The centennial marking the death of the poet Emily Dickinson, on May 15, 1886, slipped quietly by a couple of years ago without noticeable effect on the national consciousness. The media in general, from the Sunday supplements to the guardians of culture on PBS television, were not, on the whole, visibly impressed. It was an anniversary which ought to have been the occasion to admit at last, in the waning of our own century, that Emily Dickinson has all but surpassed the most celebrated of the New England worthies. Emerson, the Sage of Concord, is more referred to than actually read; Thoreau has been reduced to the huckleberry guru of an ecological cult; and Hawthorne, with Melville the only major American writer of his time to recognize the existence of evil in the New Eden, wrote in a style which today seems too lugubrious for the modern sensibility to bear.

If so enthusiastic a reader as Emily Dickinson was no doubt familiar with both the prose and poetry of Emerson, he in turn was hardly aware of her presence as a poet. In any event, he would have recognized in her the genius that he had attributed to Walt Whitman at the beginning of a great career. It is ironic that Emerson was later to say of the novelist Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the early best-seller Ramona (1884), that she wrote possibly the best poetry on the continent, regardless of gender. More ironically still, it was this very woman herself, also born in Amherst, Massachusetts, who, quite alone among her contemporaries, came to recognize and privately champion the superior and strangely different verse by a young lady who lived like a bachelor in her father’s house.

Perhaps too much has been made of the effect on Emily Dickinson of her several unrequited loves. Her all but secret passion, unaccountable for a woman in those days, was the profession of poetry. If, as an idealist of the romantic imagination, Emily had found that kind of love which in marriage must inevitably become domesticized, then in all likelihood she would have ceased writing poetry of the first order. As for the profession of poetry itself, Emily’s kind of celibacy would prove to be as important to her, rightly understood, as a similar order of absurdity and single-mindedness must be to the celibate priesthood. When writing at the fullness of her powers, especially in the year 1862, she clearly recognized the extent of her own isolation and even put the gist of it in some very familiar, if sentimental, lines: “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to me.” She was no doubt the loneliest poet in the American literary experience. Not even the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, her contemporary in England, was more lonely than she.

(A personal interjection: I once contested a feminist on the claim that women in literature—as, admittedly, elsewhere—are discriminated against. The point had to do especially with the woman as poet. I said in defense of the typical male that I never considered it an anomaly that a woman might also be a poet. At one time, however, I had some difficulty in reconciling the notion of the female poet with what I now take to be Robert Graves’s absurd theory of the “White Goddess.” Still, the feminist accusation kept nagging at me. And then I recently came across Henry James’s review of, yes, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Mercy Philbrick’s Choice (1867) in the Library of America edition (1984) of James’s literary criticism. James could not have known at the time that the main figure in Mrs. Jackson’s perfectly dreadful roman a clef is Emily Dickinson herself. James says: “And what put it into the author’s head to make her a poetess and endow her with the ‘poetic temperament’? These things do not at all hang together. Poets are not a literal but an imaginative folk, devoted to seeing the charm, the joke, of things—to finding it where it may be, and slipping it in where it is not.” This from one of the most enlightened minds of the period. Therefore, concede the point to the feminists.)

Although, again, it was Helen Hunt Jackson who first intuited in Emily Dickinson something which only the feminine principle itself could have perceived, the poet would not have emerged into the modern consciousness without the work and scholarship of a few notable male critics. It is now some 58 years since Allen Tate published perhaps the finest single essay on Emily Dickinson—those by Yvor Winters, R.P. Blackmur, and Conrad Aiken notwithstanding—and yet, Tate, like the others, had to work with the gussied-up texts provided by Dickinson’s earliest and least competent editors, whose immediate task was to make Emily acceptable to a turn-of-the-century audience. All subsequent studies and appreciations of the poet must remain in the profound debt of Thomas H. Johnson’s body of work, both in the variorum and one-volume editions of the Poems (1955-57) and in the three volumes of the incomparable Letters (1958) published by Harvard University Press. Also of inestimable value is the mass of well-ordered factuality provided by Richard B. Sewell’s great two-volume work, The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974), with its necessary context of the small New England community—pastoral, theocratic, and remote—in which the poet spent most of her life.

Nevertheless, with all this taken into account, we are still catching up with Emily Dickinson in the field of critical studies; and nowhere has this effort been more dazzling, more brilliant, and perhaps more excessive than in the works of the new feminist scholarship. If the centenary year of the poet’s death was not exactly a media event in the public mind, the scholars have known for a good many years that there is something special about Emily Dickinson. There is an obviously clear and compelling affinity between her career and what it may mean to have been a woman and a poet in her time, and ours. So much is this the case, indeed, that the ground-breaking essay by the poet and critic Adrienne Rich, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (1975), has been all but superseded by the astonishing acceleration of studies in the following decade.

A decade after Adrienne Rich’s still important essay, the most notable book to appear on the subject in the centenary year, 1986, was Cynthia Griffin Wolffs 641-page biography of the poet, Emily Dickinson (Knopf). Again, this may have been both the most notable and widely reviewed book of the year in that regard, but it is not by far the most important. The effort was indeed prodigious; but a more significant volume, published about the same time and hardly noticed by the reviewing press, was Paula Bennett’s My Life a Loaded Gun (Beacon Press) with its particularly incisive essay on Emily Dickinson that cries for future in-depth treatment in a separate edition. For the time being, however, the finest of the Dickinsonian studies in 1986 may be the first American edition of Helen McNeil’s Emily Dickinson in a low-priced Pantheon paperback. Also of considerable interest (appearing one year earlier than the occasion of the centennial) is Emily Dickinson (Berg Publishers, Ltd.), by Donna Dickenson. This little study is a most welcome antidote to the kind of criticism practiced by the Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic) school of feminism, which is filled with self-centeredness and enraged whining against a generally flawed patriarchy.

At this point, then, one must certainly face the problem of an excessiveness in Dickinsonian studies that is likely to impede an otherwise outstanding achievement. Even on its blandest levels, the excesses are nevertheless a hindrance. Several of Cynthia Griffin Wolffs conclusions are wholly unwarranted, such as (1) the alleged failure of Mrs. Dickinson to establish and maintain “eye contact” with little Emily at a crucial stage in the child’s life; and (2) the notion that all her life Emily would wage an intense struggle against the male image of God as the biggest disappointment in her life, etc. Why these wild speculations which all but strip the poet of her essential and mysterious humanity? It is the theme of a book just out. Lunacy of Light (Southern Illinois University Press), by one Wendy Baker, that in the poetry of Emily Dickinson all references to light are basically derived from images of male “sun-power” against which a dark female creativity must strive in order to attain a viable identity of the Woman as Poet. One can almost take this as fairly acceptable, but not when it tends to put such an onus on what, in many instances, must have been an ingenuous and candid act of love’s elan in Emily’s praise of light.

Aside from this, it may be all to the good that feminist criticism has very justifiably appropriated Emily Dickinson to both its own interests and the larger literary interest. It seems obvious that even the best of male criticism on Emily Dickinson has failed to deal adequately with her status—and indeed her stature—as woman and poet. The woman as writer, and especially as critic, is the new perceptor in a field of letters heretofore the exclusive domain of the male academician. It is no detriment to present feminist criticism, as such, to suggest that much of its excess and rash overstatement will eventually fall by the wayside in a new progression toward a fuller and therefore more humane understanding of great writing and writers. It has already recognized in Emily Dickinson a truly original poetic genius, one of the few women in art who can accommodate such a claim, and it is a tribute to her toughness and strength of mind—as against the myth of her spinsterism—that in the midst of mediocrity around her, she did not go mad for want of recognition among those presumed to be her betters. The fact is she had no peers, let alone betters, and on this particular matter it is an ironic delight that women will have had the last word.