Unknown and unpublished in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson’s reputation steadily grew in the twentieth century until she is now considered a major American poet. Her poetry has been translated into many world languages and has influenced generations of poets and artists, with up to two thousand musical settings of her poems currently in existence. Characterized by irregular rhythms, unorthodox syntax, and association of images that literary editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson called “poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them”, her poems are difficult and challenging, but richly rewarding.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in the family Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830, and died there on May 15, 1886. She was the second of three children born to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, with an older brother Austin and a younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie). Her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Edward’s father, was a prominent lawyer in Amherst who was instrumental in the founding of Amherst College, and both Edward and Austin served during their lifetimes as treasurer of the College. Fowler built the Homestead, the first brick house in Amherst, thus establishing the Dickinsons as one of Amherst’s most prominent families. The family experienced a period of financial instability when Fowler overcommitted his resources to founding the College, with the result that for a time the Homestead passed out of Dickinson ownership. Edward moved his family, when Emily was nine, to a house on West Street (now North Pleasant) next to the town burial ground. Here the family stayed until Edward repurchased the Homestead in 1855. Home was an important concept to Dickinson, and she recorded in letters and poems the wrench of leaving the West Street house where she had spent most of her formative years. Here she is describing the move in a letter to her friend, Mrs. Holland:

I cannot tell you how we moved. ... I supposed we were going to make a “transit,” as heavenly bodies did—but we came budget by budget, as our fellows do, till we fulfilled the pantomime contained in the word “moved.” It is a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants! (L182)

Once resettled in the Homestead, Emily enjoyed the extensive gardens and the conservatory her father built for her. Her botanical expertise was remarkable, and she often sent exotic flowers in the middle of winter to neighbors and friends. Next door stood the Evergreens, the house Edward built for Emily’s brother Austin, on the occasion of his marriage to Susan Huntington Gilbert in 1856. A narrow path connected the two houses that, according to her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Dickinson described as “just wide enough for two who love” (Life and Letters 52). Passionately attached to each other as young women, Sue and Emily experienced a complex and intense relationship that has been the source of much speculation and disagreement among Dickinson scholars. According to extant letters and poems, Emily sent Sue more poems than to any other correspondent.

Surrounded by a vibrant cultural and intellectual community, Dickinson first attended two primary schools in the 1830’s before enrolling, probably in the spring of 1841, at Amherst Academy. Principal of the Academy in 1842-43, Daniel T. Fiske described her as follows:

I remember her as a very bright, but rather delicate and frail looking girl; an excellent scholar; of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties; but somewhat shy and nervous. Her compositions were strikingly original; and in both thought and style seemed beyond her years, and always attracted much attention in the school and, I am afraid, excited not a little envy. (Letter to Mabel Loomis Todd, Ancestors’ Brocades 253)

Under the leadership of Edward Hitchcock, natural theologian and President of Amherst College from 1845 to 1854, the sciences flourished in Amherst and the curriculum enbraced a wide variety of subjects across the sciences and the classics. These influences provided a fertile field for Dickinson’s active and enquiring mind. By the age of eleven, she was already known for a wicked wit, as evidenced by her commentary on a school composition:

—this Afternoon is Wednesday and so of course there was Speaking and Composition—there was one young man who read a Composition the Subject was think twice before you speak—he was describing the reasons why any one should do so—one was—if a young gentleman—offered a young lady his arm and he had a dog who had no tail and he boarded at the tavern think twice before you speak. Another is if a young gentleman knows a young lady who he thinks nature has formed to perfection let him remember that roses conceal thorns he is the sillyest creature that ever lived I think. I told him I thought he had better think twice before he spoke— (L6, to Jane Humphrey, May 12, 1842)

Throughout her life, her letters were full of witticisms and irony. In one notorious remark in a letter to her Norcross cousins in 1863, Dickinson notes: “No one has called so far, but one old lady to look at a house. I directed her to the cemetery to spare expense of moving” (L285). To Mrs. Holland she wrote in 1876: “An unexpected impediment to my reply to your dear last, was a call from my Aunt Elizabeth—“the only male relative on the female side,” and though many days since, its flavor of court-martial still sets my spirit tingling” (L473).

In 1847, three months before her seventeenth birthday, Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, founded by Mary Lyon ten years before, where she boarded with her cousin, Emily Norcross. Although she was challenged by Mary Lyon’s religious fervor to accept Christ, Emily remained among the thirty “No-hopers” in her year. Her year at the Seminary was interrupted by a few weeks spent at home in late March because of a bad cough and ended when her father decided not to send her back for a second year. Her formal education thus concluded, Dickinson returned to Amherst where, except for a lengthy visit to Washington and Philadelphia and two extended stays in Boston, she lived for the rest of her life. In these early years she had a close circle of friends and participated in the social life of Amherst. In 1856, her bread won second prize at the Agricultural Fair, and the following year she served on the Cattle Show Committee, judging rye and Indian bread categories.

Austin and Sue had three children, two boys and a girl, of whom Emily was very fond. One of their playmates, MacGregor Jenkins, wrote a memoir in later years in which he describes Dickinson’s interactions with their “outlaw band”, lowering gingerbread in a basket from a back window or dropping them notes, of which he wrote: “I have never seen written sentences that sounded, looked and felt so much like quick, impulsive, spoken words as hers.” She was an avid reader all her life, with Shakespeare, the Bible, and her Webster’s Dictionary her main resources. The family subscribed regularly to newspapers and periodicals, and books passed frequently between the Homestead library and the Evergreens. Her poems and letters reflect a wide range of knowledge, including scientific, historical, and current events, biographies, and works of fiction. She especially admired the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. Of the latter, she once wrote, “ ‘What do I know of Middlemarch?’ What do I know of glory—” (L389).

The Dickinson household was in the forefront of current events and politically active, a fact that is recorded in Dickinson’s correspondence and in the many references in her poems to legal language and current affairs. Dickinson’s father, in addition to his career as a practicing lawyer (he was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court in 1854) and treasurer of Amherst College, served three terms as a Representative to the General Court of Massachusetts (in 1838, 1839, and 1874), twice as State Senator (1842 and 1843), was a member of the Governor’s Executive Council in 1846 and 1847, and was elected in 1852 to serve from 1853-1855 in the United States Congress as Representative from the Tenth Massachusetts District. In the Spring of 1855, although she was already withdrawing herself from society, Dickinson accompanied her father and sister to Washington for a three-week stay. There she described herself as “gayer than I was” though “all is jostle, here—scramble and confusion.” On their way home, Emily and Vinnie stayed two or three weeks in Philadelphia with their cousin, Eliza Coleman. It was here that Dickinson is thought to have heard Charles Wadsworth preach and been impressed enough to initiate a lifelong correspondence with the man she described variously as “my Philadelphia”, “my Clergyman”, “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood”, “my dearest earthly friend”.

It is not known when Dickinson began writing poetry. Only ten are known to have been published in her lifetime, most of them without her knowledge. The first, a valentine addressed to William Howland, who worked in her father’s law firm and was a tutor at Amherst College, appeared anonymously in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852, and six more of the ten were printed in the paper. Samuel Bowles, the paper’s editor, became a close friend of the Dickinsons, and Emily sent him many letters and poems. By the time she reached her late twenties, she had accumulated enough poems to begin creating hand-sewn booklets or “fascicles” in which she copied her poems. Dates tentatively assigned to her manuscript poems by virtue of her handwriting and analysis of the fascicles by her most recent editor, R. W. Franklin, indicate that her most prolific period occurred in 1863. However, since it was apparently her practice to destroy drafts once she had made a fair copy of a poem, certainty over date of composition can never be completely established. From comments she addressed to her sister-in-law Susan, it appears that they both had hopes of becoming known through their writing. In 1862, she read an article in the Atlantic Monthly, written by the magazine’s literary editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, entitled “Letter to a Young Contributor”, which proffered advice to aspiring writers. She sent Higginson four poems (“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”, The nearest Dream recedes unrealized”, “We play at Paste”, and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose”), asking him if he were “too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” From that began a lifelong correspondence, with Dickinson sending Higginson from time to time various poems from her collection. Higginson was both puzzled and intrigued by the unorthodox nature of her poems and apparently advised her to delay publication. In reply, Dickinson wrote that publishing was “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin—”, and she subsequently never sought to do so.

By 1864, Dickinson’s eyes were giving her sufficient trouble to warrant a seven-month stay at a boarding house in Cambridgeport where her cousins Louise and Fanny Norcross lived while she was under the care of a Boston opthalmologist. She returned again in the Spring of 1865 for another six months of treatment. It is now thought that Dickinson suffered from rheumatic iritis which made the glare of light painful and necessitated the avoidance of light and thus reading. As she later wrote to her distant relative and friend Joseph Lyman:

A Calamity. Some years ago I had a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble. It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul—BOOKS. The medical man said avaunt ye books tormentors, he also said ‘down, thoughts, & plunge into her soul.’ He might as well have said, ‘Eyes be blind’, “heart be still’. So I had eight weary months of Siberia. (The Lyman Letters 76)

Once returned to Amherst, Dickinson withdrew further and further into seclusion. When her dog, Carlo, who accompanied her whenever she ventured out into Amherst streets and woods, died in 1866, she was rarely seen. She wrote in 1869 to Higginson who had invited her to Boston: “I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town” (L330). She received only a selected few visitors. Charles Wadsworth visited her twice (in 1860 and 1880), as did Higginson (1870 and 1873). Samuel Bowles was a frequent visitor. On one occasion, when she refused to see him, Bowles called upstairs in no uncertain terms for her to come down at once, which she did. In a subsequent letter, she signed herself “Your ‘Rascal’” and said she’d “washed the Adjective” (L515), indicating that Bowles may have yelled “You damn(ed) rascal!” Dr. Josiah Gilbert Holland and his wife, Elizabeth Holland and Judge Otis P. Lord and his wife, Elizabeth Farley, were always welcome at the Homestead and not denied access to Dickinson. She also saw Helen Hunt Jackson, whom she knew in childhood, whenever Helen was in town. Of Helen’s first husband Major Hunt, Higginson reported to his wife after his first visit to Dickinson, “Major Hunt interested her more than any man she ever saw. She remembered two things he said—that her great dog ‘understood gravitation’ & when he said he should come again ‘in a year. If I say a shorter time it will be longer.’ When I said I would come again some time she said ‘Say in a long time, that will be nearer. Some time is nothing’ ” (L342b). In later years, Helen pressed her not to withhold her poems from the world and succeeded in getting “Success is counted sweetest” published in Roberts Brothers’ No Name series. Readers thought it had been written by Emerson.

Like Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, the more that has been written about Dickinson, the more elusive she seems. Early stories of her reclusiveness, experiences of passionate love, and overly obsessive preoccupation with death have been illuminated and clarified in more recent scholarship. Although there is evidence in the poems and in three drafts known as the “Master” letters of great passion, it is not known who might have been the recipient of any sexual love she may have felt. The main candidates put forward are Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, and Susan Dickinson. Late in her life, after the death of his wife, Dickinson and Judge Lord fell deeply in love, and marriage may have been proposed, though Dickinson withheld consent. Lord died in 1884, just two years before Emily’s own death. Likewise, readers are struck by the seeming obsession with death in many of Dickinson’s poems. Her first intimate contact with death occurred when her cousin, Sophia Holland, died in 1844 when Emily was thirteen, an event which unsettled her so much that she was sent to stay with her Aunt Lavinia for a month in Boston. She was deeply afflicted by the death of her father in 1874, and she never fully recovered from the devastation of the death of Austin’s and Sue’s youngest child, Gilbert, aged eight, of typhoid fever in 1883. Never being able to accept assurances of a Calvinist afterlife, all her life Dickinson agonized over what she called the disquieting thoughts of immortality. And yet commonplace ideas of her reclusive morbidity are gross misrepresentations of her intense joy in living, her love of nature as Edenic, so well expressed in one of her most famous poems (F466A/J657):

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise -

After Dickinson’s death, Lavinia discovered numerous manuscripts and worksheets of poetry. It was also found that Dickinson had entrusted her forty fascicles to their maid, Margaret (Maggie) Maher. Dedicated to seeing her sister’s work published, Vinnie took them first to Sue. Frustrated by Sue’s procrastination in getting them published, she then turned the manuscripts over to Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, who, with the help of Higginson, edited a selection of poems for publication in 1890. The history of publication is fraught with problems arising from the family feud which developed from Austin’s affair, and from the fact that poems often have several versions, together with alternative wording recorded in the manuscripts, so that no “final” version can be said to exist. Nevertheless, despite its fluid state, Dickinson’s poetry has achieved such renown that her prophetic words to Higginson have been more than realized: “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her” (L265).

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Citation: Freeman, Margaret. "Emily Dickinson". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 January 2005 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1259, accessed 01 June 2023.]

1259 Emily Dickinson 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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