One day late in 1881, the young wife of a recently hired instructor at Amherst College wrote to her parents in Washington about her impressions of her new hometown. Among other things, she told them about a mysterious woman who was “the character of Amherst”:

It is a lady [she explained] whom the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. [Austin] Dickinson [the college treasurer], and seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night, & viewed it by the moonlight. . . . Her sister, who was at Mrs. Dickinson’s party, invited me to come & sing to her mother sometime. . . . People tell me that the myth will hear every note—she will be near, but unseen. . . . Isn’t that like a book? So interesting.

No one knows the cause of her isolation, but of course there are dozens of reasons assigned.

The “myth,” of course, was none other than Miss Emily Dickinson, who at the time of the young lady’s gossipy missive was fifty years old, had never married, and had spent much of her life writing poems, hundreds of them, of which only a handful had been published. Even now, a century after her death (in 1886), critics and biographers, like her Amherst contemporaries, are unable to agree upon an explanation for her refusal, during the last seventeen years of her life, to leave her family’s house or to receive visitors. Nearly every Dickinson scholar, however—certain that in the explanation, whatever it may be, lies the key to her mind and character and poetry—has put forward a solution to the puzzle. Clark Griffith, for example, theorizes in The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry (1964) that the poet was emotionally crippled by her tyrannical father, Edward Dickinson, a distinguished lawyer, civic leader, and a one-term representative to Congress. John Cody, alternatively, proposes in After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (1971) that Dickinson was incapacitated by the conviction that she had been failed, in some way, by her simple, submissive, and affectless mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson. Rebecca Patterson argues in The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1953) that the poet secluded herself because of her friend Kate Scott Anthon’s “cruelty”; Vivian R. Pollak, in Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (1984), argues that she was the victim of “a crisis of sexual identity”; and William R. Sherwood, in Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (1968), maintains that her isolation was the consequence of a supposed affair with the Philadelphia minister Charles Wadsworth. And Ruth Miller, in The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1968), offers what may be the most cogent explanation, given the fact that Dickinson’s poetry was the most important thing in the world to her: namely, that after having sent her poems for years to two distinguished men of letters—Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican and Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly—and endured the failure of both men to recognize her greatness (while they regularly published the work of stunning mediocrities), Dickinson simply gave up hope of being understood and appreciated in her own time, and withdrew.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her respectable but seriously flawed new critical biography of Dickinson,1 refrains from overemphasizing her own theory on this matter. Wolff thinks that Dickinson’s trouble with her eyesight—trouble that became acute in the early 1860s and abated permanently after a few years—may help to explain her retreat into isolation. But the eyesight trouble, in Wolff’s view, was less a real cause than a precipitating factor, an excuse that Emily took advantage of to avoid the sort of events that she had never really enjoyed attending anyway; and once the pattern of withdrawal had begun, it simply developed naturally and by slow degrees. “Vinnie [Lavinia, Emily’s sister, who also never married and lived with Emily in the family manse] always claimed that her sister’s retirement was ‘only a happen’—a slow process, the result not of one dramatic tragedy, but rather of many separate, small decisions.”

Actually, when seen in the light of Dickinson’s unique perspective on things and her revolutionary concept of poetry—to which I will return presently—the isolation of her last years seems almost an inevitability; how such an extraordinary sensibility managed to come into being in nineteenth-century Amherst, Massachusetts, however, is another question. It is a question that much concerns Wolff, who, by means of an interpretation that is by turns revealing and highly dubious, purports to explain Dickinson’s vision and poetics as the product of her familial and religious background.

The lives of her father and paternal grandfather do in fact seem to shed light on Emily Dickinson’s life and art.

The lives of her father and paternal grandfather do in fact seem to shed light on Emily Dickinson’s life and art. Her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson—a lawyer, politician, and orator of considerable local reputation, and the builder of the “Old Homestead” (the first brick house in Amherst) in which Emily Dickinson would spend her life—was a strikingly obsessive man. Observes Wolff: “The notion of a ‘Father’ in the Dickinson household—particularly as it related to ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Tower’ and ‘Glory’—was complex and fraught with conflicting emotions.” Samuel Dickinson’s Amherst was a center of conservative Trinitarian belief at a time when, in many parts of Massachusetts, liberal Unitarianism was in flower. The wealthy, ambitious Samuel, who served for forty years as the deacon of Amherst’s West Church, was (in the words of his great-granddaughter) “a flaming zealot for education and religion,” a man who wanted “to hasten the conversion of the whole world.” To this end, he dedicated several years of his life and the bulk of his considerable fortune to the establishment of Amherst College, a bastion of Trinitarianism that would serve to counterbalance the liberal Unitarianism of Harvard.

Four of Samuel’s five sons left Amherst in their twenties to make careers elsewhere, apparently unwilling to compromise their prospects by maintaining too close a tie to their by then financially ailing father; only one son, Edward, remained dutifully in Amherst, where he practiced law like his father and—purely out of filial loyalty—allowed himself to become involved in Samuel’s desperate and ill-advised money-making schemes. Not until after Samuel’s death in 1838, in Hudson, Ohio (where, having lost his money and honor in Amherst, he was attempting a new start as the treasurer of the newly founded Western Reserve College), did Edward manage to rehabilitate the family’s reputation and fortune. He succeeded, furthermore, in becoming what his father had been at the height of his career: the quintessential Amherst public man with a special interest in, and a close relationship to, Amherst College. Yet whereas Samuel had been zealous in his support of the college, and all but fanatically devoted to its spiritual mission, Edward was prudent and circumspect in his dedication, interested in the institution less out of any real enthusiasm for its purpose, it would seem, than out of a sense of civic obligation and family pride. Edward’s pet project was the railroad: he was celebrated as the man who brought it to Amherst. “In many ways,” writes Wolff,

the father’s force had been surpassed by the son’s; in one significant way, however, [Samuel] remained supreme. Nothing in Edward’s life could match the emotional and spiritual vitality of Samuel Fowler Dickinson’s original vision. Ultimately, Edward’s life was pinched and compromised and unsatisfying: he never yielded himself entirely to any beckoning phantom of heroic grandeur, though he seems to have had many poignant glimpses of some glory that might have been; and the ghosts of this drama haunted the Dickinson family throughout the poet’s lifetime.

If Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandfather had been a man of almost poetic vision, her father was, by comparison, all prose—a proud and self-important man who took politics more seriously than culture and philosophy, his son (who would maintain the ascendancy of the Dickinson dynasty in Amherst) more seriously than his daughters. He was away on business much of the time, and even when he was at home, the Old Homestead was essentially “a house of isolation,” in Wolff’s words, “a house where the children’s independence could be maintained only if easy intimacy and spontaneous affections were sacrificed.” Emily viewed her father with both warmth and bitterness, genuine respect and ironic amusement; she once asked Higginson to explain to her “what home is”—as if she had never had one—yet could write to her brother, Austin, that “Home is a holy thing.”

Yet, for all her differences from her family she was, at bottom, very much a Dickinson. Her poetry—which unquestionably was far more important to her than anything else in life—was in a sense her version of the Great Dickinson Enterprise, a sort of obsessive visionary project in the tradition of her father’s railroad and her grandfather’s college; just as Samuel and Edward sought, by their grand acts of civic improvement, to lead Amherst into a better future, so Dickinson sought, by her poetry, to lead her readers to a clearer understanding of the truths of nature. She conceived of herself as having superior insight into these truths—a conceit of which she might never have been capable had she not been the daughter and granddaughter of such assertive and audacious men. (And a conceit, too, that distinguishes her from the Transcendentalists, who felt that all men have equal access to the ultimate truths and partake equally of what Emerson called the Oversoul.) Among the many Dickinson poems that take poetry itself as their theme, and thus help to illuminate her approach to the art, perhaps the following is most famous:

This was a Poet—It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings—
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door—
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it—before—

Of Pictures, the Discloser—
The Poet—it is He—
Entitles Us—by Contrast—
To ceaseless Poverty—

Of Portion—so unconscious—
The Robbing—could not harm—
Himself—to Him—a Fortune—
Exterior—to Time—

A poet, then, is a person who can see great truths in ordinary things, truths that, upon disclosure, seem so obvious that we wonder why we never noticed them ourselves; so conversant is she with the Infinite that she may be said to live outside of time and beyond the material concerns of this world, sufficient unto herself. Yet the truths she tells should not be presented too bluntly, too directly. Ambiguity is a virtue. “Tell all the Truth,” she wrote,

but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

The reference to blindness is significant. Words like seeing and eyes and blind fill her poems, and they rarely carry only their usual meanings. Seeing means perceiving the truths hidden in nature; the poet “sees,” and she enables her readers to “see” as well. Dickinson’s definition of the poet is clarified in another poem:

Essential Oils—are wrung—
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns—alone—
It is the gift of Screws—

The General Rose—decay—
But this—in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer—When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary—

This poem, perhaps better than any other, succinctly summarizes Dickinson’s poetic theory. The lesson of its first stanza is that there are essential truths ("Oils") in nature that do not communicate themselves to most people automatically; rather, they must be distilled from nature, as attar is distilled ("expressed,” or pressed out) in a screw press, by the conscious action of a person with a particular gift—that is, a poet. Yet, as the second stanza of the poem makes clear, the art of writing poetry is superior not only to that of the distiller of attar, but to that of the God Himself who created the rose. For a real rose will decay when summer passes; but a rose that exists in a poem—specifically, in this poem—will preserve summer forever, even if it remains in the poet’s drawer, where no one will see it. The poet may be dead and buried, resting in a grave under a bed of rosemary, but because she has left the poem behind she will lie in the “Ceaseless Rosemary” of remembrance (“Rosemary: that’s for remembrance”—Hamlet).

As she can turn out longer-lasting roses than God, so she can turn out two sunsets to his one (and more portable sunsets, for that matter):

I send Two Sunsets—
Day and I—in competition ran—
I finished Two—and several Stars—
While He—was making One—

His own was ampler—but as I
Was saying to a friend—
Mine—is the more convenient
To Carry in the Hand—

Yet if she can compare herself (favorably) to God in some poems, in others she characterizes the poet’s role more modestly, even touchingly:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty

Her message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

Indeed, in the following poem, she presents the poet as a mere slave of nature, whose function is to supply the “oil” to light nature’s “lamp”:

The Lamp burns sure—within—
Tho’ Serfs—supply the Oil—
It matters not the busy Wick—
At her phosphoric toil!

The Slave—forgets—to fill—
The Lamp—burns golden—on—
Unconscious that the oil is out—
As that the Slave—is gone.

Thus even after the poet ceases to write (and, for that matter, even after her death), the “Lamp” continues to “burn”—that is, the poem continues to speak to the world.

Through poetry, then, Dickinson sought to gain immortality. But it was a special sort of immortality: she would perish and her poems would live. The metaphor of lights and lamps and wicks reappears in another poem:

The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their

The light of poetry, in other words, endures even longer than that of lamps; it is eternal, like the sun. The word circumference, it should be noted, is extremely important to Dickinson. In a letter to Higginson, she notes elliptically, “My Business is Circumference—.” An examination of the poems in which the word appears suggests that she adopted it as a sort of umbrella term to designate at once all the varieties of infinitude—Immortality, Eternity, Heaven, the endless vastness of space and time—all of which seem incomprehensible to us, and seem at the same time to surround and overwhelm us, here in our finite world. In the above poem, Dickinson makes it plain that poetry itself partakes of circumference; as a poem passes from generation to generation, it presents the mortal beings who read it with a glimpse of eternal things.

Apparently, by telling Higginson that her business was circumference, Dickinson meant that she saw it as her function to mediate between the known and the unknown, between the limited and the limitless. She was fascinated by the notion that just beyond the homely things of this life lay a magnificent, mysterious, and immutable Hereafter; the idea of immortality obsessed her (it was, she wrote Higginson, “the Flood Subject”). One poem after another touches upon the contrasts between the brevity of life and the amplitude of historical time, between the humble stillness of the grave and the promised circumferential glory of the Afterlife. A poem that begins by contemplating the graves of anonymous housewives concludes as follows: “And yet, how still the Landscape stands!/How nonchalant the Hedge!/As if the ‘Resurrection’/Were nothing very strange!” And another poem strikingly captures the antithesis between the passivity of death and the vibrancy with which life charges on through the centuries:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—

Since her role, as she saw it, was to describe the infinite world, and the only language available was one that had been designed to describe a finite world, Dickinson resorted to symbolism. In her poems, she assigned new (and not necessarily consistent) meanings—meanings associated with the passage of time, the journey from life to death, and the visionary power of the poet— to words like morning, day, sunrise, bird, sun, flower, purple, flag, victory, kingdom, crown, monarch, jewel, gem, pearl, snow, sea, and music. These double meanings are often based upon the Trinitarian doctrine of “type” and “antitype”—the belief, in other words, that certain phenomena on earth foreshadow events in the hereafter. The idea that the coming of morning prefigures the awakening on Judgment Day, for example, informs several Dickinson poems:

Will there really be a “Morning”?
Is there such a thing as “Day”?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called “Morning” lies!

Here (as in many Dickinson poems) the Pilgrim is a traveller not from England to Plymouth, but from this world to the other. Similarly, in the following lines, the ascent of a soul into heaven is “coronation,” while those who remain back on earth are “peasants”: “Smiling back from Coronation/May be Luxury—/On the Heads that started with us—/Being’s Peasantry—.”

If Dickinson’s poetry concerns itself with the paradox of life after death, its method, too, partakes heavily of paradox.

If Dickinson’s poetry concerns itself with the paradox of life after death, its method, too, partakes heavily of paradox. Dickinson typically combines exotic diction and hyperbolic imagery with a severely spare style and a refreshingly colloquial tone; in most of her poems, she borrows the characteristic meter of Christian hymns (“common meter,” with alternating four- and three-foot lines) in order to say things that many “good Christians” might consider blasphemous. She combines a romantic’s love of beauty and truth and nature, and a natural gift for piety and devotion, with a sharp (though exquisitely controlled) sense of irony and a profound awareness of the inexcusable evil of which both men and their Maker are capable; she combines an Emersonian Transcendentalisms conviction that all the essential truths are contained in nature, ready to be perceived, with a poetics based upon the anti-Transcendentalist notion that only some men—poets—are capable of perceiving those truths. In an age when Americans were becoming less interested in religion, though they continued to pay it lip service, she combined a Puritan’s seriousness about death and salvation with a truly subversive attitude toward Trinitarian orthodoxy. Indeed, she writes about man and God, sex and death, this world and the other, romantic love and Christian belief, in identical ways, and often in terms of one another, so that in some poems (“Wild Nights—wild nights,” for instance, or “Title divine—is mine!”) it is not clear—and perhaps is not supposed to be clear—whether her theme is religious fervor or sexual ecstasy. She personifies objects of nature and, conversely, represents people as natural objects; she describes simple objects with an unmistakable reverence for their innate holiness, and brings grand abstractions down to earth by talking about them as if they were people or places one could find in the Amherst town directory or on a map. Take, for example, the opening stanza of her most famous poem of all, in which the narrator—as in many Dickinson poems—speaks, as it were, from beyond the grave: “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me—/The Carriage held but just Ourselves—/And Immortality.”

To write such a poem was an act of imaginative liberation; it was to redefine God’s world in her own way, to illuminate his mysteries by rendering them from her own perspective, in terms of the world she knew. This preoccupation with redefining explains why so many of her poems take the form of definitions:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—

•      •      •

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—

•      •      •

Experience is the Angled Road
Preferred against the Mind
By—Paradox—the Mind itself—
Presuming it to lead

•      •      •

Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man—

Her dictionary, to which Dickinson refers several times in her poetry and letters, gave her the accepted definitions of words; these poems presented her own definitions. She saw herself as audacious, and audacious she was: God provided the Bible, man her lexicon, and she in her poetry spat back her own versions of both. Many of her poems, as a matter of fact, are direct responses to, wholesale rewrites of, or witty elaborations upon texts both sacred and secular. “Essential Oils—are wrung—,” for instance, was inspired by a sentence in Higginson’s essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor”: “Literature is attar of roses, one drop distilled from a million blossoms.”

Cynthia Grifiin Wolff places great emphasis upon Dickinson’s audacity. It is her thesis, in fact—and she rides it tirelessly—that Dickinson, though she never did convert, nonetheless consciously perceived poetry as a means of wrestling with God, on her own ground and on her own terms. (The theory compels Wolff to regard an obscure Dickinson poem, “A little East of Jordan,” which is about Jacob’s fateful wrestling match, as something of a touchstone for the entire oeuvre.) There is, to be sure, some truth in this characterization; many of Dickinson’s poems, far from being conventionally reverent, often challenge God pugnaciously, describe him as cold and uncaring, and generally take his name in vain: “Of Course—I prayed—/And did God Care?” And doubtless Dickinson’s dichotomous view of her father influenced the mixture of disparagement and reverence, love and rage, with which Dickinson’s poetry regards God. In Dickinson’s poetry, as Wolff observes, “rage is entirely separated from ‘my father, Edward Dickinson’: it finds expression only in the poetry, directed toward a ‘Father’ in Heaven Whose face we never see and Whose voice we never hear.” In a letter to Higginson, Dickinson writes of her father that “His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.” She might well be speaking of God.

For Dickinson was simply too much of an intellectual, a thinker, to be able to put aside independent thought and submit herself entirely to God.

This is not to suggest, of course, that to Dickinson God was a rhetorical device, a stand-in for an earthly father against whom she could not bring herself openly to rebel. Far from it. Throughout her life, the deity was a searingly real presence to Dickinson. Though the power of Christ was fading elsewhere in the country, in Amherst the old-time religion remained strong; the Dickinson children attended church regularly, read the Bible daily, and, at the Amherst Academy, followed a curriculum of which religion formed the core. But churchgoing and Bible-reading and religious education were not considered sufficient. All good Trinitarians were expected, at some point (often, but not necessarily, as the result of a local religious revival or a death in the family), to undergo a “conversion experience” and tender a public “profession of faith.” To convert, one had to accept one’s subordination to God, had to set aside reason and logic and independent thought of all kinds when they conflicted with the Word of the Lord. The Biblical prototype (or, to use the Trinitarian jargon of the day, the “type”) of the convert was Jacob, who had wrestled with the Lord at Peniel (Genesis 32:24, 26) and won “a royal estate” for his sons in return for his eventual submission. As Jacob had wrestled with God, so every Christian, it was felt, must face God (and his own conscience) in a confrontation, and emerge having lost his autonomy but having gained Life Everlasting. Yet, though virtually everyone around Dickinson eventually bowed down before the Lord, and though her letters demonstrate that she was sorely troubled by her own inability to do so—particularly during the Great Revival of 1850, in which her father and Lavinia were both converted—Dickinson never succumbed. Just as she chose never to take a husband, Dickinson refused to become the bride of Christ; if God would not give her immortality, then her poetry would do so.

For Dickinson was simply too much of an intellectual, a thinker, to be able to put aside independent thought and submit herself entirely to God. Certainly the idea of faith preoccupied her; but she battered her own faith with questions and doubts, and it continually wavered. She could write that “To lose one’s faith—surpass/The loss of an Estate—/Because Estates can be/Replenished—faith cannot—,” and could describe faith as “the Pierless [sic] Bridge/Supporting what We see/Unto the Scene that We do not—/Too slender for the eye.” But she could also write, with a fine, scientifically savvy wit, that

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Ultimately, independence—from both man and God—seems to have been a necessary condition of life to Emily Dickinson. In a number of her poems she writes about self-sufficiency:

On a Columnar Self—
How ample to rely
In Tumult—or Extremity—
How good the Certainty

That Lever cannot pry—
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction—That Granitic Base—
Though None be on our Side—

Suffice Us—for a Crowd—
Ourself—and Rectitude—
And that Assembly—not far off
From furthest Spirit—God—

In her own way, Dickinson was as much of a lone trailblazer as any Western homesteader of her day, as dedicated a practitioner of self-reliance as any disciple of Emerson, as zealously monomaniacal a visionary as her grandfather Samuel.

Wolff’s thesis, then, strikes one as valid, and relatively fresh. But the idea of Dickinson as a battler against God, in its broadest sense, is hardly original: William R. Sherwood, to cite just one critic, speaks of Dickinson’s poetry as an act of self-assertion, “a movement of resistance against God and man, a campaign of guerrilla warfare, subversive and underground, that countered brute and blatant power with covert wit.” And the picture of Dickinson that results from this concentration upon the idea of poet-as-wrestler is a distorted one. The poetry is simply more varied in its tone—and, specifically, in its attitude toward God and the Hereafter—than Wolff wants us to believe. Dickinson is alternately irreverent and worshipful, skeptical and secure in her belief; sometimes she bemoans her solitude, employing prison, cage, and coffin metaphors, and sometimes she celebrates it; she is by turns angry, joyful, afraid, ironic, morose. The Dickinson in whom Wolff would have us believe is tiresomely predictable in her concerns and monotonous in her approach.

Nor does it help that, after devoting 150-odd pages of this supposed critical biography to portraits of the poet’s grandfather and parents, to discussions of life in nineteenth-century Amherst and of the theory and practice of Massachusetts Trinitarian-ism, and to the childhood and schooling of the poet, Wolff turns to Emily’s adult life and makes it clear at once that she has no intention of going into the subject. “Dickinson’s ‘life,’” Wolff explains, “served her poetry precisely in its simplicity, in the absence of significant event.” Therefore, “as the woman becomes Poet, biography must shift its principal focus from the person to that Voice of the verse, for it was in her poetry and not in the world that Emily Dickinson deliberately decided to 'live.'” Having thus justified her failure to chronicle the poet’s life, Wolff proceeds, for most of the remaining three hundred or so pages of the book, to explicate one poem after another. This procedure might not be so unfortunate, except for the fact that Wolff chooses so many mediocre poems, leaves out so many important ones, and repeats herself so terribly much—and all because she is mainly interested in supporting her argument that Dickinson was the poet-as-wrestler.

Wolff’s discussion of the poet’s childhood, moreover—a discussion upon which her entire reading of Dickinson is based—consists largely of dubious and utterly speculative psychoanalytical theorizing. For instance, Wolff maintains (and her only real evidence is that Emily Norcross Dickinson was shy and uncommunicative with adults) that the poet’s mother failed her during the child’s “preverbal stage.” “When mother and baby are able to engage successfully in nonverbal communication,” Wolff writes, “the infant will derive immense emotional strengths from the process . . . . When this stage of communication is skillful and loving, the infant learns to feel good both about her mother and about her own emergent self, acquiring a fundamental sense that the universe is on the whole benign.” The result is “a strong and confident sense of self, an ability to interact gracefully with others, and the conviction that the world is a good place.” If the mother botches it, however, the child emerges with a weak sense of self, an inability to sustain relationships, a fear of separation from loved ones, and a sense that the world is “governed by an indifferent or hostile God.” What’s more, when the child learns to talk, he may construe the switch from visual to verbal communication as a “Fall into Language,” “verbal discourse seeming a second-best alternative to some other, loosely defined, transcendent intimacy” that he has never been able to achieve—with the result that he may nostalgically “overvalue seeing (as opposed to saying).” Strangely enough, however, “just because language has been forced to perform so critical a task in the early life of such an infant, verbal formulations may also seem to have a unique sovereignty. No Power will compare to the Power of the Word.” To be sure, this hypothetical case history seems to jibe well enough with the known facts of Dickinson’s life; but there are simply too many unknown facts about Dickinson’s life to permit such an analysis. Wolff concludes her foray into infant psychology by saying that it was as a result of Dickinson’s “Fall into Language” that “words became her refuge and her one great love.” But what about the poets whose mothers did not deprive them of affection, and who grew to love words anyway? And what if Dickinson’s mother had not deprived her of love (assuming that Wolff is right about this)—would Dickinson never have become a poet?

Sometimes it seems as if the dissemination of inane ideas in nearly self-parodic jargon is Wolff’s specialty.

Sometimes it seems as if the dissemination of inane ideas in nearly self-parodic jargon is Wolff’s specialty: “In sum, [Dickinson] wanted to make the terms of existence that were meaningful to the Voice of her poetry relevant to the terms of existence by which her readers defined their own lives—whoever those readers might be, in no matter what time or place. And the miracle is, she succeeded.” Frequently, when she is speaking of Dickinson’s wrestling match with the Lord, Wolff’s rhetoric is overheated. She describes the poet as “fashioning] [a] destiny of heroic conquest for herself,” of “engaging] in an Armageddon of her own making against the God of death,” with “Kingdom, Glory, and above all Power” as her “wagers.” Sometimes Wolff’s view of Dickinson is so skewed that one feels as if one has stumbled into the wrong seminar:

[I]t was grandeur, only grandeur—and Power—that Dickinson wanted. She wanted to be America’s Representative Voice, and she wanted that Voice to challenge God Himself and wrestle for dominion. Yet even Emerson, in his greeting to Whitman, had welcomed the younger poet to a “great career.” By the mid-nineteenth century, poets had to content themselves with precisely this kind of success—circumscribed and limited to this world. What would it have meant to Emily Dickinson to be merely a published poet, perhaps even a minor published poet? With the vision of transcendent heroism that she had formulated, how could Emily Dickinson settle for a “career”?

Clearly Wolff is misreading here, is interpreting Dickinson’s rhetoric about poetry and immortality in too literal-minded a manner. Certainly Dickinson did not want to be America’s Representative Voice in the way that Whitman did; rather, she wanted to be a voice of nature, indifferent to international boundaries and historical divisions.

In truth, it is Wolff, not Dickinson, who is preoccupied with the supposed ugliness of materialism and careerism in late nineteenth-century America. She has opinions about America’s history and culture and wants us to believe that Dickinson felt the same way she does. She suggests more than once, for example, that in the difference between Samuel Dickinson’s visionary faith and Edward and Austin’s prosaic concern with business and politics, Emily Dickinson must have seen an emblem of a major nineteenth-century shift for the worse in American character. The only certainty here, of course, is that Wolff sees such a parallel and such a shift—which she attributes, one might add, to the fading of religious enthusiasm and the advent of the Gilded Age. She describes mid-to-late-nineteenth-century America as “a diminished thing” (not only using the phrase from Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” but also borrowing the poem’s title for her prologue), and says—in what is patently a projection of her own romantically conceived political opinions onto her subject—that “It was the end of our glory and the beginning of our sorrow that Emily Dickinson could see in Amherst, Massachusetts, during those years surrounding our Civil War.” But Wolff seems a bit inconsistent on this topic, ridiculing Edward Dickinson on one page for not being bold enough to become a really big business success, and faulting him on the next page for “driving hard bargains and living ostentatiously.” And though she is patently charmed by the mythic glory of Samuel Dickinson’s fervent Christianity, she seems to find the religion itself inimical.

Finally, and perhaps most oddly of all, Wolff comes across as blaming Edward Dickinson for the “subordination” of women prior to the age of Gloria Steinem. After quoting his view that the education of men and women should be based upon an assumption of equal ability as well as upon a recognition of their different roles in society, Wolff gripes: “If it is ‘best’ to assume that in the ‘natural abilities’ women are ‘exactly equal’ to men, why ought their ‘sphere’ be ‘different from that of men’?” A valid question, to be sure, but what is it doing in a biography of Emily Dickinson?

But then, of course, this 638-page tome is not really a biography of Dickinson; rather, it is a work of literary criticism—part Freudian, part biographical, part feminist, part archetypal—which is sometimes illuminating and intelligent and often foolish. Perhaps its fundamental defect is that Wolff is not enchanted by Dickinson so much as she is enchanted by an idea about Dickinson. One cannot help but wonder what Emily Dickinson herself—who dealt in tiny poems about great truths—would have made of this bulky farrago of misconceptions.

  1.  Emily Dickinson, by Cynthia Griffin Wolff; Knopf, 638 pages, $25.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 5, on page 7
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