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Mossberg, Barbara: "The Generative Stress of Washington, D.C.: Emily Dickinson and the Crisis of Belonging"

The Generative Stress of Washington, D.C.: Emily Dickinson and the Crisis of Belonging

Dr. Barbara Mossberg

Emily Dickinson knew Washington, D.C. She knew it as a tourist, an outsider who didn’t belong. Her father belonged. He was an insider. He served in Congress. But she could not be part of this world. She was an onlooker. What was it like for her to experience herself as a woman, considered by her country unfit for public service? Was it her country after all? Washington, D.C., was a capital wound, itself, another form of the wound of a “bandaged” life of being unknown—unknown in the sense of what she actually had to contribute to civic life. Dickinson’s girlhood letters express her indignation of being left out, of not being needed by her country, of not being called to public service. Relegated to the voiceless mass of the disenfranchised in the very fray of enfranchisement national politics, Dickinson calls to us from her upstairs home office, “I’m Nobody!” She makes a song and dance of her own official insignificance. In one sense she is outing herself, proclaiming and owning an identity of a person of no importance. She revels in the paradox of putting her own lack of public identity in the limelight—albeit in a secret and unacknowledged form, a poem no one will read, a poem she cannot get published because she again is not considered fit as a public voice. But in another sense, she invites us to be part of her world. “Who are you,” she asks: “are you-- Nobody—too?” (F260). She creates an alternative community in which we can be secret sharers, a “pair of us,” a team against the Somebody who lives a dreary existence in the public realm: “how public like a frog, to tell one’s name the livelong day to an admiring bog.” She literally can be describing her father’s world in Congress. But as a poet, she is also telling her own name to an admiring bog: us her reader. She is not in this alone. And neither are we.

Through the lens of Washington, D.C., and its meaning as the center of public life for a citizen, this paper invokes Dickinson the cognoscenti, an apolitical outsider, beyond the Beltway, but inhabitant and spokesperson for the inner world Emerson calls for in “The Poet.” Exploring the worldliness of her consciousness as intrinsic to her own sense of belonging, this paper frames her work as a poet as a way to achieve a voice of record by engaging a community and nation and world. The images, history, and experience of places and people and events in global history including literary works and authors are active forces of imagined community in Dickinson’s poems. She may not be fit for public service, but says, “I fit for them,” doing her own kind of service for a deeper and more universal outreach, that translates the human experience as one of a shared journey with fellow outsiders. Dickinson’s poems both reveal and invoke a hunger for belonging to a larger world beyond the Beltway, a larger self than a known self: a solace and challenge to one's spirit to live up to, and stand for, the alienated self that wants to matter utterly to one’s world. In the process, in Emerson’s terms of The Poet, she "represents" us. She speaks for us. She connects us more vitally to our world. Outside the government seat of power where King or president reside, in her cognoscenti’s vision we each are an agency of belonging. In this larger world, where “God be with the Clown,” we are the Clown, pondering this “tremendous scene/This whole Experiment of Green” (F 1333) as if it were our own. This is a way to belong to a country she calls Truth. Dickinson narrates her own divine comedy, her poetics a self-styled Virgil leading us to enlightenment.