- Emily Dickinson Now: Environments, Ecologies, PoliticsCommentary
This issue appears at a juncture when environment has come to signify increasingly different things to different people. Questions concerning what exactly the term signifies, and how a critical awareness of its material, symbolic, philosophical, and political complexities can and should inform modes of scholarly analysis, are now at the heart of rather controversial debates, both in ecocriticism and in the environmental humanities more broadly. While the concept has long been blurry, especially when it references the natural world, the recent environmental turn in the humanities has led to a proliferation of approaches whose definitions seemingly have little to do with one another, let alone with many of ecocriticism's initial concerns. Two decades ago, when ecocriticism jumpstarted the greening of US literary studies, moral urgency inspired its direction, and it turned toward texts whose environmental imagination revolved around rural and seemingly unspoiled wilderness areas that mattered as autonomous realms. Now, a kaleidoscope of newly specialized fields—ranging from transnational, feminist, affective, and material ecocriticism to environmental memory studies, animal studies, biosemiotics, and posthumanism—discuss environments on planetary as [End Page 329] well as molecular levels, and in urban, postcolonial, queer, transspecies, and transcorporeal terms. Such differentiated notions of the larger-than-human world can make communication difficult, even within literary studies. But they also, and much more importantly, invite us to rethink too-narrow notions of the physical environment and human-environmental interactions, and enable increasingly fine-tuned analyses of the complex relationships between textual and material worlds at a cultural moment shaped by global anthropogenic climate change. At this point in the overall debate about environments and environmental humanities, one of the achievements of the essays in this special issue is that, for all their differences, collectively they highlight the degree to which even some of the more disparate strands of environmental criticism are part of a common conversation about the place of literature, the imagination, and the humanities more broadly, at the end of nature.
Entering these debates with an emphasis on Dickinson's environments, the four essays collected here not only discuss some nineteenth-century environments that mattered for Dickinson, but also showcase four interrelated ways of reading her work environmentally from a twenty-first-century perspective. Focusing on environments ranging from creatures and phenomena that transcend regional boundaries via the ecological havoc wrought by the Civil War, to animals and things considered cute, and nonsentient objects seeming to be alive, they offer important new insights on how Dickinson's poetry continues to reach beyond her own time and resonates with ours in ways strongly inflected by, but not limited to, the sense of environmental crisis that links the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. In fact, among this issue's most provocative aspects is its range: some essays embrace notions of environments and environmentality as being primarily about the natural world and human-nature relations, and modes of reading informed by Western environmentalism, [End Page 330] while others pull away from these perspectives. Because the essays here operate in the context of two major earlier trends in Dickinson scholarship in ways that they don't fully address individually, it makes sense to briefly lay out those larger frameworks before taking stock of their specific lines of argumentation and commenting on how they relate to one another and those larger frameworks. Thus I want to quickly chart how the traditions of reading Dickinson as a nature poet, and of contextualizing her work historically and culturally, together provide substantial foregrounds for the environmental turn in Dickinson studies that this special issue both participates in and critiques.
For one, the environmental turn in Dickinson studies, which began in the early 2000s, engages critically with the long and formative tradition of reading Dickinson as a nature poet. At least since the 1960s, there have been numerous studies discussing Dickinson's elusive natural creatures, comparing her perspective to notions of nature as God's grace, and exploring her geographical metaphors; these were followed by feminist studies emphasizing how Dickinson saw nature as a deceptive text, a realm of relationships, a women-centered space of healing, and a source for a language...