Family and early childhood
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born at the family's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not wealthy, family. Her father, Edward Dickinson was a lawyer in Amherst and a trustee of Amherst College. Two hundred years earlier, her patrilineal ancestors had arrived in the New World—in the Puritan Great Migration—where they prospered. Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. In 1813, he built the Homestead, a large mansion on the town's Main Street, that became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Samuel Dickinson's eldest son, Edward, was treasurer of Amherst College from 1835 to 1873, served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1838–1839; 1873) and the Massachusetts Senate (1842–1843), and represented Massachusetts's 10th congressional district in the 33rd U.S. Congress (1853–1855). On May 6, 1828, he married Emily Norcross from Monson, Massachusetts. They had three children:
- William Austin (1829–1895), known as Austin, Aust or Awe
- Emily Elizabeth
- Lavinia Norcross (1833–1899), known as Lavinia or Vinnie
By all accounts, young Dickinson was a well-behaved girl. On an extended visit to Monson when she was two, Dickinson's Aunt Lavinia described her as "perfectly well & contented—She is a very good child & but little trouble." Dickinson's aunt also noted the girl's affinity for music and her particular talent for the piano, which she called "the moosic".
Dickinson attended primary school in a two-story building on Pleasant Street. Her education was "ambitiously classical for a Victorian girl". Wanting his children well-educated, her father followed their progress even while away on business. When Dickinson was seven, he wrote home, reminding his children to "keep school, and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned". While Dickinson consistently described her father in a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was regularly cold and aloof. In a letter to a confidante, Dickinson wrote she "always ran Home to Awe [Austin] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none."
On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started together at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time, her father purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Dickinson's brother Austin later described this large new home as the "mansion" over which he and Dickinson presided as "lord and lady" while their parents were absent. The house overlooked Amherst's burial ground, described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding".
They shut me up in Prose – As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet – Because they liked me "still" – Still! Could themself have peeped – And seen my Brain – go round – They might as wise have lodged a Bird For Treason – in the Pound –
Emily Dickinson, c. 1862
Dickinson spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, "mental philosophy," and arithmetic. Daniel Taggart Fiske, the school's principal at the time, would later recall that Dickinson was "very bright" and "an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties". Although she had a few terms off due to illness—the longest of which was in 1845–1846, when she was enrolled for only eleven weeks—she enjoyed her strenuous studies, writing to a friend that the Academy was "a very fine school".
Dickinson was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April 1844, Dickinson was traumatized. Recalling the incident two years later, she wrote that "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face." She became so melancholic that her parents sent her to stay with family in Boston to recover. With her health and spirits restored, she soon returned to Amherst Academy to continue her studies. During this period, she met people who were to become lifelong friends and correspondents, such as Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert (who later married Dickinson's brother Austin).
In 1845, a religious revival took place in Amherst, resulting in 46 confessions of faith among Dickinson's peers. Dickinson wrote to a friend the following year: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my Savior." She went on to say it was her "greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to feel that he would listen to my prayers." The experience did not last: Dickinson never made a formal declaration of faith and attended services regularly for only a few years. After her church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home".
During the last year of her stay at the Academy, Dickinson became friendly with Leonard Humphrey, its popular new young principal. After finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which later became Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst. She stayed at the seminary for only ten months. Although she liked the girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there. The explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ considerably: either she was in poor health, her father wanted to have her at home, she rebelled against the evangelical fervor present at the school, she disliked the discipline-minded teachers, or she was simply homesick. Whatever the reasons for leaving Holyoke, her brother Austin appeared on March 25, 1848, to "bring [her] home at all events". Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities. She took up baking for the family and enjoyed attending local events and activities in the budding college town.
Early influences and writing
When she was eighteen, Dickinson's family befriended a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton. According to a letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family." Although their relationship was probably not romantic, Newton was a formative influence and would become the second in a series of older men (after Humphrey) that Dickinson referred to, variously, as her tutor, preceptor or master.
Newton likely introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth, and his gift to her of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first book of collected poems had a liberating effect. She wrote later that he, "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring". Newton held her in high regard, believing in and recognizing her as a poet. When he was dying of tuberculosis, he wrote to her, saying he would like to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw. Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to Newton.
Dickinson was familiar with not only the Bible but also contemporary popular literature. She was probably influenced by Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York, another gift from Newton (after reading it, she gushed "This then is a book! And there are more of them!"). Her brother smuggled a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh into the house for her (because her father might disapprove) and a friend lent her Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in late 1849. Jane Eyre's influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog. William Shakespeare was also a potent influence in her life. Referring to his plays, she wrote to one friend, "Why clasp any hand but this?" and to another, "Why is any other book needed?"
Adulthood and seclusion
In early 1850, Dickinson wrote that "Amherst is alive with fun this winter ... Oh, a very great town this is!" Her high spirits soon turned to melancholy after another death. The Amherst Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at age 25. Two years after his death, she revealed to her friend Abiah Root the extent of her sadness:
some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey.
During the 1850s, Dickinson's strongest and most affectionate relationship was with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. Dickinson eventually sent her over three hundred letters, more than to any other correspondent, over the course of their relationship. Susan was supportive of the poet, playing the role of "most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser" whose editorial suggestions Dickinson sometimes followed. In an 1882 letter to Susan, Dickinson said, "With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living."
The importance of Dickinson's relationship with Susan has widely been overlooked due to a point of view first promoted by Mabel Loomis Todd, who was involved for many years in a relationship with Austin Dickinson and who diminished Susan's role in Dickinson's life due to her own poor relationship with her lover's wife. However, the notion of a "cruel" Susan—as promoted by her romantic rival—has been questioned, most especially by Susan and Austin's surviving children, with whom Dickinson was close. Many scholars interpret the relationship between Emily and Susan as a romantic one. In The Emily Dickinson Journal Lena Koski wrote, "Dickinson's letters to Gilbert express strong homoerotic feelings." She quotes from many of their letters, including one from 1852 in which Dickinson proclaims, "Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me ... I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast ... my darling, so near I seem to you, that I disdain this pen, and wait for a warmer language." The relationship between Emily and Susan is portrayed in the film Wild Nights with Emily and explored in the TV series Dickinson.
Sue married Austin in 1856 after a four-year courtship, though their marriage was not a happy one. Edward Dickinson built a house for Austin and Sue naming it the Evergreens, a stand of which was located on the west side of the Homestead.
Until 1855, Dickinson had not strayed far from Amherst. That spring, accompanied by her mother and sister, she took one of her longest and farthest trips away from home. First, they spent three weeks in Washington, where her father was representing Massachusetts in Congress. Then they went to Philadelphia for two weeks to visit family. In Philadelphia, she met Charles Wadsworth, a famous minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she forged a strong friendship which lasted until his death in 1882. Despite seeing him only twice after 1855 (he moved to San Francisco in 1862), she variously referred to him as "my Philadelphia", "my Clergyman", "my dearest earthly friend" and "my Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood".
From the mid-1850s, Dickinson's mother became effectively bedridden with various chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. Writing to a friend in summer 1858, Dickinson said she would visit if she could leave "home, or mother. I do not go out at all, lest father will come and miss me, or miss some little act, which I might forget, should I run away – Mother is much as usual. I Know not what to hope of her". As her mother continued to decline, Dickinson's domestic responsibilities weighed more heavily upon her and she confined herself within the Homestead. Forty years later, Lavinia said that because their mother was chronically ill, one of the daughters had to remain always with her. Dickinson took this role as her own, and "finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it".
Withdrawing more and more from the outside world, Dickinson began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books. The forty fascicles she created from 1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No one was aware of the existence of these books until after her death.
In the late 1850s, the Dickinsons befriended Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, and his wife, Mary. They visited the Dickinsons regularly for years to come. During this time Dickinson sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most intense writing and Bowles published a few of her poems in his journal. It was from 1858 to 1861 that Dickinson is believed to have written a trio of letters that have been called "The Master Letters". These three letters, drafted to an unknown man simply referred to as "Master", continue to be the subject of speculation and contention amongst scholars.
The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from social life, proved to be Dickinson's most productive writing period. Modern scholars and researchers are divided as to the cause for Dickinson's withdrawal and extreme seclusion. While she was diagnosed as having "nervous prostration" by a physician during her lifetime, some today believe she may have suffered from illnesses as various as agoraphobia and epilepsy.
Is "my Verse ... alive?"
In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, radical abolitionist, and ex-minister, wrote a lead piece for The Atlantic Monthly titled, "Letter to a Young Contributor". Higginson's essay, in which he urged aspiring writers to "charge your style with life", contained practical advice for those wishing to break into print. Dickinson's decision to contact Higginson suggests that by 1862 she was contemplating publication and that it may have become increasingly difficult to write poetry without an audience. Seeking literary guidance that no one close to her could provide, Dickinson sent him a letter, which read in full:
Mr Higginson,Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask – Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude – If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you – I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true? That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it's own pawn –
This highly nuanced and largely theatrical letter was unsigned, but she had included her name on a card and enclosed it in an envelope, along with four of her poems. He praised her work but suggested that she delay publishing until she had written longer, being unaware she had already appeared in print. She assured him that publishing was as foreign to her "as Firmament to Fin", but also proposed that "If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her". Dickinson delighted in dramatic self-characterization and mystery in her letters to Higginson. She said of herself, "I 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." She stressed her solitary nature, saying her only real companions were the hills, the sundown, and her dog, Carlo. She also mentioned that whereas her mother did not "care for Thought", her father bought her books, but begged her "not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind".
Dickinson valued his advice, going from calling him "Mr. Higginson" to "Dear friend" as well as signing her letters, "Your Gnome" and "Your Scholar". His interest in her work certainly provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862. They corresponded until her death, but her difficulty in expressing her literary needs and a reluctance to enter into a cooperative exchange left Higginson nonplussed; he did not press her to publish in subsequent correspondence. Dickinson's own ambivalence on the matter militated against the likelihood of publication. Literary critic Edmund Wilson, in his review of Civil War literature, surmised that "with encouragement, she would certainly have published".
The woman in white
In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote fewer poems in 1866. Beset with personal loss as well as loss of domestic help, Dickinson may have been too overcome to keep up her previous level of writing. Carlo died during this time after having provided sixteen years of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog. Although the household servant of nine years, Margaret O'Brien, had married and left the Homestead that same year, it was not until 1869 that the Dickinsons brought in a permanent household servant, Margaret Maher, to replace their former maid-of-all-work. Emily once again was responsible for the kitchen, including cooking and cleaning up, as well as the baking at which she excelled.
A solemn thing – it was – I said – A Woman – White – to be – And wear – if God should count me fit – Her blameless mystery –
Emily Dickinson, c. 1861
Around this time, Dickinson's behavior began to change. She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face. She acquired local notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878–1882. Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person. Austin and his family began to protect Dickinson's privacy, deciding that she was not to be a subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence." MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote a short article in 1891 called "A Child's Recollection of Emily Dickinson", thought of her as always offering support to the neighborhood children.
When Higginson urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so they could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing: "Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town". It was not until he came to Amherst in 1870 that they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as "a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair ... in a very plain & exquisitely clean white piqué & a blue net worsted shawl." He also felt that he never was "with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."
Posies and poesies
Scholar Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, "was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet". Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she assembled a collection of pressed plants in a sixty-six-page leather-bound herbarium. It contained 424 pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. The Homestead garden was well known and admired locally in its time. It has not survived, but efforts to revive it have begun. Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered "carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia". In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she "could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets". Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but "they valued the posy more than the poetry".
On June 16, 1874, while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke and died. When the simple funeral was held in the Homestead's entrance hall, Dickinson stayed in her room with the door cracked open. Neither did she attend the memorial service on June 28. She wrote to Higginson that her father's "Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists." A year later, on June 15, 1875, Dickinson's mother also suffered a stroke, which produced a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory. Lamenting her mother's increasing physical as well as mental demands, Dickinson wrote that "Home is so far from Home".
Though the great Waters sleep, That they are still the Deep, We cannot doubt – No vacillating God Ignited this Abode To put it out –
Emily Dickinson, c. 1884
Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873 became an acquaintance of Dickinson's. After the death of Lord's wife in 1877, his friendship with Dickinson probably became a late-life romance, though as their letters were destroyed, this is surmised. Dickinson found a kindred soul in Lord, especially in terms of shared literary interests; the few letters which survived contain multiple quotations of Shakespeare's work, including the plays Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet and King Lear. In 1880 he gave her Cowden Clarke's Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (1877). Dickinson wrote that "While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us?" She referred to him as "My lovely Salem" and they wrote to each other religiously every Sunday. Dickinson looked forward to this day greatly; a surviving fragment of a letter written by her states that "Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day".
After being critically ill for several years, Judge Lord died in March 1884. Dickinson referred to him as "our latest Lost". Two years before this, on April 1, 1882, Dickinson's "Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood", Charles Wadsworth, also had died after a long illness.
Decline and death
Although she continued to write in her last years, Dickinson stopped editing and organizing her poems. She also exacted a promise from her sister Lavinia to burn her papers. Lavinia, who never married, remained at the Homestead until her own death in 1899.
The 1880s were a difficult time for the remaining Dickinsons. Irreconcilably alienated from his wife, Austin fell in love in 1882 with Mabel Loomis Todd, an Amherst College faculty wife who had recently moved to the area. Todd never met Dickinson but was intrigued by her, referring to her as "a lady whom the people call the Myth". Austin distanced himself from his family as his affair continued and his wife became sick with grief. Dickinson's mother died on November 14, 1882. Five weeks later, Dickinson wrote, "We were never intimate ... while she was our Mother – but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came." The next year, Austin and Sue's third and youngest child, Gilbert—Emily's favorite—died of typhoid fever.
As death succeeded death, Dickinson found her world upended. In the fall of 1884, she wrote, "The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come." That summer she had seen "a great darkness coming" and fainted while baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that Austin canceled a trip to Boston. She was confined to her bed for a few months, but managed to send a final burst of letters in the spring. What is thought to be her last letter was sent to her cousins, Louise and Frances Norcross, and simply read: "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily". On May 15, 1886, after several days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. Austin wrote in his diary that "the day was awful ... she ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the [afternoon] whistle sounded for six." Dickinson's chief physician gave the cause of death as Bright's disease and its duration as two and a half years.
Lavinia and Austin asked Susan to wash Dickinson's body upon her death. Susan also wrote Dickinson's obituary for the Springfield Republican, ending it with four lines from one of Dickinson's poems: "Morns like these, we parted; Noons like these, she rose; Fluttering first, then firmer, To her fair repose." Lavinia was perfectly satisfied that Sue should arrange everything, knowing it would be done lovingly. Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a lady's slipper orchid, and a "knot of blue field violets" placed about it. The funeral service, held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson, who had met her only twice, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine", a poem by Emily Brontë that had been a favorite of Dickinson's. At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.