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Lambasted! LARB on the New Emily Dickinson Theory

By Harriet Staff

“Walsh does not let the facts get in the way of a good story,” claims Hillary Kelly in her LARB review of Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord, by John Evangelist Walsh. “Walsh fancies himself a literary Sherlock Holmes, deducing vast amounts of information from infinitesimal clues, and discerning characteristics and habits from the most trivial of behaviors.” Walsh’s apparent literary faux pas is centered around a famous Emily Dickinson mystery: who was the intended recipient of her notorious “Master Letters”? While Kelly agrees that this question is so far unanswered, she takes serious issue with Walsh’s methods:

Walsh comes to the task of identifying the mysterious Master with a set of intellectual blockades firmly in place. He will not even consider accepting most of the established scholarship and lays out his initial hypothesis with an abundance of swagger but a lack of evidence. He refuses to engage with the idea that Master is merely a muse or imagined figure, thus eliminating a not-insignificant chunk of Dickinson scholarship[...] Furthermore, he does not attempt to “refute the claims” of other scholars and insists on presenting his argument in a vacuum. To dispute or analyze the extant scholarship, Walsh says, “would lead the discussion into a thicket of interpretation [...] A book three times the size of the present one would be needed and would make for very heavy reading,” despite the fact that making sense of the “thicket of interpretation” around a given subject is precisely the duty of the scholar. What’s more, Walsh explains in his prologue that “in [his] explication of certain of [Dickinson’s] poems,” he does not “bother with larger meanings or with aesthetic considerations.” Dickinson’s poetry is of no interest to him unless her words suit his agenda. In sum, he does not engage with a single bit of material outside his own ignorant meanderings, and rejects any relevant considerations concerning Dickinson’s poetry.

Having declared this exalted quest to discern the identity of Master “the impenetrable center of Dickinson biography,” Walsh pompously appoints himself lead investigator. Not only is such a focus overly narrow and nearsighted, it also places Dickinson’s love life, once again, at the forefront of her identity. His lack of perspective and self-awareness is almost comical: Walsh declares that “to be its most effective, [his book] must assume a particular form, not unlike a veritable suspense tale.” He then goes on to liken himself to Richard Bentley, who not only identified the counterfeit nature of the Epistles of Phalaris, but also went on to create the English school of Hellenism. Such claims come off as silly and hyperbolic, as do exclamations like, “Herein Emily’s long-hidden, long-sought mystery lover is brought before the curtain at last, bathed in a bright spotlight and invited to take a bow, doffing his mask.” Walsh fancies himself a literary Sherlock Holmes, deducing vast amounts of information from infinitesimal clues, and discerning characteristics and habits from the most trivial of behaviors.

Finally concluding that “Emily Dickinson in Love” is “just a silly little book,” Kelly gives Walsh’s labors as an example of the dangers of myth making.

Walsh ultimately wants Dickinson right where history has too often placed her: locked away in her father’s house, scribbling her lines and waiting to be rescued. A writer of her caliber deserves much more than that.

Read the full review here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, July 23rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.