Emily Dickinson

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A young Emily Dickinson, sometime around 1846-1847, the only known photograph of her.
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Emily Dickinson's grave in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Though almost unknown and nearly unpublished in her own lifetime, Dickinson has since come to be regarded along with Walt Whitman as one of the two great American poets of the 19th century. Often called reclusive, Dickinson lived nearly her whole life at the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Dickinson's poetry is often recognizable at a glance, and is unlike the work of any other poet. Her facility with ballad and hymn meter, her extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in her manuscripts, and her idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery combine to create a unique lyric style. Her work was initially published in heavily-edited form, finding popularity in the 1890s. Her poetry was republished in 1955 in a form closer to her manuscripts. It still appears strikingly modern in many respects. Her life, about which little is definitively known, has inspired numerous biographers and voluminous speculation.


Family background

Dickinson was born in Amherst in western Massachusetts to a prominent family. The extended Dickinson family was spread across much of the Connecticut River Valley and was known for its work in the local politics, education, and business. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson (17751838), was one of the founders of Amherst College, whose campus stands less than a mile from the family's home.

Her father, Edward Dickinson (18031874), was a lawyer and treasurer for the college. He was also politically prominent, serving on the Massachusetts General Court from 1838 to 1842, the Massachusetts Senate from 1842 to 1843, and the U.S. House of Representatives (to which he was elected as a Whig candidate in 1852). Among his projects was extending a railroad into Amherst; when he succeeded he became for a time the president of the Amherst & Belchertown Railroad. Edward Dickinson has often been described as a stern patriarch, even as a household tyrant; other biographers have disagreed, though, calling him a good father by 19th-century standards though a bit distant, professional, and cold. He was, in any case, well-educated and well-read, valued education for his daughters as well as his son, and had a wide circle of social contacts among America's powerful and learned classes.

His wife, and the poet's mother, was Emily Norcross Dickinson (18041882). She was quiet and deferential, even meek; when her father spoke, the daughter wrote critically, her mother "trembled, obeyed, and was silent." Her chronic illness was a source of anxiety to her children, but the poet primarily expressed disappointment with her mother's submissive personality.

The poet's siblings played important roles in her life, as friends and companions. William Austin Dickinson (18291895), usually known by his middle name, was her older brother, later married her friend Susan Gilbert in 1856 and made his home next door to the house in which Emily lived most of her life. He was among Emily Dickinson's closest confidants. Their younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833–1899), often known as "Vinnie," was also close to the poet, and after her death was largely responsible for the posthumous editing and publication of her sister's poetry.

Early life

Dickinson lived most of her life in the family's houses in Amherst. She was born in the brick homestead on Main Street in Amherst, which her parents then shared with a cousin's family; quarters were close, and as was common in 19th-century America, siblings shared their beds. In 1840, her father purchased a wood-frame house on West Street (now North Pleasant Street) about a mile away, and the family moved into a somewhat less crowded home. During the poet's youth, Austin, her older brother, bore much of the burden of his parents' expectations, though the family educated both daughters. Some biographers contend that Edward Dickinson was anxiously overprotective of his daughters during their childhood (Habegger 75-120).

Beginning in 1840, Emily was educated at the nearby Amherst Academy, a former boys' school which had opened to female students just two years earlier. She studied English and classical literature, learning Latin and reading the Aeneid over several years, and was taught in other subjects including religion, history, mathematics, geology, and biology. The academy's teachers were often recent graduates of Amherst College, and its students sometimes attended lectures there. During this time, Emily traveled to Boston and Worcester, visiting family there in 1844 and recuperate from illness the next year.

At the age of 13, she befriended fellow student Abiah Palmer Root, and they remained close friends and correspondents during Dickinson's youth. Root left Amherst in 1845, and thereafter the two exchanged frequent letters; in 1846, amid the Second Great Awakening religious revival which swept through the area, Root was converted while Dickinson remained unconvinced. The friendship ended decisively in 1848 when Dickinson's sentiments cooled.

At 17, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which would later become Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles from her home. The school was academically strict, even disciplinarian, and religiously evangelical, strongly encouraging conversion. This atmosphere did not prove completely hospitable for Emily, who was academically successful and socially content but remained a spiritual skeptic rather than a Christian convert. When she again became ill in the spring, her brother Austin was sent to bring her home after less than a year at the Seminary, and she did not return to the school.

After that, she left home only for short trips to visit relatives in Boston, Cambridge, and Connecticut. For decades, popular wisdom portrayed Dickinson as an agoraphobic recluse peeking out from the attic window and always wearing white. New scholarship suggests a much wider circle of influence than previously thought, including friends and extended family whom Dickinson kept in contact with through letters and their occasional visits to her Amherst home.


Dickinson's possible romantic and sexual attachments have been matters of great controversy among her biographers and critics. There is little reliable evidence on which to base a conclusion about the objects of her affection, though Dickinson's passion is made clear by some of her poems and letters. Attention has focussed especially on a group of letters addressed only to "Master" (and so known as the Master letters), in which Dickinson appears to be writing to a male lover; neither the addressee of these letters, nor whether they were sent, has been established.

For a century following her death, immense efforts were made to speculate about whether any men in her life might once have been her lovers. Dozens of men were suggested, and many biographers have been particularly convinced of the possibility that Dickinson might have been romantically involved with the newspaper publisher Samuel Bowles, or a friend of her father's, Judge Otis Lord. Lord was 18 years older than she, and their possible romantic relationship, if it existed at all, probably did not begin until she was over 50 years old.

Biographers have also found evidence that Dickinson may have had romantic attachments to women in her younger years, a hypothesis which has grown in popularity. After a possible short-lived romance with Emily Fowler circa 1850, some conjecture that the first major love interest of Dickinson's life was Susan Gilbert, a schoolteacher whom Dickinson fell in love with in 1851 and to whom she wrote numerous love letters. All of Gilbert's replies were burnt by Dickinson's family after Dickinson's death (possibly to conceal her lesbianism), but Dickinson's letters to Gilbert have survived. The following is excerpted from a letter from Dickinson to Gilbert in late April 1852.

Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper Good bye, again.
I have thought of it all day, Susie, and I fear of but little else, and when I was gone to meeting it filled my mind so full, I could not find a chink to put the worthy pastor; when he said "Our Heavenly Father," I said "Oh Darling Sue"; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang—it would have made you laugh to hear one little voice, piping to the departed. I made up words and kept singing how I loved you, and you had gone, while all the rest of the choir were singing Hallelujahs. I presume nobody heard me, because I sang so small, but it was a kind of a comfort to think I might put them out, singing of you. I a'nt there this afternoon, tho', because I am here, writing a little letter to my dear Sue, and I am very happy. I think of ten weeks—Dear One, and I think of love, and you, and my heart grows full and warm, and my breath stands still. The sun does'nt shine at all, but I can feel a sunshine stealing into my soul and making it all summer, and every thorn, a rose. And I pray that such summer's sun shine on my Absent One, and cause her bird to sing!

Gilbert married Dickinson's brother Austin Dickinson in 1856, and some think this broke Emily's heart. The correspondence between them ceased for two years, and so few traces have been found of what Emily did during that period that some biographers have speculated that she may have had a nervous breakdown.

Emily reconciled with Susan Gilbert in 1858 and resumed correspondence with her in a different tone, asking Gilbert to critique her poems, which at this time she began working harder at than ever. Dickinson went on to romance a variety of other women, whose names she summed up thus in a March 1859 letter to one of them, Catherine Scott Turner: "I never missed a Kate before,—Two Sues—Eliza and a Martha, comprehend my girls."

Another possible argument adduced in support of her love of women is Dickinson's propensity to play with gender signifiers in her letters. She referred to herself in either the text or the signature of many of her letters with various names including "Emily," "Emilie," "Uncle Emily," and "Brother Emily."

Dickinson died of what would today be called nephritis. Her last words were: "I must go in, for the fog is rising."

Poetry and Influence

Dickinson's poems

During a religious revival that swept Western Massachusetts during the decades of 1840-50, Dickinson found her vocation as a poet. One of her biographers has suggested that Dickinson thought of becoming a poet in the Biblical terms of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Most of her work is not only reflective of the small moments of what happens around her, but also of the larger battles and themes of what was happening in the larger society. For example, over half of her poems were written during the years of the American Civil War. In the words of one of her most memorable lines, Dickinson's poems tell all the truth but tell it slant:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyman be blind—

Dickinson toyed briefly with the idea of having her poems published, even asking Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic and family friend, for advice. Higginson immediately realized the young poet's talent, but when he tried to "improve" Dickinson's poems, adapting them to the more florid, romantic style popular at the time, Dickinson quickly lost interest in the project.

By the time of her death, only ten of Dickinson's poems (which number almost 1800) had been published. Three posthumous collections in the 1890s established her as a powerful eccentric, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that she was truly appreciated as one of the greatest American poets.

Posthumous publication

Dickinson's poetry was collected after her death by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, with Todd initially collecting and organizing the material and Higginson editing. They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the manuscripts' punctuation and capitalization to late nineteenth-century standards, occasionally also rewording poems to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. A volume of Dickinson's Poems was published in Boston in 1890, and became quite popular; by the end of 1892 eleven editions had sold. Poems: Second Series was published in 1891 and ran to five editions by 1893; a third series was published in 1896. Two volumes of Dickinson's letters, heavily edited and selected by Todd (who falsified dates on some of them), were published in 1894. This wave of posthumous publications was Dickinson's poetry's first real public exposure, and it found an immediate audience. Backed by Higginson and William Dean Howells with favorable notices and reviews, the poetry was popular from 1890 to 1892; later in the decade, though, the critical opinion (which had from the first been mixed) shifted toward the negative, as poetry readers of the 1890s disliked its "formlessness," unclear grammar, and half-rhyme. Thomas Bailey Aldrich published an influential negative review anonymously in the January 1892 Atlantic Monthly:

It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson....But the incoherence and formlessness of her — I don't know how to designate them — versicles are fatal....[A]n eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. (in Buckingham 281-282)

In the early 20th century, Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published a series of further collections, including many previously unpublished poems, with similarly normalized punctuation and capitalization; The Single Hound emerged in 1914, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1924, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi emerged through the 1930s, releasing gradually more previously unpublished poems. With the rise of modernist poetry, Dickinson's failure to conform to nineteenth-century ideas of poetic form was no longer so surprising or distasteful to new generations of readers. And a new wave of feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a woman poet. Her stock had clearly risen, but Dickinson was not generally thought a great poet among the first generation of modernists, as is clear from R.P. Blackmur's critical essay of 1937:

She was neither a professional poet nor an amateur; she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit. Her gift for words and the cultural predicament of her time drove her to poetry instead of antimacassars....She came, as Mr. Tate says, at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision. That is what makes her good — in a few poems and many passages representatively great. But...the bulk of her verse is not representative but mere fragmentary indicative notation. The pity of it is that the document her whole work makes shows nothing so much as that she had the themes, the insight, the observation, and the capacity for honesty, which had she only known how — or only known why — would have made the major instead of the minor fraction of her verse genuine poetry. But her dying society had no tradition by which to teach her the one lesson she did not know by instinct. (195)

The texts of these early editions would hardly be recognized by later readers, though, as their extensive editing had altered the texts found in Dickinson's manuscripts substantially. A new and complete edition of Dickinson's poetry by Thomas H. Johnson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in three volumes in 1955. This edition formed the basis of all later Dickinson scholarship, and provided the Dickinson known to readers thereafter: the poems were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, were strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and were often extremely elliptical in their language. They were printed for the first time much more nearly as Dickinson had left them, in versions approximating the text in her manuscripts. A later variorum edition provided many alternate wordings from which Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention, had been forced to choose for the sake of readability.

Later readers would draw attention to the remaining problems in reading even Johnson's relatively unaltered typeset texts of Dickinson, claiming that Dickinson's treatment of her manuscripts suggested that their physical and graphic properties were important to the reading of her poems. Possibly meaningful distinctions could be drawn, they argued, among different lengths and angles of dash in the poems, and different arrangements of text on the page. Several volumes have attempted to render Dickinson's handwritten dashes using multiple typographic symbols of varying length and angle; even R.W. Franklin's 1998 variorum edition of the poems, which aimed to supplant Johnson's edition as the scholarly standard text, used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the manuscripts' dashes more closely. Some scholars claimed that the poems should be studied by reading the manuscripts themselves (which have subsequently also become available in facsimile, for those interested in an unmediated reading of Dickinson's own texts).

See also


  • Blackmur, R.P.. "Emily Dickinson: Notes on Prejudice and Fact (1937)." In Selected Essays, ed. Denis Donoghue. New York: Ecco, 1986.
  • Buckingham, Willis J., ed. Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989. ISBN 0-8229-3604-6. A sourcebook containing a comprehensive selection of reviews and notices for the initial 1890s publications of Dickinson's poetry; the most complete volume of source material on the poems' initial reception.
  • Crumbley, Paul. Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Claiming several angles and lengths of dash in Dickinson's manuscripts are significant, argues for interpreters to inspect the poems' handwritten text. The book itself uses a variety of typographic symbols to approximate Dickinson's written dashes.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1960. ISBN 0-316-18413-6 (and others). The standard text of Dickinson's poetry.
    • The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1998. A more recent text which may be supplanting Johnson's edition as the new scholarly standard, this three-volume variorum edition was followed by a one-volume 1999 "Reading Edition" without textual variants and scholarly apparatus. The chronology of the poems in this edition is based on extensive analysis of the poet's handwriting and is probably better-established than earlier ones, though there remains some uncertainty.
    • The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1981. Facsimile edition of many of Dickinson's manuscripts, bound into fascicles as she first assembled them. In two large volumes.
  • Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001. A recent popular biography.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1955.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1974. ISBN 0-374-51581-9. The standard biography, running to more than 800 pages and covering most topics of importance to Dickinson's life and family.

External links

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