(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Writing a biography of Emily Dickinson is necessarily a perilous and ambitious undertaking, partly because a whole cluster of myths and misunderstandings still clings to this enigmatic New England writer and partly because her internal life is colorless in the extreme. Emily Dickinson did not marry; she rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except for a year or so at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and very brief visits to Philadelphia and Boston, the latter for much-needed medical attention to her eyes). There is, in fact, nothing remarkable about this brilliant, auburnhaired woman except for the fact that she wrote some 1,775 poems during her lifetime and by general account is one of the finest poets to have lived and written in America. Her voice and her verse forms are unique: Emily Dickinson must be considered an American original. It is fitting, then, that Cynthia Griffin Wolff takes great pains to show the American roots of this creative genius while at the same time debunking many of the wrongheaded notions that have persisted in the popular imagination.

Without trying to create an image of Emily Dickinson as the girl-next-door, Wolff demonstrates that the poet was an outgoing and gregarious adolescent who formed deep friendships with many girls—and boys—of her acquaintance. She was not socially awkward, nor was she insulated from diverse and stimulating company, since Amherst was an intellectual center and the Dickinson home served as a meeting place for many of the bright young men in her father’s and older brother’s social circles. Although certain strains and distances always typified her relations with her parents, Emily was clearly a devoted daughter who admired her father and nursed her mother through years of declining health (one of the primary obstacles to Emily’s marital plans). It is true that the poet kept mainly to herself during her declining years, but she chose this path voluntarily. At no time was she a recluse, hermit, or misanthrope: She had a genuine and ready sense of wit, a playful sense of humor, and a genuine affection for children. The poet played with her niece Mattie by lowering gingerbread and cookies in a basket from her second-story bedroom window.

Emily Dickinson’s readers over the decades have found even sweeter and more substantial nourishment in her posthumously published work, especially the monumental variorum edition edited by Thomas Johnson and published in 1955. To understand the mind that created those extraordinary poems, it is necessary to appreciate the dominance of the Dickinson clan on the Amherst scene. Emily’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, the founding father of Amherst College, poured his life’s fortune into the bank account of the fledgling institution. He was also instrumental in creating the decidedly theological slant of the early curriculum; in fact, Samuel Fowler Dickinson helped to begin the period of great religious revivals which shook the town of Amherst to its very foundations. His granddaughter Emily grew up, then, with the constant pressure for religious conversion, and the thesis of Wolff’s biography is that Emily Dickinson rejected this pressure (and other social pressures) in order to carve out a unique cultural niche suitable for her survival as a poet.

Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, lacked his father’s fiery Puritanical vision (even though he read the Bible aloud on a daily basis), but he possessed an uncanny business sense that helped him manage the finances of Amherst College brilliantly. He married Emily Norcross, a woman who communicated in a strange manner of indirection and evasion. One always had to guess what Emily Norcross intended, and this odd behavior manifested itself even during their courtship when Edward could not extract a simple yes or no to his proposal of marriage. Her elliptical style seems to have been passed on directly to her daughter, and Wolff makes a very convincing case that Emily Dickinson’s elaborate poetic riddles are, like Emily Norcross’ evasive responses, a sophisticated strategy for not being discovered. As poignant and unsettling as her best poems are, they always conceal as much as they reveal.

In order to place Emily Dickinson and her family in a more understandable context, Wolff devotes roughly the first quarter of the biography to the general social conditions prevailing in New England during the fourth and fifth decades of the nineteenth century while Emily was growing up. Death was the constant companion of everyone alive at this time. Only a fraction of the population lived beyond childhood. Infant mortality rates were high throughout this period, and death by tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was called) was commonplace. Many member of Emily Norcross’ family died from this lingering and painful ailment,...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)