Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others

Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others

Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others

Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others

Synopsis

The vivid story of a tightly knit group of travelers--connoisseurs, collectors, scientists--who dedicated themselves to exploring and preserving what they referred to as "Old Japan" and Old Japan's lasting influence on the culture of Gilded Age America. After the Civil War, the United States--as cultural historian and critic Christopher Benfey argues--lost its philosophical moorings and looked eastward, to "Old" Japan and its seemingly untouched indigenous culture, for balance and perspective. Japan, meanwhile, was trying to reinvent itself as a more cosmopolitan, modern state, transforming in the space of twenty-five years from a feudal backwater to an international power. It was the parallel rise of these two young nations that initiated some of the major power struggles--both military and economic--of the twentieth century. This "great wave" of historical and cultural reciprocity brought with it some larger-than-life personalities, and this is their story as well. The lure of unknown foreign cultures played out on both sides of the Pacific, in the lives of Herman Melville, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, John La Farge, Kakuzo Okakura (the author of The Book of Tea), Isabelle Gardner, and Lafcadio Hearn, among others. The Great Wave is a beautifully rendered meditation on the subject of cultural identity and on the consequences--both good and bad--of cultural cross-pollonation. Above all, like Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, it proves that what important history does at its best is transform our worldview.

Excerpt

"Public" and "private" are so often among the words we use to talk about poetry that we may neglect to attend to the various ways we use them. It is not my ambition to sort out those ways. To uncover the asymmetries and obscurities in our habitual ways of distinguishing "public" from "private," as these words apply to poetry, would be a worthwhile and fascinating task, and I will indulge in some preliminary probing of such distinctions. But I will do so always with the understanding that a satisfactory discussion of these issues would require a far more comprehensive reading and analysis of recent discourse on poetry than I can offer here. My primary aim is to think about these words, "public" and "private," in relation to Emily Dickinson's poetry, to allow her poetry to guide my thinking.

There are two major reasons to expect this procedure to be fruitful. First, her poetry has attracted, perhaps more frequently and emphatically than the work of any other American writer, the charge or the compliment that it is somehow private. the second reason is that Dickinson is fully aware of a relation between her poetry and some version of privacy. She acknowledges this relation at every turn. My aim, then, is to look at Dickinson's use of these and related words, and at the ways her critics have used them to characterize her work. From this inquiry I hope to arrive at a sense of the kind of poems she wrote. This will mean an account of the relation, for her, of privacy to the genre of lyric poetry.

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