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The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson


Wendy Martin


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007

£38 hardcover, £12.99 softcover. 158 pp. ISBN 0-521672-70-8


Reviewed by Charles Holdefer

Université de Poitiers



There are many Emily Dickinsons, and Wendy Martin introduces one of them. Her Emily Dickinson is a proto-feminist whose inner life reflects the spirit of Seneca Falls and the turbulence of the American Civil War. She is engaged with the issues of the day, in a manner that is rebellious and subversive and even ‘dangerous’ [44]. At the same time, she offers a ‘nurturing vision’ [41]. Although not exactly hagiographic, Martin’s Introduction is heavily invested in the idea of the poet as an exemplar.

As a corrective to earlier depictions of Dickinson as totally detached from the world, as a ‘mousy, reclusive spinster who wrote poetry in her spare time’ [131], as Martin puts it, this reassessment is fair enough, and in a sense her Introduction sums up what many readers have been saying for a generation. Of course there was always something patronizing in former depictions of an ethereal Emily who floated around in white and seemed to obey the laws of another kind of gravity. This earlier Dickinson was as exotic as a moon rock. Interesting to have on the shelf... but what do you do with a moon rock?

Martin, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich (1984) and The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (2002), among other works, avoids any hint of belletrism. She favors a purposeful reading. In my opinion, her purposes are too constraining for an Introduction—more about that later—but Martin effectively puts to rest received images of earlier generations, while replacing them with a few of her own.

The volume is divided into four chapters: ‘Life’, ‘Context’, ‘Works’ and ‘Reception’. The chapter on ‘Life’ reviews the familiar narratives of family and education and of a ‘Woman—white—to be’. The section on ‘Preceptors’ is relatively short, which is perhaps a corrective on Martin’s part, and a sensible one, given the surfeit of speculation elsewhere about Charles Wadsworth, Thomas W. Higginson and others. (Later in volume, Martin addresses the 'Master’ letters in a commendably unsensational manner, too [79-86].)

The chapter on ‘Context’ struggles with many strands, and here the information becomes clotted, and often resorts to a shorthand of allusion: Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, The Trail of Tears, the Mormon migration, the California Gold Rush and other events are dutifully cited, but to unclear purpose beyond their status as Greatest Hits in History. A very elementary primer on Puritans also invites questions about the level of the intended audience.

All this takes a toll on the prose. Sometimes it is brisk and professional, for instance in Martin’s reading of Poem 558 (‘When we were fearing it, it came—’). Here the reader finds thoughtful and convincing connections between the speaker’s musings and the advent of the American Civil War [29-30]. It is a successful demonstration of Martin’s thesis that Dickinson was an artist involved with the issues of her time. But elsewhere, one finds hyperbole ('Dickinson defied all poetic rules’ [41]), impressionism (Dickinson had a ‘jazz style’ [42]), or attempts to sugarcoat Dickinson for an immature reader. Martin asserts that ‘Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke letters could just as easily be e-mails sent home by a typical college freshman today’ [8] and that ‘Dickinson was a young adult, barely out of her teens, challenging her father by staying out late with friends’ [12].

Possibly. But do these last examples mean much beyond the debatable suggestion that Emily Dickinson was just like us? Less banal (and even more problematic) is the facile solipsism behind statements such as ‘The nation’s Civil War was a macrocosm of the civil war Dickinson waged inside herself’ [37]

On occasion this excessive personalization of ideas also affects thechoices of works studied. Of course, selection is a tricky process, and Martin rightly points out that the history of publishing Dickinson manuscripts was a ‘process of adaptation’ [118]. In this volume, Martin’s chosen poems are interesting and unexceptionable. The choice of letters, however, is less persuasive, particularly the emphasis on some of Dickinson’s early correspondence. While these letters offer a glimpse of the young artist, they also show her at a more prosaic and immature stage: they are juvenilia, definitely not the poet at the peak of her powers. For Martin, however, extended quotations about baking or mending composed when Dickinson was fourteen and fifteen years old [54-55] are apparently worthy because they highlight the theme of domesticity and Dickinson’s chafing against the burden of housework. That is enough to justify their selection.

In examples such as these, the author’s desire that Dickinson serve as an exemplar trumps other considerations and at least partly determines her methodology. On the first page, Dickinson is introduced as ‘a model for all women poets who followed’ [1]. (Devotees such as Robert Frost or Hart Crane are finally mentioned in the closing pages.) Among her other qualities, 'it is important to note that she presents a powerful woman who transcends mere housework’ [57]. There are frequent references to ‘courage’ and ‘triumphs’ and ‘embracing’ in order to ‘accept and celebrate life’ [41]. In regard to Dickinson’s choice of self-seclusion, Martin underlines that the poet took what ‘the Victorians called ‘confinement’ [...] and transformed it from something negative to something positive’ [19]. This approach, which champions a certain ameliorative feminist view (a few critics, such as Cheryl Walker and Joanne Dobson, have labeled Dickinson a ‘failed feminist’ [127]), also participates in a longstanding American tradition, which seeks a moral uplift in art. Regardless of how one parses the question of feminism, it is clear that Martin joins with this tradition.

The sense of duty and moral purpose which animated Edward Dickinson’s courtship letters to Emily Norcross [3-4] is also palpable in Martin’s descriptions of the poet who ‘courageously marches onward in her efforts to experience life’ [44]. Naturally, the circumstances are different. By the 1920s, V.L. Parrington’s multi-volume Main Currents in American Thought had professionalized this sense of duty. A mere generation after Parrington, Lionel Trilling could observe: ‘His ideas are now the accepted ones wherever the college course in American literature is given by a teacher who conceives himself to be opposed to the genteel and the academic and in alliance with the vigorous and the actual.'  (1)

Apart from the exclusive ‘himself’, this still holds true in 2007 when Martin declares: ‘Dickinson still remains connected to actual experience’ [44]. In this sense, at least, the poet is ‘just like us’, and such a connection, it is implied, is an unquestionable good.

Well, is it? Putting aside the difficulty of defining what exactly is meant by ‘actual experience’ (somehow I suspect that mine feels more actual than yours), the concept, for its manifest desire for relevance, surely has merits. Although Trilling’s reading of Parrington 60 years ago is mainly a demolition job, he admitted that Parrington possessed ‘the saving salt of the American mind, the lively sense of the practical, workaday world [...] He knew what so many literary historians do not know, that emotions and ideas are the sparks that fly when the mind meets difficulties.’ (2)

All very good. Still, a reader could wonder: what does ‘actual experience’ leave out? What other experiences (presumably less ‘actual’) are consigned to the margins? How does this attachment to the ‘actual’ determine the shape and content of the book I hold in my hands? Although an Introduction cannot be expected to be encyclopedic, there are a few areas which could reasonably be developed more, or in a more catholic manner. These include sources, attention to form, and Dickinson’s ambiguity.

Martin’s favorite source in this volume is her own American Triptych (1984). Many of the critical quotations are, in fact, the author quoting herself. (More than one-third of the 75 end notes in the chapter on ‘Works’ come from American Triptych.) There is no doubting this work as scholarship, or that it continues to be pertinent. But in a general Introduction, it might have been a good idea to share the microphone with other voices. Also, a technical question arises in regard to Martin’s decision to cite Dickinson’s poems according to the numbering of Thomas H. Johnson’s 1960 edition. Of course, Johnson is eminently respectable but it is not clear why an older source is privileged over R.W. Franklin’s later editions, which are mentioned in the final chapter on ‘Reception’. (To avoid confusion, in this review I have followed Martin’s preference for the earlier numbering.)

As for form, it is evidently not one of Martin’s favorite subjects. Some of the generalizations are vaporous, for example that Dickinson was ‘using words and punctuation as symbols of her consciousness’ [47]. For a poet, or for anyone, how could it be otherwise? Although Dickinson’s formal innovations could readily bolster Martin’s presentation of the poet as a rebel, this aspect is only superficially explored, as if the author is squeamish of a New Critical taint. It is a missed opportunity, and inadvertently concedes the New Critics a monopoly. Those days are long behind us. Elsewhere, Martin observes, ‘That which makes readers feel uncomfortable—Dickinson’s use of nouns as verbs, slant rhymes, perplexing meter, ambiguous speakers—works metaphorically to convey the experience of chaos’ [42 ].

Which readers? Why uncomfortable? It is possible that some readers—including the target audience of an Introduction—actually like this original play of language; it might be arresting, or intriguing, or maybe even fun. (That, too, is an actual experience.) Instead of discomfort, it could convey pleasure, by recalibrating readers’ perceptions and, in the best sense, making the world new. And certainly, with Dickinson, it is a vehicle for nuance. Rather than ‘the experience of chaos’, ambiguous speakers and nonstandard usage might provide additional layers of meaning. Is form a bogy? Martin affirms:

    The traditional structures of poetry were incapable of conveying the ideas she wanted to express. Her declaration to Thomas Wentworth Higginson that ‘while my thought is undressed—I can make the distinction, but when I put them in the Gown—they look alike, and numb’ demonstrates her need for raw, unadorned thought rather than traditional words confined in ‘Gown’. [33] 

This makes it sound as if Dickinson was merely letting it all hang out. The claim that her thought is ‘raw’ or ‘unadorned’, while no doubt intended as a compliment and a testimony to her actuality, is in fact dismissive, and does not do justice to the poet’s technique. Dickinson’s multiple drafts testify to the care and hard work that she devoted to the process.

Lastly, enlisting Dickinson as a force for progress runs the risk of downplaying her ambiguity. This is apparent, for instance, in regard to religion. In places Martin offers first-rate analysis of religious poems, for instance Poem 324 or Poem 644. Elsewhere, however, she affirms that ‘many of her references to the Bible can easily be interpreted, according to strictly evangelical notions of piety, as impious and possibly even blasphemous’ [58].

This is true, but is the ‘strictly evangelical’ a relevant measure, in light of the more intellectualized pieties of the Dickinson households? Undoubtedly Dickinson ‘does not use the Bible in a traditionally devotional way’ [58].  But this, of course, is a tradition in itself (Donne, Milton, Blake et al.) Dickinson is renewing that tradition and adapting it to her more modern mind. There is something reductive and literal in reading ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ as an illustration of the Big Theme of Death [104], and not, perhaps, as about the thought process in general or about how meaning is wrought by language.

I do not know how much Emily Dickinson was just like us, but I am fairly certain that much of the time she was smarter than we are, more articulate, and more faithful to a roving, dissatisfied mind that regularly put into question her own articulateness. What she left behind is a work of considerable ambiguity but which also shows, with bright noonday clarity, the qualities that set her apart. This is why—to indulge in my own moralizing—we should read her, and why, in this factional and shambolic era, we need her.



(1) Lionel Trilling (1950), ‘Reality in America’, rept. in The Liberal Imagination, Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1953, p. 1.


(2) Ibid., p. 2.


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