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Vogelius, Christa Holm: "“Denoted by the White”: Race, Immigration, and Scandinavia’s Emily Dickinson"

“Denoted by the White”: Race, Immigration, and Scandinavia’s Emily Dickinson

Christa Holm Vogelius, University of Michigan

The delayed Scandinavian reception of Dickinson’s poetry, which first gained a wide Nordic readership in the 1940s and 50s, exaggerated some of the features of her American reception. If Americans of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were inclined to see Dickinson as a proto-Modern rather than a product of her own time, Scandinavian readers went one step further in their decontextualization, asserting (in the words of Dickinson’s first Swedish translator) that she “cannot be measured against the world, nor can [she] be situated in history.” Contemporary Scandinavian translators and critics, however, are increasingly inclined toward historicized interpretations of Dickinson’s poetry, particularly in relation to issues of race.

In this paper, I will examine the treatment of references to whiteness and the Scandinavian countries in recent Swedish, Danish and Norwegian translations and reviews of Dickinson’s verse. Critics have argued that Dickinson’s white imagery asserts an implicit Anglo-American spiritual superiority, and has its roots in ambivalence toward the increasingly diverse population of nineteenth-century America. Dickinson’s references to Scandinavia have been read similarly, and like the broader American vogue for Nordic arts and letters, can be seen in the context of a rise in non-Anglo (and in contemporary thought, non-white) immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. These contextualized readings are reflected in recent Scandinavian translations of the poems, which interpret Dickinson’s language of whiteness in clearly racialized terms. Because these translations often take considerable creative license in their reinterpretation of the works, they shed light on the shifting understanding of Dickinson in countries that, like the United States of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, are themselves contested sites of immigration.