“If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her”: Dickinson and the poetics of celebrity

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This essay throws new light on Dickinson and her writings by viewing them in the context of nineteenth-century celebrity culture. The first part of the essay focuses on Dickinson's participation in a culture of literary fandom driven by a powerful attraction to and near-obsession with admired writers and all things associated with them. In the context of contemporary celebrity tourism, it examines her presentation of speakers who elegiacally describe journeys to sites connected with Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and considers how these poems relate the workings of literary fandom to loss, absence, and death. The second part of the essay considers the ways in which Dickinson deploys celebrity discourse to foreground her poems as enticing spaces that exhibit that which attempts to evade public scrutiny or knowledge. Building on connections between Dickinson's concern with literary immortality and her arresting poems, the final part of the essay focuses on her personification of death as a mysterious celebrity-like figure (Fr166) and her presentation of the experience of death as a "famous - Sleep" (F463) and of the dead as achieving "strange fame" (Fr1398). The various strands of the essay coalesce in pointing not only to Dickinson's complex engagement with and response to the workings of celebrity, but also to her provocative foregrounding of interconnections between her culture's obsession with the dead and its construction of celebrities as absent-present, ghost-like figures who are intimately known individuals, but also otherworldly, transcendent strangers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-50
Number of pages26
JournalThe Emily Dickinson Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2017


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