While the cultural importance of sentimental fiction has been well documented by critics such as Jane Tompkins and Claudia Tate, the nature and function of sentimental poetry has remained largely unexplored. This essay offers a corrective to this critical tendency by reading major poems by Emily Dickinson in terms of the contemporary sentimental fictions of death and immortality to which they are indebted. Against those critics who have emphasized Dickinson's embrace of sentimentality's domestication of death, the essay argues that her poems contest and even negate the fictions of immortality made available by popular authors such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Ik Marvel. Dickinson's poems employ certain distinctive generic conventions of sentimentality's conduct of death-the passage from life to immortality, the posthumous reunion, the equation of heaven and home. But where sentimental fictions employ familiar scenes of earth and home to represent the less-familiar prospect of heaven and immortality, Dickinson's poems remove hometown places and persons from heaven's scene; where sentimental fictions domesticate death, her poems detach and strip it bare. The characteristic features of her poetry-scenelessness and temporal transcendence-are thus the mark neither of Dickinson's incipient modernism nor of the lyric voice's isolation from society or history, but rather of Dickinson's deliberate departure from a historically specific mode of representing immortality.
- Copyright 1998 The Regents of the University of California