Dickinson has been hailed by critics as one of the most important and original poets to emerge from the American literary tradition. However, the poet received none of this critical acclaim during her lifetime. The few editors who actually appraised Dickinson's verse faulted her language as too unsentimental and plain to suit contemporary tastes. Further, the structure of her poems was not as polished as the conventional romantic verse that was published in the leading periodicals of the day. Modern critics have come to recognize that Dickinson's poetic style was in fact decades ahead of its time and that she anticipated the modern poetry movement of the twentieth century by using simple words and images to meditate on such profound universal concepts as nature, death, and immortality. Feminist scholars have examined Dickinson's poems and letters in an effort to gain some insight into how the poet responded to the gender-restrictive values of the mid-nineteenth-century patriarchal society. These critics have concluded that while as a person Dickinson succumbed to a life of social marginality and seclusion, as a poet she opened a new frontier of feminine power and assertiveness through her transcendent and imaginative verse.
Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the eldest child of Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer, politician, and treasurer of Amherst College, and Emily Norcross Dickinson. The Dickinsons were a close-knit family governed by her father, a demanding, family-oriented patriarch. Indeed, Emily and her younger sister Lavinia never married, devoting their lives to the domestic obligations and care of the other members of the Dickinson family. Emily's brother, Austin, followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a partner in the family law practice and by succeeding his father as treasurer of Amherst College. Austin also built a house next to the Dickinson family homestead. As a youth, Emily received a formal education befitting a member of a prosperous New England family. She attended primary school for four years beginning in 1835; she then matriculated at Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. Upon graduating from the Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year from 1847 to 1848. Electing not to continue her studies at Mount Holyoke after her first year, Dickinson settled down in Amherst and resumed her domestic and familial obligations. During this time, she became acquainted with a number of prominent religious, political, and literary figures who paid visits to her father at Amherst. Among these visitors was Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor of the Springfield Republican, from whom Dickinson would seek advice and send poems in the hope of being recognized as a serious poet. Failing to recognize her talent, Bowles refused to publish Dickinson's poems in his periodical and even discouraged her from writing more verses.
In 1854 Dickinson traveled with her mother to Washington, D.C., to visit Edward, who was at the time serving a term as a representative to the United States Congress. On their return trip to Amherst, the Dickinsons visited a family friend in Philadelphia. Several biographers have speculated that while in Philadelphia, Dickinson met and fell in love with a married minister who begged her to elope with him. These scholars have further contended that this love affair and Dickinson's decision to end it precipitated her withdrawal into seclusion and her increasingly eccentric behavior. It is important to note that apart from one family account of this affair there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that it ever occurred. Nevertheless, not long after this trip Dickinson did become more reclusive and eccentric. She withdrew to the family homestead in Amherst, refusing even to venture to her brother's house next door. Whereas she had previously received and entertained numerous guests at the homestead,...
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