PAGE TWO  -  Dashing Genius: 
Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
     Comparison to Laurence Sterne
With far greater certainty, historians recognize that eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne absorbed Locke's associational theory. Sterne both parodies and honors Lockean insight in the wild digressions, word games, and mental roller-coaster of his nine volume masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ira Konigsberg describes how "in tune with empirical psychology, and Locke's exploration into the mind," Sterne "explored ways to erase the line between his characters' minds and his own and between his own and the reader's" (56). 
Delighting in the result, Virginia Woolf comments, "No writing seems to flow more exactly into the very folds and creases of the individual mind, to express its changing moods, to answer to its lightest whim and impulse, and yet the result is perfectly precise and composed" (179). Nonetheless, these same mental representations earn Sterne, like Dickinson, a reputation as notoriously difficult, even "intellectually indigestible to an unaided eye" (Piper 41). In fact, in one survey, English majors voted Tristram Shandy the "most hated" book assigned (Cash 33). I suspect that the small but dedicated society of Sterne-obsessed scholars recognize their own mental patterns in his textual explosion of seemingly random associations. Online hypertext artists also claim Sterne as a forefather in textual-graphic interface experimentation. From the perspective of Jerome McGann, Dickinson could likewise serve as a model for electronic multimedia: she uses "her textpage as a scene for dramatic interplays between a poetic of the eye and a poetics of the ear" and "forecasts" the future of "visible language" (41). 
Providing a basis for comparison, Peter De Voogd outlines Sterne's aesthetic concerns: the demanding letters to his publishers about the quality of paper, the insistence on an irregular Caslon Pica typeface, the painstaking hand-marbling of a gorgeous insert for the third volume, the printing of solid black pages to indicate mourning, the woodcut graphic indicating the flourish drawn by a character's walking stick, and the disorienting page numbering tricks. This condensed list alone may prove sufficient to convince scholars examining Dickinson holographs of an Sternean influence. Consider Dickinson's hand-scripted experiments with the ornate capital S, the dismembered trailing Y, pasted-on cut outs, unusual paper scraps, home stitched bindings, and violated margins -- what Martha Nell Smith characterizes as "extraordinary, somewhat seductive, calligraphy" -- as well as Dickinson's anger when the Springfield Weekly Republican added an unwanted question mark to one of the few poems she published during her lifetime (65). 
     Eccentric Use of the Dash
The most distinctive resemblance, however, must be Laurence Sterne's and Emily Dickinson's mutual fascination with an idiosyncratic item of punctuation: the dash. Most critics concur that Sterne's extravagant play with the dash -- "9,560 times in 1,594 pages of text" with lengths varying from three millimeters to three centimeters -- serves as graphic representation of cognitive associations originating in John Locke's theory (De Voogd 387). Likewise, Dickinson's profusion of dashes dominates the page and her statistics are just as impressive. Edith Wylder analyzed thirty poetry manuscripts (choosing every tenth poem in Bingham packets 80 to 91) and identified 221 irregular notations, further classified as angular slants, reversed slants, horizontal marks, and curved marks. After an admittedly rough mathematical calculation, I estimate over seven thousand dash-like notations in Dickinson's holographs. In a videotaped interview, poet Adrienne Rich recalls: "I'll never forget the shock of opening the second edition of the poems in which the dashes had been restored and getting a sense of a whole new reading of the poetry, a whole new voice;"  the resulting typography seemed "much more jagged, much more personal, much more original, much more uncontainable than I had ever thought her to be."
I propose that Emily Dickinson was influenced by Lawrence Sterne's extensive use of varied dashes to indicate Lockean associations within the mind which defy the linear progression of ideas. Sterne scholarship can illuminate Dickinson's poems; for example, Ian Watt describes how Sterne uses the dash to represent "a nonlogical junction" between "one train of thought and another" and to enact "the drama of inhibited impulse, of the sudden interruptions and oscillations of thought and feeling" (48). Similarly, for Dickinson, the dash represents the multiple avenues of thought inherent to genius and challenges the reader to puzzle through sophisticated metaphoric connections which are perhaps less obvious to our slower minds. 
Although I believe the aesthetic connection between Dickinson and Sterne can be made textually by examining the placement of dashes within Dickinson's poems, I'm fascinated by the historical possibility that the nineteenth-century recluse read the eighteenth-century eccentric. Genevieve Taggard's 1930 biography, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, provides the primary link; Taggard reports that Dickinson read Sterne's Tristram Shandy sometime between 1948-1950 with Leonard Humphrey, a Tutor at Amherst College, and George Gould, a member of Austin Dickinson's fraternity (96). Critic Paul Ferlazzo, however, characterizes Taggard's book as "inadequate for serious study" and based on "unfounded assumptions, hearsay, coincidence, and erroneous evidence" (5-6). Such complaints center on Taggard's oversensationalized portrayal of a since disproved love affair between Dickinson and Gould based on a single valentine and interviews with elderly women who knew the Dickinson family. As a result, scholar Jack Capps specifically discredits Taggard's mention of Tristram Shandy as lacking "concrete proof," although he affirms that Dickinson discussed books with these two young men and acknowledges that Dickinson refers to a "well-known phrase" from Sterne's Sentimental Journey in two letters and a poem (73). Unfortunately, Taggard's failure to fully document each source leaves the question of accuracy in limbo, but the simple fact that Sterne's name arises can serve as a starting point for analysis.
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner