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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry Ward
- Ambrose
- Charles
Brockden Brown
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Perkins Gilman
- Nathaniel
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Allen Poe
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Gilmore Simms
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Authors: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson
[1617] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.),
courtesy of Amherst College Library.

Emily Dickinson Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
A lifelong resident of Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson left her hometown for only one year, when she attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. She was raised in an intellectual and socially prominent family and at the age of eighteen had received a better formal education than most of her American contemporaries, both male and female. Yet Dickinson led a largely sequestered existence, reading widely among works of classic and contemporary literature, devoting much of her time to writing poetry. She produced close to eighteen hundred poems, which are characterized by terse lines, "slant" rhymes, and keen observation. Because of the compressed and ambiguous nature of her work, where any given word can have multiple significations, Dickinson is sometimes called the first "modern" poet. Most prominent in her style, which is quite unlike her contemporaries', is her use of the dash: she simultaneously separates and links words and ideas in complex ways, rather than allowing traditional punctuation to determine meaning absolutely. Dickinson's work often grapples profoundly with topics and ideas which would have been unacceptable to her community. Her poems are often skeptical and angry, challenging many of her contemporaries' assumptions about God, death, gender, nature, and the human body.

Except for a dozen poems, most of Dickinson's work was not published in her lifetime. She did, however, carefully collect her poems into handmade booklets, or "fascicles," of about twenty poems each. Her purpose in organizing her poetry this way remains unclear; she may have desired a private archive for retrieving poems she wished to revise, and it has been suggested that the fascicles are organized by theme. Scholars have long been fascinated by this and other mysteries of her intensely private life, including her sexuality: Dickinson never married, and the evidence suggests that she felt some variety of passionate affection for both men and women (especially her sister-in-law, Susan, one of only a few people to whom she privately sent poems). A half-century after her death, the three volumes of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955) and two volumes of The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958) appeared.

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