Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
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Emily Dickinson

What Emily Dickinson did... and why you should care

Here are two ways to look at Emily Dickinson's life:

Old thinking: Emily Dickinson was a shy crazy lady who dressed all in white, never left the house, and secretly wrote nearly two thousand poems that nobody saw until she died.

New thinking: Emily Dickinson was a gifted poet who chose—for reasons she kept private—to stay at home, write quietly and yes, wear white.

What's the difference between these two narratives, whose facts are pretty much the same? For the first ninety years after Dickinson's death in 1886, the public perception of her was closer to the first version. Poor Emily Dickinson, the story used to go. Such a great poet; too bad she couldn't get along like a normal person.

Sometime in the 1970s, though (thanks largely to a fantastic biography by Dickinson scholar Richard B. Sewall), views on Dickinson's life started to change. Maybe it wasn't that the secret bard of Amherst didn't know how to act like a normal person. Maybe she just didn't want to. People who knew Emily Dickinson well during her lifetime recalled her as warm and funny, with an impish streak. The more this picture emerges, the less Dickinson seems like a victim of pathological shyness. Could Emily Dickinson have been . . . a rebel, living her life exactly the way she wanted to, no matter what anybody else thought?

From the moment her collected poems were published for the first time after her death, Dickinson has been hailed as one of the great American poets. Her language, rhythm, and punctuation are totally unique, as was her lifestyle. And what's more American than a person unafraid to go her own way?

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