Dickinson speaks

WSU students take charge of The Emily Dickinson Journal

By Jim Hannah

Two Wright State University English literature students are helping edit scholarly articles from around the world submitted to The Emily Dickinson Journal—the only publication devoted to the poet’s writing.

Last year, the Department of English Language and Literatures in Wright State’s College of Liberal Arts became the journal’s new home. The 25-year-old journal had long been printed at and distributed from Johns Hopkins University.

James Guthrie, a Wright State English professor and internationally known Dickinson scholar, serves as the journal’s editor. But the managing editors are master’s degree students Sonora Humphreys, of Washington Court House, and Sebastian Williams, of Tiffin.

Dickinson grew up in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, and was in the first generation of college-educated American women. Over her lifetime, she wrote 1,775 poems.

“She’s hard to figure out for a lot of people,” says Humphreys. “She is one of those authors where you really have to work to understand her. But once you do, you just get it and the magic happens.”

Williams said Dickinson is playful, witty and fun to read.

“And she does interesting things with language,” he says. “It’s very distinct. You know when you’re reading Emily Dickinson.”

Over the years, Guthrie has written books and scholarly articles on Dickinson and been a regular contributor to the journal. He recently published “A Kiss from Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law,” a book about Dickinson’s use of legal terms and concepts in her writings. He has also written about and is an expert on other American literary giants such as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe.

English and literature came natural to Guthrie, who as a boy would wade through mountains of history, art and travel books around the house. He especially liked poetry.

“My mother used to read it to me when I was young, so it never seemed strange to me or bizarre,” he says. “It was sort of normal.”

Guthrie’s father was a professor of economics and his mother a college reference librarian. Growing up, Guthrie moved from college town to college town—Ann Arbor, New Haven, Lexington and Champaign-Urbana.

He got his bachelor degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan. While he was there, he won the Hopwood Award for his poems and used the prize money to travel to Europe, where he hitchhiked and camped out.

Guthrie landed a fellowship at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught creative writing and obtained his Ph.D. in English. He got a job at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, teaching English and joined the faculty at Wright State in the early 1990s, where he teaches American literature classes, covering literature from arrival of the Mayflower to the Spanish-American War.

Guthrie says Dickinson is a big part of the American literary scene and is growing more popular. He attributes that to the women’s movement and the fact that women are taking a greater role in academia.

“They are intrigued at having an intellectual foremother,” he says. “And to some extent there is an interest in separating us from the British literary tradition. She’s a very American story. There is a lot of stuff in her poetry about science, chemistry, astronomy. She was a new type of American woman who was able to operate in these intellectual activities that only men had done.”

In their jobs as managing editors, Williams and Humphreys receive academic articles on various historical, cultural or philosophical aspects of Dickinson’s writing from scholars from around the country and the world. Once the articles are peer-reviewed by experts in the field, the students must copy edit the stories.

This involves making sure the authors’ citations are accurate. For example, the students must confirm the Franklin and Johnson numbers, which track the chronology of Dickinson poems, and scrutinize the poems line by line.

Articles in the most recent edition of the journal bear titles such as “The Breath of Emily Dickinson’s Dashes,” “Consciousness and its Revisions in Dickinson’s Poetry” and “Insane in the Membrane: Emily Dickinson Dissecting Brains.”

“It probably helps us learn how to be better writers ourselves,” says Williams, who eventually would like to teach English literature at the college level. “It’s a lot of information thrown at you at once. It’s like a crash course in Emily Dickinson scholarship. You learn something every time you come into the office.”

Williams got his bachelor’s degree in English literature from Heidelberg University in Tiffin. In addition to pursuing his master’s in English literature at Wright State, he is working on a certificate in women, gender and sexuality studies.

Humphreys became an avid reader when she was only 4 or 5.

“I used to go to the library and take out as many books as they would let me,” she says. “Once I got into high school and took more English literature classes, I got more into British literature and American literature.”

After attending Ohio University, Humphreys enrolled at Wright State after falling in love with the Dunbar Library and realizing how good the university’s English program is. She got her bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2014 and would eventually like to teach it at the college level or be an editor in an academic setting.

Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.



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Jim Hannah
Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

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