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The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history Paperback – April 15, 1993


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Editorial Reviews

Review

"The fabled violence of American patrimony is here tracked and qualified by brilliantly perceptive readings of initial texts of that common inheritance. Susan Howe, herself "a library-cormorant" in Coleridge's phrase, brings to her task the powers of a major poet and the adamant measure of the "Other" she, as all women, have been forced to be. This remarkable book is vivid testimony of that voice we can no longer silence." -- Robert Creeley

Review

"The fabled violence of American patrimony is here tracked and qualified by brilliantly perceptive readings of initial texts of that common inheritance. Susan Howe, herself “a library-cormorant” in Coleridge’s phrase, brings to her task the powers of a major poet and the adamant measure of the “Other” she, as all women, have been forced to be. This remarkable book is vivid testimony of that voice we can no longer silence." (Robert Creeley)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Wesleyan; 1st edition (April 15, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0819562637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0819562630
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,305 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Robert E. Lloyd on August 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
For those who have read Susan Howe's poetry and marvelled at, but did not fully understand it, this book is compelling in its explanatory power. The quotations in the preface alone are worth the price of admission, for it is here than one can see how impressive is her understanding of Emily Dickinson's writing. By exposing the manuscript story behind Dickinson's works, Susan Howe has made a lasting contribution to American literature. Her essay on Cotton Mather is a charmer, certain to drive readers to find a copy of his Magnalia. The essay Incloser is a stylistic dynamo. There is also an interview with the author that sheds new light on her works.
But what will make this book immortal is Susan Howe's essay These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values. To anyone who has read Emily Dickinson's poems in a "standard" or "variorum" edition of any sort, this book is a must, because you will soon learn that you have not, in fact, been reading Dickinson's words, but instead an editor's (inaccurate) version of them (whether Johnson or Franklin). Susan Howe demonstrates with a clarity and perception unmatched by any editor how the only way to understand and fully appreciate Emily Dickinson is by reading her manuscripts, some of which are reproduced in this book. And the manuscripts only make one appreciate more intensely the achievement of Emily Dickinson. If you've read Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, you must buy this book, as it completes the true story. It is a staggering achievement that will long be remembered as a landmark event in the understanding of America's greatest poet. American academia owes Susan Howe a debt of incalculable magnitude for this essay alone.
(Note on the other review of this book: how anyone can give this book fewer than 5 stars is a mystery. Susan Howe is a marvelous storyteller with a breadth of interests that cannot fail to intrigue even the most casual reader.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Douglas A. Storm on February 5, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an experience in itself; it is history, poetry, criticism (literary and social). It is all bound up within Howe's "alternative" perspective of American literary history. It is a reading of the blanks and erasures still discoverable in primary documents.

It is a kind of commonplace book of Howe's reading with commentary. Not only are the quotations new (to one not steeped in Puritan literature from the 1630s) but they are utterly contemporary in what we experience still in this Puritan land.

These glimpses are flashes of brilliant light in the thunder storm of a dangerous and violent American culture.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Arch Llewellyn on June 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
You'll never read a book the same way again after "The Birth-mark"--you'll wonder about all the spaces, dashes, deletions and marginalia that didn't make it from manuscript to print. For Howe that's where the wild voices hide, dangerous figures like Anne Hutchinson, Mary Rowlandson and Emily Dickinson who threatened "civilized" male control. Howe samples texts like a hip-hop DJ, switching between voices to prove her point that editing was a typically male response to the wilderness that women (and the New World) represented.
Howe's passion for her subject is obvious, especially in the interview at the end. But the essays sometimes felt to me at least more like a display of cleverness than an effort to understand the figures she writes about. Like Charles Olson's "Call Me Ishmael," Howe's model, "The Birth-mark" squats a little uneasily between scholarship and poetry. The poet's own voice and sense of style tend to muffle the more distant Puritan voices, male and female, she's out to recover. Maybe this is the danger of not editing one's voice as a historian. Still, I'm glad I read this book--yet another reminder of what doesn't get into history and why.
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