A19 Seminar – Jamie Fenton, “When Persons Become Supposed: Emily Dickinson and the American Civil War” – Friday 10 February 2 pm

Posted on February 10, 2023

The next session of the A19 seminar series (VALE / LARCA) will take place on Friday, 10 February, 2pm-4pm.
Sorbonne Université, Bibliothèque de l’UFR d’études anglophones (esc. G, 2è étage; entrée par le 54 rue Saint Jacques ou le 17 rue de la Sorbonne, 75005 Paris).


ID de réunion : 836 6617 2388
Code secret : 337910

When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse — it does not mean — me — but a supposed person. Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July 1862.

Emily Dickinson sent this cryptic statement to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as the United States entered its second year of civil war. This paper aims to decode the statement, by paying special attention to that innocuous word ‘supposed’. What is a ‘supposed’ person? How does Dickinson go about supposing them? What lives do they live in verse? The paper will offer two routes through this problem. First it will investigate Dickinson’s interest in dramatic monologue. Her poems have attracted the label of lyric, but this is not a truth inherent, and we should be confident in pursuing their relationship with other modes. If a supposed person is something like a character, how far are Dickinson’s poems from those of her heroes, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? The second route is towards the Civil War. Dickinson wrote this letter to a Higginson away at war, where she feared he had become ‘impossible’. This part of the paper will argue that ‘supposing’ was a necessary talent for civilians waiting for news of combatant relatives or friends: with no guarantee of survival, soldiers had to be imagined alive. This kind of supposing found its way into Dickinson’s poems in the voices of soldiers. The paper will end by trying to draw the two routes together, proposing, via an encounter with Shakespeare, that Dickinson’s poems can be read as the monologues of impossible people.

Jamie Fenton began his education at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he completed a BA in English and MPhil in American Literature, before moving on to an AHRC-funded PhD at Pembroke College, Cambridge, which he finished in 2021. In early 2020, he held a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. In 2021-2022, he held a postdoctoral fellowship at University College London.
His research interest is American Literature, especially the literature of the American Civil War. He practices a historical-formalist mode of close reading, which aims to work out how style emerges from and then thinks about its political and cultural environment. His PhD investigated a series of Civil War poets, including Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Laura Redden, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. He has also written on Woody Guthrie, Henry David Thoreau, and the contemporary poet Erica Dawson.