this is a book that...