July 23rd, 2012


THE HORROR: Sometimes This Icon Fits Too Well

I may need a codfish the size of a whale. John Evangelist Walsh has written a new book on Emily Dickinson. From the review in the LA Review of Books, it's at least as bad as the previous two. I haven't read it, but it seems to hold the same relationship to genuine literary scholarship as Erich von Daeniken's books do to archeology.

Neither of Walsh's previous books about Emily Dickinson's life and work is considered reliable by scholars. The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson suggested that she plagiarized her poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among other poets. Having noted the links between ED's work and her reading of EBB's, Walsh could have written a fascinating analysis of the poems in question as a kind of conversation. He wrote a silly book filled with sensationalistic accusations instead.

This Brief Tragedy: Unravelling the Todd-Dickinson Affair was slightly better:  a spirited defense of the poet's friend and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and an attack of Mabel Loomis Todd for her long extramarital affair with Emily's brother Austin, mainly on the grounds that it was shockingly extramarital. In this case, the material itself was certainly sensational, but Polly Longsworth's treatment in her landmark Austin and Mabel, which he repeatedly attacks, presented a far more thoughtful, balanced, and analytical view of a painful situation. He also claimed in the latter book that Emily committed suicide.

Unfortunately, the known facts of Emily Dickinson's life leave space for others' fantasies about her. She's nearly a Rorschach test for scholarly preoccupations. Mr. Walsh's fantasies about this brilliant, hard-working poet disturb me.

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