Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Dickinson, Emily (1830–1886)
Author:
Pollak, Vivian R.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

An American poet who once mockingly defined herself as a "Nobody," the reclusive, posthumously published, psychologically powerful Dickinson is often competitively compared with the expansive, gregarious Whitman who self-identified as a "kosmos." Feminist critics in particular have been fascinated by the contrasts between them: Dickinson writing richly elliptical, intimate lyrics for herself and for carefully selected private audiences; Whitman writing dazzlingly capacious prose poems for the world at large and for aggressively imagined future generations. Such comparisons between the public and the private poet, though radical oversimplifications of two enormously complex careers, are perhaps inevitable. Dickinson claimed never to have read Whitman's poetry, which her friend the influential editor Josiah Gilbert Holland branded as "disgraceful." And Whitman had never heard of her. Yet during the 1890s, when Dickinson's work was first published, reviewers compared her to Whitman because of her unprecedented transgressions of form. In that sense, Whitman's free-verse style helped to prepare the way for Dickinson's critical reception, which though belated, justified her belief that "Each Life Converges to some Centre." For Dickinson, that center was her poetry.

Highly educated, an avid correspondent and voracious reader, Dickinson had a local reputation as "the Myth of Amherst" before her death at the age of fifty-five of Bright's disease, a kidney disorder. But only eleven of her nearly eighteen hundred short poems were published during her lifetime. She never persuasively explained her choice of a noncareer, instead defining her poetic identity through a series of paradoxical contradictions, in which selecting "her own Society" was mysteriously at odds with her longing for fame. "I smile when you suggest that I delay 'to publish,'" she explained in 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a radical reformer and literary critic with whom she had just initiated a crucial correspondence, "that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin." Yet she added the caveat, "If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her" (Letters 2:408). Dickinson's cult of non-publication—for such it was—seemingly depended on the theory that a woman poet who valued her spiritual autonomy could not risk the commodification of her art through print. Time has justified both her caution and her self-confidence.

Bibliography

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1958.

———. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1955.

Diehl, Joanne Feit. Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "The American Sexual Poetics of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson." Reconstructing American Literary History. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1986. 123–154.

Pollak, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1984.

Salska, Agnieszka. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: Poetry of the Central Consciousness. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974.


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