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Orchard oriole. From Edward A Samuels, Ornithology and Oology of New England . . . (Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 186/). The Signifying Spinster: How Emily Dickinson Found Her Voice DANIEL L. MANHEIM Critics writing on Emily Dickinson have often attempted to track her sources, locating her in this or that tradition, and it has occasionally been observed that she approached her predecessors with a sense of rivalry or an inclination to satire. More than three decades ago, Ruth Miller noted that, "when [Dickinson] reads something that is printed, she pits her skill against that which has won the public stamp of approval, she does it over, leaving it, as she thinks, with a finer finish, a greater relevance." Miller proposed numerous "borrowings," but did little to address the significance of specific transformations or their place in the evolution of the poet. It is a little unclear what Dickinson herself meant when she claimed that she would "never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person." Her uses of hymnody, and, to a lesser extent, her manipulations of biblical texts, have long been discussed, and more recent critics have treated Dickinson's sources less as rival voices to be defeated than as "catalysts to release [her] distinctive voice and vision."1 Indeed, fitting Dickinson into nineteenth-century literature , particularly literature by women, has been a prominent area of scholarship. Since Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's study of Dickinson as a poet who absorbed the characters of nineteenth-century women writers into her work (and the figures of her own fictions into her life) in order to recreate herself as an emblem of the woman artist, a number of critics have ESQ \V.51\ 4TH QUARTER | 2005 213 DANIEL L. MANHEIM sought to examine Dickinson's poetry in the light of both her canonical and her noncanonical contemporaries. Several have followed Gilbert and Gubar in locating Dickinson among the major female authors of Victorian England. Elizabeth Phillips examines how "the poems are often transformations of episodes in the lives of . . . literary characters, and historical figures " ; she thus hears in the poems voices inspired by a number of writers, especially Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Focusing on metaphor rather than voice, Wendy Barker, in her consideration of Dickinson's complicated attitudes toward light as an image of male power and creative authority, sees Dickinson allying herself with the same authors; but rather than quarrying them for sources of histrionic expostulation, Barker's Dickinson allies herself with sisters who, like herself, were "nurtured in the Dark."2 More pertinent to my purposes in this essay are works that locate Dickinson's sources in more popular contemporary works. Cheryl Walker and Joanne Dobson see Dickinson as very much of her time and place, "steeped," as Dobson writes, "in the literary conventions of a community of expression that encouraged women to write while insisting that they remain, in essence, silent." David Reynolds considers certain poems as examples of what Springfield Republican editor Samuel Bowles called "the literature of misery." All three, in one way or another, see Dickinson's poems as a sort of culmination of the expressive imagery that developed among women forced to speak "obliquely " in order to address experiences otherwise barred from public expression. Barton St. Armand and Elizabeth Petrino consider the poet's culture even more broadly, finding Dickinson sources not only in popular literature but also in lithographs, gift books, sermons, epitaphs, visual artworks, and other cultural productions. Both critics see Dickinson at once "absorbing] the conventions of nineteenth-century American women's writing" and going beyond them for her own more idiosyncratic purposes. The primary difference between these studies of other writers important to Dickinson and what will be presented here is that this essay finds her more competitively engaged with other authors—an engagement that is not merely incidental but es214 SIGNIFYING SPINSTER sential to the emergence of the voice readers recognize as distinctively Dickinson's. Her efforts to go beyond other works are similar to the sort of literary revision that Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to as "signifying." "Signifying," which Gates defines as the fundamental move in African American literary history, involves critical parody through repetition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 212-249
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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