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Gordon, Sean Ash: "Dickinson and Democratic Citizenship"

Dickinson and Democratic Citizen

Sean Ash Gordon, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This paper represents an experiment to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry as political philosophy. It would not be the first instance of such an experiment: for instance, George Kateb and others have read Whitman as a political philosopher. A fairly new line by the University of Kentucky Press, the “Political Companions to Great American Authors” series, focuses on just this overlap of literature and political philosophy; the series includes edited volumes on Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson. Yet, to my knowledge, few critics have read Dickinson in the same way, perhaps because of her legendary reclusiveness or the apparent absence of explicitly political commentary in her poetry—two misconceptions that “Emily Dickinson, World Citizen“ seems poised to correct. My aim, in agreement with the broad goals of the conference, is to read how Dickinson’s poetry speaks to the experience of democratic citizenship. Rather than attach a coherent political philosophy to the author herself, or reveal a consistent philosophy among her poems, I cull from her poetry a range of attitudes about some of the problematics of democracy, namely power, equality, interpersonal communication, and individualism. In my argument, for instance, poems such as “Again – his voice is at the door –” and “There came a Day – at Summer’s full –” theorize intersubjective communication, the basis for
deliberative democracy. “The Soul unto itself” and “Me from myself – to banish –,” on the other hand, call intersubjectivity into question in a way that can be understood and illuminated through reference to political theories of agonistic democracy. It is in the content but also in the formal characteristics of the poems that I find evidence of a political philosophy; thus, this paper draws on recent lyric theory in order to enrich my discussion of Dickinson’s poetics. What is to be gained in reading Dickinson in this
way? For students of poetry as well as philosophers of democracy, I claim that her poetry has much to teach us about living democratically today.