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Bennett, Paula Bernat: "Dickinson’s Supposed Person in its 19th-century American Context"

Dickinson’s Supposed Person in its 19th-century American Context

Paula Bernat Bennett, Southern Illinois University emerita

In Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation, 1981, Jane Eberwein invited Dickinson scholars to consider the possibility that the poet was in fact in earnest when she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that her “I” referred not to herself but to a supposed person. Although Eberwein largely attributed Dickinson’s use of fictitious personae to explore fantasized identities to the poet’s playfulness and her love of drama, she also observed that in availing herself of such devices, Dickinson was operating well within the parameters of her period’s lyric conventions. In 1981, few Dickinson scholars were prepared to take up the challenge that Eberwein’s observations raised. As this panel’s existence testifies, this is no longer true. Building on recent work by Leigh-Anne Marcellin, Jed Deppman, Paraic Finnerty, Cristanne Miller, and others, in this essay, I will look specifically at the interface between Dickinson’s use of supposed persons and that of the poets who were her American peers. In the first part of the paper, I deal with the rich treasure of personae poems or what Browning called “dramatic lyrics” produced by 19th -century American poets writing between 1800 and 1865. In the second half, I suggest ways in which Dickinson both drew on these poets and departed from them.