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Home Uncategorized This is my Letter to the World

This is my Letter to the World

Maurice Earls
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, by Helen Vendler, Belknap/ Harvard, 533 pp, £25.95, ISBN: 978-0674048676 White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, Anchor Books, 416 pp, £10.47, ISBN: 978-0307456304 Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, by Aífe Murray, New Hampshire, 299 pp, £31.50, ISBN: 978-1584656746   Title divine – is mine! The Wife – without the sign! Acute Degree-conferred on me – Empress of Calvary!   When religious belief recedes a residue remains in shapes and patterns which influence subsequent thinking. Cultural, family and personal history are also important; no thinking or making occurs in a void. But the problem is that influences and connections are inexact and unpredictable. Caution is needed when allocating weight, especially in the case of a writer of genius such as Emily Dickinson, about whose life there has long been considerable curiosity.   Despite the limited biographical materials available, it is unlikely that this curiosity will soon abate. It is as if there is a mystery which has to be solved, and if this is so, the urge to solve it is particularly felt in the United States. Dickinson is decidedly an American genius yet, unlike Robert Frost, another New England poet, she has successfully resisted efforts to read her life as a recognisable version of patriotic living. She did not strive for individual success, but rather withdrew from society. She did not, it seems, wish to have children, was not religious and certainly not God-fearing, she had little interest in the seminal political and military events of her time and, finally, did not attach much importance to conventional sexual morality. One can see how such a person might pose problems for the tireless champions of a one-dimensional and prescriptive version of American identity. Yet Dickinson in many ways, including her engagement with her Calvinist heritage, her self-reliance, her independence, her modernity, her self-belief, her inventiveness and her confidence, was thoroughly and substantially American.   Helen Vendler, author of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, is not particularly interested in the details of the poet’s life. As a respected practitioner of close reading, Vendler believes it is the poems that count, not the biography. This is a view which echoes one of the great divisions in twentieth century literary criticism, that between those who argued for the primacy of the artist’s text and those who…



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