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  • Winds of Will: Emily Dickinson and the Sovereignty of Democratic Thought
  • Allison Siehnel (bio)
Crumbley, Paul. Winds of Will: Emily Dickinson and the Sovereignty of Democratic Thought. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010. $53.

To reframe discussions of Emily Dickinson’s interaction with her cultural moment, Paul Crumbley’s Winds of Will: Emily Dickinson and the Sovereignty of Democratic Thought uses the concepts of political action in order to enrich definitions of the democratic within both Dickinson studies and general scholarship on these issues in the nineteenth century. By engaging with period-specific definitions of sovereignty, monarchy, and Emersonian individualism, Winds of Will provides its own terms with which Crumbley produces in-depth readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters. Further, by historicizing gender specific cultural assumptions, Crumbley redirects conversations about public and private space toward what he argues is the motivating factor for the impenetrability of Dickinson’s poetry and prose writing: a democratic interest in the sovereignty of making intellectual choices. Crumbley also engages with historical, cultural, and literary theories of public politics and the right of sovereignty, placing diverse thinkers such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in conversation with one another. His book explores how Dickinson privileges the powers of the imagination to encourage the development of a gymnastic and independent (sovereign) self during the process of reading. What he refers to as an interest in “democratic reading” guides Dickinson’s presentation of her writing and herself, a practice that combats often conflicting nineteenth-century notions of democratic citizenship and natural womanhood (178).

That Dickinson’s poetry would provide insight into social problems as a means to suggest the potential for unimagined social positions has long been a topic of literary criticism. Crumbley similarly argues that Dickinson’s poems (and letters) expose the “incapacitating power” of social norms (48). According to Crumbley, “obstacles within the female imagination that prevent individual speakers from resisting social convention” explain how a public can influence [End Page 117] even its ostensibly more isolated subjects (48). Following this logic, Crumbley is interested in how Dickinson makes thought itself a political space, especially thought concerning what constitutes an obstacle for female subjects. His chapters bring Dickinson’s poetics to issues of democratic choice: the first chapter explores the democratic resonance of terms like sovereignty in the nineteenth century; the second defines how democratic reading promotes using the imagination to think beyond the page, while the third chapter takes the spiritualist movement as its subject to expand on these ideas; and the fourth and fifth chapters concentrate especially on the democratic “habit of thought” in Dickinson’s correspondence (23). Manuscripts with variants, abstract language, and the circulation of unpublished writing during a time of marked interest in copyright laws (an assault on Lockean understandings of private property and labor) are aspects of Dickinson’s writing practice Crumbley analyzes to argue that she insisted on the democratic possibility of imaginative activity—in private and as publicly influential.

Ultimately, Dickinson “yokes stunningly opposed options for female social conduct,” Crumbley contends, to expose her desire for the possibility of a politically influential female position, one that would have a form of liberty and could therefore give consent to public representation (45). Though he uses this argument to explore how Dickinson has influenced contemporary women writers, it is in his description of Dickinson’s correspondence as occurring within a gift economy that he most convincingly demonstrates her intellectual democratic sharing. Crumbley also provides his readers with ways to practice their own Dickinsonian democratic choosing: he refers to Dickinson’s fascicles and manuscripts in relation to his own speculations about her intentions, reminding readers of Sally Bushell’s idea of “intending unintended meaning” as a method for sustaining a space of polysemy (44). The final three chapters offer extended readings of Dickinson’s poetic practice as it related to these aspects of her culture. Here Crumbley might fruitfully have compared positive definitions of will and sovereignty with less optimistic definitions of these traits, such as those provided by Thomas Hobbes. Similarly, this reader would have found further comparison among nineteenth-century authors invested in rethinking sovereignty or democracy as it related to...


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pp. 117-120
Launched on MUSE
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