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War of Words


Lt. Frazar Stearns: Photo courtesy of Ben Friedlander

That doesn’t necessarily mean Dickinson was traumatized; rather, she may have known people who were traumatized by the Civil War and seen a resemblance between their experience and something she had felt.

“Her poems are trying to find proportions between two things. There are poems where she’s measuring her grief against something — one grief in relationship to another,” Friedlander says. “In my view, she was trying to find the proportions between her own experience and the experience of war.”

So much about Dickinson is a mystery. Many of her manuscripts — some 2,500 poems and 1,000 letters, according to the Emily Dickinson Museum — were both untitled and unpublished, yet there was something “amazingly scrupulous” in the way she recorded her work in small, handmade booklets called fascicles.

She began writing in earnest around 1858 or 1859, at the age of 28 or 29 — not young, in those days.

“From her letters it was clear that she was talented, so why begin then?” Friedlander asks. “My conjecture is that she had some kind of crisis whose meaning we can’t know.”

Perhaps it was a theological crisis, a realization that the universe isn’t orderly and that things don’t necessarily happen for a reason. Friedlander points to Dickinson’s poem “Those — dying then,” as an example.

“The war coincides with a crisis for her. Which doesn’t mean that the war itself was the crisis, but perhaps it brought something out — perhaps a loss of faith in God,” Friedlander says. “It makes such sense in relation to the war to me. What kind of experience could lead her to write a poem like ‘Those — dying then,’? War would be an obvious one.”

It’s not Friedlander’s intent to unlock the secret to Emily Dickinson, nor does he have any interest in “diagnostic criticism.” Rather, he strives to shed light on the different factors that may have informed her poetry.

“We know from her poems that she understands the experience from inside, but she doesn’t tell you what caused the experience. That’s why there’s such rampant guesswork.”

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