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Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. There she spent most of her life living in the house built in 1813 by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. His part in founding Amherst College in 1821 began the family tradition of public service continued by Dickinson's father Edward and her brother Austin. All men in the Dickinson family were attorneys at law and the Dickinson home was a center of Amherst society and the site of annual Amherst College initiation receptions. (Crumbley par.2) Growing up in a household with such domineering men took its toll on Dickinson. She wished to be a political figure like her father and brothers, but the only thing that held her back was the fact that she was a woman. Dickinson wanted to have a life of political action and public service but that too was an impossible dream. This however was a perfect drive for her to make herself known and prepared her for her life as a poet.
Dickinson's mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was not as powerful a presence in her life; she seems not to have been as emotionally accessible as Dickinson would have liked. Her daughter is said to have characterized her as not the sort of mother "to whom you hurry when you are troubled."(Myers par.1)
Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy from 1837 to 1847 and went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary from 1847 to 1848. (Literature Network par.2) There Emily was known for her unwillingness to confess, publicly, her faith in Christ. Being referred to as a person with "no hope" of salvation, Dickinson began to feel secluded towards the other students. In 1848, Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root, "I am not happy, and I regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian." In 1850, Emily wrote similar feelings to her friend Jane Humphrey: "Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion." (Crumbley par.4) Dickinson's experience at Mount Holyoke uncovered her independence that fueled her writing and led her to cease attending church by the time she was thirty.
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During this time, Dickinson increasingly withdrew from public view. Dickinson, however, did appear in public for commencement receptions, after the sixties, she was rarely seen. Dickinson left the house on a rare occasion, and went to Boston to see a doctor about eye problems. She lived all her life in her father's house, staying dressed only in white. During the last twenty years of her life she rarely left the house. (Myers par.3) Despite her withdrawal from the public eye, Dickinson kept in touch with a wide community of friends and acquaintances, including such well-known literary figures as Helen Hunt Jackson. The 1,150 letters in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward in 1958, represent a mere fraction of what she actually wrote. (Crumbley par.5)
Although Dickinson never married, she did have several significant relationships with close friends, and mentors. Many biographers have tried to find a link to Dickinson's passion inspired poetry, but no one has been found to be her inspiration. It is hard to believe that there was no love in Dickinson's life because she wrote about such passions so intensely and convincingly in her poetry. (Myers par.4)
Dickinson's writing was the quatrain of three iambic feet, the type described in one of the books by Isaac Watts in the family library. She used many other forms as well, and gave complexity to a simple hymnbook, constantly altering metrical beat to fit her thought at the time. Dickinson chose to stray from the conformity of writing at the time and wrote with off-rhymes, varying from the true in a variety of ways that also helped to convey her thought and its tensions. Dickinson stripped her language of unnecessary words and saw to it that those that remained were vivid and precise. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.7)
On April 15, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Thomas Higginson, a literary man, and asked him if the poems she wrote were "alive". Higginson, recognized the uniqueness of Dickinson's poems, but advised her not to publish them. Higginson however remained Dickinson's adviser. Throughout the year of 1862, Dickinson resisted all requests from her friends to publish her poems. Due to her obstinacy, only seven poems were published during her lifetime, five of them in the Springfield Republican. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.8)
During the Civil War, Dickinson wrote some of her greatest poetry. She wrote at least eight-hundred poems during this time. Dickinson was a strong believer in abolition, but that was not the source of her writing. (Thayer pg.86)Dickinson looked inside of her for inspiration to her writing, but the war is what caused a sudden urgency in it. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.9) The year of greatest stress was 1862, when distance and danger threatened Dickinson's friendsSamuel Bowles, in Europe for his health; Charles Wadsworth, who had moved to a new pastorate at the Calvary Church in San Francisco; and T.W. Higginson, serving as an officer in the Union Army. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.9) Once the Civil War ended, Dickinson's only communication to others was through letters. Dickinson dressed only in white and saw few of the visitors who came to meet her. (The Literature Network par.3) From 1864 to 1865, Dickinson experienced persistent eye trouble and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts form treatment, and remained there for several months. After returning home from Massachusetts, Dickinson never traveled again, and after the 1860's she never left the boundaries of her home. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.9) After the Civil War Dickinson restricted her contacts outside Amherst to exchange of letters, dressed only in white and saw few of the visitors who came to meet her. (The Literature Network par.3)
During the later years of her life, Dickinson struggled with the deaths of many people dear to her in life. In 1874, Dickinson's father fell ill and passed away. In November of 1882, Dickinson's mother passed away. Dickinson had devoted so much time to her mother, that when she passed away, the house seemed so strange with just herself and Vinnie (Lavinia her sister) left. (Thayer pg.125) Dickinson's eight-year-old nephew, Gilbertt, died in 1883. Gilbert was said to be her inspiration for some of her finest letters. She also mourned the loss of Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, in 1878, and Josiah G. Holland, another editor of Springfield Republican, in 1881. Charles Wadsworth and her mother in 1882, Otis P. Lord in 1884, and Helen Hunt Jackson in 1885. Hunt continuously tried to convince Dickinson to publish her poems, but Dickinson never listened. One of the most devastating deaths for Dickinson was Lord, a judge from Salem, Massachusetts. It is believed that Dickinson fell in love with her around 1878. Lord had been one of the closest friends of her father. Dickinson's drafts of letters to Lord reveal a tender, mature love, which Lord returned. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.11)
On May 15, 1886, at the age of fifty-five, Emily Dickinson of Bright's disease. Dickinson's asked that when she died, she should be carried "out the back door, around through her garden, through the open barn doors from front to back, and finally through the grassy fields to the family plot. In this way she would always be in sight of her home."(Thayer pg.128)
Shortly after Dickinson's death, her sister Lavinia came across her sister poems in her cherry wood bureau. Lavinia was determined to have Dickinson's poems published. (Thayer pg.130) In 1890 Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by T.W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, appeared. Other volumes of Dickinson poems, edited chiefly by Mabel Loomis Todd, Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Emily's niece), and Millicent Todd Bingham, were published between 1891 and 1957, and in 1955 Thomas H. Johnson edited all the surviving poems and their variant versions. (Encyclopedia Britannica par.11)
Dickinson's greatest poetic production has had much critical attention. Dickinson's output of poems is estimated to have accelerated from 52 poems in 1858, to 366 poems in 1862. In 1864, however, her output had declined to 53. Dickinson's abrupt change of pace in her poetry is unknown. Many people wonder why she took the time to carefully gather fair copies of 1,147 poems and bind 833 of them in the individual packets known as the fascicles. A certain love interest is a possible factor in Dickinson's sudden burst of energy in her poetry. Dickinson's love life is believed to be the reason why she wrote so passionately and felt so deeply towards her friends and family. (Crumbley par.6)
Dickinson's poetry is said to be challenging because of its thoroughness and originality in its rejection of most traditional nineteenth-century themes and techniques. Her poems require deep insight from the reader, because she seems to leave out so much with her elliptical style and significant contracting metaphors. If we are sensitive to her use of devices such as personification, allusion, symbolism, and startling syntax and grammar, we gain a better understanding of the point she is trying to make to us. It is better to read her poems aloud, due to the confusion caused by her punctuation style. Dickinson was not always consistent in her views while writing. Her attitudes constantly changed from poem, to poem, depending upon how she felt at a given moment. Dickinson was less interested in find the answers to life that she was in exploring their "circumference." (Myers par.11)
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Mesmer, Edric S., ed. I'm Nobody! Who Are You?. New York City: Scholastic, 2002.
Myers, Michael. Biography of Emily Dickinson. 19 March 2005.
Thayer, Bonita E. Emily Dickinson. New York City: Franklin Watts, 1989.
The Literature Network. Emily Dickinson. 2000-2004. 20 March 2005.