- Seeing Changes:Emily Dickinson's Vibrant Regionalism
Was Emily Dickinson a regionalist writer? When Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson published three volumes of her poetry in the 1890s, Dickinson's champions and detractors alike answered this question affirmatively.1 But depending upon which poem our eyes might fall, we could find ourselves reaching very different conclusions. "My country need not change her gown" (Fr1540C), for example, assumes a distinctly New England character as it meditates on this region's role during the US Revolution.2 The country's "triple suit … 'twas cut at Lexington," she informs us, which earned Great Britain's disapproval (lines 2-3). Written in 1881 and posthumously published ten years later, the poem meditates upon the Revolution's legacy by closely associating it with a historically iconic Massachusetts town. Though concise, this two-stanza poem meets the criteria for local-color writing succinctly described by Hamlin Garland as having "such quality of texture and back-ground that it could not have been written in any other place."3 Yet, another poem composed during the same period fails Garland's representative local-color test. Consisting of simply two lines, it reads: "All things swept sole away / This – is immensity –" (Fr1548A, lines 1-2). This [End Page 269] poem offers no temporal or local grounding. It pulls the "sole away" into a vastness ending with a dash rather than terminal punctuation. "All things swept sole away" does not merely defy the expectations of regionalism; it threatens them with an environmental sublimity that sweeps away the particular and bounded fixity of the local, leaving an ocean of incomprehensible infinity.
These two poems capture the seemingly contradictory qualities of Dickinson's regionalism, implicitly consigning many of her readers into two roughly-divided groups: those who cast her poetry as locally descriptive and those who regard it as philosophically abstract.4 Although her verse may be dotted with specific dates and places, these details are consistently subsumed by unwieldy multiplications of global and cultural allusions that cannot always be easily atomized or historicized. In this essay, I argue that Dickinson should be read as a regionalist poet, but in a way that is decidedly different from how Garland and other likeminded nineteenth-century local-color writers defined the genre. Her regionalism is distinctive, both complementary and at odds with conventional definitions of local-color writing, because she relies on a primarily ecological grasp of the regional and its relationship to the global. I ultimately contend that her regionalism puts anthropocentric sovereignty in its place by envisioning environments as agents rather than only as objects of change.
My essay unfolds across five sections. I begin by mapping theories of regionalism, ecocriticism, and new materialism as they pertain to Dickinson's verse. Then I outline how 1890s critics read her environments through the lens of local-color writing. After reviewing this critical reception, I address Dickinson's depiction of places as interconnected culturally, politically, and environmentally. This network of localities enables her to imagine a political ecology comprised of human and nonhuman actors that I call vibrant regionalism. I conclude by registering the new democratic possibilities [End Page 270] that emerge from Dickinson's regionalized and networked environments.
local color and vibrant regionalism
When situated among local-color writers, Dickinson's verse provides further insights into regionalism's easily overlooked aesthetic and political dimensions explored in recent scholarship. Jonathan Schroeder, for example, astutely rediscovers local-color writing's aesthetic genealogy as a "mode by which realism constituted its truth effects and enlisted its readers in its cosmopolitan project of self-cultivation." He dissociates local-color writing from regionalism for this reason, because he sees the former as using "details to generate something else—not a sense of place, but a sense of belonging to the realist pedagogical project of human self-cultivation."5 Schroeder helps us understand why Dickinson's fin-de-siècle readers might have grouped her with local-color writers on artistic grounds because she too uses details to further self-cultivation and a cosmopolitan awareness, but a particular awareness of place remains important in much of her poetry.
Since I am interested in both...