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Girard, Melissa: "Modernism After Dickinson"

Modernism After Dickinson

Melissa Girard, Loyola University, Maryland

This paper examines Emily Dickinson’s modernist reception, with particular attention to the role Dickinson’s poetry played in debates about women’s poetry. Paradoxically, in the decades surrounding World War I, Dickinson’s poetry helped to support a broader devaluation of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American women’s poetry. Beginning in the teens and twenties, many modernist poets and critics—Including even influential feminists such as Amy Lowell—hailed Dickinson’s exceptionalism and isolation from other women’s traditions. As recent work by Virginia Jackson and Cristanne Miller has shown, this remaking of Dickinson, as a modernist, and, later, a New Critical lyric poet, had profound consequences for both Dickinson and poetry as a genre. However, as my paper will show, these critical developments were not uncontested. Against the dominant modernist and New Critical line, running from Lowell through Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters, I locate an important counter-tradition, in which both Dickinson and women’s poetry were being theorized
differently. My paper focuses, in particular, on the literary criticism of Louise Bogan. Bogan, who began publishing both poetry and prose in the 1920s, served as the poetry reviewer for The New Yorker from 1931 to 1968, and published regularly in magazines including The New Republic, The Nation, and The Times Literary Supplement. From these influential magazines, Bogan launched a decades-long critique of the New Critics—their vision of modernist poetry, their theory of the lyric, and their wholesale devaluation of American women’s poetry. My paper argues that Bogan’s writings about Dickinson occupy a central place in these ongoing debates about modernist poetry. Rather than categorizing Dickinson as a proto-modernist, Bogan argued that modernist poetry might benefit from a deeper understanding of the nineteenth century. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Bogan, I argue, attempted to remake modernism after Dickinson.