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Reviewed by:
  • Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics
  • Paula Bernat Bennett (bio)
Alexandra Socarides , Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. $43.70

Because indeterminacy is foundational to Dickinson's poetic, Robert McClure Smith writes, the Dickinson poem "demands performance from its reader" (5). Among scholars, these performances typically take the form of applying one or another preferred "interpretive method" or "grid" to her work—deconstructive, feminist, Lacanian, etc. (18)—the ostensible goal being to unpack the ever-elusive meanings Dickinson put there. Doing so, literary critics have, Smith argues, become "implicated in the reading affects of the texts" they purport to analyze (16), their conscious and unconscious obsessions and ways of configuring both literature and life, shaping—and re-shaping—not only who Dickinson is but what she wrote. "My Emily Dickinson," as Susan Howe so shrewdly put it. Some of Smith's grids—in particular the psychoanalytically-oriented ones—have largely lost their caché today. But the process of self-seduction he describes continues apace, most strikingly in the study of Dickinson's manuscripts—that curious arena where the history of the book meets feminism on the one hand and explication de texte on the other, to produce what can fairly be called a postmodern Dickinson. For these interpreters, not only do fragments constitute lyrics but the visuals of Dickinson's writings—the curve of a handwritten "S" or the shape of an envelope flap—are equally invested with intentionality and meaning. "The page itself reminds me of a bird's wing, light and delicate," enthuses Kristen Kreider of manuscript A449 (84).

In Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, it is to Alexandra Socarides's great credit, therefore, that, by moving slowly and deliberately, with due regard for logic as well as detail, she resists so many of the temptations to which others have succumbed. Socarides's study takes up where Virginia Jackson's Dickinson's Misery leaves off. Jackson argues that in reading Dickinson through the model of the "expressive romantic" lyric (7)—a reading that began with Thomas Wentworth Higginson—twentieth-century critics have distorted her work, ripping her poems from their historical context and rendering them "temporally self-present and unmediated" (9). To correct such a process of misreading (Jackson calls it "lyricization"), she urges a return to "the material circumstances" of Dickinson's writing (134). For Socarides, who compares herself to an archaeologist, this [End Page 111] suggests a two-pronged approach: "Because I am looking at (albeit not unearthing) objects and . . . discerning what Dickinson did with those objects, I am necessarily concerned with her . . . intentions" (17). For her, as for Jackson, Dickinson is an emphatically nineteenth-century poet, but also one who, as Socarides brilliantly demonstrates, radically expanded the possibilities of the literary genres in which she wrote.

Because Socarides uses her focus on Dickinson's compositional practices so assiduously to rein in her own subjectivity, her book provides a test case of Jackson's theory that returning to the manuscripts will not only re-historicize Dickinson's writing. According to Jackson, it will also end the "personif[ying]" of the poet in her verse, be it as "isolated private genius," "neglected postmodernist," or any of the dozens of other Dickinsons populating Dickinson scholarship present and past (171). While Socarides succeeds at the first, indeed, better than any Dickinson scholar with whom I am acquainted, Jackson included, her treatment of the second is more problematic. Socarides's intention is to "enga[ge] Dickinson's poems on their own terms, probing the details of her process, asking what work her temporal and spatial interruptions are doing, and attempting to place this work within the historical and material contexts in which they were written" (104). To achieve these goals, she oscillates between what Dickinson does and what she takes to be Dickinson's intentions in doing so. Socarides's depictions of Dickinson's makings at all stages of her career are marvelously precise and highly illuminating. But insofar as her interpretation of the "whys" rests on her readings of the content of Dickinson's poems, a content she insists can be matched to the paper on which the poems are written, they are much...


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