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Book Review : How Image-Conscious Was Dickinson?

February 16, 1989|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Figures of Speech by R. Jackson Wilson (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 274 pages)

A portrait, likely as not, will show a bit of stomach, or if not the stomach itself, its top end: the throat, the mouth.

That is roughly why R. Jackson Wilson has chosen to preface his six studies of pre-20th-Century American authors with a painting or photograph of each of them. He is writing, in a way, about their stomachs. As Gromyko said of Gorbachev, so might Wilson say of Franklin, Emerson or even Emily Dickinson: "A nice smile, comrades, but notice the iron teeth."

Apart from the three mentioned, Wilson has also convened William Lloyd Garrison, Washington Irving and, in a brief but snide epilogue, Walt Whitman.

Snideness is not all, but it dots the book here and there. It seems excessive, sometimes, but it is mitigated by Wilson's cheerful enthusiasm for his discovery. Not that the world is round but that such long and transcendental spirits as the sage of Concord, the Amherst recluse, and the thundering abolitionist were round, as well.

Familiar Figures

Franklin is known for kindly wit, Irving for a codger's whimsy, Garrison for idealistic intransigence, Emerson for transcendental individualism, Dickinson for an elusive individual sensibility, and Whitman for speaking multitudes. This is our idea of who they were; this, Wilson tells us, is how literary critics and historians have identified them.

And, he objects, not so; or not entirely so. Each of these public identities suppresses a vital part of the writer's private identity. The flesh-and-blood writer, in other words, created a literary personage to reach a public marketplace. To nourish a material stomach--in varying degrees--they nurtured an unmaterial soul.

Writers, Wilson writes, "have become famous by warning against fame, rich by railing against money . . . celebrities by speaking to large audiences in crowded halls about the virtues of solitude in the woods."

In a sense, what Wilson is concerned to show is not the narrowly financial aspect involved in an author creating a persona, but its broader social and psychological implications.

Franklin's celebrated portrait, for example, with its backwoodsman's fur cap, the puckish glance, and the benevolently pursed mouth was aimed at a very special audience; that of the French court. He was combining Noble Savage and wise philosopher, Candide and Voltaire in the same figure. Once he got the French to sign the treaty of alliance, Wilson notes, Franklin went on to wigs.

He makes a similar analysis of Franklin's autobiography, tracing the different personages he was establishing: naive youth, ambitious journeyman, gentleman of culture, and skeptical sage.

His point, as elsewhere, is that with aristocratic and other kinds of patronage on the wane, and with a literary market coming in, the creation of the Writer became almost as important as the writing of a Creation.

Irving employed various personages, both identifying and distancing. There was the itinerant dilettante narrator of the Sketch books, and the aged eccentric, Diederich Knickerbocker, for the History of New York.

Fire for Effect

Wilson finds Garrison's intransigence more pertinent to the writer than to the abolitionist. He became a radical in the cause of becoming a writer, rather than vice versa, the author suggests. He required "some great evil that must be fought" in order to justify the imperious "I" that he needed to express.

He draws a fairly unlovely portrait of Emerson, as a writer who tempered his calls for spiritual heroism so as to stimulate his audiences without unduly worrying them. He oscillated perpetually, Wilson writes, between "the challenging and the reassuring."

As for Dickinson, a recluse and amply supported by her family, the marketplace would seem to be irrelevant. Wilson uses the word "seem" several times. If she was so truly uninterested in success, he asks, why did she establish such a coyly insistent correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an influential Boston literary figure, just after he had published an article advising young authors how to go about getting published?

It was not that Dickinson needed the marketplace, materially. But, Wilson argues, "she needed the value system bestowed by the market; she had no other."

The point is interesting. Here as elsewhere, though, the author tends to weight the material and psychological desires of the authors more heavily than the values they expressed. He uses the former to undermine the latter, rather than simply evoking the contradictions.

His seeming lack of enthusiasm for the writing itself--particularly with Dickinson and Whitman--increases the weighting. To literary historians, he applies the rebuke of Marx and Engels:

"Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true."

Wilson calls his own work "a shopkeeper's book." Sometimes, I am reminded of another observation about the shopkeeper mentality: that "it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

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