EMILY DICKINSON: Lives of a Poet by Christopher Benfey

EMILY DICKINSON: Lives of a Poet

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One of the first of the many commemorative volumes sure to be published this year to mark the centennial of Dickinson's death in 1886. Unfortunately, despite excellent production values--attractive typefaces, wide margins, evocative illustrations, a sensitively chosen selection of poems--this is a less than totally successful undertaking. There is little here to surprise or stimulate readers already familiar with Dickinson's life and work, yet much that will be confusing to readers coming across ""the belle of Amherst"" for the first time. Emily Dickinson is, as Benfey himself points out, an immensely difficult subject for biography. In one of his most felicitous phrases, the author says the poet led a life ""of progressive immobility."" It is ironic that after 100 years ""the half-cracked daughter of Squire Dickinson"" should continue to baffle scholars trying to explain what she called her ""porcelain life."" Thwarted love affairs; sexual ambivalence; ""eccentricity""; everything short of chronic allergic reactions, in fact, have been suggested as the source of her reclusiveness. For this reason, Benfey has been wise to focus his attention on Dickinson's literary output and her reactions to such events and elements as the Civil War, science, nature, fellow poets and men in general, rather than on the ambiguities of her personality. This focusing on critical exegesis, however, lends a slightly ""secondhand"" quality to the work. Benfey recaps many of the findings of his predecessors, agreeing with some, disagreeing with others. For the general reader, the effect can be disorienting and inconclusive. There are some intriguing insights offered along the way, however. It comes as something of a shock, for example, to hear Emily, then in her 50s, described by a contemporary as a ""little hussy. . .Loose morals. . .crazy about men."" And in discussing Dickinson's relationship with other authors working at the time, it is nice to be reminded that Ellen Moers once wrote: ""The real hidden scandal of Emily Dickinson's life is. . .her embarrassing ignorance of American literature. ""Benfey's writing is accomplished and he occasionally manages to bring a fresh perspective to his research. On the whole, however, a minor contribution to Dickinsonian scholarship.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1986
Publisher: Braziller