Dickinson, Emily (1830–1886)

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Dickinson, Emily (1830–1886)

American poet often described misleadingly as a "virgin recluse" and "partially cracked poetess" (her own phrase), who is now widely regarded as one of America's 19th-century geniuses of letters. Pronunciation: DICK-inson. Born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts; died also in Amherst in her own home on May 15, 1886; daughter

of Edward Dickinson (a lawyer, businessman, and treasurer of Amherst College) and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson; attended Amherst's "Primary School" beginning in 1835; in 1840, with her sister Lavinia, attended Amherst Academy, 1840–1847; attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847–1848; never married; no children.

Evaded the religious revivals in the area, noting later in a poem: "I keep [the Sabbath] staying at home" (1844 and 1850); began friendship with SusanGilbert (1850); wrote "Brother Pegasus" letter to Austin on his engagement to Susan (1853); wrote letter: "Sue, you can go or stay" to Susan Gilbert (1854); moved back to the Homestead with family (1855); with Austin and Sue married (1856) and living in The Evergreens next door, exchanged letters between the two houses, especially with Sue (1856–86); wrote the "Master" letters during greatest poetic outpouring (1858–60s); workshopped "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" with Sue (1861); sent her first letter to Thomas Higginson (April 15, 1862)—"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" and a second letter (April 25): "Thank you for the surgery"; wrote Higginson after publication of "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" (1866): "It was robbed of me … I told you I did not print"; refused Higginson's invitation to visit in Boston, preferring to meet on her terms at her own home (1869); after her father died in Boston (1874), wrote Higginson: "His heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists"; her mother was paralyzed from an illness (1875) and died (November 1882), followed by Emily's beloved nephew Gilbert Dickinson (1883); fell ill (1884); wrote to the Norcrosses her last letter (early May 1886): "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily."

Selected publications:

"I taste a liquor never brewed," under the title "The Maywine," Springfield Weekly Republican (1861); "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," Republican (1862); "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church," Roundtable, and "Blazing in Gold and Quenching in Purple," Republican (1864); "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," under the title "The Snake," Republican (1866); "Success is Counted Sweetest," A Masque of Poets (1879). Posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's work began with Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson (Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1890).

On July 18, 1862, in apparent response to Thomas Higginson's request for a photograph, Emily Dickinson wrote: "Could you believe me—without? I had no portrait now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes like the Sherry in the glass that the Guest leaves—would this do just as well?" The playful allusiveness of her response, her firm refusal to allow any agency, other than herself and her own language, control or categorize an idea of who she was are hallmarks of this writer's poetic and personal strategy. During an age of evangelical ardor when women of means were educated in order to do God's work, and when marriage and the management of home were her proper sphere, Emily Dickinson chose otherwise. Because the study of women writers has been neglected, Emily Dickinson has sometimes seemed to stand completely alone in the women's section of the 19th-century canon of American Literature, in this solitude the myths of her peculiarities twine thickly about her—the "virginal" white dress, her withdrawal from society, the whimsy of baskets lowered from her window with gifts for children below, a disinterest in publication, and the shadow of unrequited love. But these were the elements of the female poet's personae—Dickinson played on them, and readers felt safe with them because they reinforced an image of ideal femininity. But against the rumors of the "partially cracked poetess," 20th-century poet Adrienne Rich imagines instead that Emily Dickinson was a woman who recognized her own gifts and "practiced the necessary economies." When Emily Dickinson mimed locking her bedroom door with an imaginary key during the visit of her niece, Martha, and said, "Matty: here's freedom," she was telling nothing less than the truth.

"I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk, because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read to me," said Louise Norcross of her cousin. "The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about." Imagine Dickinson, her hands soft with flour from the bread she has been kneading, reaching quickly for the paper, the back of an envelope or a grocery list, so she can catch the ideas as they come to her and delight then in sharing them with an immediate audience. Emily Dickinson's solitary room was the best bedroom in the house, and it was filled with "a certain slant of light" that must have angled comfortably across her shoulder to illuminate the pages of her book. She wrote there, too, at a small desk with a single drawer. And later took her needle and thread and used them to bind the books of her poetry that her sister Lavinia would find after her death. When, in 1862, Dickinson wrote: "The Soul selects her own Society—/ Then—shuts the door," she described the fierceness of her choice to live her life according to what she knew was both true and necessary. A lyric poet for whom metaphor was a language, Dickinson's own slant truths are no more misleading than her early editors' winnowing of her nature. Her poetic subjects have been categorized as Death, Nature, and Love, and those most frequently offered to students have seemed bright, safe affirmations of "women's subjects." But Emily Dickinson wrote about nature and natural phenomena as one who had studied the sciences, and she wrote about suicide, madness, and violence, the grave and death, and language, power, and sexual ecstasy with passion and intellect. Attempts to categorize her would seem to deny the kind of language she created: moving, various and variant, something alive, still living.

"There was nothing in the parentage or direct heredity of Emily Dickinson to account for her genius," writes Martha Dickinson Bianchi in the first chapter of her 1924 biography of the poet. But perhaps genius is unaccountable. Emily Dickinson's family were well-to-do people whose lives were intertwined with the fortunes of the growing town of Amherst, the Academy, and the College. Her parents were well-educated: Emily Norcross attended boarding school in New Haven and Edward Dickinson graduated from Yale, class of 1823. Their courtship letters echo the traditional moral ideals of the time and establish the tone of their relationship that would follow "the traditional pattern of dominant husband and sweet, submissive wife," notes Richard Sewall. Edward Dickinson was a man of ambition and moral certitude. A public figure, he practiced law and brought the railroad to Amherst much as his father had been instrumental in the founding of the college; Edward served as a representative to the General Court of Massachusetts and as treasurer of Amherst College (a position his son, Austin, would later occupy).

During Emily Dickinson's lifetime, Amherst's village green was a field with a frog pond surrounded by individual houses and dirt roads radiating outward into farmland and countryside. Households drew their own water and cut their own wood for cooking and heat; after dark, reading and sewing occurred in lamplight—candles were homemade and tallow. The west half of the Homestead, a New England style brick house built by Dickinson's grandfather, and later sold and repurchased as family fortunes shifted, was small for the 13 people who lived there when Emily Dickinson was born. Her early letters to her brother Austin, "dear bedfellow," evoke the crowded household, and while her connection between literary appropriateness and proper behavior—"They shut me up in Prose—/ As when a little Girl/ They put me in a closet/ Because they liked me still"—may not be strictly autobiographical, it suggests that there was little room for individual idiosyncracy. Edward Dickinson has been described as a prohibitive parent: "He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind"—but Emily Dickinson, though professing to fear her father, seemed to have a sense of humor concerning the peculiarities of all members of her family.

Daily life in a small New England town, even for an affluent family, was exacting, serious, time-consuming business—or, in the poet's lexicon, prose—it necessitated conformity, something Emily Dickinson made a career of resisting. Women's work would have included the practical skills of cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing (both linens and clothing), attending to general medicinal needs, child care, early education, neighborly and social calling, and, in the Dickinson house which was a center for Amherst social and cultural activity, the responsibilities for entertaining also belonged to the woman's sphere.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.

—Emily Dickinson, c. 1868

The seeming paradox of Emily Dickinson's life is that she appears to have chosen a "closet" (her home, and the bedroom and pantry in which she wrote) as her method of escaping conformity. But Dickinson's "closet" opened up from the inside; the physical walls protected the flowering of her extraordinary vision, and her mother and sister bore the responsibilities of the housekeeping that nurtured her gift. "I never had a mother," Dickinson said, and scholars have speculated about a significant "break" between mother and daughter and an ensuing bitterness. Not much is known about Emily Norcross Dickinson, though her daughter's adolescent letters reflect resentment that her mother encouraged capitulation to a woman's accepted role—to the Sewing Society and the housekeeping—but these were also women whose relationships were abiding and mutable. After her mother's last illness and death, Emily Dickinson wrote: "We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother—but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child the Affection came." Possibly "not having a mother" was an absence Emily Dickinson, who claimed herself as Eve, experienced in a literary sense—there was no precedence for her literary project, no one mother to her use of language, and "nothing to account for her genius."

Emily Dickinson's education took place in the balance between assumptions of women's subordinate status and the fervor of Amherst's intellectual growth. "God has designed nothing in vain," said the poet's grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, in reference to the education of women. The primary school that Emily Dickinson attended from 1835 to 1840 offered the rudiments of language, mathematics, and perhaps some science. But it was at Amherst Academy (founded in 1814, and out of which the college later grew) where Emily's intellectual faculties were encouraged and stimulated. In Dickinson's time, the Academy had approximately 100 girls enrolled; Emily was registered in the "English Course," and her teachers were often the talented, devoted young graduates of the college. Here Dickinson was known as a wit; she wrote comic sermons parodying the rhetoric of the local clergy, and spent her days studying and socializing in the stimulating company of other bright young men and women.

The curriculum was underscored by an understanding that religious principles were superior to all others, but the scholarship reflected by her teachers and the teachers at the adjacent college was rich in its conception and fully attuned to all the sciences of the natural world—affinities that the mature Dickinson's poetry would reflect in her specific references to geology, the seasons and weathers, and the animals and birds of her native state. In the intensity of Dickinson's language, "March is the Month of Expectation"—"his shoes are Purple"; the blue jay is a "prompt-executive Bird," the snake, "a Whiplash/ Unbraids in the Sun," and a sunset "Blaz[es] in Gold and Quench[es] in Purple."

Much has been made of Emily Dickinson's leaving Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary after only three terms: speculations include her poor health (she left once for a persistent cough), and her father's desire to have her home, but though her closer women friends were Amherst girls and women, she seems to have enjoyed the work at Mt. Holyoke and the example of Mary Lyon , the school's leading intellect and founder. Sewall suggests that Dickinson's significant formal education had already taken place at the Academy, and further, that Dickinson herself preferred, finally, her own home library. Books were a passion and took her farther afield in her mind and imagination than the body could have traveled.

Milton was a favorite, as well as Shakespeare (Longfellow's "Kavanaugh" had to be smuggled into the house because poetry as a work of pure imagination was frivolous). Dickinson read and was nurtured throughout her life by the work of women writers: George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), Elizabeth Barrett Browning , and the Brontës . She read and considered both what was new and what was "classic"; what was "acceptable" and what was not (though she claimed never to have read the other mid-19th century genius of letters, Walt Whitman, saying, "I have heard he is disgraceful").

The 1850s were a difficult and formative decade for Dickinson. Amherst, Massachusetts was a seat for the evangelical ardor that swept through the northeast during the middle of the century. While her circle of girlhood friends, Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Mary Wagner , and Jane Hitchcock were accepted into the church at this time, Emily Dickinson "kept [the Sabbath] staying at home" despite considerable social pressure. A puritan doctrine of self-sacrifice was preached to both men and women from all the pulpits, reprinted in all the magazines, and reflected in the sentiments of society, but it had the most profound effect on women, whose sphere was already regularized. In a very real sense, a woman's salvation was in her dustrag, and in the industry of her fingers as she sewed clothing for the poor. "God keep me from what they call households," wrote Dickinson, who sewed instead her own manuscripts into books that had to wait until the world was ready for them. "Housekeeping is a prickly art," she said, then practiced the necessary economies. Her decision made her "womanhood" suspect and cost her many of her childhood friends whose decisions to accept Christ and their womanly duties as wives and mothers separated Emily from them as surely as if they spoke another language. Dickinson's poems on marriage, and her gradual withdrawal from society just as her childhood friends were coupling, have been linked to a myth of unrequited love. But in the poem that begins, "Title Divine is Mine!" the wife is "Born—Bridalled/ Shrouded—/ In a Day." The meanings are multiple and pointed. The wife is an object, here made (born) in a single day; bridalled plays on images of marriage (cultural ritual), of entrapment (harness), and resentment (to bridle). Her final silencing, "shrouded," merges death and "bride" in the same image. Contrary to unquestioned ideas about woman's preferred estate, Dickinson's "wife" is not to be envied, for she represents a ceremonious and horrifying loss of autonomy and voice that occurs in the very moment of celebration.

"We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose," Emily Dickinson wrote to Susan Gilbert in the early 1850s. This letter is a marker at the beginning of a long and passionate friendship that was both literary and loving. In the beginning, Austin and Emily Dickinson were friends of the Gilbert sisters, Martha and Susan. But for Emily Dickinson, Susan Gilbert became muse ("to be Susan is Imagination"), reader, companion, "sister," and "The Only Woman in the World." Their letters to each other continued mostly unabated for 30 years and make clear (against the stories of seclusion) that there were always visits between them. In the early letters, the young women exchange family news, ideas about books, descriptions of life, ideas, and dreams. They loved gardening and recipes and long walks. And Emily's letters to Sue are often passionate and effusive, many of the allusions specify longing and physical embrace. "Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?" Dickinson struggles, too, with a love she recognizes is not conventional, abjuring, "Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say." In 1854, after Susan Gilbert had been accepted into the church and had chosen to marry Dickinson's brother, Emily wrote to Austin: "Now Brother Pegasus, I'll tell you what it is—I've been in the habit myself of writing some few things, and it rather appears to me that you're getting away with my patent, so you'd better be somewhat careful, or I'll call the police." It is a witty, angry letter and it stakes an important claim. Austin had just written a poem (probably announcing his engagement). The possible loss of Sue is devastating to Dickinson, but she claims her poetic identity here; writing is her sole province. It is not clear whether she had hoped to have had an actual partnership or marriage with Sue herself; the angriest letter, "Sue, you can go or stay," signals hurt, and perhaps ambivalence, but it also begins their mature relationship (and the eventual exchange of letter/poems) with the inclusion of two lines of poetry:

I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing—

The letters that follow make it clear that "Sweet Sue" remained her muse and companion, even after she married Austin and moved to The Evergreens next door in 1856, and that throughout the early 1860s at least there were many visits between their homes, and many bright, social evenings at The Evergreens.

Dickinson's three "Master" letters to an unknown, assumed male audience, were written between 1858 and 1862. The letters are romantic and supplicatory in tone and a great deal of consideration has been given to questions of the master's identity and relevance regarding the notion that Dickinson struggled at this time with unrequited love that precipitated her withdrawal from society. (Scholars have speculated that master could have been Judge Lord, Charles Wadsworth, or Samuel Bowles, all men of considerable intellect with whom she corresponded.) But Martha Nell Smith 's recent holographic study of the letters calls the identity of the master as male into question, and other readings suggest that Dickinson was playing with certain conventional forms, creating, in effect, a writer's exercise. She always played with gender in her poetry, sometimes assuming a male personae, but since she also questioned the patriarchal apportionment of power, it seems imbalanced to give so much weight to three unaddressed letters (they are published in a single volume of their own) while largely ignoring the significant exchanges occurring between Sue and Emily.

In 1861, Emily Dickinson sent a draft of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" to Susan. She wanted the reader she trusted most, writes Martha Nell Smith, a reader she considered a fellow poet to think about these lines with her. When Dickinson wrote two alternative second stanzas for her friend, Sue replied: "You never made a peer for that verse, and I guess you[r] kingdom doesn't hold one—I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again." In a similar language, Dickinson apparently remarked: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. Is there any other way." Both women describe the effects of language as sensual, frankly eroticized, as well as intellectual, and between them, in the process of this "workshop" and others, they articulated a philosophy of poetry that insisted upon a reader's participation, and on variation which would keep a text in continuous play.

Emily Dickinson's refusal to "publish" during her lifetime has largely been interpreted as a "feminine" gesture, a modest shrinking back from public view, but Smith asserts instead that she published herself in the letter-poems, and in the 40 handsewn fascicle volumes, eschewing with lawyerly distinction not publication but print, which would (and did) have the effect of regularizing her lines and fixing what she had intended to remain mutable. In 1862, Dickinson began her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a noted magazine editor, who had just published his "Letter to a Young Contributor" in The Atlantic Monthly. "Can you tell me if my verse is alive?" she asked and sent him two poems (she had written more than 300 by this time), then "thanked him for the surgery" when he'd replied with suggestions. But though she signed herself his "scholar" in their lengthy correspondence, Dickinson rarely took his surgical advice and often needed to explain her intentions to him. When "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" was published in 1866 (possibly because Susan had submitted it), Dickinson protested her intentions to Higginson, saying, "It was robbed of me, … and defeated of the third line…. I told you I did not print." This was not a poet without audience; this was a poet who insisted upon the fluidity of a text. Each of her variant versions of a single poem might be read as a finished draft published to a specific reader in order to create a dialogue of meaning. That she has often been mis-read, as when Higginson remarked about the erotically charged "Wild Nights, Wild Nights!" that he hesitated to print it "lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there," is largely a factor of the truths, slant or otherwise, that readers are willing to imagine.

Her life from the 1860s on, though private, was not without turmoil. Her eyesight troubled her, necessitating several trips to Boston. Scholars have speculated that she suffered from exotropia, a misalignment of the pupils which could have made her extremely sensitive to light. And there were a number of deaths: her father, her mother, Judge Lord, her beloved nephew Gilbert, Sue's first child, and Helen Hunt Jackson , a friend from childhood. In 1882, when Austin Dickinson began his relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd , the wife of a young Amherst College professor, it is likely that Emily lost the pleasure of visits with Sue, though the correspondence prevailed. Dickinson's greatest poetic outpouring had occurred in the late 1850s and throughout the '60s, but she continued to write both poetry and letters until the end of her life dealing "her pretty words like Blades—/ How glittering they shone—/ And every One unbared a Nerve/ or wantoned with a Bone." She remained fierce, witty, and physical, a poet who described her position as a woman and poet in terms of paradox and extremes: "My Life had stood—/ a Loaded Gun—."

At her death, her coffin was not carried to the cemetery through the streets she had largely eschewed for 30 years, rather across the fields, sweet with clover and the wild flowers she had loved. Upstairs, in a drawer her poems were waiting, "a letter to the world" when it was ready. Her early editors would disagree about the nature of her work and her relationships and would regularize her lines in print. But Dickinson's own slant truths prevail. In that early letter to Higginson describing her eyes "like the sherry in the glass the guest leaves," she also wrote:

[Father] says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest—but has no Mold of me, but I notice the quick wore off those things in a few days, and forestall the dishonor—you will think no caprice of me—.

Todd, Mabel Loomis (1858–1932)

American poet, editor, and writer of travel books. Born Mabel Loomis on November 10, 1858, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; died on October 14, 1932; daughter of Eben J. Loomis (a poetastronomer) and Mary Alden (Wilder) Loomis (a direct descendant of John Alden); educated privately in Washington and Boston; graduated from the Georgetown Seminary; studied music and painting in Boston; married David Todd (a professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Amherst), in 1879; children: Millicent Todd Bingham (1880–1968, married Walter Van Dyke Bingham).

In the company of two astronomers (her father and husband), Mabel Loomis Todd became intrigued by the science. Todd accompanied her professor-husband David Todd to Japan in 1887 to serve as his assistant while observing the total eclipse of the sun; she then wrote of the expedition for several American newspapers and magazines. In 1889, the couple traveled to West Africa to view another eclipse. They followed the sun for almost 20 years—to Tripoli, Dutch East Indies, Chile, and Russia—while Mabel Todd continued to write of their experiences.

While living in Amherst, she cultivated a relationship with Emily Dickinson and became romantically involved with Emily's brother Austin. Following the poet's death, and with the assistance of Austin, Lavinia Dickinson , and Thomas Went-worth Higginson, Todd edited and published two volumes of Dickinson's poetry (which included biographical prefaces). Mabel Todd was an accomplished pianist, singer, and lively lecturer; she was also a popular speaker on the subject of Emily Dickinson.

suggested reading:

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. NY: Holt, 1984.

No caprice, perhaps, and no mold either to contain the fluid evanescence of her mind and the quick of the voice that wrote to the bone and bared the nerves.


Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Rich, Adrienne. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose: 1966–1978. NY: W.W. Norton, 1979, pp. 157–183.

Sands, Marget. "The Revery Alone: Emily Dickinson's Poetics of Resistance and Desire," presented at The International Emily Dickinson Conference, Innsbruck, Austria, 1995.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor. Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Bennett, Paula. My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1986.

Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkely: North Atlantic Books, 1985.

Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Narkiewicz, Beverly S. "Poets and Friends: Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson," in American History. December 1995.


Correspondence, prose fragments, and manuscripts are located in the Frost Library at Amherst College and at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

related media:

The Belle of Amherst, a play based on the life of Emily Dickinson written by William Luce, opened on Broadway in 1976; Emily Dickinson was portrayed by Julie Harris .

A place setting at "The Dinner Party" by Judy Chicago .

Susan Perry Morehouse , Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, Alfred University, Alfred, New York

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Dickinson, Emily (1830–1886)

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