- Bloom’s How to Write about Emily Dickinson
In the 1980s Harold Bloom launched his Modern Critical Views series; today the series is well over 300 volumes (each a collection of reprinted articles or monograph chapters by noted scholars), including a 1984 volume on Emily Dickinson. Now, Bloom has launched a new series, Bloom’s How To Write About . . . , each volume offering basic instruction to students (whether high-school or college is unclear; in How to Write about Emily Dickinson, Priddy may be trying to target both audiences) on preparing critical essays that elucidate particular works of the writer in question—each a bona fide member (thus far) of the Western Canon, a Bloom prime directive.
Priddy, a poet and writer with a doctorate in English from Louisiana State University, is clearly concerned with making a difficult poet accessible to students with little or no training in literary study. The book opens with a brief reflection from Bloom on “How to Write about Emily Dickinson” (which, [End Page 116] strangely, is little more than an account of the way Bloom approaches Dickinson in the classroom, using “Because I could not stop for Death - ”[Fr479] as a case-inpoint). This is followed by “How to Write a Good Essay,” in which Priddy covers such elementary topics as writing about characters and themes; formulating a thesis; and structuring an outline—topics with which any high school student ought to be familiar and that college students would probably find simplistic and condescending, unless they were enrolled in remedial programs. The most useful part of this section is the sample student explication of “Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man”—although it would be a lot more useful if Priddy had provided some editorial commentary on that student essay’s strengths and/or shortcomings, or even shown how the student worked through different drafts, a common feature in composition textbooks these days. The next section, however, “How to Write about Emily Dickinson” (yes, the same title as Bloom’s opening reflection, which is rather annoying), seems more suitable for college students— say, in an introduction to literature course. Here, Priddy includes a biographical sketch, followed by an overview of Dickinson’s “Topics and Strategies,” including sample paper topics based on the following somewhat confusing and overlapping categories: “Themes”; “History and Context” (but isn’t history a type of context?); “Philosophy and Ideas” (the distinction is unclear); “Form and Genre” (e.g., Dickinson as a lyric poet; Dickinson’s meter; punctuation); “Symbols, Imagery, and Language”; and, finally, topics that would lend themselves to “Comparison and Contrast.”
Each of the twenty chapters that follows focuses on ways to write about a particular poem. Priddy has wisely selected twenty Dickinson masterpieces that are both accessible and complex: “Success is counted sweetest” (Fr112), “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (Fr340), “After great pain, a formal feeling comes - ” (Fr372), “There’s a certain Slant of light” (Fr320), “This was a Poet - ” (Fr446), “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - ” (Fr764), and fourteen others. For each of these individualpoem chapters, Priddy follows roughly the same organizational strategy she uses in her introductory essay. Thus, for the chapter on “The Soul selects her own Society - ” (Fr409), Priddy provides a thumbnail explication of the poem, followed by a discussion of its themes and possible topics based on those themes (e.g., “What sort of society is intended in ‘The Soul selects her own Society’?”; “How can this be said to be a love poem?” ). Priddy then moves to a discussion of the poem’s philosophy and ideas, again suggesting relevant topics (“What do you think Dickinson means when she refers to the ‘soul’ in this poem?”). The chapter continues with a discussion of language, symbols and imagery, points of comparison and [End Page 117] contrast with other poems, and concludes with a not-very helpful bibliography, since all but one or two of the entries are keyed to the poem in question.
Would Priddy’s text work well in an introductory literature course? Not for me...