- Introduction to a Special Issue of the Emily Dickinson Journal:Dickinson and Celebrity
Why did Emily Dickinson dedicate her life to poetic creation and yet refuse to publish her poems? This is one of the primary quandaries that have fascinated Dickinson's readers and provoked scholars from the moment Dickinson formally emerged in print in 1890, and it is a question that hovers behind current efforts to explain how she came to terms with the closely affiliated attractions of fame and celebrity. The four contributors to this special issue of the Emily Dickinson Journal do not address Dickinson's refusal to publish directly, but they do orient our attention to how she understood the price of fame, most particularly through her own writing and her interest in the lives of writers who assumed the mantle of literary renown, and as a consequence, reaped the benefits and bore the burdens of celebrity. What rapidly becomes clear is that Dickinson was drawn to literary fame and wanted very much to secure it for herself but saw how celebrity could pose a threat to the sort of fame she considered worthy of aspiration. As a literary fan herself, Dickinson was acutely aware of the manner in which the rapid growth of celebrity culture in the United States and England during the nineteenth century shaped the public's perception of the writers whose work she treasured, bringing with it the potential to distort what she viewed as their most admirable achievements: their contributions to literary culture. Dickinson recognized the extraordinary power the instruments of mass culture brought to bear not only on the public's memorializing of its greatest authors but also on the living writer's ability to remain steadfast in the pursuit ofartistic growth. How Dickinson negotiated the push and pull of celebrity and how we interpret her efforts is the subject of this special issue. [End Page 1]
In the first essay, "'I went to thank Her—': Dickinson's Tributes to Literary Celebrities," Elizabeth Petrino situates Dickinson in the context of transatlantic celebrity culture. She opens with Dickinson's 1862 letter to Samuel Bowles in which Dickinson requests that Bowles pay her respects to the recently deceased Elizabeth Barrett Browning during his upcoming trip to England. Like many of her contemporaries, Dickinson was a fan who valued accounts of authors' lives widely published in periodicals and newspapers such as the Atlantic Monthly and the Springfield Republican, which frequently carried images of the author's home and grave site, in addition to portraits, all of which fed the public's appetite for intimate details. It is precisely this pursuit of intimacy, however, that Petrino presents as a matter of particular concern for Dickinson. Acknowledging the fact that Dickinson "cherished photographs and illustrations accompanying biographical articles of her favorite authors," Petrino argues that her "comments in letters suggest that she found them inadequate as a tribute in the face of the poet's work" (10).
Dickinson was wary of the way public fascination with the details of authors' lives could overshadow appreciation for their artistic achievements. Petrino suggests that it was as a consequence of this sensitivity that Dickinson famously denied Thomas Wentworth Higginson's request for a photograph and instead sent him a verbal portrait. One of the most fascinating features of Petrino's analysis is her presentation of Dickinson's writing about celebrity as a means for the poet to imagine how she might fare were she to attain celebrity status. "Dickinson's letters about Barrett Browning and George Eliot," she writes, "emphasize her own status as a literary celebrity in the making" (12). Petrino makes a special point of exploring Dickinson's elegies as efforts to prevent even the shadow of death from obscuring the ongoing life of an author's writing. She closes her essay with an observation that might well apply to all the essays in this special issue: "For readers today, contemplating Dickinson's response to the cult of transatlantic literary celebrity gives us an opportunity to contemplate how she might have envisioned her own posthumous literary fame" (22).
Like Petrino, Páraic Finnerty begins the second essay in this volume, "'If fame belonged...