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Faculty Spotlight: Marta Werner

Columns on the Montante Library

Marta Werner

"… In a beautiful book by the theorist George Steiner, he talks about the way we need to give children words and images."

My scholarship to date resides largely within the precincts of the 19th century. I have worked longest with Emily Dickinson’s writing, particularly with her late poems, letters, and fragments. More recently, I’ve worked with the writings of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, with a strong focus on the notebooks.

While I have delved deeply into the 19th century, I have also been tracing an escape route out of it. A few years ago, I turned to Helen Keller’s manuscripts, interrogating the ocularcentrism at the heart of archival work and asking what this ocularcentrism misses in its reading of texts.

I think I was not truly happy until I learned to read. My mum taught me how one summer when I was four….In a beautiful book by the theorist George Steiner, he talks about the way we need to give children words and images. He notes that not to do so results in a desperate poverty of the imagination.

When I was still a young child, my father read me the poems of Emily Dickinson. My dad was not a literary man. He was much more scientific! But he was drawn to the fundamental questions about existence, and he wanted me to think about them too. Poetry was a kind of code between us, a way of talking about our fears and wishes without stating them directly.

When my father grew quite old, he read all of Dickinson’s poems again and asked me to do so as well. We made private lists of the poems that were most compelling to us, then compared our lists. Again, it was a way of talking about difficult things—this time, his movement towards death. I have his list and sometimes I think of it as a strange autobiography of his life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.