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Dickinson In Her Time

ISSUE:  Summer 1987

Emily Dickinson.
By Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Knopf. $25.00.

A Charm invests a face / Imperfectly beheld—,” Emily Dickinson wrote, and there is much evidence to suggest that her reputation as “the Myth of Amherst,” already current in her lifetime, was something she cultivated deliberately, her life becoming an aesthetic phenomenon embodying the same qualities—austerity, riddling profundity, concentrated power, as well as “charm”—that characterize her art. Those she loved, of course, got past the forbidding “Myth”: her brother Austin wrote that she “definitely posed” in her lifelong but rather teasing correspondence with Atlantic Monthly editor T.W. Higginson, and her close friend Samuel Bowles once called her a “damned rascal” when she declined to see him and insisted that she get herself downstairs. (Evidently charmed by such forthrightness—her opposite number—she relented at once.) For an admiring but often bewildered posterity, however, the self-created myth has proved remarkably durable, holding fast against both serious investigation and outlandish theorizing, never giving way to anything resembling a consensus or even a single, coherent explication of this extraordinary life.

Just as new critical studies tend to undertake a thoroughgoing reconsideration of her work, each major biography— and they have all been excellent—has also started anew, sorting the known facts of Dickinson’s uneventful life yet another time in the hope of discovering hidden clues or patterns, perhaps the grand design that will clarify the mystery of Emily Dickinson once and for all. One effort common to all her serious biographers (as opposed to those who have focused on her love life or indulged in sensational embroidering of the facts) has been the attempt to treat Dickinson as one with her region and her era, rather than considering her a “hermetic” artist unconnected to her historical and social worlds. George Frisbie Whicher’s still-valuable 1939 biography, This Was A Poet, emphasized the importance of Dickinson’s Puritan heritage in her attempt to “see New Englandly,” suggested the American sources of her humor, and concluded that she was “very much a child of the age.” Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 critical biography placed Dickinson’s poems firmly within the matrix of her cultural and religious legacy, and Richard B. Sewall’s two-volume The Life of Emily Dickinson, published in 1974, seemed the final, exhaustive, “definitive” work, devoting an entire volume to the context of Dickinson’s life—her “Forebears and Family,” in addition to other considerations— before narrating the life itself in the second volume.

In her new, equally ambitious biography, Emily Dickinson, Cynthia Griffin Wolff does an even more impressive job of analyzing Dickinson’s life contextually, performing a fine assimilation of all previous knowledge about the poet. Wolff thoroughly analyzes not only the historical, religious, literary, and family contexts that helped to shape Dickinson’s art, but also her complex psychological history and her identity as a woman in male-dominated Victorian America. Incorporating as well the best of psychoanalytic and feminist investigation into the poet’s emotional needs and tactics, Wolff presents a convincing, well-rounded portrait of a woman who lived most fully in her art and who arranged her life into the pattern best suited for her artistic survival. “The real Emily Dickinson,” Wolff asserts, “resides in the poetry,” and thus the second half of this lengthy biography is given over to a discussion of the poetry itself, the poet’s life events relegated to the background much as they were, according to Wolff, when Dickinson was actually writing.

If this biography has any flaw in its evocation of the world into which Dickinson was born, it’s perhaps that the background material is too exhaustive: in analyzing the character of Dickinson’s parents, for instance, Wolff sometimes quotes at length from half a dozen letters, when one or two carefully chosen excerpts would have sufficed. It must be said, however, that these early sections are among the most impressive, for they characterize fully not only Dickinson’s parents, who have often remained shadowy figures in previous biographies, but also her pious, embittered grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, whose religious and financial struggles shaped the emotional nature of Dickinson’s father and indirectly of the poet herself. These patriarchal influences were particularly important in the development of Dickinson’s uncompromising principles, her independent nature, and her inability to take “emotional risks” with other people that eventually led to her famous, white-robed seclusion. Wolff also suggests that Dickinson’s mother, an extremely passive and weak-willed woman, failed to nurture her children emotionally with “the silent language of eye and face,” thus contributing inadvertently to Dickinson’s lifelong loneliness but also reinforcing her emphasis upon self-reliance and individuality.

Rather than attempting to “solve” the riddle of Emily Dickinson, Wolff pictures accurately the many conflicts that the poet herself did not resolve, and which are the source of her many contradictions and thus her “mystery”: her craving for God and her rejection of religious orthodoxy; her loving, passionate nature and her determined solitude; her rejection by the literary arbiters of the day and even by her own father (who considered his son, Austin, the talented writer of the family, and seems to have ignored his daughter’s poetry), which nonetheless spurred rather than diminished the poet’s dedication to her writing. Thus, in one of her many excellent, summary statements, Wolff suggests the powerful forces converging upon Dickinson: “The infant who had fallen into words because the silent language of eye and face had failed; the girl who had preserved autonomy by refusing the pledge of faith to a God unseen; the brilliant young woman whose father could see talents and virtues only in a son—all of these lonely, angry, defiant, ambitious “selves” came together in a “new birth”—that of the heroic poet-seer.”

One of the many pleasures of this book is that it provides, even more than the three previous major biographies, a firm sense of the poet as an historical person. We learn, for instance, about the surprisingly liberal courting customs that prevailed when Dickinson reached adolescence; we discover that such conveniences as cement sidewalks and running water did not arrive in Amherst until the poet was middleaged; we get a clear idea of the daily routine in the Dickinson household. Wolff also provides an interesting discussion of the poet’s eye ailment of the 1860’s, which she believes contributed more than anything to Dickinson’s seclusion in later life. Nor does she neglect the popular myth of Dickinson’s “lover,” which originated with Amherst gossip during the poet’s lifetime and was later fueled by publication of the series of anguished letters, written in her late twenties and early thirties, to a man she called “Master.” Wolff insists that Dickinson probably had a series of oblique love relationships rather than a single grand, consuming passion; “when they are evaluated as a group,” she writes, these relationships combine to suggest a lethal conviction at the core of Dickinson’s nature: deep affection for anyone outside the immediate family and passionate love both necessarily entail separation.” Separation, for Dickinson, being the necessary condition of her cherished artistic freedom.

Though she deals adroitly with such biographical quandaries, Wolffs emphasis remains upon the poems themselves, and surely “A Critical Biography” would be an appropriate subtitle for this book. More than half of this hefty volume is given over to detailed analysis of Dickinson’s themes, techniques, and various poetic “voices,” and it must be said that much of this material seriously weakens the book, since Wolff is generally less able as a critic than as a biographer. In the poem “I would not paint—a picture—,” for instance, Wolff finds a “patently sexual configuration” and, even more startling, “disturbing evidence of dismemberment.” The poem has been understood in the past as Dickinson’s meditation to herself on her own power and her identity as an artist, since it speaks of painting, music, and poetry, and of their effects upon an enraptured audience. Wolff finds all this metaphorical of “a woman aroused, pleased with erotic stimulation and simultaneously curious about the feelings of her partner.” Although some of the poem’s diction does have erotic connotations—”enamored,” “impotent”—these sexual suggestions are surely metaphorical of the pleasures and effects of art, rather than vice versa. Wolff offers another inexplicable reading for the poem beginning “The Missing All, prevented Me / From missing minor Things.” She writes that this poem captures “the insouciance and pertness of the poet-as-two-year-old . . .the very flippancy that makes a poem like this one appealing also robs it of authority.” Rather this poem is written from a mature perspective and speaks of the artistic dedication that will not allow Dickinson to “lift my Forehead from my work.” The poem also shows how well Dickinson understood that the “minor Things” of ordinary life meant little to one who sought, but could not find, a firm religious faith.

Like many recent critics, Wolff does finally view Dickinson as an essentially religious poet, and appropriately suggests that the poems represent a lifelong argument with God. “The determination to confront the full barrenness of human fate,” she writes, “was one of the principal sources of Dickinson’s poetry—not a personal grievance, but a universal tragedy. . . . The language of “eye” and “face” had spoken of loss and anguish since the earliest letters of her girlhood; now, at last, she had discovered a cosmic event commensurate with her furious passion, God’s desertion of mankind. It was, withal, an horrific discovery.” Viewing Dickinson’s poetry in this context, however, occasionally prevents Wolff from acknowledging other appropriate readings of specific poems. Of the poem beginning “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea—,” she insists that “the “Drop” is a Christian who has already won faith, and the “Sea” is the primordial power of the Divinity,” adding with a somewhat patronizing tone that “even insightful critics have read this as a love poem.” It is surely Wolff herself who is less than insightful here. As Robert Weisbuch argued in his brilliant 1975 study, Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, an important facet of Dickinson’s genius is her “analogical poetics,” her creation of metaphors that serve as analogues for a wide range of human experiences. Thus “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea—” is both a religious poem and a love poem, and perhaps also a poem about the author’s divided psyche.

Despite its shortcomings as criticism, however, Emily Dickinson is a superb, engrossing study; it approaches this enigmatic poet with compassion, respect, and common sense, revealing her both as an artistic genius and as a lonely, struggling human being. At a time when interest in Dickinson is at its height—the year 1986 marked the centennial of her death and saw many conferences and new critical studies on the poet’s work—this book is especially valuable and welcome. Although our understanding of Emily Dickinson will never be “definitive,” this book is sure to stand for many years as the authoritative biography of this brilliant and fascinating artist.


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