MY WARS ARE LAID AWAY IN BOOKS: The Life of Emily Dickinson

Alfred Habegger, Author . Random $35 (784p) ISBN 978-0-679-44986-7

Making perceptive use of feminist scholarship of the past three decades, the firsthand reports of Dickinson's intimates and careful readings of her lyrics and letters, former University of Kansas English professor Habegger creates a newly complex portrait of the poet's life (1830-86) and greatly enhances our understanding of her art. As in The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr., Habegger analyzes his subject's experiences from a modern perspective without obscuring the very different ways in which she herself perceived them. His greatest achievement is a nuanced depiction of how Dickinson transformed the limits placed on her into choices that enabled her poetry. Kept close to home in Amherst, Mass., by her authoritarian father, she chose to become a recluse and avoid altogether the social duties laid on middle-class women. Painfully rejected more than once as a young woman because of her extreme emotional neediness, she assumed a "childish" air that allowed her far more freedom of expression than that accorded New England's adults. "The blessing and the wound became one and the same," writes Habegger. "What that seems to mean for us is that her great genius is not to be distinguished from her madness." Habegger also gives full attention to the impact of the religious revival that swept New England in Dickinson's youth, reminding us of how tough young Emily had to resist intense pressure to declare herself "saved." Habegger rejects the traditional view that Dickinson's work and life were static; "her poetry shows a striking and dramatic evolution," he declares, and his immensely satisfying narrative makes the largely interior struggles she conducted over the course of 55 years just as dramatic. This is as good as literary biography gets. (On sale Oct. 2)

Reviewed on: 07/23/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 800 pages - 978-0-8129-6601-5
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