Dickinson, Cartoonist

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Cartoonist: Emily Dickinson was not a cartoonist in the sense of our contemporaries Garry Trudeau or Charles Schultz or T.O. Sylvester, yet she did animate her words with visual designs--layouts made from cutouts from a Dickens novel, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, from a New England Primer, from a three-cent stamp featuring a Baldwin locomotive, and from the attachment of a flower or pine needle (F 24, 704n p. 539) to a top or dress a poem or missive; drawings around the embossed Capitol building on her father's Congressional stationery, in a note about the "Music of the Spheres" sent next door to her sister-in-law, and within the exaggerated calligraphies that begin to emerge so dramatically in the 1860s, when the poet appears to have been at the height of copying and sending out her poems to a wide range of readers.

Remarking political and religious irreverence as well as poking fun at seemingly unremarkable frustrations of everyday life, cartoons mock a range of subjects, from the institutions of family and state and school in which most have a stake, to quotidian comings and goings that everyone recognizes. Likewise, Emily Dickinson's range of subjects in her drawings and layouts parallel those treated in cartoons--from lampooning familial tensions to deflating national literary and political figures. Some of her "cartoons" have been interrogated at length in Martha Nell Smith's "The Poet as Cartoonist" and in Jeanne Hollands's "Scraps, Stamps, and Cutouts: Emily Dickinson's Domestic Technologies of Publication".

This site features four layouts (using cutouts from literary and grammar books) and one drawing featuring a slightly altered musical staff (possibly to joke about the Pythagorean Maxim, a nineteenth-century playful reference to flatulence) in order to give the reader a sense of what contemporary critics call Dickinson's "cartooning" strategies and in order to show more of the "witty humorous side" Susan Dickinson bemoaned was missing from the first printed volume The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890). As in the rest of this electronic archive, notes give material descriptions of the documents, situate them in time when possible, and indicate their addressee in order for readers to determine whether these giddy scriptural performances can indeed "count" as "cartoons." Once again, questions about our twentieth century theoretical invention of the public sphere are raised:

  • What sorts of insights are enabled by the twentieth-century conventions of marking manuscripts as "private" and print documents as "public"?
  • How are critical understandings and interpretations constrained by these conventions equating the "public sphere" and the origins of print culture?