Emily Dickinson and Her Literary Descendants A study of how a great American poet shaped women’s poetry in 20th-century America.

Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

By Vivian R. Pollak (2016, University of Pennsylvania Press) 368 pages with index, notes, bibliography, photos, and illustrations

With Our Emily Dickinsons, Vivian Pollak has crafted an intricate study in multiplicity and connection that result in a book not quite like any other I have read. Rather than approach Emily Dickinson as single, unitary entity—either textual or human—this book instead traces the many webs of relationship, culture, influence, and resistance generated by and about different versions of Dickinson (poet and poems) beginning during her lifetime and extending on into our own. In particular, Pollak examines how these “Emily Dickinsons” have shaped and been shaped by the careers of American women writers who must come to terms with this inescapable if changeful figure of the quintessential “poetess” as touchstone, inspiration, and obstacle for their own work and its reception. The main focus is on five such writers—Helen Hunt Jackson, Mabel Todd Loomis, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop—for whom reading Dickinson became an active process of self-fashioning whether they liked it or not. In these “fractured self-portraits,” as the author calls them, Pollak presents “biographically precise, historically situated connections between women poets and their critics of both sexes.”

This process of self-fashioning in turn proliferates still more Dickinsons, all bearing defining, influential, and often contradictory relation to conceptions of womanhood, poetry, and what might be considered modern for either. Since throughout much of the 20th century, one of these Dickinsons or another was certain to emerge as a point of comparison for any female poet who began to make her mark, it seems only natural that the poet in question might wish to have some say in defining which Dickinson, exactly, it would be. And then, in yet another stage, these women poets themselves emerge as analogous figures for the next generation. Thus, for example, Marianne Moore must come to terms with Dickinson but Plath must come to terms with Dickinson and Moore (or perhaps, in the latter case, fail to come to terms), while the Moore she encounters is necessarily inflected and influenced by the figure of Dickinson. Far from a mere poetic predecessor, Dickinson concatenates a dense collection of cultural projections and anxieties about female sexuality, ambition, talent, public life, and the ways in which any of these might coincide.

The main focus is on five such writers—Helen Hunt Jackson, Mabel Todd Loomis, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop—for whom reading Dickinson became an active process of self-fashioning whether they liked it or not.

It is not only the cultural myths about Dickinson that are so multiple. Dickinson’s texts alone provide almost a “limit case”—i.e., the extreme end of a phenomenon, or instance that tests or establishes its limits—of editorial intervention for the modern era, a bellwether of editorial philosophies and fashions as well as attitudes towards women writers specifically. Dickinson herself hardly published during her lifetime—some ten poems, all anonymous, including one in a collection edited by Helen Hunt Jackson, whose quest, reception, and dubious authorization for publication are all detailed here. Dickinson kept generations of editors busy: her punctuation was famously irregular; her format, versification, and presentation unusual. Her first editors took it upon themselves to normalize her verse and purify it of what they considered to be (or feared would be seen as) irregularities and flaws. In more recent years, the work of Susan Howe (to whose My Emily Dickinson Pollak’s title pays homage), Jen Bervin and Marta Werner (Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems) and Virginia Jackson (Dickinson’s Misery), the rich material presentation of Dickinson’s texts has been restored and interpreted as meaningful. These most recent Dickinsons are the ones I favor, but they are not Dickinsons available to any of the three major 20th-century poets the study considers. To project these recent Dickinsons back into these writers’ reading would be no less interventionist than the now reviled practices of earlier editors, erasing the texts that were so influential if altered or incomplete. Thus the volume is careful to account for which editions of the poems, letters, or biographies each writer contends with—an important and welcome feature, although Pollak herself cites the currently-definitive Franklin edition of the poems.

The earlier writers Helen Hunt Jackson and Mabel Todd Loomis of course, were known to Dickinson, and thus had access to at least some of Dickinson’s texts in her own hand, although Jackson often recopied them as she exchanged letters with Dickinson’s friend and later editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Jackson and Dickinson were exact contemporaries, both born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1830. They knew one another as children but were never close until their later mostly epistolary relationship. On the other hand, to say that Mabel Todd Loomis knew Dickinson is a stretch, although she was deeply involved with the Dickinson family and often in the house during the time in which Emily never left it. They spoke, apparently—but only through a closed door. Emily heard Mabel play—but through a window, while a longstanding affair with Emily’s brother created a certain kind of intimacy but likely prevented others.

Nonetheless, unlike their 20th-century counterparts, these women had access both to the living woman Emily Dickinson as well as to at least some of her texts in their unmediated, unedited form—which they then had a hand in “correcting” and directly shaping which Dickinson was first to emerge. In Jackson’s case, this role was far more limited than she would have liked (she had begged to become literary executor should she survive her friend) and she had first to secure permission: “You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.” Such appeals to the interests of others rather than any desire for public recognition were a common means by which women—who could not wish for fame and remain respectably feminine—could be justified in publishing their works. Less commonplace, however, was the sentence that followed: “When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy,” which Jackson believed strongly enough to repeat it almost verbatim after many years. It is one of the consistent pleasures of Pollak’s book that it pulls such textual gems from an incredible range of sources well-known, long forgotten, and previously unpublished. Even when the narrative gets lost from time to time in the weeds (for example, there were quite a number of Dickinsons in Emily’s family, some of whom went by several different pet names, and it can be difficult to keep track or to remember exactly why one wants to) the words exchanged between and among and around these women keeps interest alive and the text lively. In fact, this effect constitutes for me another one of the book’s perhaps unintentional charms: the textual relations among women who scarcely spoke in person feel more intimate and essential than all the intricacies of 1880s Amherst’s tales of infidelity, family romance, and marital intrigue or Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’s insistent heterosexuality.

The volume is careful to account for which editions of the poems, letters, or biographies each writer contends with—an important and welcome feature, although Pollak herself cites the currently-definitive Franklin edition of the poems.

While the early chapters are of special interest to a scholar of 19th-century women writers like myself, the book comes into its own with the modernists and their changing Dickinsons. Marianne Moore crafts a Dickinson resistant to the various elvish neurotics and repressed spinsters that peopled accounts of Dickinson that appeared throughout her schooling and tenure as editor of the influential literary magazine The Dial. Pollak argues that for a long time, Moore was happy to shift the responsibility of discussing Dickinson to other writers but ultimately weighs in as a way of addressing questions that came up about herself. In response to Amy Lowell, for example, Moore asks in effect why not simply prefer to converse with people from behind a closed door? In presenting Dickinson as less idiosyncratic and reclusive, Pollak argues, Moore is normalizing not only Dickinson but the figure of the woman poet and, in particular, elements of her own life such as the primacy of family relationships and the resistance to romantic life partnerships. In writing about Dickinson, she has the opportunity to address questions about gender identity and erotic normality that were often raised about Moore herself.

Our Emily Dickinsons covers a truly impressive mix of writers, their eras, their literary and personal histories. Not all of this material is likely to appeal to all readers—but similarly, what does appeal at any given time may be surprising. For my own part, I sometimes felt that I did not need quite the wealth of information about writers’ mothers and their mothers that Pollak furnishes so abundantly. In the Plath chapter, however, I never once had this (mild) complaint. These “characters”—as they seem to be, writ large and novelistic—emerge so starkly, their tensions so palpable and intense, that while it may in part be the result of the personalities and traumas involved, it is nonetheless electrifying—and being electrifying on any poet’s imitative juvenilia is no small feat. In sharp contrast to Dickinson’s extreme reluctance, the “8-YEAR-OLD POET” Sylvia Plath bursts into print in the Boston Sunday Herald, and her intense, early, and unrelenting ambition is likely accentuated in this volume’s particular focus and framework. Yet despite many such stark differences, from an early age, Dickinson was one of Plath’s models. Her mother “made Dickinson ‘a constant’” for Sylvia, who sent her Dickinson imitations for her birthday but, as Pollak argues, blamed her mother’s “insensitivity to the long Dickinsonian shadows by which she, the daughter, is beset.” Dickinson loomed large for Ted Hughes, as well, who edited a volume of her poetry and associated her with his wife after her suicide, writing to Sylvia’s mother that “no woman poet except for Emily Dickinson can begin to be compared with her.” In teasing out these complex yet dramatic relationships, Our Emily Dickinsons is at its most compelling.

Though less operatic, the material on Elizabeth Bishop is no less illuminating, and Pollak’s deft reading of Bishop’s review of Dickinson’s intensely emotional, romantic letters to her friend Elizabeth Holland is another of the book’s highlights.

Of particular scholarly note is the somewhat shorter chapter about Moore, Plath, and Hughes. While much of the complex history among the three has long been known, the publication of Ted Hughes’s 1998 Birthday Letters gave cause for reconsideration, especially because what Pollak terms “the attack on Moore in ‘The Literary Life’ has largely gone unnoticed.” Here, in meticulously researched and documented detail of correspondence and grant applications, the various requests (fulfilled and denied) for support, the ambitions, preferences and incompatibilities that triangulated these writers are laid bare. Though less operatic, the material on Elizabeth Bishop is no less illuminating, and Pollak’s deft reading of Bishop’s review of Dickinson’s intensely emotional, romantic letters to her friend Elizabeth Holland is another of the book’s highlights. Bishop reads as “embarrassing” the level of emotion and lack of concrete reference to daily life or current events, but she excoriates a then-recent reading of the relationship as the repressed lost lesbian love that determined the rest of Dickinson’s poetic career. I am also simply delighted to know that Bishop enjoyed an illustration of “Lavinia Dickinson laughing and holding one of her innumerable cats.” For this kind of detail, included in a volume with like details on Helen Hunt Jackson’s Western travels and Marianne Moore’s father’s collected sermons—details that it is almost inconceivable would be collected together in a single volume with a consistent project and argument—I am most grateful.

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