Reading at Home: Emily...

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Introduction by Gabrielle Dean

Emily Dickinson’s dictionary makes it very clear that reading is voiced, directive, and juridical in its origins. Her 1844 Webster’s contains five definitions of “read” and seven cognates; the etymological history propelling all of these words, lavished upon the definition for the transitive verb, tells us that the speakers of the ancestral Saxon, German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and Gothic languages behind our English word (to which modern dictionaries add Frisian and Old Icelandic, among others) employed variants meaning not just “speech,” “discourse,” “tell,” and “narrate,” but “counsel,” “decree,” “command,” “rule or govern,” “berate,” and “verdict.” The Germanic “rath” meant, and still means, “council or senate.” The Danish “ret” is “law, justice, right, reason.” Webster notes that “the primary sense of read is to speak, to utter, that is, to push, drive or advance,” relating it to “ready, that is, prompt or advancing quick” and “ride.” And yet the definition includes, in its second and third senses, “to peruse silently,” “to discover or understand by characters, marks or features; as, to read a man’s thoughts in his countenance,” “to learn by observation.”[1] These are activities that are quiet, reflective, and analytical.

Built into Webster’s definition is evidence that the “reading revolution” of the eighteenth century—an expression of new, so-called “extensive” reading opportunities and voiceless reading habits produced in part by cheaper publishing technologies and increased literacy—could not and did not, in fact, cancel out older modes of consuming words: the “intensive” reading, often out loud, of texts that offer rules to live by, often sacred.[2] What nineteenth-century readers like Emily Dickinson inherited was, rather, a host of options suitable to different occasions. Reading could be a secular or a sanctified pursuit, meditative or casual, communal or solitary, mute or thunderous. Most provocatively, it could take place across and in between different modes, values, and environments.

In the three essays gathered here, describing particular domestic frameworks through which, we believe, Emily Dickinson’s reading must be read, the aim is not, then, to dispute earlier analyses that have focused on her exposure to texts that might be categorized as public, civic, or central to the most celebrated political, poetic, or philosophical projects of her time. To claim that home matters as a distinct locus of reading for Dickinson does not exclude or even compete with her reading of works by philosophers and scientists like David Hume, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charles Darwin; her reading of “signpost” poets, like William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth, on whom Anglophone literary history pins its key indicators; or her reading of news about the American political crisis of her lifetime, slavery, and its culmination in the Civil War.[3]

Nor is the aim to re-enclose Dickinson within a household terrarium, a prisoner in a secluded domain. Instead, we are simply recognizing the fact that her reading of eminent figures, her absorption of ideas with a global scope, and her engagement with public discourses usually took place in domestic or familiar environments, thoroughly mixed in with reading devoted to more local or personal concerns. Home offered an array of reading options profoundly marked by familial spaces, individualized media, and intimate relationships. Rather than make another cut along the public/private divide, the goal of this collection of essays is to recover forms and arrangements of reading that knit together public- and private-facing interactions, essentially complicating these terms. In short, we assert that the reticulated configuration of Dickinson’s reading habitus becomes legible when we attend to reading-related artifacts and spaces. The artifacts and spaces we bring to the fore here have often been overlooked by literary critics precisely because they are not purely textual texts—and especially not master narratives considered in isolation—but always already “contexts”: marks inseparable from their supports, papers inseparable from other objects, books inseparable from their companions of the shelf.

It is no accident that the three of us are curators, collectors, and educators who often work with non-specialist readers of Dickinson. Our professional commitments and private interests have put us into close contact with Dickinsonian things and places, alongside readers drawn to extra-textual signs. We are, in short, first-hand readers of objects and their locations with unusual privileges of access, the beneficiaries of sensory clues yielded by touch, smell, three-dimensional visual inspection. We are aware that digital remediation cannot reproduce these impressions on the body. But in bringing these materials to your attention and making them as present as possible through the means that are available to us, we hope to offer an expanded view of Dickinson’s reading. In her case—and in most cases, perhaps—reading is not reducible to a practice or a history. It has more in common with what we call a culture, which is to say, a medium of connection, a web through which a single, perspicacious reader like Dickinson was and is attached to an aggregation of reading-related artifacts, themselves the traces and the instruments of particular technologies, pedagogies, economies, values, and interpretations. And, of course, it was and is a medium of connection to other readers—including us.



[1] Interestingly, in modern definitions, these second and third meanings come first. See Hallen et al. The different definitions of “READ” in Noah Webster’s 1844 American Dictionary of the English Language are reproduced in the Emily Dickinson Lexicon; see also “READ, v.t.”

[2] The existence and nature of the eighteenth-century “reading revolution” and the accuracy of terms like “extensive” versus “intensive” modes as first described by Rolf Engelsing have been widely debated; see, for example, Wittman, Sharpe, and Jackson.

[3] On this range of topics, see, for example, Barrett, Finnerty, Hubbard, Hsu, Kirkby, Mann, Sundquist, and Wolosky.


Works Cited

Barrett, Faith. “Public Selves and Private Spheres: Studies of Emily Dickinson and the Civil War, 1984-2007.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16.1 (2007): 92-104.

Engelsing, Rolf. Analphabetentum und Lektüre: Zur Sozialgeschichte des Lesens in Deutschland zwischen feudaler und industrieller Gesellschaft. J.B. Metzlersche, 1973.

Finnerty, Paraic. Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare. U of Massachusetts P, 2006.

Hallen, Cynthia, et al. “read.” Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon. Brigham Young U, 2007-2020. Accessed 20 January 2020.

Hubbard, Melanie. “Dickinson, Hume, and the Common Sense Legacy.” Emily Dickinson and Philosophy. Edited by Jed Deppman, Marianne Noble, and G. L. Stonum. Cambridge UP, 2013. 13-29.

Hsu, Li-hsin. “‘The Light that Never Was on Sea or Land’: William Wordsworth in America and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Frostier’ Style.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 25.2 (2016): 24-47.

Jackson, Ian. “Approaches to the History of Readers and Reading in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” The Historical Journal 47.4 (2004): 1041-1054.

Kirkby, Joan. “‘[W]e thought Darwin had thrown “the Redeemer” away’: Darwinizing with Emily Dickinson.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.1 (2010): 1-29.

Mann, John S. “Emily Dickinson, Emerson, and the Poet as Namer.” The New England Quarterly 51.4 (1978): 467-488.

Sharpe, Kevin. Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England. New Yale UP, 2000.

Sundquist, Eric J. Empire and Slavery in American Literature, 1820-1865. UP of Mississippi, 2006.

Webster, Noah. [Pages showing several definitions of “READ” and cognates]. American Dictionary of the English Language (1844). Reproduced in Hallen et al, Emily Dickinson Lexicon. and Accessed 20 January 2020.

-----. “READ, v.t.” American Dictionary of the English Language (1844). Reproduced in Hallen et al, Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Accessed 20 January 2020.

Wittmann, Reinhard. “Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?”  A History of Reading in the West. Edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. U of Massachusetts P, 1999 [1995]. 284-312.

Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. Yale UP, 1984.