Julia Sonneborn


Dickinson and Whitman


It’s now less than two months until the official publication date for BY THE BOOK, and I am feeling simultaneously excited and totally freaked out. On the one hand, it’s been my dream to publish a novel—I’ve been writing since I was young, I have a bunch of crappy failed novel drafts in a drawer, blah blah blah. On the other hand, publication means, by definition, going public. And going public not only means being read but also being exposed—to scrutiny, to criticism, to injury.

I just finished teaching an American literature survey, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Emily Dickinson, who in one of her poems writes:

            Publication – is the Auction

            Of the Mind of Man—

            Poverty – be justifying

            For so foul a thing

While she was alive, Dickinson’s poems were circulated among an intimate circle of readers, but it was only after her death that her poems were published for a larger audience. I’m convinced Dickinson wanted to be read and wanted to be published, but she too struggled with the exposure and loss of privacy that came with publication. But she also refers to publication as an “auction”—which it can, quite literally, be. The promising manuscript goes to the highest bidder/publisher. And it can feel a lot like selling your soul.

Walt Whitman, who I often teach alongside Dickinson and who seems her temperamental opposite—bombastic, self-promoting, hyper-masculine—nonetheless has one poem that strikes me as positively Dickensonian in its sentiments. Called “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” it describes the spider’s quiet labor of building a web:

A noiseless patient spider, 

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 


And you O my soul where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.


That second stanza kills me—the way Whitman equates the work of the spider to, really, the work of the poet. The poet is also a solitary soul, building a work of art, striving for connection despite his or her vulnerability. It’s not about selling the soul. It’s about finding sympathetic souls. It’s about feeling less alone.

Julie Trelstad