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EMILY DICKINSON IN HISTORY AND LITERARY HISTORY Margaret Dickie I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs — Emily Dickinson In discussing Dickinsons "I'm ceded —Fve stopped being Theirs,"1 Betsy Erkkila claims that the poet "deploys the politically charged language of secession, but the secession she imagines is not in favor of a sovereign republican self or state"; rather, she secedes into an "essentially monarchical order in which she will be 'Queen/ "2 Thus the most recent critic committed to "historicizing " our understanding of women poets concludes that Dickinsons "revolutionary poetic practice appears to be unconnected with any realtransformation of woman's historical status as 'object' and 'other' in a system of production and exchange controlled by men" (52),and, what is more, her "radical poetics was conjoined with an essentially conservativeand in some sense reactionary and Know-Nothing politics"(53). Quite apart from her conflation of the nativistpolitics of the decade before the Civil War with secession, Erkkila places Dickinson in history exactly where she has conventionally been —isolated from her own times. This new historicism restricts the poet to her father's politics before the Civil War and cuts her off from the post-Civil War "revolutionary struggles of blacks, women, and workers" (52).Thus the decade of the i86os—when Dickinson was most productive and, although it is seldom remembered in this connection, the nation was at war —is written out of the poets life. Such "historicizing" of Dickinson distorts history and begs the question of how, if poetry and politics are intertextual, as Erkkila insists, such a revolutionary poet came from such a reactionarybackground. Or ifthe household politics must be read into the poetry, how can the poetry be called revolutionary? En tangled in the very binary oppositions she would appear to deny, Erkkilas claims not only ring false, they also defy common sense. How could the greatest 186 : MARGARET DICKIE American woman poet of all times not have transformed woman's historical status as object? Moreover, they rely on dubious facts to illuminate the poetry, warning that "it is important that we recognize the fact that her poetic revolution was grounded in the privilege of her class position in a conservative Whig household whose elitist, antidemocratic values were still at the very center of her work" (53). Important for what, we must ask.And is it even a "fact" that we can recognize? Moreover, can revolution be centered by conservativevalues? Finding Dickinson secured against the national crisis and removed entirely from the "general sorrow ofthe Civil War" (47) by the love ofan exclusive group of female friends, Erkkila delineates a very "feminine," not to say antifeminist role for this poet and once again relegates history and war to men. Thus she joins a long line of literaryhistorians who have banished Dickinson from history and from the literary history that depends on it. From F. O. Matthiessens pioneering study of the period, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) through Donald Peases more recent Visionary Compacts (1987) and David Reynolds s Beneath the American Renaissance : The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988), Dickinson has either not been mentioned at all or given scant consideration by comparison to the major male writers of the period. In the new Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), for example , Dickinson is accorded a separate chapter as a "major voice" in the period 1865-1910 and placed with three male prose writers, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Henry James, all ofwhom wrote at the end ofthe century and figure here as commentators on their civilization. In this company, Dickinson appears as "the ghost that hauntsAmerican literature,"3 a description that acknowledges the difficulty of her place in literary history. In The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993), although admitting that Dickinson came from a family of sophisticated lawyers and politicians and had a firm grasp of political realities, Cynthia Griffin Wolff concludes that "the poetry was all she left; it appears to be all she wished to leave."4 Thus even when she is acknowledged as a great writer, Dickinson has never found a central place in American literary history. By contrast, such writersas John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer are easily accommodated because American literaryhistoryis always linked to American history and its narratives drawn from the writingsof men interested in historical crises, chiefly war. Moreover, to be included in literary history, at...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820343532
Related ISBN
9780820343532
MARC Record
OCLC
794306972
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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