Emily Dickinson’s life has always fascinated people, even before she was famous for her poetry. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, a small farming village, on December 10, 1830, to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Edward Dickinson was a well-respected lawyer and politician, descended from a prominent Amherst family; his father was a founder of Amherst College, where Edward was treasurer.
Emily was the middle child, and was very close to her brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia. Emily spent almost all of her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, with the exception of the year she spent in boarding school—she left ostensibly because of illness, although it is more likely that it was homesickness. Emily was encouraged to get a good education, although Edward Dickinson had conservative views on the place of women, and did not want her to appear too literary.
When Emily returned from boarding school, she was very active socially, and was considered well-liked and attractive. In her late twenties, though, she suddenly cut herself all from all society, never leaving her family’s home, and started ferociously writing poetry. Although there is a long-standing myth that the catalyst for this was her falling in love with a man who rejected her, it is more likely that it was a combination of several factors.
Austin Dickinson married Emily’s very close friend, Susan Gilbert, but the marriage soon became an unhappy one, and Emily’s friendship with Susan eventually dissolved because of it. In addition, in late 1855, Emily’s mother fell ill with an undiagnosed illness, and from then until her death in 1882, she was essentially bedridden, and Emily and Lavinia had to devote a great deal of time to caring for her. This was especially taxing on Emily, who found all domestic chores stifling, and who was not very close to her mother. Finally, between 1851 and 1854, as many as thirty-three young acquaintances of Emily’s died, including her good friend and cousin, Emily Lavinia Norcross.
Emily began to dress only in white, and would see no one but her family, meeting visitors only through screens or behind doors. She wrote prolifically, writing almost 1800 poems, but her genius was never recognized during her lifetime. She published only seven poems while alive, all anonymously, and all heavily edited. Only after her death from kidney disease in 1886 did her sister find her poems. Recognizing their genius, she convinced her brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, to help her publish them. The first book was published in 1890, and met with great success.