The poet Susan Howe is probably best known today for a book published more than thirty years ago that is not by any conventional definition a work of poetry. My Emily Dickinson (1985) is a hybrid prose work including elements of literary criticism, cultural history, personal essay, lyric rhapsody, and aesthetic manifesto. Much of it consists of quotations, often with minimal or no comment. These come from Dickinson’s poems and letters, but also from Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, Shakespeare’s history plays, the Brownings, Emily Brontë, and other sources. They are a record of Dickinson’s reading—and Howe’s. The “My” in Howe’s title is both a modest admission of partiality and an emphatic claim of possession.
My Emily Dickinson appeared in an era when feminist critics were rewriting literary history by bringing gender to the center of analysis and recovering the work of women writers. Howe joins in that general project but rejects any suggestion that Dickinson was a victim, a shut-in oppressed by patriarchal society and prevented from publishing. Her Dickinson is memorably fierce, a Calvinist nonconformist and mystical antinomian, “an American woman with Promethean ambition” who “sings of liberation into an order beyond gender.” She seems to remember and channel America’s founding history of violence, from the genocidal conquest of New England to the bloodshed of the Civil War. Yet Howe also insists that Dickinson was a contemplative poet, a reader, and a scholar. “Her talent,” Howe writes, “was synthetic; she used other writers, grasped straws from the bewildering raveling of Being wherever and whenever she could use them. Crucial was her ability to spin straw into gold.”
My Emily Dickinson is a powerful book about Dickinson. But it’s still in print and a contemporary classic because it is also a powerful book about Howe. What Howe has to say about Dickinson repeatedly says something apt and penetrating about her own writing. Her remarks about Dickinson’s “talent” point up how typically Howe herself writes out of the sense of urgency neatly expressed in that image of the writer as a reader grasping at straws and then spinning them into gold, like the miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story, whose life depended on it.
This is what Howe does with Dickinson and all her quotations. To object that Howe’s Dickinson is more Howe than Dickinson simply misses the point. My Emily Dickinson belongs in an American tradition of works of visionary cultural history, including Howe’s models, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, whose aims and methods are different from and sometimes directly opposed to those of academic scholarship. The intention in such books, Howe has said, is for the writer to “meet the work” of the past, “not to explain” but to “meet” another writer, “mind to mind, friend to friend.”…
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