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Chapman, Jayne: "Fetishizing Emily Dickinson’s Literary Hand"

Fetishizing Emily Dickinson’s Literary Hand

Jayne Chapman, University of New South Wales

This paper looks at the way in which Dickinson’s literary hand has been fetishized in modern society and critical literature, arguing that the fetishization of the literary hand is a uniquely modern phenomenon. It draws attention to how handwriting and hand-made objects, such as Dickinson’s fascicles and herbarium, are revered for not only representing a corporeal connection to the author, but also a form of “etherealised sensation.” Beginning in the nineteenth-century, this paper will trace the emergence of neo-medieval artisanal aesthetics which privileged the hand and explore how Dickinson both reacted and contributed to this. It will then engage in a generative dialectic which reinstates the literal history of the writer’s hand as a vital dimension of nineteenth-century literary history, and link this to the modern mythologizing of the hand-crafted objects in Dickinson’s oeuvre, especially in response to the diminishing use of older writing technologies such as the pen. From an international perspective, this fetish can manifest itself in a pilgrimage which many academics make to encounter the object, and through that, the writer, of their study, to visit these fetishized objects. The impetus for this pilgrimage is also connected to the rise of technology and the paper suggests, finally, that the literary manuscript archive is one of the last bastions of this enduring fetishizing of the marks of the hand as a conduit of some ineffable literary value that eludes the corruption of print and reproduction.