20 August 2017

Review of Vivian R. Pollak's Our Emily Dickinsons

Review of Vivian R. Pollak, Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pp. 355, $55. ISBN: 987-0-8122-4844-9


Vivian R. Pollak's Our Emily Dickinsons is a rich, intensely researched, and well written exploration of American women poets from Emily Dickinson to Marianne Moore to Sylvia Plath to Elizabeth Bishop. Pollak book takes "roughly one hundred years as its focus, Our Emily Dickinsons describes changing conceptions of Dickinson and the problem for women poets of being cut off from the social experiences which consolidate and affective community, however that community is defined" (8-9). The book also concentrates on other important figures in each of these people's lives such as Helen Hunt Jackson and Mabel Loomis Todd for Dickinson as well as significant family members and/or partners/spouses. These four main subjects share something like an heredity of female poetics.

I enjoyed learning as much about the life of Emily Dickinson and the afterlife of her publishing history as I did in the introduction and first two chapters. The third chapter on Marianne Moore continued Pollak's examination expertly. It would have seemed more logical/chronological to me to put Bishop next rather than the two-chapter Plath intermission as strictly speaking Bishop should have been next up. However, by the close of the book the order of the poets discussed seemed a natural lineage.

Chapter 4, "Moore, Plath, Hughes, and 'The Literary Life'", was first published in American Literary History in 2005. I loved it then, as I do again now, as I felt it probed into an overlooked and thus little understood relationship. Pollak's research was inspiring. And it remains so. Throughout chapter 4, Dickinson is all but absent, which left me wondering why this was included other than act as a to bridge Moore and Plath. However, Pollak explains Dickinson's absence in her conclusion which was admirable. The additional Plath chapter, "Plath's Dickinson: On Not Stopping for Death" appears to be new and written for this volume. Here Pollak "discusses Plath's early imitations of Dickinson and explores the roles of her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, and of her husband Ted Hughes in shaping Plath's literary taste and posthumous reputation" (16). There is some content-overlap between chapters four and five with some quotes and points being repeated, and in general I dislike the use of the familiar "Sylvia", "Ted", "Emily", etc. and I found the end of chapter five, in a section entitled "A Queer Interlude" to be a stretch as a way to connect Plath to Bishop.

Pollak's Our Emily Dickinsons is an original, convincing, and authoritative work on the life and posthumous publications of the mysteriously reclusive and enigmatic Emily Dickinson. Pollak explores reactions and responses to Emily Dickinson by three of the 20th centuries leading women's poets. Pollak's work in and with a variety of archives, as well as her notes and documentation, is exemplary scholarship. There is no other book like it.

All links accessed 12 August 2017.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

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