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Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

John Domini has reminded me that 180 years ago today Dickinson was born. Recently, I was told by someone that he or she had read somewhere something about overrated writers and writing, and that someone at that somewhere said something like, “Anything by Emily Dickinson is overrated,” which brought to mind somebody saying something to me something about how Wallace Stevens wasn’t worth talking about since he’s so widely anthologized, since he’s such an entrenched part of the canon, which all makes me wonder what others think about such dismissals. Do you really care that others think that Dickinson and Stevens and others of their caliber are considered passé?

7 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

  1. Dismissal’s as dismissal does. I know a fellow who recently read Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, and within three days had decided that it was entirely mediocre—and what’s more, that it didn’t matter who else liked it, since “Mediocre […] novels have many champions.” Some folks make pretty snap decisions about great books! It’s a nifty trick to be done with a writer in less than a single week (although it took me only half that time to do away with dear old Emily).

    At that rate, the fellow in question might manage to dismiss most Western Lit by the time he’s 40.

  2. Along a more serious line: I’m sure 1,000,000 different readers have 1,000,000 wrong ideas about Dickinson and Stevens (myself included). Most people read bowdlerized editions of Shakespeare and think they’ve read The Bard. (I remember a college roommate once telling me that Shakespeare was overrated, because he’d read Macbeth back in high school, and found it entirely unmemorable. He then told me about how much he’d loved The Sound and the Fury. I tried not to chuckle.)

    (I swear that above story’s true, and that the man was serious, although it’s also possible he was also a secret Dadaist. His favorite musicians were Charles Mingus and Jethro Tull, so anything’s possible.)

    …Those dismissive Dickinson readers you allude to, John—are they reading the same five poems they see anthologized everywhere? And are they reading the Higginson/Todd edited versions? (Do they even know what that means?) Have they every one of the poems? Twice? Surveyed the critical field? And so on and so on. The context matters greatly.

    And in any case, what matters more is what someone can say about the work. Thumbs up, thumbs down—who really cares? “I give Dickinson five stars, Stevens three”—so what? Say something interesting, Adam, about either poet’s work’s relevance to the here and now, regardless of whether you like them or not. Or liked them or not five years ago, or ten years from now… (I both like and dislike many things, often at exactly the same time.)

    And with all of that in mind, I do think that Modern Publishing has consorted to turn Emily Dickinson into something pretty stupid: little more than an odd little duck of a poet whose gentle portrait they can glance at while shopping for magazines at a Barnes & Noble. A curious reader might have to do a little work to see beyond that cartoon version.

  3. John, thanks for following up, after my reminder. You wrangled something smart out of the mere fact of a birthday.

    My own contribution, here, would be that the wave-forms of readers’ embrace or rejection — call them traces of the art’s life-cycle, like tree rings — tend to reflect more on the culture of that moment. Thus Dickinson’s contemporary standing, in America at least, has a good deal to do with the (much-needed) improvements in status and power for women, over the last half-century or so. Thus too, I’ve heard otherwise intelligent folks tell me they can’t stand Joseph Conrad because they find the work “imperialist” or “racist.”

    Artists dwell in history and their work reflects its pressures. That’s Marx’s gift to aesthetics, sure, and a worthy one. But a reader who lets history smear what’s on the page, while not noticing how it’s shaping his or her own experience — that’s a shame.

  4. Dismissals of well known and canonical writers often tend to be a pose… you know: “I’m such a cutting-edge reader that I know where the really hip, good stuff is while the rest of you suckers are deluded by the taste-makers and still reading the Norton anthology.” Whatever…

    I don’t like very much the Higginson/Todd — I like the Franklin edition — but I must say I’m partial to the Bianchi:


    For example:

    THERE is a solitude of space,
    A solitude of sea,
    A solitude of death, but these
    Society shall be,
    Compared with that profounder site,
    That polar privacy,
    A Soul admitted to Itself:
    Finite Infinity.

  5. she said it herself:

    “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish,’ that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin…My barefoot rank is better.

    “You think my gait ‘spasmodic.’ I am in danger, sir. You think me ‘uncontrolled.’ I have no tribunal.”

    let’s free ourselves of the hippest opinions. oh god, those above all.

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