- Emily Dickinson in Context by Richards, Eliza
In assembling this substantial collection of essays the editor, Eliza Richards, must have been tempted to make the common noun in the title plural and perhaps the proper name as well: the 34 brief chapters and 31 contributors surround a Dickinson, herself multiple and complex, with diverse contexts, many of them mutually reinforcing or enhancing and a few strikingly in conflict with one another. The diversity is, of course, an accurate reflection of Dickinson studies today.
With few exceptions the views of the poet’s life and work will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the last six decades of editorial, biographical, and interpretive scholarship. For whom then would this book be most useful? New or more casual readers and scholars or those wanting to get up to speed on a particular topic will find it a handy, accurate, and reliable compendium of current knowledge and opinion. To be sure, we are chockablock with similar volumes— essays by diverse hands introducing the poet and the scholarship about her. Emily Dickinson in Context has the advantage of currency and availability, yet it does not exactly supersede works that range from An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia (1998, edited by Jane Eberwein, also a contributor here) to A Companion to Emily Dickinson (2008, edited by Martha Nell Smith and Mary Loeffelholz, also contributors to their volume). And despite Cambridge University Press’s famously high prices the book is actually less expensive than the two-volume All Things Dickinson, (2014, edited by Wendy Martin), which goes for a whopping $189 in codex or e-book.
As the title makes clear, Emily Dickinson in Context subordinates literary analysis to cultural and historical circumstance (which does not prevent many contributors from buttressing contextual claims by offering close readings of particular poems). Context is organized into four broad categories. The distinctive [End Page 105] rubric entitled “local environments” ranges in time and place from Domhnall Mitchell’s chapter on the 19th-century Amherst in which Dickinson lived to Eleanor Heginbotham’s on the Houghton, Jones, and Amherst libraries in which her writings are now stored. The section on literary sources includes, in addition to the range of English and American writers with whom Dickinson would have been familiar, Emily Seelbinder on Dickinson’s Bible and some of the biblical concordances and companions available to her. Of special interest in the section on social and historical contexts, in addition to the expected topics, is Sandra Runzo’s examination of 19th-century popular culture: menageries, minstrel shows, and dime museums. Reception, the final category, covers the history of Dickinson editing and commentary as well as her international reputation.
Inevitably these categories blend into one another. Melanie Hubbard’s insights on 19th-century language theory derive from examining several of the same schoolbooks featured in Angela Sorby’s essay on Dickinson’s education; James McIntosh on religion overlaps usefully with Jane Eberwein on New England puritanism. Moreover, as the book is clearly meant more to be browsed for specific topics than read cover to cover, some repetition from chapter to chapter is not only unavoidable but perhaps desirable. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Susan Gilbert Dickinson get newly identified in each of the dozen or so essays in which they are mentioned.
Like other editors before her Richards draws upon both established Dickinson scholars and new voices. One valuable feature of Emily Dickinson in Context is that several of the established scholars wind up providing a summary of their own book-length works, most of them fairly recent. One can thus get a précis of Cristanne Miller on prosody, James Guthrie on law, Jed Deppman on philosophy, Mary Loeffelholz on American women writers of Dickinson’s era, Páraic Finnerty on Shakespeare, and Thomas Gardner on contemporary poets writing in response to Dickinson.
From among newer or less well-established voices can be heard some newer claims. Theo Davis reexamines the critical history prior to the 1955 Johnson edition and persuasively finds that the often derided triumvirate of R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, and...