- A Kiss from Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law by James R Guthrie
No woman was admitted to the Massachusetts bar until 1881. If a young Emily Dickinson, in love with language and fascinated by intellectual systems, ever thought to cross the bar herself, it was in fancy, or “when a boy.” Given her interest, though, it is a little surprising that the poet from the household of lawyers, whose poems use courtroom terminology and whose letters conceive ordinary events in legalistic terms (as Guthrie notes, she confesses that she “defrauded Loo of 1 spool of thread”), was so long to receive her due consideration in the context of the law (L267).
Numerous recent books mark this as a rich period in the study of Emily Dickinson as a poet who was, in James Guthrie’s words, “deeply immersed in the national intellectual culture” (17). The law was, in some sense, her nearest linguistic context, and Guthrie has demonstrated how a careful examination of this context offers enlivened readings of familiar poems and highlights poems generally overlooked. He considers many of the “nearly one hundred different legally related words” found in Dickinson’s poems, but his interest is sharpest [End Page 115] when revealing the full metaphorical contexts that the poems invoke and the implications of these contexts for her understanding of her times (10). Exploring her familiarity with nineteenth-century legal issues, Guthrie proposes to “shed new light on her thinking about broader subjects such as authoritarianism and individuality, social responsibility and the rights of citizens, religion and reason, fairness and obedience” (17).
The seven chapters comprise an account of the Massachusetts legal environment in which Edward Dickinson practiced, as did Otis Phillips Lord, an important figure to Guthrie here. The book offers an informative and well-written introduction to more general legal history: understanding Dickinson involves understanding the terms and their use in the period. Thus the first chapter, “Delinquent Palaces: Bankruptcy,” in recounting the loss and reclamation of the Main Street Homestead, focuses on the shifting status of debtors in the nineteenth century. For the poet, the pattern of bankruptcy, disgrace, and restored solvency folded neatly into the redemption following Adam’s loss of Eden, “the ancient Homestead” (Fr1577), and more broadly into a model of emotional commerce, in which passionate surrender could be figured as voluntary bankruptcy.
This interchange among the legal, the personal, and the psychological recurs in other chapters. The second chapter, “Not Here nor There: Equity,” centers on the way equity law, involving cases like divorce, wills, and patents, was governed by a single judge rather than a body of jurors, and accordingly included the moral function of repairing the breach between litigants. As with bankruptcy, equity was a versatile model for erotic negotiations, but Guthrie’s emphasis in the chapter engages a case of trespass: “Alone and in a Circumstance” (Fr1174) becomes an elaborately brilliant legal hypothetical, or “hypo,” composed for the entertainment of her brother (66). Chapter 3, “Seals, Signs, and Rings: Contracts,” takes up another side of equity law. The marriage contract marked one of the few areas in which a woman had significant legal standing; accordingly, poems such as “What would I give to see his face?” (Fr266) involve erotic transactions in which a woman negotiates using her strongest legal assets: affection, dowry, and reproductive potential. Both of these chapters consider Dickinson’s intertextual engagement with Shylock, her model of reckless contract law.
Chapters 4 and 5 address, respectively, property and trusts. In “Lands with Locks: Property,” Guthrie shows how Dickinson appropriated some splashy accounts of landlord-tenant relations to explore the housing of identity and how she engaged some notorious patent claims to interrogate that “electric adjunct,” hope (Fr1424). The chapter contains a terrific reading of “What we see we know somewhat” (Fr1272), showing how the race to patent a better lock for vehicles of transport figures the quest for any coveted cargo that stimulates the mind’s [End Page 116] curiosity. Chapter 5, “Has All a Codicil? Estates and Trusts,” engages inheritance, especially...