Emily Dickinson

Monarch of Perception
A fresh reading of Dickinson’s poetry grounded in the social and economic realities of her world


Emily Dickinson has often been pictured as a sensitive but isolated poet--someone who published very little in her lifetime and limited herself to lyrics, considered to be the kind of poems most removed from social and political life. In recent years, scholars have challenged that view, and this book extends the discussion in valuable new directions.

Domhnall Mitchell begins by focusing on three historical phenomena--the railroad, the Dickinson homestead, and horticulture--and argues that poems about trains, home, and flowers engage with thei meanings in ways that extend beyond the confines of the aesthetic. He shows how Dickinson's poems and letters reveal the full complexity of her position as a woman situated within a larger social and economic class.

In the second half of the book, Mitchell considers the ideological, textual, and editorial implications of Dickinson's strategic privatization of her art. He relates the particular forms of her manuscripts' appearance, distribution, and collation to aspects of her social as well as her literary consciousness. In a chapter that is certain to provoke debate, he explores what it means to read individual poems and letters in manuscript versions rather than in printed editions. By paying close attention to textual evidence, he makes the case that various features of the manuscripts are actually matters of accident or immediate convenience rather than the visual markers of a new aestheic principle.

Mitchell closes by using the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin to explore the contradictions of a "private" poetry that engages verbally in multiple areas of nineteenth-century life and discourse. By attending to the contemporaneous particularities of recurrent words and images, he demonstrates that Dickinson could stay at home and still be at home in history, too.

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