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War of Words

Friedlander’s responsiveness to “hidden suggestions” in Dickinson’s writing is informed by the fact that his father is a Holocaust survivor. He learned that survivors either talk about survival or are silent about it. His father, a historian, spoke about the Holocaust in historical terms, but he didn’t talk about what the experience felt like or what it was like to live with that knowledge.

“I think I became very well attuned to intuiting things that were unspoken,” Friedlander says of his childhood. “These are the types of things that are crucial about Dickinson’s work. You don’t get the Civil War as a historian would tell it — as you would in Herman Melville, to be sure.”

Yes, there are a few poems that are clearly about the war, as evident in this excerpt from “It feels a shame to be Alive”:

It feels a shame to be Alive –
When Men so brave — are dead –
One envies the Distinguished Dust –
Permitted — such a Head –

But unlike celebrated Civil War poets such as Melville, who referenced specific battles and individuals, and Walt Whitman, who referenced the pain and triumph of war in general terms, Dickinson’s references are usually indeterminate.

This doesn’t just apply to her war poetry. In a poem about arthritis, there’s no mention of aching joints. Instead, she describes it as being “Like a Panther in the Glove.”

Dickinson was a master of abstraction, of writing about states of mind and experiences without giving any cause for them. Scholars always question whether her work was autobiographical, but Friedlander believes that she couldn’t describe pain, grief and regret so powerfully without having experienced them herself. What we can’t know is the degree to which she experienced them, nor their impact on her capacity to cope with the everyday demands of life.

“I’ve read as much about the literature of trauma as I can, and have been struck by how many of Dickinson’s descriptions of psychological states fit with what psychologists see in victims of trauma,” says Friedlander, who received a UMaine Summer Research Grant for his work.

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