American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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In Praise of the Variant

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One of the more depressing things I’ve read lately:

Jo Ann Boydston, the editor of the complete thirty-seven-volume edition of John Dewey’s writings, dolefully reports that to her knowledge not a single study of Dewey has ever referred for evidence to the enormous end-of-volume apparatus of rejected variants.

That’s from D. C. Greetham’s 1996 PMLA article “Textual Forensics,” a nice summary of the state of textual studies at the end of the last century.

Boydston’s comment gave me an idea for a new feature here … “Variant of the Month.” A chance to draw some attention to the unsung labor of editors, and a chance also to share to some of the delights of a scholarly edition.

With specific regard to nineteenth-century American poetry, the pool of available authors will not be very large. But there are still some options. Dickinson and Whitman, of course; and Emerson too. Also Stephen Crane, Jones Very … and there’s an interesting variant noted on occasion in a reading edition. I may even mention a variant I’ve discovered on my own.

But since Melville’s poems have only just been published as part of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, I thought I’d begin with something from that volume, which was edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. [1] Read the rest of this entry »


Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen

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Click on image for larger view

By way of Caleb Crain’s blog, I’ve just learned about a wonderful online resource: a complete archive of the Melville Society Extracts, covering the years 1969 to 2005 (link). There are 127 issues in all, one an index of issues 49 to 72. Each issue has its own link, but the pages are reproduced as image files, so this is not a searchable database. But a useful one? Hell yes.

Fun too. The page shown to the right (from issue 2 [August 15, 1969]) includes the following tidbit under the heading “Media”:

Saturday morning TV pabulum this summer includes an animated children’s series in color on the doings, mostly beneath the surface of the sea, of Tom and Tug and their attendant seal. They are extricated from assorted difficulties by a benign and cuddly white whale. The episode I saw on WVTW-TV of Charlotte, N.C., was entitled “Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen.” When I sought further information from my fellow TV-viewers, ages six and seven, they expressed mild surprise that I didn’t know about white whales.

It looks like I have another project to keep me busy: going through the archive, in search of entries on Melville’s poetry.

Meanwhile, the Moby Dick FAQ (link), devoted to the Hanna Barbera cartoon, not Melville’s novel, provides a thumbnail of Moraya, The Eel Queen. Minimal searching turns up a few snippets of the cartoon, though I’ve no idea how long those will remain online. Moby Dick and the Iceberg Monster is one, available complete.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

Posted in Melville, scholarship

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Lines of Inquiry

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Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

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edbb7I guess one purpose of a blog is self-advertisement, so I may as well announce that I have an essay in the October PMLA, a special issue on the topic of war. My contribution looks closely at one of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poems,  a soldier elegy written for a distant relative, Francis Howard Dickinson, who was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The elegy, as I read it, was written specifically for publication, though it didn’t see print until 1890. I base my inference on a variety of contextual cues … but I won’t repeat myself here. You can read the essay, if you think it sounds interesting. Or you can take a peek at an excerpt given by Robin Tremblay-McGaw at X-Poetics (one of my favorite blogs).

edbb4What really tickles me about Robin’s excerpt: she cites me in the midst of an interview with Beverly Dahlen (link here). I consider Bev one of the five or six most important teachers I’ve ever had, and the most important outside of any actual school. I’m in debt to her in particular for leading me to think more carefully about Dickinson and the Civil War. Back in 1985, in the literary journal Ironwood, Bev published an essay on Dickinson and abjection that included a picture of the dead at Antietam. I was already convinced that the war was a key to understanding Dickinson’s work, so I told her how thrilled I was to see her make the connection, which was unusual at the time. No, no, she replied, saying something like, “I already regret including that picture; it was a frivolous juxtaposition.” I tried to say otherwise, but she just shook her head no.

edbb6Out of this brief exchange began a correspondence. And Bev, though far kinder to my dubious reasoning than she was to her own flash of insight, brought me by turns to see how inadequate my reasoning was. Some of our conversation concerned a poem from the end of the war, “Further in Summer than the Birds.” I was convinced — and still am — that the variant word choice “Antiquest,” an intensification of “Antiquer,” intimates “Anti-quest,” accentuating the hint, perhaps, of Antietam in antique. But Bev was not convinced. And this, along with her prodding questions, led me to see more clearly than any methodological training I ever received what a compelling account of Dickinson and the Civil War might require. That was almost a quarter century ago! Graduate school — and research — and dissertation — and publication — were all a long way off. But the work got started then.


The photographs are from a summer visit to the site of the battle in Virginia. I was surprised that the tour guide in costume wore a Union uniform, though Ball’s Bluff is in the South (and the battle was an early, decisive victory for the Confederates). The view through the trees looks beyond the Potomac into Maryland (I’m pretty sure). Dickinson’s poem mentions the river in the first quatrain:

When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory

The state in the last:

I’m confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In Yonder Maryland —

Meanwhile, since this is America, Ball’s Bluff is now a shopping center.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Can I Complain?

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How often have you opened a book in the middle and found something interesting, only to get frustrated trying to find the right note? Not often? Well, it happens to me all the time. Most recently: while skimming Eric Gardner’s Unexpected Places, which looks to be a very fine book. But last night, skimming in bed, I had a little fit of frustration.

I was reading around in a section on a little-known temperance play. At one point, Gardner writes:

[W]hat at first glance might seem an apolitical stance is more usefully understood as a sense that temperance is a kind of uber-issue governing all political choices and more.

Which is followed by an endnote number: 41.

Now, this idea about temperance as “uber-issue” made me curious, not least because I occasionally teach a similar play, so I turned to the back of the book, to see what else might be said, and lo! there were no running heads. No top margin reading “Notes to Pages 70-75,” which would have been nice, since the reference I wanted was on page 71. Making matters worse: the header on page 71 gave the chapter title (“Black Indiana”) but no number, while the endnote section used numbers but not titles. So I went back to page 71, flipping to the start of the chapter — all the way back to page 56 — until I saw that “Black Indiana” meant “2,” and then I went to the endnote section again, flipping pages until I found “Chapter 2.” At which point I flipped a few pages forward, and came at last to the actual note.

Way too much work!

Really, books should be designed by people who use them.

OK, end of complaint.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 11, 2009 at 8:58 pm

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Emerson’s Blight

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The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »

“She Treated Me As If She Were Insane”

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Abiah Root

Abiah Root

In a recent issue of New England Quarterly, Polly Longsworth introduces a newly discovered letter by Emily Dickinson’s early friend Abby Wood. The letter — sent to another friend, Abiah Root — concerns the poet’s response to the great revival of 1850. Dickinson was nineteen years old at the time; her work as a poet lay seven or eight years in the future (the girlishness of that early work tends to obscure the fact that its author was well past adolescence). But because Dickinson’s teenaged rejection of Christ is often taken as the first revelation — irony intended — of what would come, new insight into her actions is decidedly welcome.

The rejection was protracted, as was the spirit of revival Dickinson resisted. Her letters to Abiah from four years before contain extended discussions of the matter. These discussions are remarkably poised — that is, rhetorically poised — with one assertion canceling out the next; it takes an effort of will to recognize that there is no introspection, only a contradictory array of tropes. In the passage below, for example, Dickinson asserts that she continually hears Christ speak, but also that evil is lisping in her ear; that she is too sensitive for prayer meetings, but also that affectionate words do not move her; that enthusiasm is deceiving, but also that sudden conversions are wonderful. What does it all add up to? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am