Vivian Pollak

​Professor of English
PhD, Brandeis University
MA, Brandeis University
BA, Smith College
research interests:
  • Nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and culture
  • gender and sexualities
  • women writers
  • literary biography
  • poetry
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    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    ​Professor Pollak has published widely on Emily Dickinson and other topics. Her current projects include a study of American women poets "reading" Dickinson, with chapters on Helen Hunt Jackson, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.

    Professor Pollak's publications include Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (1984), A Poet's Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson (1988), New Essays on James's 'Daisy Miller' and 'The Turn of the Screw' (1992), The Erotic Whitman (2000), and A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004). She has taught at Brandeis, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Washington in Seattle. She has held grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society and has served on the boards of American Literature, South Central Review, Walt Whitman Encyclopedia, and The Emily Dickinson Journal. She has also served as President of the Association of Women Faculty at Washington University, Hilltop Campus, and as President of the Emily Dickinson International Society. In 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2007 she received awards from the Graduate Student Senate, Arts and Sciences, for excellence in mentoring. Her most recent book is Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference, which was published by the University of Pennsylvania  Press in 2017. Her current research interests, in addition to Dickinson and her circle, include Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

    Courses

    • L14 313: Topics in English and American Literature: Dreams
    • L14 4231: Topics in American Literature I: White American Masculinities
    • L14 257: The Art of Poetry
    • L14 483: Selected American Writers I: Becoming Emily Dickinson
    • L14 323: Transatlantic Foreignisms, 1878-1946
    • L14 4231: Topics in American Literature I: American Women's Poetry and the Trouble with Normal
    Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

    Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

    For Vivian R. Pollak, Emily Dickinson's work is an extended meditation on the risks of social, psychological, and aesthetic difference that would be taken up by the generations of women poets who followed her. She situates Dickinson's originality in relation to her nineteenth-century audiences, including poet, novelist, and Indian rights activist Helen Hunt Jackson and her controversial first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, and traces the emergence of competing versions of a brilliant but troubled Dickinson in the twentieth century, especially in the writings of Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.

    Pollak reveals the wide range of emotions exhibited by women poets toward Dickinson's achievement and chronicles how their attitudes toward her changed over time. She contends, however, that they consistently use Dickinson to clarify personal and professional battles of their own. Reading poems, letters, diaries, journals, interviews, drafts of published and unpublished work, and other historically specific primary sources, Pollak tracks nineteenth- and twentieth-century women poets' ambivalence toward a literary tradition that overvalued lyric's inwardness and undervalued the power of social connection.

    Our Emily Dickinsons places Dickinson's life and work within the context of larger debates about gender, sexuality, and literary authority in America and complicates the connections between creative expression, authorial biography, audience reception, and literary genealogy.

    The Erotic Whitman

    The Erotic Whitman

    In this provocative analysis of Whitman's exemplary quest for happiness, Vivian Pollak skillfully explores the intimate relationships that contributed to his portrayal of masculinity in crisis. She maintains that in representing himself as a characteristic nineteenth-century American and in proposing to heal national ills, Whitman was trying to temper his own inner conflicts as well. 

    New Essays on "Daisy Miller" and "The Turn of the Screw"

    New Essays on "Daisy Miller" and "The Turn of the Screw"

    Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw may be Henry James's most widely read tales. Certainly, these swiftly moving accounts of failed connections are among the best examples of his shorter fiction. One represents the international theme that made him famous; the other exemplifies the multiple meanings that make him modern. The introduction to this 1993 volume locates his fiction in the context of the family that conditioned his concern with the sexual politics of intimate experience. In the four essays that follow, Kenneth Graham offers a close reading of Daisy with an emphasis on Daisy; Robert Weisbuch examines Winterbourne as a specimen of James's formidable bachelor type; Millicent Bell places the ghost story governess in the traditions of English fiction and society; David McWhirter then provides a critique of female authority. Deftly summarising earlier criticism, these essays demonstrate the continuing appeal of Henry James in our time.

    Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender

    Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender

    A Poet's Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson

    A Poet's Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson

    The courtship letters of Emily Dickinson's parents identify issues of vital importance to the poet's parents which influenced Dickinson's subsequent development. In her introduction, Pollak places the letters within the context of nineteenth-century American society and argues that the poet's disturbed relationship with her mother forms part of a larger pattern of troubled same-sex bonding that can be observed in the lives and works of other major artists of the era.

    A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson

    A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson

    One of America's most celebrated women, Emily Dickinson was virtually unpublished in her own time and unknown to the public at large. Yet since the first publication of a limited selection of her poems in 1890, she has emerged as one of the most challenging and rewarding writers of all time. Born into a prosperous family in small town Amherst, Massachusetts, she had an above average education for a woman, attending a private high school and then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now Mount Holyoke College. Returning to Amherst to her loving family and her "feast" in the reading line, in the 1850s she became increasingly solitary and after the Civil War she spent her life indoors. Despite her cooking and gardening and extensive correspondence, Dickinson's life was strikingly narrow in its social compass. Not so her mind, and on her death in 1886 her sister discovered an astonishing cache of close to eighteen hundred poems. Bitter family quarrels delayed the full publication of Dickinson's "letter to the World," but today her poetry is commonly anthologized and widely praised for its precision, its intensity, its depth and beauty. Dickinson's life and work, however, remain in important ways mysterious.