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

9. Social

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry
- Abraham Cahan
- Theodore
- W. E. B. Du Bois
- Sui Sin Far
- Henry James
- Sarah Morgan
Bryan Piatt
- Booker T.
- Edith Wharton
- Anzia Yezierska
- Suggested
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Authors: Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (c. 1836-1919)

Anonymous, National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia
[7634] Anonymous, National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia (c. 1910-50), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-91935].

Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt Activities
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Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919) A poet widely published in nineteenth-century America, Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt saw hundreds of her verses appear in newspapers and magazines, and she published fifteen collected volumes of her work. The complexity and subtlety of some of her poetry tended to trouble critics, however, who accused her of being "wayward" and "enigmatic." Although she sometimes wrote within the genteel, sentimental tradition that dominated American women's poetry in the nineteenth century, Piatt--to her critics' dismay--also experimented with more challenging and allusive forms of expression. Piatt's subtle and often ironic aesthetic went largely unappreciated until contemporary feminist literary critics led a reassessment of her importance. Today Piatt's work is beginning to be recognized as a significant forerunner to the modernist poetry that emerged in the early twentieth century.

Sarah Piatt was raised in rural Kentucky and attended a women's college there. She received a liberal arts education, with a particular focus on the classics and on romantic poetry. Her interest in poetry was strengthened by her marriage in 1861 to John James Piatt, himself a poet. The couple eventually had seven children and John James, or J. J., took a variety of editorial and government jobs to support his large family. Over the course of his career, Piatt moved his family several times, living in Washington, D.C., Ohio, and Ireland. After growing up in the South, moving to the North, and living in Europe, Sarah Piatt developed a sophisticated awareness of cultural differences and the relativity of one's point of view, insights that permeate her poetry. With J. J. serving as editor and agent, Piatt published in many of the prestigious journals and magazines of the time and brought out a series of books. Despite her productivity, however, she and her husband both died in poverty.

Though Piatt's work sometimes deals with conventional sentimental themes such as children, romance, and death, she often uses her poetry to self-consciously deflate sentimental conventions. Her later work is characterized by a dramatic realism that relies on dialogue to elucidate her complex and subtle meaning. Many of Piatt's best poems do not rely on a single lyric voice but instead introduce multiple speakers (often children). This multitude of voices can be confusing to readers--an early reviewer complained that, by not making clear who is speaking and in what context, Piatt's poems leave "much to be supplied by intuition and imagination." But if engaging with Piatt's work can sometimes feel like trying to solve a difficult riddle, most readers will find the rich, complex results to be worth the effort.

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