Emily Dickinson, in full Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, (born December 10, 1830, Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.—died May 15, 1886, Amherst), American lyric poet who lived in seclusion and commanded a singular brilliance of style and integrity of vision. With Walt Whitman, Dickinson is widely considered to be one of the two leading 19th-century American poets.
Only 10 of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems are known to have been published in her lifetime. Devoted to private pursuits, she sent hundreds of poems to friends and correspondents while apparently keeping the greater number to herself. She habitually worked in verse forms suggestive of hymns and ballads, with lines of three or four stresses. Her unusual off-rhymes have been seen as both experimental and influenced by the 18th-century hymnist Isaac Watts. She freely ignored the usual rules of versification and even of grammar, and in the intellectual content of her work she likewise proved exceptionally bold and original. Her verse is distinguished by its epigrammatic compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance, and lack of high polish.
The second of three children, Dickinson grew up in moderate privilege and with strong local and religious attachments. For her first nine years she resided in a mansion built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, who had helped found Amherst College but then went bankrupt shortly before her birth. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a forceful and prosperous Whig lawyer who served as treasurer of the college and was elected to one term in Congress. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, from the leading family in nearby Monson, was an introverted wife and hardworking housekeeper; her letters seem equally inexpressive and quirky. Both parents were loving but austere, and Emily became closely attached to her brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia. Never marrying, the two sisters remained at home, and when their brother married, he and his wife established their own household next door. The highly distinct and even eccentric personalities developed by the three siblings seem to have mandated strict limits to their intimacy. “If we had come up for the first time from two wells,” Emily once said of Lavinia, “her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say.” Only after the poet’s death did Lavinia and Austin realize how dedicated she was to her art.
As a girl, Emily was seen as frail by her parents and others and was often kept home from school. She attended the coeducational Amherst Academy, where she was recognized by teachers and students alike for her prodigious abilities in composition. She also excelled in other subjects emphasized by the school, most notably Latin and the sciences. A class in botany inspired her to assemble an herbarium containing a large number of pressed plants identified by their Latin names. She was fond of her teachers, but when she left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley, she found the school’s institutional tone uncongenial. Mount Holyoke’s strict rules and invasive religious practices, along with her own homesickness and growing rebelliousness, help explain why she did not return for a second year.
At home as well as at school and church, the religious faith that ruled the poet’s early years was evangelical Calvinism, a faith centred on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Questioning this tradition soon after leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson was to be the only member of her family who did not experience conversion or join Amherst’s First Congregational Church. Yet she seems to have retained a belief in the soul’s immortality or at least to have transmuted it into a Romantic quest for the transcendent and absolute. One reason her mature religious views elude specification is that she took no interest in creedal or doctrinal definition. In this she was influenced by both the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the mid-century tendencies of liberal Protestant orthodoxy. These influences pushed her toward a more symbolic understanding of religious truth and helped shape her vocation as poet.
Development as a poet
Although Dickinson had begun composing verse by her late teens, few of her early poems are extant. Among them are two of the burlesque “Valentines”—the exuberantly inventive expressions of affection and esteem she sent to friends of her youth. Two other poems dating from the first half of the 1850s draw a contrast between the world as it is and a more peaceful alternative, variously eternity or a serene imaginative order. All her known juvenilia were sent to friends and engage in a striking play of visionary fancies, a direction in which she was encouraged by the popular, sentimental book of essays Reveries of a Bachelor: Or a Book of the Heart by Ik. Marvel (the pseudonym of Donald Grant Mitchell). Dickinson’s acts of fancy and reverie, however, were more intricately social than those of Marvel’s bachelor, uniting the pleasures of solitary mental play, performance for an audience, and intimate communion with another. It may be because her writing began with a strong social impetus that her later solitude did not lead to a meaningless hermeticism.
Until Dickinson was in her mid-20s, her writing mostly took the form of letters, and a surprising number of those that she wrote from age 11 onward have been preserved. Sent to her brother, Austin, or to friends of her own sex, especially Abiah Root, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Gilbert (who would marry Austin), these generous communications overflow with humour, anecdote, invention, and sombre reflection. In general, Dickinson seems to have given and demanded more from her correspondents than she received. On occasion she interpreted her correspondents’ laxity in replying as evidence of neglect or even betrayal. Indeed, the loss of friends, whether through death or cooling interest, became a basic pattern for Dickinson. Much of her writing, both poetic and epistolary, seems premised on a feeling of abandonment and a matching effort to deny, overcome, or reflect on a sense of solitude.
Dickinson’s closest friendships usually had a literary flavour. She was introduced to the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson by one of her father’s law students, Benjamin F. Newton, and to that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Susan Gilbert and Henry Vaughan Emmons, a gifted college student. Two of Barrett Browning’s works, “A Vision of Poets,” describing the pantheon of poets, and Aurora Leigh, on the development of a female poet, seem to have played a formative role for Dickinson, validating the idea of female greatness and stimulating her ambition. Though she also corresponded with Josiah G. Holland, a popular writer of the time, he counted for less with her than his appealing wife, Elizabeth, a lifelong friend and the recipient of many affectionate letters.
In 1855 Dickinson traveled to Washington, D.C., with her sister and father, who was then ending his term as U.S. representative. On the return trip the sisters made an extended stay in Philadelphia, where it is thought the poet heard the preaching of Charles Wadsworth, a fascinating Presbyterian minister whose pulpit oratory suggested (as a colleague put it) “years of conflict and agony.” Seventy years later, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, claimed that Emily had fallen in love with Wadsworth, who was married, and then grandly renounced him. The story is too highly coloured for its details to be credited; certainly, there is no evidence the minister returned the poet’s love. Yet it is true that a correspondence arose between the two and that Wadsworth visited her in Amherst about 1860 and again in 1880. After his death in 1882, Dickinson remembered him as “my Philadelphia,” “my dearest earthly friend,” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood.”
Always fastidious, Dickinson began to restrict her social activity in her early 20s, staying home from communal functions and cultivating intense epistolary relationships with a reduced number of correspondents. In 1855, leaving the large and much-loved house (since razed) in which she had lived for 15 years, the 25-year-old woman and her family moved back to the dwelling associated with her first decade: the Dickinson mansion on Main Street in Amherst. Her home for the rest of her life, this large brick house, still standing, has become a favourite destination for her admirers. She found the return profoundly disturbing, and when her mother became incapacitated by a mysterious illness that lasted from 1855 to 1859, both daughters were compelled to give more of themselves to domestic pursuits. Various events outside the home—a bitter Norcross family lawsuit, the financial collapse of the local railroad that had been promoted by the poet’s father, and a powerful religious revival that renewed the pressure to “convert”—made the years 1857 and 1858 deeply troubling for Dickinson and promoted her further withdrawal.
In summer 1858, at the height of this period of obscure tension, Dickinson began assembling her manuscript-books. She made clean copies of her poems on fine quality stationery and then sewed small bundles of these sheets together at the fold. Over the next seven years she created 40 such booklets and several unsewn sheaves, and altogether they contained about 800 poems. No doubt she intended to arrange her work in a convenient form, perhaps for her own use in sending poems to friends. Perhaps the assemblage was meant to remain private, like her earlier herbarium. Or perhaps, as implied in a poem of 1863, “This is my letter to the world,” she anticipated posthumous publication. Because she left no instructions regarding the disposition of her manuscript-books, her ultimate purpose in assembling them can only be conjectured.
Dickinson sent more poems to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, a cultivated reader, than to any other known correspondent. Repeatedly professing eternal allegiance, these poems often imply that there was a certain distance between the two—that the sister-in-law was felt to be haughty, remote, or even incomprehensible. Yet Susan admired the poetry’s wit and verve and offered the kind of personally attentive audience Dickinson craved. On one occasion, Susan’s dissatisfaction with a poem, “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” resulted in the drafting of alternative stanzas. Susan was an active hostess, and her home was the venue at which Dickinson met a few friends, most importantly Samuel Bowles, publisher and editor of the influential Springfield Republican. Gregarious, captivating, and unusually liberal on the question of women’s careers, Bowles had a high regard for Dickinson’s poems, publishing (without her consent) seven of them during her lifetime—more than appeared in any other outlet. From 1859 to 1862 she sent him some of her most intense and confidential communications, including the daring poem “Title divine is mine,” whose speaker proclaims that she is now a “Wife,” but of a highly unconventional type.
In those years Dickinson experienced a painful and obscure personal crisis, partly of a romantic nature. The abject and pleading drafts of her second and third letters to the unidentified person she called “Master” are probably related to her many poems about a loved but distant person, usually male. There has been much speculation about the identity of this individual. One of the first candidates was George Henry Gould, the recipient in 1850 of a prose Valentine from Dickinson. Some have contended that Master was a woman, possibly Kate Scott Anthon or Susan Dickinson. Richard Sewall’s 1974 biography makes the case for Samuel Bowles. All such claims have rested on a partial examination of surviving documents and collateral evidence. Since it is now believed that the earliest draft to Master predates her friendship with Bowles, he cannot have been the person. On balance, Charles Wadsworth and possibly Gould remain the most likely candidates. Whoever the person was, Master’s failure to return Dickinson’s affection—together with Susan’s absorption in her first childbirth and Bowles’s growing invalidism—contributed to a piercing and ultimate sense of distress. In a letter, Dickinson described her lonely suffering as a “terror—since September—[that] I could tell to none.” Instead of succumbing to anguish, however, she came to view it as the sign of a special vocation, and it became the basis of an unprecedented creativity. A poem that seems to register this life-restoring act of resistance begins “The zeroes taught us phosphorus,” meaning that it is in absolute cold and nothingness that true brilliance originates.
Though Dickinson wrote little about the American Civil War, which was then raging, her awareness of its multiplied tragedies seems to have empowered her poetic drive. As she confided to her cousins in Boston, apropos of wartime bereavements, “Every day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be, more stupendous.” In the hundreds of poems Dickinson composed during the war, a movement can be discerned from the expression of immediate pain or exultation to the celebration of achievement and self-command. Building on her earlier quest for human intimacy and obsession with heaven, she explored the tragic ironies of human desire, such as fulfillment denied, the frustrated search for the absolute within the mundane, and the terrors of internal dissolution. She also articulated a profound sense of female subjectivity, expressing what it means to be subordinate, secondary, or not in control. Yet as the war proceeded, she also wrote with growing frequency about self-reliance, imperviousness, personal triumph, and hard-won liberty. The perfect transcendence she had formerly associated with heaven was now attached to a vision of supreme artistry.
In April 1862, about the time Wadsworth left the East Coast for a pastorate in San Francisco, Dickinson sought the critical advice of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose witty article of advice to writers, “A Letter to a Young Contributor,” had just appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Higginson was known as a writer of delicate nature essays and a crusader for women’s rights. Enclosing four poems, Dickinson asked for his opinion of her verse—whether or not it was “alive.” The ensuing correspondence lasted for years, with the poet sending her “preceptor,” as she called him, many more samples of her work. In addition to seeking an informed critique from a professional but not unsympathetic man of letters, she was reaching out at a time of accentuated loneliness. “You were not aware that you saved my Life,” she confided years later.
Dickinson’s last trips from Amherst were in 1864 and 1865, when she shared her cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross’s boardinghouse in Cambridge and underwent a course of treatment with the leading Boston ophthalmologist. She described her symptoms as an aching in her eyes and a painful sensitivity to light. Of the two posthumous diagnoses, exotropia (a kind of strabismus, the inability of one eye to align with the other) and anterior uveitis (inflammation of the uvea, a part of the iris), the latter seems more likely. In 1869 Higginson invited the poet to Boston to attend a literary salon. The terms she used in declining his invitation—“I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”—make clear her refusal by that time to leave home and also reveal her sense of paternal order. When Higginson visited her the next year, he recorded his vivid first impression of her “plain” features, “exquisitely” neat attire, “childlike” manner, and loquacious and exhausting brilliance. He was “glad not to live near her.”
In her last 15 years Dickinson averaged 35 poems a year and conducted her social life mainly through her chiselled and often sibylline written messages. Her father’s sudden death in 1874 caused a profound and persisting emotional upheaval yet eventually led to a greater openness, self-possession, and serenity. She repaired an 11-year breach with Samuel Bowles and made friends with Maria Whitney, a teacher of modern languages at Smith College, and Helen Hunt Jackson, poet and author of the novel Ramona (1884). Dickinson resumed contact with Wadsworth, and from about age 50 she conducted a passionate romance with Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the supreme court of Massachusetts. The letters she apparently sent Lord reveal her at her most playful, alternately teasing and confiding. In declining an erotic advance or his proposal of marriage, she asked, “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”
After Dickinson’s aging mother was incapacitated by a stroke and a broken hip, caring for her at home made large demands on the poet’s time and patience. After her mother died in 1882, Dickinson summed up the relationship in a confidential letter to her Norcross cousins: “We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother—but…when she became our Child, the Affection came.” The deaths of Dickinson’s friends in her last years—Bowles in 1878, Wadsworth in 1882, Lord in 1884, and Jackson in 1885—left her feeling terminally alone. But the single most shattering death, occurring in 1883, was that of her eight-year-old nephew next door, the gifted and charming Gilbert Dickinson. Her health broken by this culminating tragedy, she ceased seeing almost everyone, apparently including her sister-in-law. The poet died in 1886, when she was 55 years old. The immediate cause of death was a stroke. The attending physician attributed this to Bright’s disease, but a modern posthumous diagnosis points to severe primary hypertension as the underlying condition.
Dickinson’s exact wishes regarding the publication of her poetry are in dispute. When Lavinia found the manuscript-books, she decided the poems should be made public and asked Susan to prepare an edition. Susan failed to move the project forward, however, and after two years Lavinia turned the manuscript-books over to Mabel Loomis Todd, a local family friend, who energetically transcribed and selected the poems and also enlisted the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in editing. A complicating circumstance was that Todd was conducting an affair with Susan’s husband, Austin. When Poems by Emily Dickinson appeared in 1890, it drew widespread interest and a warm welcome from the eminent American novelist and critic William Dean Howells, who saw the verse as a signal expression of a distinctively American sensibility. But Susan, who was well aware of her husband’s ongoing affair with Todd, was outraged at what she perceived as Lavinia’s betrayal and Todd’s effrontery. The enmity between Susan and Todd, and later between their daughters, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham (each of whom edited selections of Dickinson’s work), had a pernicious effect on the presentation of Emily Dickinson’s work. Her poetic manuscripts are divided between two primary collections: the poems in Bingham’s possession went to Amherst College Library, and those in Bianchi’s hands to Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The acrimonious relationship between the two families has affected scholarly interpretation of Dickinson’s work into the 21st century.
In editing Dickinson’s poems in the 1890s, Todd and Higginson invented titles and regularized diction, grammar, metre, and rhyme. The first scholarly editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters, by Thomas H. Johnson, did not appear until the 1950s. A much improved edition of the complete poems was brought out in 1998 by R.W. Franklin.
In spite of her “modernism,” Dickinson’s verse drew little interest from the first generation of “High Modernists.” Hart Crane and Allen Tate were among the first leading writers to register her greatness, followed in the 1950s by Elizabeth Bishop and others. The New Critics also played an important role in establishing her place in the modern canon. From the beginning, however, Dickinson has strongly appealed to many ordinary or unschooled readers. Her unmistakable voice, private yet forthright—“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too?”—establishes an immediate connection. Readers respond, too, to the impression her poems convey of a haunting private life, one marked by extremes of deprivation and refined ecstasies. At the same time, her rich abundance—her great range of feeling, her supple expressiveness—testifies to an intrinsic poetic genius. Widely translated into Japanese, Italian, French, German, and many other languages, Dickinson has begun to strike readers as the one American lyric poet who belongs in the pantheon with Sappho, Catullus, Saʿdī, the Shakespeare of the sonnets, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Arthur Rimbaud.
The standard edition of the poems is the three-volume variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (1998), edited by R.W. Franklin. He also edited a two-volume work, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981), which provides facsimiles of the poems in their original groupings. The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), edited by Marta L. Werner and Jen Bervin, presents facsimiles of Dickinson’s so-called envelope poems, written on irregularly shaped scraps of paper. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, in three volumes edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (1958), was reissued in one volume in 1986, and it is still the standard source for the poet’s letters. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (1998), edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, is a selection of the poet’s correspondence with her sister-in-law. Facsimiles of the letters to “Master” and Otis Phillips Lord are presented in The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (1986), edited by R.W. Franklin, and Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), edited by Marta L. Werner. Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (1989), edited by Willis J. Buckingham, reprints all known reviews from the first decade of publication. Amherst College and Harvard University make their Dickinson manuscripts available online.Alfred HabeggerThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time. She took definition as her province and challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. Like writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, she experimented with expression in order to free it from conventional restraints. Like writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she crafted a new type of persona for the first person. The speakers in Dickinson’s poetry, like those in Brontë’s and Browning’s works, are sharp-sighted observers who see the inescapable limitations of their societies as well as their imagined and imaginable escapes. To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized. Like the Concord Transcendentalists whose works she knew well, she saw poetry as a double-edged sword. While it liberated the individual, it as readily left him ungrounded. The literary marketplace, however, offered new ground for her work in the last decade of the 19th century. When the first volume of her poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death, it met with stunning success. Going through eleven editions in less than two years, the poems eventually extended far beyond their first household audiences.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830 to Edward and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson. At the time of her birth, Emily’s father was an ambitious young lawyer. Educated at Amherst and Yale, he returned to his hometown and joined the ailing law practice of his father, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. Edward also joined his father in the family home, the Homestead, built by Samuel Dickinson in 1813. Active in the Whig Party, Edward Dickinson was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature (1837-1839) and the Massachusetts State Senate (1842-1843). Between 1852 and 1855 he served a single term as a representative from Massachusetts to the U.S. Congress. In Amherst he presented himself as a model citizen and prided himself on his civic work—treasurer of Amherst College, supporter of Amherst Academy, secretary to the Fire Society, and chairman of the annual Cattle Show. Comparatively little is known of Emily’s mother, who is often represented as the passive wife of a domineering husband. Her few surviving letters suggest a different picture, as does the scant information about her early education at Monson Academy. Academy papers and records discovered by Martha Ackmann reveal a young woman dedicated to her studies, particularly in the sciences.
By the time of Emily’s early childhood, there were three children in the household. Her brother, William Austin Dickinson, had preceded her by a year and a half. Her sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, was born in 1833. All three children attended the one-room primary school in Amherst and then moved on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College had grown. The brother and sisters’ education was soon divided. Austin was sent to Williston Seminary in 1842; Emily and Vinnie continued at Amherst Academy. By Emily Dickinson’s account, she delighted in all aspects of the school—the curriculum, the teachers, the students. The school prided itself on its connection with Amherst College, offering students regular attendance at college lectures in all the principal subjects— astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, mathematics, natural history, natural philosophy, and zoology. As this list suggests, the curriculum reflected the 19th-century emphasis on science. That emphasis reappeared in Dickinson’s poems and letters through her fascination with naming, her skilled observation and cultivation of flowers, her carefully wrought descriptions of plants, and her interest in “chemic force.” Those interests, however, rarely celebrated science in the same spirit as the teachers advocated. In an early poem, she chastised science for its prying interests. Its system interfered with the observer’s preferences; its study took the life out of living things. In “‘Arcturus’ is his other name” she writes, “I pull a flower from the woods - / A monster with a glass / Computes the stamens in a breath - / And has her in a ‘class!’“ At the same time, Dickinson’s study of botany was clearly a source of delight. She encouraged her friend Abiah Root to join her in a school assignment: “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will, if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.” She herself took that assignment seriously, keeping the herbarium generated by her botany textbook for the rest of her life. Behind her school botanical studies lay a popular text in common use at female seminaries. Written by Almira H. Lincoln, Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829) featured a particular kind of natural history, emphasizing the religious nature of scientific study. Lincoln was one of many early 19th-century writers who forwarded the “argument from design.” She assured her students that study of the natural world invariably revealed God. Its impeccably ordered systems showed the Creator’s hand at work.
Lincoln’s assessment accorded well with the local Amherst authority in natural philosophy. Edward Hitchcock, president of Amherst College, devoted his life to maintaining the unbroken connection between the natural world and its divine Creator. He was a frequent lecturer at the college, and Emily had many opportunities to hear him speak. His emphasis was clear from the titles of his books—Religious Lectures on Peculiar Phenomena in the Four Seasons (1861), The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (1851), and Religious Truth Illustrated from Science (1857). Like Louis Agassiz at Harvard, Hitchcock argued firmly that Sir Charles Lyell’s belief-shaking claims in the Principles of Geology (1830-1833) were still explicable through the careful intervention of a divine hand.
Dickinson found the conventional religious wisdom the least compelling part of these arguments. From what she read and what she heard at Amherst Academy, scientific observation proved its excellence in powerful description. The writer who could say what he saw was invariably the writer who opened the greatest meaning to his readers. While this definition fit well with the science practiced by natural historians such as Hitchcock and Lincoln, it also articulates the poetic theory then being formed by a writer with whom Dickinson’s name was often later linked. In 1838 Emerson told his Harvard audience, “Always the seer is a sayer.” Acknowledging the human penchant for classification, he approached this phenomenon with a different intent. Less interested than some in using the natural world to prove a supernatural one, he called his listeners and readers’ attention to the creative power of definition. The individual who could say what is was the individual for whom words were power.
While the strength of Amherst Academy lay in its emphasis on science, it also contributed to Dickinson’s development as a poet. The seven years at the academy provided her with her first “Master,” Leonard Humphrey, who served as principal of the academy from 1846 to 1848. Although Dickinson undoubtedly esteemed him while she was a student, her response to his unexpected death in 1850 clearly suggests her growing poetic interest. She wrote Abiah Root that her only tribute was her tears, and she lingered over them in her description. She will not brush them away, she says, for their presence is her expression. So, of course, is her language, which is in keeping with the memorial verses expected of 19th-century mourners.
Humphrey’s designation as “Master” parallels the other relationships Emily was cultivating at school. At the academy she developed a group of close friends within and against whom she defined her self and its written expression. Among these were Abiah Root, Abby Wood, and Emily Fowler. Other girls from Amherst were among her friends—particularly Jane Humphrey, who had lived with the Dickinsons while attending Amherst Academy. As was common for young women of the middle class, the scant formal schooling they received in the academies for “young ladies” provided them with a momentary autonomy. As students, they were invited to take their intellectual work seriously. Many of the schools, like Amherst Academy, required full-day attendance, and thus domestic duties were subordinated to academic ones. The curriculum was often the same as that for a young man’s education. At their “School for Young Ladies,” William and Waldo Emerson, for example, recycled their Harvard assignments for their students. When asked for advice about future study, they offered the reading list expected of young men. The celebration in the Dickinson household when Austin completed his study of David Hume’s History of England (1762) could well have been repeated for daughters, who also sought to master that text. Thus, the time at school was a time of intellectual challenge and relative freedom for girls, especially in an academy such as Amherst, which prided itself on its progressive understanding of education. The students looked to each other for their discussions, grew accustomed to thinking in terms of their identity as scholars, and faced a marked change when they left school.
Dickinson’s last term at Amherst Academy, however, did not mark the end of her formal schooling. As was common, Dickinson left the academy at the age of 15 in order to pursue a higher, and for women, final, level of education. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Under the guidance of Mary Lyon, the school was known for its religious predilection. Part and parcel of the curriculum were weekly sessions with Lyon in which religious questions were examined and the state of the students’ faith assessed. The young women were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Much has been made of Emily’s place in this latter category and in the widely circulated story that she was the only member of that group. Years later fellow student Clara Newman Turner remembered the moment when Mary Lyon “asked all those who wanted to be Christians to rise.” Emily remained seated. No one else did. Turner reports Emily’s comment to her: “‘They thought it queer I didn’t rise’—adding with a twinkle in her eye, ‘I thought a lie would be queerer.’“ Written in 1894, shortly after the publication of the first two volumes of Dickinson’s poetry and the initial publication of her letters, Turner’s reminiscences carry the burden of the 50 intervening years as well as the reviewers and readers’ delight in the apparent strangeness of the newly published Dickinson. The solitary rebel may well have been the only one sitting at that meeting, but the school records indicate that Dickinson was not alone in the “without hope” category. In fact, 30 students finished the school year with that designation.
The brevity of Emily’s stay at Mount Holyoke—a single year—has given rise to much speculation as to the nature of her departure. Some have argued that the beginning of her so-called reclusiveness can be seen in her frequent mentions of homesickness in her letters, but in no case do the letters suggest that her regular activities were disrupted. She did not make the same kind of close friends as she had at Amherst Academy, but her reports on the daily routine suggest that she was fully a part of the activities of the school. Additional questions are raised by the uncertainty over who made the decision that she not return for a second year. Dickinson attributed the decision to her father, but she said nothing further about his reasoning. Edward Dickinson’s reputation as a domineering individual in private and public affairs suggests that his decision may have stemmed from his desire to keep this particular daughter at home. Dickinson’s comments occasionally substantiate such speculation. She frequently represents herself as essential to her father’s contentment. But in other places her description of her father is quite different (the individual too busy with his law practice to notice what occurred at home). The least sensational explanation has been offered by biographer Richard Sewall. Looking over the Mount Holyoke curriculum and seeing how many of the texts duplicated those Dickinson had already studied at Amherst, he concludes that Mount Holyoke had little new to offer her. Whatever the reason, when it came Vinnie’s turn to attend a female seminary, she was sent to Ipswich.
Dickinson’s departure from Mount Holyoke marked the end of her formal schooling. It also prompted the dissatisfaction common among young women in the early 19th century. Upon their return, unmarried daughters were indeed expected to demonstrate their dutiful nature by setting aside their own interests in order to meet the needs of the home. For Dickinson the change was hardly welcome. Her letters from the early 1850s register dislike of domestic work and frustration with the time constraints created by the work that was never done. “God keep me from what they call households,” she exclaimed in a letter to Root in 1850.
Particularly annoying were the number of calls expected of the women in the Homestead. Edward Dickinson’s prominence meant a tacit support within the private sphere. The daily rounds of receiving and paying visits were deemed essential to social standing. Not only were visitors to the college welcome at all times in the home, but also were members of the Whig Party or the legislators with whom Edward Dickinson worked. Emily Norcross Dickinson’s retreat into poor health in the 1850s may well be understood as one response to such a routine.
For Dickinson, the pace of such visits was mind-numbing, and she began limiting the number of visits she made or received. She baked bread and tended the garden, but she would neither dust nor visit. There was one other duty she gladly took on. As the elder of Austin’s two sisters, she slotted herself into the expected role of counselor and confidante. In the 19th century the sister was expected to act as moral guide to her brother; Dickinson rose to that requirement—but on her own terms. Known at school as a “wit,” she put a sharp edge on her sweetest remarks. In her early letters to Austin, she represented the eldest child as the rising hope of the family. She promoted two virtues, only one of which was central to the moral guide’s provenance. From Dickinson’s perspective, Austin’s safe passage to adulthood depended on two aspects of his character. With the first she was in firm agreement with the wisdom of the century: the young man should emerge from his education with a firm loyalty to home. The second was Dickinson’s own invention: Austin’s success depended on a ruthless intellectual honesty. If he borrowed his ideas, he failed her test of character. There were to be no pieties between them, and when she detected his own reliance on conventional wisdom, she used her language to challenge what he had left unquestioned.
In her letters to Austin in the early 1850s, while he was teaching and in the mid 1850s during his three years as a law student at Harvard, she presented herself as a keen critic, using extravagant praise to invite him to question the worth of his own perceptions. She positioned herself as a spur to his ambition, readily reminding him of her own work when she wondered about the extent of his. Dickinson’s 1850s letters to Austin are marked by an intensity that did not outlast the decade. As Austin faced his own future, most of his choices defined an increasing separation between his sister’s world and his. Initially lured by the prospect of going West, he decided to settle in Amherst, apparently at his father’s urging. Not only did he return to his hometown, but he also joined his father in his law practice. Austin Dickinson gradually took over his father’s role: He too became the citizen of Amherst, treasurer of the College, and chairman of the Cattle Show. In only one case, and an increasingly controversial one, Austin Dickinson’s decision offered Dickinson the intensity she desired. His marriage to Susan Gilbert brought a new “sister” into the family, one with whom Dickinson felt she had much in common. That Gilbert’s intensity was finally of a different order Dickinson learned over time, but in the early 1850s, as her relationship with Austin was waning, her relationship with Gilbert was growing. Gilbert would figure powerfully in Dickinson’s life as a beloved comrade, critic, and alter ego.
Born just nine days after Dickinson, Susan Gilbert entered a profoundly different world from the one she would one day share with her sister-in-law. The daughter of a tavern keeper, Sue was born at the margins of Amherst society. Her father’s work defined her world as clearly as Edward Dickinson’s did that of his daughters. Had her father lived, Sue might never have moved from the world of the working class to the world of educated lawyers. Sue’s mother died in 1837; her father, in 1841. After her mother’s death, she and her sister Martha were sent to live with their aunt in Geneva, New York. They returned periodically to Amherst to visit their older married sister, Harriet Gilbert Cutler. Sue, however, returned to Amherst to live and attend school in 1847. Enrolled at Amherst Academy while Dickinson was at Mount Holyoke, Sue was gradually included in the Dickinson circle of friends by way of her sister Martha.
The end of Sue’s schooling signaled the beginning of work outside the home. She took a teaching position in Baltimore in 1851. On the eve of her departure, Amherst was in the midst of a religious revival. The community was galvanized by the strong preaching of both its regular and its visiting ministers. The Dickinson household was memorably affected. Emily Norcross Dickinson’s church membership dated from 1831, a few months after Emily’s birth. By the end of the revival, two more of the family members counted themselves among the saved: Edward Dickinson joined the church on 11 August 1850, the day that Susan Gilbert also became one of the fold. Vinnie Dickinson delayed some months longer, until November. Austin Dickinson waited several more years, joining the church in 1856, the year of his marriage. The other daughter never made that profession of faith. As Dickinson wrote to her friend Jane Humphrey in 1850, “I am standing alone in rebellion.”
To gauge the extent of Dickinson’s rebellion, consideration must be taken of the nature of church membership at the time as well as the attitudes toward revivalist fervor. As shown by Edward Dickinson’s and Susan Gilbert’s decisions to join the church in 1850, church membership was not tied to any particular stage of a person’s life. To be enrolled as a member was not a matter of age but of “conviction.” The individuals had first to be convinced of a true conversion experience, had to believe themselves chosen by God, of his “elect.” In keeping with the old-style Calvinism, the world was divided among the regenerate, the unregenerate, and those in between. The categories Mary Lyon used at Mount Holyoke (“established Christians,” “without hope,” and “with hope”) were the standard of the revivalist. But unlike their Puritan predecessors, the members of this generation moved with greater freedom between the latter two categories. Those “without hope” might well see a different possibility for themselves after a season of intense religious focus. The 19th-century Christians of Calvinist persuasion continued to maintain the absolute power of God’s election. His omnipotence could not be compromised by an individual’s effort; however, the individual’s unquestioning search for a true faith was an unalterable part of the salvific equation. While God would not simply choose those who chose themselves, he also would only make his choice from those present and accounted for—thus, the importance of church attendance as well as the centrality of religious self-examination. Revivals guaranteed that both would be inescapable.
As Dickinson wrote in a poem dated to 1875, “Escape is such a thankful Word.” In fact, her references to “escape” occur primarily in reference to the soul. In her scheme of redemption, salvation depended upon freedom. The poem ends with praise for the “trusty word” of escape. Contrasting a vision of “the savior” with the condition of being “saved,” Dickinson says there is clearly one choice: “And that is why I lay my Head / Opon this trusty word -” She invites the reader to compare one incarnation with another. Upending the Christian language about the “word,” Dickinson substitutes her own agency for the incarnate savior. She will choose “escape.” A decade earlier, the choice had been as apparent. In the poems from 1862 Dickinson describes the soul’s defining experiences. Figuring these “events” in terms of moments, she passes from the soul’s “Bandaged moments” of suspect thought to the soul’s freedom. In these “moments of escape,” the soul will not be confined; nor will its explosive power be contained: “The soul has moments of escape - / When bursting all the doors - / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings opon the Hours,”
Like the soul of her description, Dickinson refused to be confined by the elements expected of her. The demands of her father’s, her mother’s, and her dear friends’ religion invariably prompted such “moments of escape.” During the period of the 1850 revival in Amherst, Dickinson reported her own assessment of the circumstances. Far from using the language of “renewal” associated with revivalist vocabulary, she described a landscape of desolation darkened by an affliction of the spirit. In her “rebellion” letter to Humphrey, she wrote, “How lonely this world is growing, something so desolate creeps over the spirit and we don’t know it’s name, and it won’t go away, either Heaven is seeming greater, or Earth a great deal more small, or God is more “Our Father,” and we feel our need increased. Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless. Abby, Mary, Jane, and farthest of all my Vinnie have been seeking, and they all believe they have found; I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?”
Dickinson’s question frames the decade. Within those ten years she defined what was incontrovertibly precious to her. Not religion, but poetry; not the vehicle reduced to its tenor, but the process of making metaphor and watching the meaning emerge. As early as 1850 her letters suggest that her mind was turning over the possibility of her own work. Extending the contrast between herself and her friends, she described but did not specify an “aim” to her life. She announced its novelty (“I have dared to do strange things—bold things”), asserted her independence (“and have asked no advice from any”), and couched it in the language of temptation (“I have heeded beautiful tempters”). She described the winter as one long dream from which she had not yet awakened. That winter began with the gift of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Poems for New Year’s. Her letters of the period are frequent and long. Their heightened language provided working space for herself as writer. In these passionate letters to her female friends, she tried out different voices. At times she sounded like the female protagonist from a contemporary novel; at times, she was the narrator who chastises her characters for their failure to see beyond complicated circumstances. She played the wit and sounded the divine, exploring the possibility of the new converts’ religious faith only to come up short against its distinct unreality in her own experience. And finally, she confronted the difference imposed by that challenging change of state from daughter/sister to wife.
Lacking the letters written to Dickinson, readers cannot know whether the language of her friends matched her own, but the freedom with which Dickinson wrote to Humphrey and to Fowler suggests that their own responses encouraged hers. Perhaps this sense of encouragement was nowhere stronger than with Gilbert. Although little is known of their early relations, the letters written to Gilbert while she was teaching at Baltimore speak with a kind of hope for a shared perspective, if not a shared vocation. Recent critics have speculated that Gilbert, like Dickinson, thought of herself as a poet. Several of Dickinson’s letters stand behind this speculation, as does one of the few pieces of surviving correspondence with Gilbert from 1861—their discussion and disagreement over the second stanza of Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.” Writing to Gilbert in 1851, Dickinson imagined that their books would one day keep company with the poets. They will not be ignominiously jumbled together with grammars and dictionaries (the fate assigned to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s in the local stationer’s). Sue and Emily, she reports, are “the only poets.”
Whatever Gilbert’s poetic aspirations were, Dickinson clearly looked to Gilbert as one of her most important readers, if not the most important. She sent Gilbert more than 270 of her poems. Gilbert may well have read most of the poems that Dickinson wrote. In many cases the poems were written for her. They functioned as letters, with perhaps an additional line of greeting or closing. Gilbert’s involvement, however, did not satisfy Dickinson. In 1850-1851 there had been some minor argument, perhaps about religion. In the mid 1850s a more serious break occurred, one that was healed, yet one that marked a change in the nature of the relationship. In a letter dated to 1854 Dickinson begins bluntly, “Sue—you can go or stay—There is but one alternative—We differ often lately, and this must be the last.” The nature of the difference remains unknown. Critics have speculated about its connection with religion, with Austin Dickinson, with poetry, with their own love for each other. The nature of that love has been much debated: What did Dickinson’s passionate language signify? Her words are the declarations of a lover, but such language is not unique to the letters to Gilbert. It appears in the correspondence with Fowler and Humphrey. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has illustrated in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (1985), the passionate nature of female friendships is something the late 20th century was little prepared to understand. Modern categories of sexual relations, finally, do not fit neatly with the verbal record of the 19th century. “The love that dare not speak its name” may well have been a kind of common parlance among mid-19th-century women.
Dickinson’s own ambivalence toward marriage—an ambivalence so common as to be ubiquitous in the journals of young women—was clearly grounded in her perception of what the role of “wife” required. From her own housework as dutiful daughter, she had seen how secondary her own work became. In her observation of married women, her mother not excluded, she saw the failing health, the unmet demands, the absenting of self that was part of the husband-wife relationship. The “wife” poems of the 1860s reflect this ambivalence. The gold wears away; “amplitude” and “awe” are absent for the woman who meets the requirements of wife. The loss remains unspoken, but, like the irritating grain in the oyster’s shell, it leaves behind ample evidence.
She rose to His Requirement – dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife -
If ought She missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe -
Or first Prospective - Or the Gold
In using, wear away,
It lay unmentioned - as the Sea
Develope Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself - be known
The Fathoms they abide -
Little wonder that the words of another poem bound the woman’s life by the wedding. In one line the woman is “Born—Bridalled—Shrouded.”
Such thoughts did not belong to the poems alone. Writing to Gilbert in the midst of Gilbert’s courtship with Austin Dickinson, only four years before their marriage, Dickinson painted a haunting picture. She began with a discussion of “union” but implied that its conventional connection with marriage was not her meaning. She wrote, “Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it’s own, and we shall not run away from it, but lie still and be happy!” The use evokes the conventional association with marriage, but as Dickinson continued her reflection, she distinguished between the imagined happiness of “union” and the parched life of the married woman. She commented, “How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun.” The bride for whom the gold has not yet worn away, who gathers pearls without knowing what lies at their core, cannot fathom the value of the unmarried woman’s life. That remains to be discovered—too late—by the wife. Her wilted noon is hardly the happiness associated with Dickinson’s first mention of union. Rather, that bond belongs to another relationship, one that clearly she broached with Gilbert. Defined by an illuminating aim, it is particular to its holder, yet shared deeply with another. Dickinson represents her own position, and in turn asks Gilbert whether such a perspective is not also hers: “I have always hoped to know if you had no dear fancy, illumining all your life, no one of whom you murmured in the faithful ear of night—and at whose side in fancy, you walked the livelong day.” Dickinson’s “dear fancy” of becoming poet would indeed illumine her life. What remained less dependable was Gilbert’s accompaniment.
That Susan Dickinson would not join Dickinson in the “walk” became increasingly clear as she turned her attention to the social duties befitting the wife of a rising lawyer. Between hosting distinguished visitors (Emerson among them), presiding over various dinners, and mothering three children, Susan Dickinson’s “dear fancy” was far from Dickinson’s. As Dickinson had predicted, their paths diverged, but the letters and poems continued. The letters grow more cryptic, aphorism defining the distance between them. Dickinson began to divide her attention between Susan Dickinson and Susan’s children. In the last decade of Dickinson’s life, she apparently facilitated the extramarital affair between her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd. Regardless of outward behavior, however, Susan Dickinson remained a center to Dickinson’s circumference.
As the relationship with Susan Dickinson wavered, other aspects in Dickinson’s life were just coming to the fore. The 1850s marked a shift in her friendships. As her school friends married, she sought new companions. Defined by the written word, they divided between the known correspondent and the admired author. No new source of companionship for Dickinson, her books were primary voices behind her own writing. Regardless of the reading endorsed by the master in the academy or the father in the house, Dickinson read widely among the contemporary authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the British were the Romantic poets, the Brontë sisters, the Brownings, and George Eliot. On the American side was the unlikely company of Longfellow, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emerson. With a knowledge-bound sentence that suggested she knew more than she revealed, she claimed not to have read Whitman. She read Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, and Matthew Arnold. Her contemporaries gave Dickinson a kind of currency for her own writing, but commanding equal ground were the Bible and Shakespeare. While the authors were here defined by their inaccessibility, the allusions in Dickinson’s letters and poems suggest just how vividly she imagined her words in conversation with others.
Included in these epistolary conversations were her actual correspondents. Their number was growing. In two cases, the individuals were editors; later generations have wondered whether Dickinson saw Samuel Bowles and Josiah Holland as men who were likely to help her poetry into print. Bowles was chief editor of the Springfield Republican; Holland joined him in those duties in 1850. With both men Dickinson forwarded a lively correspondence. To each she sent many poems, and seven of those poems were printed in the paper—“Sic transit gloria mundi,” “Nobody knows this little rose,” “I Taste a liquor never brewed,” “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” “Flowers – Well - if anybody,” “Blazing in gold and quenching in purple,” and “A narrow fellow in the grass.” The language in Dickinson’s letters to Bowles is similar to the passionate language of her letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson. She readily declared her love to him; yet, as readily declared that love to his wife, Mary. In each she hoped to find an answering spirit, and from each she settled on different conclusions. Josiah Holland never elicited declarations of love. When she wrote to him, she wrote primarily to his wife. In contrast to the friends who married, Mary Holland became a sister she did not have to forfeit.
These friendships were in their early moments in 1853 when Edward Dickinson took up residence in Washington as he entered what he hoped would be the first of many terms in Congress. With their father’s absence, Vinnie and Emily Dickinson spent more time visiting—staying with the Hollands in Springfield or heading to Washington. In 1855 after one such visit, the sisters stopped in Philadelphia on their return to Amherst. Staying with their Amherst friend Eliza Coleman, they likely attended church with her. The minister in the pulpit was Charles Wadsworth, renowned for his preaching and pastoral care. Dickinson found herself interested in both. She eventually deemed Wadsworth one of her “Masters.” No letters from Dickinson to Wadsworth are extant, and yet the correspondence with Mary Holland indicates that Holland forwarded many letters from Dickinson to Wadsworth. The content of those letters is unknown. That Dickinson felt the need to send them under the covering hand of Holland suggests an intimacy critics have long puzzled over. As with Susan Dickinson, the question of relationship seems finally irreducible to familiar terms. While many have assumed a “love affair”—and in certain cases, assumption extends to a consummation in more than words—there is little evidence to support a sensationalized version. The only surviving letter written by Wadsworth to Dickinson dates from 1862. It speaks of the pastor’s concern for one of his flock: “I am distressed beyond measure at your note, received this moment,—I can only imagine the affliction which has befallen, or is now befalling you. Believe me, be what it may, you have all my sympathy, and my constant, earnest prayers.” Whether her letter to him has in fact survived is not clear. There are three letters addressed to an unnamed “Master”—the so-called “Master Letters”—but they are silent on the question of whether or not the letters were sent and if so, to whom. The second letter in particular speaks of “affliction” through sharply expressed pain. This language may have prompted Wadsworth’s response, but there is no conclusive evidence.
Edward Dickinson did not win reelection and thus turned his attention to his Amherst residence after his defeat in November 1855. At this time Edward’s law partnership with his son became a daily reality. He also returned his family to the Homestead. Emily Dickinson had been born in that house; the Dickinsons had resided there for the first ten years of her life. She had also spent time at the Homestead with her cousin John Graves and with Susan Dickinson during Edward Dickinson’s term in Washington. It became the center of Dickinson’s daily world from which she sent her mind “out upon Circumference,” writing hundreds of poems and letters in the rooms she had known for most of her life. It was not, however, a solitary house but increasingly became defined by its proximity to the house next door. Austin Dickinson and Susan Gilbert married in July 1856. They settled in the Evergreens, the house newly built down the path from the Homestead.
For Dickinson, the next years were both powerful and difficult. Her letters reflect the centrality of friendship in her life. As she commented to Bowles in 1858, “My friends are my ‘estate.’ Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them.” By this time in her life, there were significant losses to that “estate” through death—her first “Master,” Leonard Humphrey, in 1850; the second, Benjamin Newton, in 1853. There were also the losses through marriage and the mirror of loss, departure from Amherst. Whether comforting Mary Bowles on a stillbirth, remembering the death of a friend’s wife, or consoling her cousins Frances and Louise Norcross after their mother’s death, her words sought to accomplish the impossible. “Split lives—never ‘get well,’“ she commented; yet, in her letters she wrote into that divide, offering images to hold these lives together. Her approach forged a particular kind of connection. In these years, she turned increasingly to the cryptic style that came to define her writing. The letters are rich in aphorism and dense with allusion. She asks her reader to complete the connection her words only imply—to round out the context from which the allusion is taken, to take the part and imagine a whole. Through her letters, Dickinson reminds her correspondents that their broken worlds are not a mere chaos of fragments. Behind the seeming fragments of her short statements lies the invitation to remember the world in which each correspondent shares a certain and rich knowledge with the other. They alone know the extent of their connections; the friendship has given them the experiences peculiar to the relation.