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Le chateau des Pyrenees (1961), by René Magritte. © 2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of Banque d'images/Art Resource, New York. The Writer's Occupation: Dickinson and Emerson Out of Doors JIM VON DER HEYDT Dickinson scholarship, almost inevitably, faces the primary challenge of reconciling two crucial principles in her poems: on the one hand, enormous power; and on the other, nearly total powerlessness. Dickinson is at once the most mighty and the most diminutive of writers. Though these entangled threads go by different names in different critical moments, unraveling them is the interpreter's perennial challenge. Expository prose must find a way to "tell a story" about what often seems a synchronic paradox. As scholars and writers, we are tempted to cut this Gordian knot by allying the analytical and the poetic projects, positing Dickinson herself as a storyteller: not just a maker of objects, but a narrator of her own writing process. Certain useful questions can then drive the analysis: How could Dickinson have written her poems under the conditions of extremity they describe? How did she go about drawing a "Circumference " around herself that somehow made her work more than nothing (or less than everything)? The poems maybe said to tell a story themselves·, the story of their own generation. Such narrative readings of Dickinson—unlike the readings in this essay—portray her as a writer on a quest. In the critic's story, the poet is a seeker after self-expression, and she sojourns outward (or inward) from silence. The poems then are modes of action despite themselves: for each poem is charged in the criticism not only with being-but with coming to be. There is no declining the quest, because the ways Dickinson's poetry ESQ I Ii 51 I 4TH QUARTER | 2005 307 JIM VON DER HEYDT eschews quest narrative—indeed, rejects it more decisively than almost anything else in literature—can be recast as strategies in the quest itself. Sharon Cameron's brilliantly counterintuitive Lyric Time set the tone for today's prevailing critical narrative in Dickinson studies.1 For her, the poem of timelessness is always also lapsing from textual space into historical sequence, and it must submit to the temporal paradigm of accomplishment and failure. Powerlessness is just an absence of power; timelessness only the absence of time. Static elements work as counterpoint to the inevitable themes of narrative, and the poems' entry into history is inevitable. If that entry seems incomplete, Cameron's followers say, it waits only for newer and newer historicisms to refine our understanding of it. Within this framework, though, is the kernel of a very different schema, for Cameron's study was motivated initially by an antithetical insight: she had noticed that Dickinson was singularly fascinated by isolated moments and by stillness.2 What if criticism founded itself on this readerly intuition? What if, after all, the poet held still? The present analysis supposes that the Dickinson of the poems abides in suspension, occupying a space without milestones—indeed, without "even a Report of Land - / To justify - Despair."3 She neither sinks nor swims, but simply confronts in a single instant the world of objects: a realm of vastness on all sides, inviting no action. In such a bodily encounter with openness, power and weakness are not reconciled; they are just simultaneous. Students of Dickinson's representational theory are led repeatedly , as if by instinct, back to Emerson. This essay, too, links the two writers—albeit by reviving a reading of Emerson no longer much credited. The philosophical Emerson most celebrated today, after all, anticipates Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and William James ; important recent critics affiliate him, not with any reclusive lapidarist, but with those pragmatic and supple writers.4 Following on thinkers as different as Stanley Cavell and Richard Poirier, critics focus now on the way Emerson wrote his own power into being and yet eluded its con308 DICKINSON AND EMERSON OUT OF DOORS finement, staying always in the mode of transition rather than construction—and, by not setting himself in stone, set a precedent for vital elements of American culture. In many of the best recent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 306-339
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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