A Kiss from Thermopylae
272 pages, 6 x 9
Release Date:05 Jan 2015
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A Kiss from Thermopylae

Emily Dickinson and Law

University of Massachusetts Press
Born into a family of attorneys, Dickinson absorbed law at home. She employed legal terms and concepts regularly in her writings, and her metaphors grounded in law derive much of their expressive power from a comparatively sophisticated lay knowledge of the various legal and political issues that were roiling nineteenth-century America. Dickinson displays interest in such areas as criminal law, contracts, equity, property, estate law, and bankruptcy. She also held in high regard the role of law in resolving disputes and maintaining civic order. Toward the end of her life, Dickinson cited the Spartans' defense at Thermopylae as an object lesson demonstrating why societies should uphold the rule of law.
Yet Dickinson was also capable of criticizing, even satirizing, law and lawyers. Her poetic personae inhabit various legal roles including those of jurymen, judges, and attorneys, and some poems simulate courtroom contests pitting the rights of individuals against the power of the state. She was keenly interested in legal matters pertaining to women, such as breach of promise, dower, and trusts. With her tone ranging from subservient to domineering, from reverential to ridiculing, Dickinson's writings reflect an abiding concern with philosophic and political principles underpinning the law, as well as an identification with the plight of individuals who dared confront authority.
A Kiss from Thermopylae reveals a new dimension of Dickinson's writing and thinking, one indicating that she was thoroughly familiar with the legal community's idiomatic language, actively engaged with contemporary political and ethical questions, and skilled at deploying a poetic register ranging from high romanticism to low humor.
This book contributes significantly to Emily Dickinson scholarship. There is nothing like it. In addition, Guthrie is superb at explaining accessibly what legal terms mean and what their implications are for everyday aspects of people's lives.'—Cristanne Miller, author of Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century
'A Kiss from Thermopylae establishes beyond doubt the importance of legal reasoning to Dickinson's poetry, and it also contributes importantly to the value of the 'law and literature' subdiscipline.'—Gary Stonum, author of The Dickinson Sublime
'Guthrie provides prodigious documentation, explains legal terms clearly, and fully explicates Dickinson's cultural milieu. In sum, this is a landmark study. Essential.'—Choice
'The vibrancy and deftness of Guthrie's prose carries the reader through legal text books, case laws, biographical and cultural concerns, women together through reading so f her poems so compelling that it becomes easy to lose sight of how original many of his arguments are. . . . for example Guthrie convincingly argues for the importance of the notion of bankruptcy to Dickinson personally, who was keenly aware of the financial straits into which her grandfather Samuel drove the family, and also poetically, as a typological metaphor for Adam's fall and redemption.'—Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin
'Illuminating. . . . Readers new to Dickinson will find that Guthrie provides an extremely clear procedure for logically penetrating the surfaces of many of Dickinson's most enigmatic poems, while experienced scholars will be surprised and delighted to discover how Dickinson's legal habit of thought adds new depths to even the most studied poems and letters.'—Nineteenth-Century Literature
'An understanding of Dickinson's awareness of the law leads to new insights into her poetry, which engages with such themes as authoritarianism and individuality, and social responsibility and citizen rights.'—American Literature
James R. Guthrie is professor of English at Wright State University. He is author of Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions and Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry.
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