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  • Bennett’s Dickinsons
  • Páraic Finnerty

At the beginning of her review of Alexandra Socarides’ Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics (2012), Paula Bernat Bennett reminds scholars of the connection between an “indeterminacy” that most agree is foundational to Dickinson’s poetry and the passionate and personal quests they undertake in pursuit of her writing’s “ever-elusive meanings.”1 Dickinson’s evasive style of writing and her reclusive life invite investments and interpretations that often reveal more about readers than about the poet herself. Drawing on ideas from Robert McClure Smith’s The Seduction of Emily Dickinson (1996), Bennett suggests that the process of “self-seduction” continues apace in Dickinson studies as scholars’ “conscious and unconscious obsessions and ways of configuring both literature and life” shape and reshape “not only who Dickinson is but what she wrote.”2 Recalling Smith’s critique of her work, Bennett reflects that “the Emily Dickinson I fashioned in Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet is the one I saw through the lens of my own passion,” adding that “part of Dickinson’s greatness lies in the way she serves as a Rorschach for her readers’ obsessions, and it is a good bet that the number of Emily Dickinsons will only grow in the years to come, which for the future of Dickinson [End Page 214] Studies everywhere is just as well.”3 This essay reviews Bennett’s engagements with and interventions in critical and theoretical developments in Dickinson scholarship over the last four decades. Her passionate and personal conceptualization and reconceptualization of Dickinson have helped shape Dickinson’s contemporary status as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest poets. What emerges are some of Bennett’s Emily Dickinsons: the feminist icon, the lesbian and queer poet, the peer of other nineteenth-century US women poets, and the wartime dramatic lyricist.

Spurred on by the 1970s women’s movement, Bennett, whose PhD was in early modern literature, sought to study a woman poet and chose Dickinson as “unquestionably America’s greatest woman poet” and “the greatest writer of short lyrics yet to grace these shores.”4 Although always sensitive to the interpretative possibilities and resonances in Dickinson’s poetry, Bennett was initially concerned with what the poetry revealed about Dickinson the woman. In one of her earliest publications on Dickinson, “ED and the Value of Isolation” (1979), based on a 1976 talk, Bennett argues that Dickinson’s much-discussed retirement from the public world represents “one of the most extraordinarily productive psychological and spiritual retreats in human history”; it reflects not only Dickinson’s sense of isolation from, skepticism about, and questioning of her culture, but was also the result of her hidden fury at others’ “rejection or apparent rejection.” Examining Dickinson’s writings addressed to male and female figures, Bennett notes how the poet figures personal neglect as death or a death-like experience, conjuring up “the rage of a woman who feels she has been emotionally ripped off and abandoned,” who feels “an over-wrought combination of frustration, anger, need and an inordinate sensitivity to affront.” From the beginning, Bennett recognizes Dickinson’s personal and poetic complexity: “unable to deal with others, ED went within. In poem after poem she exhibits an awareness of [End Page 215] the inner life and the ghosts which haunt it.” Although her powerful poems prove the benefit of isolation, they are animated by specters of insufficiency and by the world she renounces: “The Stimulus of Loss makes most Possession mean” (L364).5

Developing these initial ideas in light of emerging feminist approaches to Dickinson, Bennett’s 1984 review essay, “Elusive Emily,” presents an artist who demonstrates an “almost obsessive devotion to craft,” “ill-served by those who have claimed the competence to bring her work to the public at large.”6 She particularly chastises the condescending, paternalistic, and trivializing approach of chauvinistic critics who dispute Dickinson’s professionalism and fail to recognize her rebelliousness. In contrast, Bennett’s Dickinson is a woman who “behaved in her lifetime in singularly outrageous and deviant ways: she preferred art to life, she withdrew from society, she never married, she mocked and conspired against the male figures who knew, supposedly, more than herself...


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