Winds of Will: Emily Dickinson and the Sovereignty of Democratic Thought / Edition 2

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An innovative exploration of Emily Dickinson as a political poet


In this study, Paul Crumbley asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, Emily Dickinson consistently communicated political views through her poetry. Dickinson’s life of self-isolation—today her most notable personal characteristic—by no means extended into the political sphere, he argues. While she rarely addressed political issues directly and was curiously disengaged from the liberal causes and female reform movements of her time, Dickinson’s poems are deeply rooted both in matters of personal sovereignty and reader choice. The significant choices Dickinson extends to the reader underscore the democratic dimensions of reading her work, and of reading itself as a political act.


Crumbley employs close readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters, highlighting the many changing—and often contradictory—voices in her work, both throughout her oeuvre and in individual poems themselves. In Dickinson’s letters Crumbley finds just as many unique and conflicting voices; thus, both her personal correspondence and the poems make political demands by placing the burden of interpretation on the reader.


Rather than reflecting explicit political values, Dickinson’s work chronicles an ongoing decision-making process that magnifies the role of individual choice, not the advocacy of specific outcomes. In the end, Dickinson’s readers must either accept an isolated lyric subjectivity or invest that subjectivity with the substance necessary for engagement with the larger world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"With this volume, Crumbley (Utah State Univ.) adds a new dimension to understanding of the US's most reclusive poet. Through a close reading of Dickinson's correspondence and verse, the author examines the rhetorical strategies the poet invoked, and he argues that although her writings have typically been viewed as apolitical, Dickinson often addressed the issue of individual sovereignty, thus leading the reader to politicize her verses through the act of interpretation. This democratic discourse, he contends, 'magnifies the role of individual choice and profoundly governs the spirit of her work.' Crumbley illustrates that the absence of overt political posturing in Dickinson's writings, along with her Whitmanesque propensity for contradictions, forces the reader to make interpretive choices, which in itself constitutes a type of democratic reasoning. Crumbley explores the cultural context of Dickinson's poetry by situating it alongside other 19th-century women writers (including Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, Alice Cary, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and Helen Hunt Jackson), discusses the influence of the spiritualist movement on Dickinson's notions of democracy, and examines significant nuances in her correspondence that argue for individual sovereignty. A meticulously researched and cogently argued book. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."

“A compelling, revitalizing, inspirational book that takes readers back to the future, as it were, back to the reading practices Dickinson endorsed, one of vital choices, choice comfortable in the negative capabilities of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts’ (Keats) rather than definitive closure or choice that excludes other possibilities.” —Martha Nell Smith, author of Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson and Emily Dickinson: A User’s Guide and coeditor of Emily Dickinson's Correspondences

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817317034
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

 Paul Crumbley is Professor of English at Utah State University and author of Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson and coeditor of Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life and Search for a Common Language: Environmental Writing and Education.

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