Mary Loeffelholz was reading The New York Times a few weeks ago when she came across a literary critique of Bob Dylan, who had recently become the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in literature. The piece praised Dylan as “one of the most authentic voices America has produced” and then went on to compare his lyrics to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, calling him “a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything” in her oeuvre.
Loeffelholz, a Dickinson scholar and English professor at Northeastern University, found the comparison to be particularly appropriate. “While both Dylan and Dickinson based their work on the most common material,” she says, “they somehow found a way to inject it with the most incredible sophistication, surprise, and terseness.”
Loeffelholz is a former board member of the Emily Dickinson International Society, which was founded 1988 to promote the study and appreciation of the prodigious 19th-century poet. Her second book on Dickinson—published in June and titled The Value of Emily Dickinson— sheds light on why her poems have continued to live on in the hearts and minds of readers 130 years after her death in 1886. Unlike her first book, Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory, it is less scholarly critique than focused attempt to address the poet’s longstanding literary value.
For Loeffelholz, interim dean of Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, Dickinson’s significance lies in her ability to relate to readers, particularly in times of sorrow and mourning. Many of her nearly 1,800 poems confront death and love in a raw, unflinching way, bringing a modicum of comfort and understanding to the bereaved. “She was a master of extending consolation and recognition to people in the wake of death,” Loeffelholz explains, “a master of acknowledging it, grieving it, and expressing it.”
She dedicated a portion of the book to ongoing controversies dividing Dickinson scholars, including whether her writings are best appreciated as visual works of art or as poems intended for the inner ear. If Dickinson were alive today, Loeffelholz believes that she would prefer to hear her poems recited, shared from one lover of her writing to the next during times of both joy and sorrow. “You can tweet Dickinson better than Walt Whitman,” Loeffelholz says, “but she would want her poems moving from human head to human head and from mind to mind.” As she puts it, “Dickinson is common cultural property, and yet she is someone with whom people have a very personal relationship.”
In writing Value, Loeffelholz strove to honor Dickinson’s exceptional command of the English language through her own word choice, consciously omitting the kind of literary jargon you might find in other academic writing. “I was trying to do justice to the complexity of Dickinson’s own language,” she says. “My goal was to write with clarity and directness while appealing to the sophisticated general reader.”
As close readers of Dickinson know, she was something of a recluse, spending the majority of her life at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she died at the age of 55. But while she did not have a particularly active social life, she did possess a deep connection with a variety of correspondents, including friends, family, and mentors to whom she often penned long and heartfelt letters. As Loeffelholz explains, “She preferred encounters at a distance, mediated by writing.”
In this practice, she sees a similarity between the way Dickinson lived her life in the 1800s and the way many of us communicate today. “A lot of young people would rather text than talk face-to-face,” she says. “The ways in which Dickinson was exceptional in her own time,” she adds, “look different in light of the ways we use social media today.”