- Emily Dickinson in Context ed. by Eliza Richards, and: A Kiss from Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law by James R. Guthrie
For much of the twentieth century, as Eliza Richards reminds us, Emily Dickinson was not the subject of rigorous historical analysis. Efforts to historicize her poetry proceeded slowly and often within strict limits, as scholars tended [End Page 201] to perceive Dickinson at a remove from historical concerns. In her edited volume, Emily Dickinson in Context, Richards offers thirty-three rich chapters that demonstrate how far scholarship has shifted in this regard. By the time a reader finishes this impressive collection, she will likely be incredulous that such contexts were ever considered irrelevant. The book provides a sweeping range of perspectives on Dickinson’s poetry, life, reception, and cultural influences, as well as an excellent overview of the major developments in critical approaches to her work.
Organized into four sections, the collection begins with environments, placing Dickinson within her hometown and the material circumstances and intellectual currents that would have been most pressing during her lifetime. Amherst comes into focus in Domhnall Mitchell’s first chapter as an essential backdrop for the burgeoning poet, and this emphasis allows for a discussion of influences, including the Second Great Awakening that permeated the town, the financial trouble that plagued her grandfather, and Edward Hitchcock’s lectures on geology.
The second section considers the literary sources that influenced Dickinson’s writing. Compelling chapters on the Bible (by Emily Seelbinder) and William Shakespeare (by Páraic Finnerty) provide exciting new insights on well-established literary influences. Seelbinder, for instance, examines Dickinson’s personal Bible, noting how her notes, excisions, and brackets, along with the dried flowers she pressed in its pages, might elucidate her theological beliefs. Chapters on Renaissance and eighteenth-century writers (by David Cody), British Romantic and Victorian writers (by Elizabeth A. Petrino), and transatlantic women writers (by Finnerty again) make the case for Dickinson’s specific preferences among a host of popular writers and demonstrate the deeply Anglo-American nature of Dickinson’s literary culture. Three chapters at the close of the section characterize some of Dickinson’s more immediate influences: her US literary predecessors (by Cristanne Miller), her contemporaries (by Mary Loeffelholz), and the periodicals to which the Dickinson family subscribed (by Joan Kirkby).
The third section is the broadest, covering intellectual, cultural, political, and social frameworks for Dickinson’s work. Sandra Runzo’s discussion of popular culture sketches out how circuses and menageries passed through Amherst and suggests Dickinson’s familiarity with various forms of mass popular amusement. But perhaps the section’s most compelling chapters are those that address Dickinson’s notoriously inscrutable politics. Paul Crumb-ley acknowledges this opacity in his assessment but suggests that Dickinson’s political work is epistemological rather than ideological in nature. Seen in this light, he argues, Dickinson emerges as one of the country’s most democratic [End Page 202] writers. In the realm of economics (argues Elizabeth Hewitt) and law (asserts James Guthrie), Dickinson appears somewhat more partisan, and Faith Barrett fruitfully suggests in her chapter on slavery and the Civil War that Dickinson’s poems are ideologically engaged but full of contradictions. The richness of this section lies in the way that these readings of Dickinson complement and complicate one another.
Finally, the fourth section examines reception, considering questions of editorial and critical history, materiality, and global influence. In doing so, the chapters included here call attention to Dickinson’s archive in new ways. The two chapters on the editorial afterlife of Dickinson’s poetry (by Martha Nell Smith and Alexandra Socarides) should be required reading for anyone who is not already well versed in the posthumous publication history of Dickinson’s poems. Both demonstrate how family politics shaped access to and conditions of reception for Dickinson’s poems and especially her letters. Cindy MacKenzie rehearses how the...