American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Beverly Dahlen

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.

edbb5

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