The Magazine

The Groaning Shelf

Five new titles that instruct and entertain.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Our cover subject, Jane Austen, is matched here by her American equivalent, Emily Dickinson, among the ranks of enigmatic literary spinsters. But whereas Jane Austen depicted in lavish detail her cloistered corner of the English upper middle class, Emily Dickinson’s poems are allusive, fleeting, leaving more than a little unsaid and adding to the mystery of the businessman’s daughter who, dressed always in white, retreated by stages into the recesses of her family’s comfortable Amherst homestead.

You don’t have to be a Dickinson scholar to appreciate the details of research and informed speculation revealed in Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord by John Evangelist Walsh (Rutgers, 216 pp., $25). A cache of letters, which appeared in the possession of a literary confidence man in the decade after Dickinson’s death, were found to be a series of intense, emotional declarations by the poet to someone she called “Master,” with whom she had clearly been infatuated for years. At the time, the Dickinson family was convinced of their authenticity, and, indeed, there is every reason to believe that they were written by Emily Dickinson—but to whom? 

The author here makes a compelling argument for Otis Lord, two decades older than Emily, a distinguished judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and married. There is no evidence that the meeting of these two disparate minds ever led to anything more than a fierce emotional bond, featuring chaste meetings in Boston and at the Dickinson household. But Walsh makes a persuasive case that Judge Lord was, in fact, the Master, and finds suggestions to support his notion throughout Dickinson’s poetry. His theory is that she planned to marry the widowed Judge Lord, and when he died suddenly, she lost interest in living. 

The advantage that radical Islam enjoys in its confrontation with the West is the West’s ambivalence about radical Islam. Bill Siegel’s The Control Factor: Our Struggle to See the True Threat (Hamilton, 388 pp., $24.99) is a thoughtful attempt to discern how and why insecurity and fear—the “control factor”—undermine the instinct to recognize Islamist terror for the existential threat that it is. The Muslim world, of course, is a complex structure of nationalities and cultures, and the West, disunified not only politically but historically and characteristically, is uncertain about how to contend with Islam. Siegel believes, and is no doubt correct, that until the West sees radical Islam steady and whole there is no telling how many terrorist episodes will continue to undermine Western resolve. 

Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.