Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Dickinson, living a reclusive social life, led an inner life of intense, imaginative creativity that made her one of America’s greatest poets.
The sparse facts of Emily Elizabeth Dickinson’s external life can be summarized in a few sentences: She was born in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, spent her entire life in her family home, and died in it on May 15, 1886. She was graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847, then attended nearby Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year. She traveled occasionally to Springfield and twice to Boston. In 1854, she and her family visited Washington and Philadelphia. She never married and had no romantic relationships. Yet her interior life was so intense that a distinguished twentieth century poet and critic, Allen Tate, could write, “All pity for Miss Dickinson’s ‘starved life’ is misdirected. Her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.” It is a life which has proved a perplexing puzzle to many critics and biographers.
What led to Dickinson’s monastic seclusion from society? Was it forced on her by a possessive, despotic father? Was it self-willed by her timid temperament, by rejected love, or by her neurotic need for utmost privacy while she pursued the muse of poetry? Speculation abounds, certainty eludes; nothing is simple and direct about her behavior. Perhaps the opening lines of her poem #1129 are self-revealing:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
When Dickinson was born, Amherst was a farming village of four to five hundred families, with a cultural tradition of Puritanism and a devotion to education as well as devoutness. The Dickinsons were prominent in public and collegiate activities. Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, founded Amherst College in 1821 to train preachers, teachers, and missionaries. Edward Dickinson (1813-1874), Emily’s father, was the eldest of nine children. He became a successful attorney and, at age thirty-two, was named treasurer of Amherst College, a position he kept for thirty-eight years. He served three terms in the Massachusetts legislature and one term as a member of Congress. Even political opponents respected him as forthright, courageous, diligent, solemn, intelligent, and reliable; he was the incarnation of responsibility and rectitude. In a letter to her brother, Dickinson mocked him (and her mother): “Father and Mother sit in state in the sitting-room perusing such papers, only, as they are well assured, have nothing carnal in them.”
Emily’s mother, Emily Norcross (1804-1882), was born in Monson, Massachusetts, twenty miles south of Amherst. Her father was a well-to-do farmer who sent his daughter to a reputable boarding school, where she behaved conventionally, preparing herself for the respectable, rational marriage that ensued after Edward Dickinson had courted her politely and passionlessly. The mother has received adverse treatment from most of Dickinson’s biographers because of several statements the daughter wrote to her confidant, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911):
My Mother does not care for thought.
I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.
I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.
Richard Sewall indicates in his magisterial two-volume The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974) that Emily’s acerbic remarks should not be taken at their surface meaning in the light of the poet’s continued preference for remaining in the familial home. To be sure, Dickinson’s mother read meagerly and had a mediocre mind, but she was a tenderhearted, loving person who committed herself wholly to her family and to the household’s management. While she never understood her daughter’s complex nature, she also never intruded on Dickinson’s inner life.
Dickinson’s brother Austin (1829-1895) was closest to her in disposition. Personable, sensitive, empathic, and sociable, he became an attorney, joined his father’s practice, and succeeded him as Amherst’s treasurer in 1873. He shared his sister’s wit, taste in books, and love of nature; his vitality was a tonic for her. He married one of her schoolmates, Susan Gilbert, vivacious, worldly, and articulate.
Dickinson and her sister-in-law, living next door to each other, were in each other’s homes frequently during the first years of this marriage. Dickinson had a near-obsessive concern for her immediate family and greatly desired to make of her sister-in-law a true sister in spirit. She sent Sue nearly three hundred of her poems over the years—more than to anyone else. Yet a satisfyingly soulful friendship never quite materialized. To be sure, Sue’s parties did keep Dickinson in at least limited circulation in her early twenties. The two women exchanged books and letters, with Dickinson occasionally seeking Sue’s criticism of her poems. Dickinson, always fond of children, was particularly delighted with her nephew Gilbert; tragically, he died of typhoid fever at the age of eight; Dickinson’s letter of condolence called him “Dawn and Meridian in one.”
Yet the two women’s paths ineluctably diverged. Sue had a husband and, eventually, three children and was an extroverted social climber. For unknown reasons, Dickinson and Sue quarreled in 1854, and Dickinson wrote her the only dismissive letter in her correspondence: “You can go or stay.” They resumed their friendship, but it proved turbulent, as did Sue’s and Austin’s marriage. In 1866, Sue betrayed Emily’s confidence by sending her poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” to the Springfield Republican, which mutilated it by changing its punctuation. “It was robbed of me,” Dickinson bitterly complained.
With her natural sister Lavinia (1833-1899), Dickinson bonded intimately all her life. Like her older sister, Lavinia remained a spinster, remained at home, and outlived her family. Dickinson and Lavinia were devotedly protective of each other. The younger sister was relatively uncomplicated, steady in temperament, pretty, and outgoing. Their only quasi-serious difference centered on Vinnie’s love of cats, contrasted to Dickinson’s care for birds. It was Lavinia who organized the first large-scale publication of Dickinson’s poems after her death.
Outside her family circle, Dickinson had only a few friends, but they mattered greatly to her—she called them her “estate” and cultivated them intensely. While still in her teens, she established a pattern that was to recur throughout her life: She sought to attach herself to an older man who would be her confidant and mentor or, to use her terms, “preceptor” or “master.” These pilots would, she hoped, teach her something of the qualities which she knew she lacked: knowledge of the outer world, firm opinions and principles, sociability, and intellectual stability.
Dickinson’s first candidate was Benjamin Newton (1821-1853), only nine years her senior, who was a law student in her father’s office from 1847 to 1849. He served her in the roles of intellectual companion, guide in aesthetic and spiritual spheres, and older brother. He introduced her to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry, encouraged her to write her own, but died of consumption in his thirty-third year, before she became a serious poet. Her letters to him are not extant, but in a letter she wrote Higginson in 1862, she probably refers to Newton when she mentions a “friend who taught me Immortality—but venturing too near, himself—he never returned—.”
Dickinson’s first mature friendship was with Samuel Bowles (1834-1878), who inherited his father’s Springfield Republican and made it one of the most admired newspapers in the United States. Bowles had a penetrating mind, warmth, wit, dynamic energy, strongly...
(The entire section is 3340 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
One can fully appreciate Dickinson’s originality only by placing her verse against that of her poet contemporaries. She is certainly more mystical—and is a better poet—than Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Her poetic works have greater substance than those of Edgar Allan Poe. She writes poems far richer in content than the school poets: James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The only American poet of her century with whom she is comparable is Walt Whitman.
In the nineteenth century, women generally wrote only domestic verse-material suitable for ladies’ magazines—or wrote under male pseudonyms. Higginson’s advice that Dickinson avoid publication makes most...
(The entire section is 138 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
“Renunciation is a piercing virtue,” wrote Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, and her life can be seen as a series of renunciations. Born in 1830 of a prominent Amherst family, she rarely left the town, except for time spent in Boston and trips to Washington and Philadelphia. She attended the Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Although she was witty and popular, she set herself apart from the other girls by her refusal to be converted to the conventional Christianity of the town. Her life was marked by a circle of close friends and of family: a stern and humorless father, a mother who suffered a long period of illness and whom Emily took care of; her sister Lavinia, who likewise never married and remained in the family...
(The entire section is 727 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, was the daughter of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her father, a graduate of Yale College, practiced law in Amherst, engaged in politics, and was treasurer of Amherst College for thirty-seven years. After graduation from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, her brother, William Austin Dickinson, eldest of the three children, took up the practice of law in Amherst and succeeded his father in 1872 as college treasurer. At the time of Austin’s marriage in 1856 to Susan Gilbert, his father built the couple a house on land adjoining the family homestead. Both Emily Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, remained single, living in the family...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
IntroductionKnown as “The Belle of Amherst,” Emily Dickinson is widely considered one of the most original American poets of the nineteenth century. She wrote hundreds of poems—most of which were not published until her death in 1886—in an unconventional style that revolutionized the genre and continues to challenge readers. Instead of traditional rhyme schemes and punctuation, Dickinson used broken meter, seemingly random capitalization, and numerous dashes to convey complex thoughts and emotions. And in a final break with poetic convention, the majority of her poems were untitled, although quite a few have become well-known by their first lines: “Because I could not stop for death,” “A narrow fellow in the grass,” and “Hope is the thing with feathers.” The subjects of her poems ranged from the inevitability of death to the simple joys of the natural world, and their tone reflected what must have been Dickinson’s own complex emotional range: brooding and joyous, witty and sarcastic, morose and hopeful.
- Dickinson’s bedroom window faced toward a local cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a young girl, she observed burials on almost a daily basis.
- Dickinson attended a female seminary but left after one year. Speculations about the reasons for her departure include homesickness, poor health, and perhaps a refusal to sign a public confession of her faith in Christ.
- In 1864, Dickinson visited a doctor in Boston because of an eye condition. He forbade her to read or write. She would never again leave Amherst, but she did begin writing her first poems alone in her room at home.
- Both her father and grandfather were successful politicians in Massachusetts, and the Dickinson home frequently welcomed some of the most influential thinkers of the era, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.
- Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of unpublished poems after Emily died. Lavinia hired editors to chronologically arrange and publish the work.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, the elder daughter of lawyer Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Dickinson was the second of three children, a year younger than her brother, William, and three years older than her sister, Lavinia. She was born in a large house built by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson; except for absences of about a year for her schooling and seven months in Boston, she lived in it all of her life and died there at precisely 6:00 p.m. on May 15, 1886.
It is paradoxical that a woman who led such a...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)