It was the Distance
For no good reason1 I’ve been reading The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (ed. W. Martin, CUP: 2002). It is somewhat refreshing to find books which do not concern Cicero. And it is interesting to step outside the charmed circle of academics and then to peer back in, as though through windows. For one can see then, very clearly, the absurd. As, for instance, a professor of 19th C. American literature vexed that Miss Dickinson ‘completely ignored the largest mass execution in the legal history of the United States, in 1863, when thirty-eight Santee Sioux Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, for their roles in an uprising sparked by chronic shortages in food, clothing, and fuel’ (194).
Two facts leap from that sentence: 1863 and Mankato, Minnesota. Students of American history will doubtless be familiar with the Civil War (1861-1865) which lamentably preoccupied much of the eastern seaboard. Lamentably, of course, because they should have been outraged by massacres of Native Americans. One should note that, at the time, Miss Dickinson was probably in a little town in Massachusetts, a town whose only claim to fame, then as now, was the college. Not to argue on the laws of geographical improbability, but it seems rather unlikely, given the state of the media in that day (which delighted in the lurid rather than the likely) and age, that the news would have reached across those thirteen hundred miles in any form other than: ‘Uprising supressed! Law strikes against Terror! The savage and violent…’ I do not think it laudable, I merely suggest it as a possibility.
But I lose my way. I would like to address the issue raised by P. B. Bennett’s chapter entitled ‘Emily Dickinson and her American women poet peers’ (pp.215-35). Bennett laments the lack of interest displayed by ‘Dickinson scholars’ for the poetry of Dickinson’s contemporaries (which is, apparently, only now ‘beginning to attract the serious attention it deserves’ [215f.]). These contemporaries were the ‘daughters of the first sizable generation of feminist activists’ and ‘were all consummate professionals’ such as: Frances Butler Kemble, Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Larcom, the Cary sisters, Rose Terry Cooke, Helen Hunt Jackson (nota bene), Harriet Prescott Spofford, Celia Thaxter, Louise Chandler Moulton, Sarah Piatt, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edith M. Thomas, Lizette Woodworth Reese (216), to say nothing of the Grimkés.
These were women with a message, whose writing was their livelihood, who were (as in the case of Sarah Piatt2 capable of publishing some of ‘the most powerful American political poems the century produced’ (217). That is the crux, then, isn’t it? In an age when art is supposed to have a message, a meaning, a moral (or at the very least, an agenda), it is dastardly, retrograde of a poet not to follow along, it shows that one is, ‘politically speaking […] no progressive’ (218). Dickinson, so Bennett argues, had ‘literary agency’ in spades, though she ‘lacked a sense of social and political agency altogether’ (218). She was a ‘bodiless’ poet, who wrote for God (232), who, then, must be read in the context of these other women’s work if she is to be ‘interesting’ (234).3
I’ve lost my way again. For I merely I wanted to say was simply that Dickinson is a great poet because she is not political, because she explores the personal and the private. And greater still, she combines this exploration with linguistic experimentation and an icy diction, a crispness and clarity of thought and word, which is as refreshing as it is ambiguous. She does not deny meanings; her work is the variaorum. Whereas the other women Bennett discussed seem to have written from desire, Dickinson, at least as I read her, wrote from necessity—a necessity not less powerful for being interior.4
- NB: The title of this post comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, #626 in the collection by R. W. Franklin. (NB: publication history.) For obvious reasons (namely, copyright issues) I will not include that text here. In other volumes, it is #439, and so I include THAT text:
Undue Significance a starving man attaches
Far off—He sighs—and therefore—Hopeless—
But proves us
That Spices fly
In the Receipt—It was the Distance—
- Readers should know, though Bennett does not disclose this in her essay, that when she holds the opinion that Piatt is the second best poet of the 19th C. (after Dickinson) she is, in some sense, speaking as Piatt’s literary guardian, having edited the most recent collection of Piatt’s work. Which is not to deny that Piatt is a valuable American (woman’s) voice, but simply to point out that Bennett is perhaps not unbiased.
- Just as a point of curiousity: why are modern critics so concerned with Dickinson as “body” They seem overly interested in her sexuality, concerning which there seems to be insignificant evidence. Is the “virgin” still such an intimidating figure—must one nullify her dangerous ambiguity with speculation? One should remember: “it is the reticence itself that tells us most about Emily Dickinson” (p. 46, from C. Benfey’s essay “Emily Dickinson and the American South,” pp.30-50, an article which, despite its unpromising title, is actually one of the most interesting in the collection).
- Here my own thinking gets muddled and precious—and my abysmal ignorance of most of the other writers does not help. I have no feeling of them, for a reading of them (in bits and pieces) does not present me with individual voices. The point is, at any rate, moot: poets go in and out of fashion all the time, and perhaps tomorrow Dickinson will be a frightfully common, pert little poetess, a trifle precious and incable of proper rhymes and rhythms.