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TALKING BACK TO EMILY DICKINSON by William H. Pritchard

TALKING BACK TO EMILY DICKINSON

and Other Essays

By William H. Pritchard

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-55849-138-4

As demonstrated in these essays (most of which appeared in the Hudson Review), Pritchard’s sympathetic, kinetic engagement with the canon has always distinguished him from other voices of the academy. Maybe that’s because Pritchard (English/Amherst; Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, 1993, etc.) believes less in great books than in great writing. His immersion in literature is emotional and philosophical, as well as technical and professional. Exemplifying this is his essay “Responding to Blake,” which first appraises Harold Bloom’s erudite yet arid response to the poet, then illuminates the critical temptation (felt by others, at any rate) to dodge full imaginative engagement. Pritchard offers similarly wise counsel in his approaches to Wordsworth, Byron, Hawthorne, and even Norman Mailer; the range of his taste summons fiction, poetry, and theory without strain. He complains tunefully about biographers (e.g., Juliet Barker, whose subject is the Brontâs). He acknowledges his —mixed feelings— about Byron’s letters while seeming to admire the poet’s —confirmed— skepticism. A fair-minded skepticism also seems to guide Pritchard. In the subdued, candidly bewildered title essay, for instance, he reconsiders the emotional enigmas that have driven an industry of Dickinson criticism to putty the gaps between admiration and affection for her verse. His own critical uncertainty about her revolves around the fact that Dickinson’s mode of address is so elliptical and so remote that her poetic imagination becomes a currency unto itself, not easily exchanged in the marketplace where authors and readers interact. Like the other pieces, the Dickinson essay is concise and well wrought. One always has the sense with Pritchard that he has taken up his pen for a true purpose, whether to address the question of value, as with Dickinson, or the careful resuscitation of the critical reputation of Ford Madox Ford. Seemingly unswayed by our era’s critical grandstanding, this professor of English reminds us that visionary criticism is an act of possibility whose highest task is not persuasion but expansion of minds.