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Home on the Horizon

America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan

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Sally Bayley

In this study of space and place, Sally Bayley examines the meaning of ‘home’ in American literature and culture. Moving from the nineteenth-century homestead of Emily Dickinson to the present-day reality of Bob Dylan, Bayley investigates the relationship of the domestic frontier to the wide-open spaces of the American outdoors. In contemporary America, she argues, the experience of home is increasingly isolated, leading to unsettling moments of domestic fallout.
At the centre of the book is the exposed and often shifting domain of the domestic threshold: Emily Dickinson’s doorstep, Edward Hopper’s doors and windows, and Harper Lee’s front porch. Bayley tracks these historically fragile territories through contemporary literature and film, including Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford – works that explore local, domestic territories as emblems of nation. The culturally potent sites of the american home – the hearth, porch, backyard, front lawn, bathroom, and basement – are positioned in relation to the more conflicted sites of the American motel and hotel.

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Chapter 1: The Ideal Home 23

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1The Ideal Home The Picturesque Daydream If we are to believe her poems and letters, we get a clear sense that Emily Dickinson was strongly attached to the idea of exits and entrances, doors and windows, and spent a deal of time hovering around their openings. In Dickinson’s orbit, the threshold is a charged space offering a quick way in or out, and it was under such arrangements that she met with her beloved sister-in-law and reading companion, Susan Dickinson: in the back serving hall of the family homestead – a room offering ‘alternative exits’ – a space protective of her privacy.1 As Lyndall Gordon’s recent biography makes clear, in the Dickinson homestead thresholds hummed with secrets. This, after all, was a home where an adulterous couple – her brother Austin and his lover Mabel Todd – were just as likely to be tucked up in the library or dining room; a household where crossing from one room to another might just give the adulterous game away. In Dickinson’s domestic world, thresholds were quite literally dangerous and condemning. If Austin and Mabel were making love in the dining room, Dickinson had no access to her second writing desk; if sequestered in the library, she was unable to cross into the conservatory – another of her favoured terrains. From late 1883 onwards, when the lovers first began to meet regularly in the Dickinson home, room-crossings became a risky business.2 And yet, her notion of home is clearly idealised, homely and secure. As she writes to her...

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