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    Emily Dickinson: The Focal Point of Feminist Criticism

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    In her lifetime Emily Dickinson wrote over 1,775 poems, none of which were published while she was still alive. Dickinson’s writing styles and formats reflected several movements of her era including the revival of Puritanism, feminism, Transcendentalism, and Romanticism. These movements influenced the lifestyle and writing of Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson has shaped much of feminist criticism. Throughout the growth of feminist criticism Dickinson is still the focal point. Dickinson’s poetry also shows evidence of a feminist humor.

    Feminist studies of Dickinson include her relationships as well as alleged relationships in regards to her sexuality, her humor in a satirical sense when looking at the women of her time, as well as even challenging the idea of Dickinson as an eccentric recluse. Even with humor evident in her poetry feminists do not debate the fact that elements of tragedy also influence her poetry. Elements of tragedy seen in Dickinson’s poetry, especially of death and the emphasis of human mortality, are derivative from another movement of her time.

    American Romanticism included themes of nature as well as death mortality in what is referred to as “Dark Romanticism. ” Dickinson’s Puritan heritage was another influence that affected her lifestyle from an early age. Dickinson uses such devices as sacramental imagery from her childhood religion. Dickinson was born into a prominent and staunchly religious family and rebelled against her upbringing in religion and social prominence in her later years. Her reclusiveness as well as her apparent Transcendentalist views was a result of Dickinson and her father’s differing opinions about life, mankind, and the world they lived in.

    Some critics believe that in rebellion against her staunch Puritan heritage and upbringing Emily Dickinson became more of a transcendentalist. Many ties have been made between romanticism and transcendentalism and many of Dickinson’s contemporaries fit into both categories. Possibly the greatest indication that Dickinson had inclinations from transcendentalism was the amount of text in which nature takes a central role. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts to a prosperous and well known family wikipedia.

    Dickinson’s grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College, and her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer as well as treasurer for the college wikipedia. Dickinson’s father also served on the Massachusetts General Court, Massachusetts Senate, and the US House of Representatives wikipedia. Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a shy and quiet woman who was chronically ill. Dickinson had one brother and one sister: William Austin Dickinson and Lavinia Norcross Dickinson wikipedia.

    Dickinson grew up in her family’s Amherst home, and attended the nearby Amherst Academy until the age of seventeen, when she transferred to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary wikipedia. After less than a year of attending the seminary, Dickinson took ill and her brother William, more commonly known as Austin, was sent to bring her home. Aside from a few trips to Boston and various other locations after coming home from the seminary, Dickinson spent her entire life living in her father’s house.

    She dressed only in white and developed the reputation of being anti-social and an agoraphobic recluse wikipedia Myers. Dickinson’s experience at the seminary may well have fueled the fire of her independence and been one of the contributing factors for her decision to stop attending church, and retain her reclusive and anti social reputation. Dickinson never married, and her relationships and alleged relationships are still studied and debated.

    Dickinson"s emotional life remains mysterious, despite much speculation about a possible disappointed love affair. Two candidates have been presented: Reverend Charles Wadsworth, with whom she corresponded, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, to whom she addressed many poems” Books and Writings 1. Some critics are challenging her sexuality and believe that there was more to her intimate relationship with friend and sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert than meets the eye.

    Her relationships and sexuality have become very controversial amongst biographers and critics alike. Dickinson lived most of her life alone in her house, reclusive and anti social. Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886 of Bright’s disease. Although regarded as one of the most prominent 19th century poets, Dickinson did not publish any of her works in her lifetime. After Dickinson"s death her poems were brought out by her sister Lavinia, who co-edited three volumes from 1891 to 1896 Books and Writings 2.

    Despite arguments and critics, Emily Dickinson is still a widely read poet. “Although interest in one or more lovers continues, as does attention to the poet"s religious quest and to her quiet subversion of gender assumptions, Emily Dickinson"s poems steadily gain recognition as works of art, both individually and collectively, especially when read in her original fascicle groupings, which establish not just her unquestionable brilliance but her frequently underestimated artistic control” Modern American Poetry 2.

    Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest American women poets of all time. As much as feminist studies of her have changed and shaped our understanding of her life and poetry Dickinson’s impact has been no less important on the development of feminist criticism. Emily Dickinson has been the center of feminist criticism in all the stages of its development. As feminist criticism has grown and matured Emily Dickinson has remained the focal point Handbook 342.

    Some feminist critics have even challenged the popular notion of Dickinson as reclusive, eccentric figure. They have underlined her intellectual struggle and passive aggressiveness. They claim Dickinson’s verse is full of allusions to volcanoes, shipwrecks, funerals, and other manifestations of natural and human violence, which she hide into her writings Books and Writings. Although some view Dickinson as morbid and morose, some of her poetry does present more than just her views about death.

    As feminist criticism has grown in its field the conceptions of Emily Dickinson have grown as well, changing throughout the decades from her place in a literary world dominated by men, to linguistic and psychoanalytic approaches to her poetry and life, and concluding in the 1990s with explorations of her lesbian identity and her relationship with Susan Gilbert Handbook 342. Dickinson encouraged the move of feminist criticism from narrative explanations of women writers into stylistic analyses of their work Handbook 342.

    Through the changing opinions and conceptions of Emily Dickinson throughout the development of feminist criticism one common dividing line has remained between the critics that wish to classify Dickinson as a nineteenth century poet and those who wish to classify her as a modernist poet. Dickinson’s traits and characteristics allow her to escape all efforts to contain her to one particular genre or another.

    Adrienne Rich’s reading of Emily Dickinson and her later published essay point out that Emily Dickinson seems to regard herself as “an imperious energy and her poetic creation as a form of aggression. ” Rich transfigured understanding of Dickinson and of poetic power in women. Rich also focused attention on the enraged Dickinson of the first feminist conceptions, and turned attention to the little read poem “My Life had stood- a Loaded Gun” which was to become the centerpiece of the feminist criticism of Dickinson.

    Enraged and assertive the Dickinson described by Rich as well as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar exemplifies the spilt in the nineteenth century woman writer between her conventional role in society and her own creativity. Dickinson’s humor was often underestimated by her critics; she is seen as a tragic figure even though some of her poems deal with serious personal issues through humor Readings 108. In Dickinson’s poems about animals for example, she portrays her non human characters through amplified social roles, preceding the technique of Ogden Nash by almost a hundred years.

    Suzanne Juhasz, Christanne Miller and Martha Neil Smith- authors of The Comic Power in Emily- argue that Dickinson was deeply aware of her own limited social role and her political humor is best appreciated “in light of her perspective as a while, middle class woman keenly aware of the expectations placed on a woman writer in her era,” Readings 108. Dickinson used her humor for comic relief and to stress a thought or conclusion about her life and environment.

    In “Faith is a Fine Invention” Dickinson demonstrates her satirical thoughts at faith and the limitations it presents, as well as two important issues of her day: the importance of faith vs. the importance of science, and which of the two was stronger. Dickinson’s scrutiny of life and death takes precedence when critics analyze and evaluate her poetry Readings 108. However there is comedy evident in her work as well. It is a part of Dickinson’s profundity Readings 108. It is no coincidence that feminist critics have chosen this subject, for comedy is aligned with subversive and disruptive modes that offer alternative perspectives on culture” Readings 108-109. Dickinson uses her “feminist humor” when critiquing American patriarchy. However this feminist humor is often overlooked Readings 109.

    A feminist critical approach to Dickinson’s comedy shows a poet whose topic and audience are larger than herself Readings 108. Dickinson’s focus on comedy, often ignored by many critics, highlights her responses as a nineteenth century upper middle class woman to situations that both attracted to and angered by. Through formal elements of voice, image and narrative, Dickinson teases, mocks and even outrages her audience in ways that are akin both to the gestures of traditional comedy and to specifically feminist humor” Readings 109. However, the model woman writer that dominated feminist criticism in its earliest stages poorly fit Emily Dickinson. The two main differences that set Dickinson apart were that most models were drawn from female novelists not poets, and second they were efforts to find a general explanation for women writers not one writer in particular Handbook 342.

    There are several contributing factors to whether or not Dickinson was comedic or feminist. Much of Dickinson’s comic vision stems from her gender consciousness and is therefore difficult to separate her feminism from her humor Readings 111. “To appreciate the full range of Dickinson’s humor, one must be able to conceive of her as a sharp critic of her world, as a self-conscious writer identifying with at least white middle-class women’s experience as a basis for social criticism, and as a crafter of multiple levels of intention in her poems” Readings 111.

    Though humor is evident in her work there is no doubt that some of Dickinson’s great poetry came out of her despair and suffering Readings 109. Critics who focus on the direct connection between a writer’s life and their works are more prone to emphasize the tragic elements of Dickinson’s poetry Readings 110. “Dickinson is a heroine because she suffered so and because she gave us great poetry out of this suffering” Readings 109.

    Although not all critics have been generous about the triumph of her frail sanity, most will agree that her despair and desolation is the “crucible in which her poetry is forged” Readings 109. Other recently developed theories regarding Emily Dickinson and her impact on feminism include the feminist conceptions of Dickinson and gay and lesbian elements in her life and her work. Recent feminist analyses have cut through the old rationalization that Victorian women habitually addressed friends with endearments we misread as lesbian effusions.

    The case for Dickinson’s identity as a lesbian perhaps might rest on her relationship with Susan Gilbert. Critics have begun to look at the relationship and the letters and poems exchanged between the two. The censorship in some of the letters is seen by some as gender related. Many feel that issues of sexual identity that were part of the letters, manuscripts and poems were edited censored and essentially mutilated because of their content. Other feminist issues regarding Emily Dickinson also arise when talking about the editing of her work.

    Original manuscripts from Dickinson are difficult to obtain. Even critics who have only laid eyes on the original manuscripts once or twice emphasize the importance of the dashes, lines, and punctuation to the meanings and interpretations of Dickinson’s work. Emily Dickinson’s work has changed and shaped the continuously developing feminist criticisms. Religion is another aspect of her life that is evident in Dickinson’s poetry. Critics are in debate about whether religion played a part in influencing the poetry of Dickinson, and if so, the amount of influence that her religion had.

    The environment in which Dickinson grew up affected her views on religion and life that reached into her poetry. Dickinson’s Puritan heritage is apparent in the early years of her life when she was influenced by her strictly Puritan family Edison 1. “The New England Puritan tradition and Calvinistic theology formed the basis of Amherst"s religious climate and was the bedrock of Dickinson"s upbringing” Klein 1. What is of greatest importance is not the Puritan tradition itself but the breakdown of that tradition that was taking place during Dickinson"s lifetime Edison 1.

    Dickinson’s understanding of her own experiences was shaped by the Puritan reading of the Christian scripture, which had been reinforced and spread in the colonial awakening, in her home as well as at her church. “That the religious climate of her time greatly influenced Emily Dickinson"s life has been widely acknowledged” Klein 1. Puritanism is greatly evident in Dickinson’s poetry as well as in her heritage. Some critics argue that to understand the depth and complexity of Dickinson’s works her relation to religion must be closely examined. Puritanism allowed Dickinson to remain grounded in her faith of God” Edison 1.

    In Dickinson’s mind she could relate to the Puritan foundation because of the influence of her family"s beliefs. Dickinson"s conforming respect for God is derivative from her childhood, but she could not deny her self-expression Edison 1. Puritanism emphasized human goodness but also recognized the presence of evil in human nature Edison 1. The Second Great Awakening took place during the 1820s and 1830s in an attempt to rejuvenate the once popular Puritan religion.

    The Awakening focused on two Puritan ideals: the relationship inside the person, between the self and God, and the relationship outside the person, between the individual and community. Growing up in a staunchly Puritan environment in a well respected family made Dickinson realize how different her views on life were from those of her fathers Edison 1. “She opposed the idea of a higher power, God, as influencing her every move and thus governing her thoughts and beliefs toward her life.

    Dickinson"s poetry is closely related to other American Romantics influenced by Puritanism [such as Romantics…]” Edison 1. One aspect of spiritual representation in the poet"s work that has somehow escaped critical attention is Dickinson’s use of “sacramental” imagery. Throughout her poetry, Dickinson again and again comes back to images of the Christian sacraments in a quest for spiritual truth Klein 1. For Calvinists two sacraments, baptism and communion, symbolize God"s promises to his fellowship of believers, and initiate a meaningful spiritual life Klein 1. When Dickinson finds the sacraments of the formal church empty and distant from her own experience, she moves away from these constraints in poetry…. Dickinson begins with the “tools” of Calvinism, such as the raw materials of the language, and is imaginatively challenged by the idea of “sacrament,” but denies tradition by converting doctrine into her own vision” Klein 1. Religion is also evident in the style of Dickinson’s poetry. “The style of her first efforts was fairly conventional, but after years of practice she began to give room for experiments.

    Often written in the meter of hymns, her poems dealt not only with issues of death, faith and immortality, but with nature, domesticity, and the power and limits of language” Books and Writers 2. It is legitimate to suggest that Dickinson, although she excluded much of her life from the church, recognized the importance of spiritual experience and connection to the God Klein 2. “Aside from the obvious thematic of her work, the poet"s correspondence documents these values.

    Not only was Dickinson raised in an intensely religious atmosphere, but she maintained that presence in her own life and work. It was forever a monumental concern” Klein 2. “Transcendentalism was a philosophic and literary movement that flourished in New England as a reaction against 18th century rationalism, the skeptical philosophy of Locke, and the confining religious orthodoxy of New England Calvinism” Brown 1. Transcendentalism was transforming traditional religion and thus became another influence in Dickinson’s poetry Brown 1.

    Emily Dickinson embraced Transcendentalism because it allowed her to leave her Puritan heritage behind her and express her views and opinions of the worlds and put them into writing Brown 1. “Transcendentalism involved a rejection of the strict Puritan religious attitudes that were the heritage of New England, where the movement originated” Edison 1. Transcendentalists were influenced by romanticism, especially such aspects as self-examination, the celebration of individualism, and the integral relation between nature and mankind Edison 1.

    As a result of the realization of her differing views, Emily Dickinson embraced Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalist movement began flourishing in the early 19th century America, especially in New England, was based on some of the concepts of Transcendental Philosophy. In America “transcendentalism” was mostly used in a literary form having a semi religious nature Transcendentalism 1. Transcendentalist saw a connection between the universe and the individual soul. Transcendentalists believed “the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and latently contains all that the world contains” Transcendentalism 1.

    Transcendentalism allowed Emily Dickinson to materialize from her Puritan heritage. It allowed her to discover her self-worth by realizing that what she felt in her heart was significant of recognition Edison 1. Dickinson used Transcendentalism to help her to discover and confide her feelings in word and in the reader through verse Edison 1. Transcendentalism was “a natural outgrowth both of a literary time when visionary ideas were powerfully set abroad and [a time] of personal, exuberant discovery of self in poetry” Edison 1. “As Transcendentalism was beginning to emerge, so was Emily Dickinson"s soul” Edison 1.

    Possibly the greatest indication that Dickinson had inclinations from transcendentalism was the amount of text in which nature takes a central role. Dickinson also seems to express a great admiration for natural things that might lead one to accept that she is seeing somewhat of an “over soul” in nature Emily Dickinson 3. While it is hard in many of her poems to grasp what exactly she is thinking in regard to religion, it also seems clear that she is not an atheist Emily Dickinson 4. Emily Dickinson wrote numerous poems that could be interpreted as having transcendental sympathies.

    The strong conflict of Puritanism and Transcendentalism in Emily Dickinson"s poetry is what allowed her to become one of the greatest and most influential American poets of the nineteenth century Brown 1. Her obsession with life, death, and mortality could be derived /p> Dickinson"s love of nature expressed itself early as an appreciation of plants and animals in her own spacious garden, which she tended avidly throughout her life Hermitary 1. For most Romantics, however transcendental, nature served as an intermediary between man and God Bloom 50.

    Dickinson included nature in many of her works, emphasizing her romantic style of writing. To the Romantics Nature was precious because it was an earthly and material medium through which God could touch man and man could touch God Bloom 50. “Romanticism represents a rebellion against Enlightenment thinking. It replaces a faith in reason with feeling as the stronger expression of what we are. It is restless with practical reality and prefers visionary longing and excitement to the complacency of everyday reality” Intellectual Heritage 1.

    Romantics also emphasized the importance of individuality, uniqueness, and even the eccentric. The poetry of Emily Dickinson is one examples of American Romantic literature. Emily Dickinson’s reclusive and anti social nature could be considered a sign of her “uniqueness” or an “eccentric” attitude that was emphasized by the Romantics. Dark Romanticism places its emphasis on the tragic dimension of life. Dickinson is often thought of as a tragic figure, and some of her poems about death fit the description of dark romanticism.

    Dark Romanticism also shows awe at human nature, struggle, suffering, mortality and man’s relationship with God Loflin 1. Mystery and the reality of evil are also key themes seen in Dark Romanticism Loflin 1. Dickinson’s poems seek to complete a voyage and prove the strength of the imagination against the stubbornness of life, the “repression of an antithetical nature, and the final territory of death. Emily Dickinson was affected by various movements of her time as well as influencing and guiding the futures of some of those movements. Her poetry reflects ideas from feminism, Puritanism, transcendentalism, and romanticism.

    Her own uneasiness about her own religious ideas, decisions and the lack of stability in her faith life may have been reasons for her focus on life and death. Her humor is demonstrated in some of her shorter poems, such as “Faith Is a Fine Intervention,” is still being examined especially by feminist critics. Dickinson’s poetry shows elements of several different movements and ideas of her time. They contain elements of feminist humor, emphasize her inner conflict between religions especially her childhood religion of Protestantism and the new movement of Transcendentalism and her focus on nature also brings in elements of Romanticism.

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