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Neely, Michelle C.: "Scarcity and Delight: On the Pleasures of Denial in Emily Dickinson"

Scarcity and Delight: On the Pleasures of Denial in Emily Dickinson

Michelle C. Neely, University of Toronto

In the paper I am proposing for the 2013 Emily Dickinson International Society Conference, I wish to revisit the topic of Emily Dickinson’s interest in food. Influential critical accounts such as Vivian Pollak’s “Thirst and Starvation in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry” and Heather Kirk Thomas’ “Emily Dickinson’s ‘Renunciation’ and Anorexia Nervosa” have pathologized Dickinson’s interest in food by highlighting the imagery of starvation and lack that characterizes much of her food imagery. Yet what these accounts of Dickinson’s poetry miss is the playfulness and delight that accompanies so much of Dickinson’s poetic ruminations on these subjects. In my paper, I will reapproach the questions of food scarcity and denial in Dickinson’s poetry by exploring them in their broader cultural context. By the mid-century period, colonial starvation had been fetishized as part of the founding cultural myth of the United States, while antebellum dietetic reformers such as Sylvester Graham popularized arguments for the healthfulness of restricting food and drink. In addition to these physiological and nationalist traditions in which food scarcity is valorized, Dickinson’s insistence that food’s “Significance” is in proportion to its “Distance” also echoes nineteenth century critiques of capitalism’s incipient consumer culture. Thoreau frames social withdrawal in Walden as a politically radical response to a capitalist marketplace that dictates the number and type of clothing an individual must wear, and that markets American ice as far away as India; yet Dickinson’s more complex withdrawal is seldom politicized in these terms. How might attention to food change this? Dickinson, an accomplished cook, engaged with the changing economic marketplace directly, in material form, each time she used an ingredient transported from an ever-more distant locale. I will argue that Dickinson’s depictions of scarcity as delightful resonate with contemporary critiques of global capitalism, ranging from those levied by Thoreau in Walden to Karl Marx’s in Das Kapital. Rather than pathologize Dickinson’s delight in lack, I will suggest that we situate it amidst contemporary resistance to consumer “progress” and the increasingly globalized capitalist marketplace. By using this political and economic context to unhook Dickinson’s interest in scarcity from the connotation of illness, I hope to demonstrate the full interest and complexity of Dickinson’s poetic delight in lack.