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War of Words UMaine English professor provides a new view on Emily Dickinson’s Civil War-era poetry by Kristen Andresen

Battle of Ball’s Bluff near Leesburg, Va., Oct. 21, 1861 Currier & Ives lithograph, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Here’s what we know about Emily Dickinson: She had a burst of creativity between 1861 and 1865 — exactly the same time frame as the American Civil War. Her distant cousin, Francis Howard Dickinson, was killed in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Frazar Stearns, a dear family friend, died in the Battle of New Berne. The poet wrote personal letters about the war and the death of Stearns.

But here’s the tricky thing: Most of her poetry isn’t so direct. Oblique language is her trademark.

“Her work is so resistant to definitive interpretations that there can be a controversy over what she intends or even what’s plausible to imagine as the subject of the poetry,” says Ben Friedlander, a University of Maine associate professor of English and one of the driving forces behind UMaine’s National Poetry Foundation and New Writing Series.

That’s one of the reasons why there’s no shortage of research and guesswork on Dickinson. But Friedlander’s scholarship — including a recent article in the journal Publications of the Modern Language Association, “Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff,” and a book in progress — brings something new to the conversation.

“One big question I felt people haven’t answered is, ‘Why does she respond to the war the way she does?’” Friedlander says. “I’m trying to understand the significance the war had for her in light of the fact that most of her responses are not clearly about the war.”

In the early 1980s, when Friedlander was an undergraduate, it was widely accepted that while Dickinson wrote prolifically during the Civil War, she took scarcely any notice of it. Then there was a paradigm shift, and suddenly scholars did acknowledge that the war had a place in her work. The nature and extent of that place are still open to debate.

Though the academic community now acknowledges Dickinson’s place in the canon of Civil War writing, Friedlander provides a deeper analysis of that connection by exploring the war’s place in her consciousness and her imagination. That analysis requires a detour into psychological research.

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Winter 2011

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