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Biography

In 1881, a new arrival to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts learned of "a lady whom people call the Myth. She has not been outside of her own house in 15 years. She dresses wholly in white, and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her."1 The Myth, of course, was Emily Dickinson.

There wasn't supposed to be anything mythical about Emily Dickinson's life. Born in 1839, the daughter of a prominent Massachusetts citizen, Dickinson would have been expected to receive a good education (for a woman, that is), to marry well, to raise children, and to spend her days tending to home and family.

As it turns out, Emily Dickinson did nothing by the rules. What's more intriguing, she arguably made her greatest statements at times when she said nothing. She politely yet firmly refused to be converted at her Christian women's college and, with equal politeness, declined all visitors and social invitations in her later years. By doing so, Emily Dickinson quietly made an impact on those around her. No one at the time knew that she was saving her words for the hundreds of poems she wrote privately in her room, refusing to release them for publication. "No American has conversed with his or her soul as Emily Dickinson did," the literary critic Herbert Leibowitz once said.2 By listening to her own soul, Dickinson taught us something about ours. (We're still not really sure what the all-white clothes were about, though. That was just her thing.)

Emily Dickinson didn't live as she did because she didn't have the ability to do otherwise. She did it because she wanted to. In her letters she revealed herself to be witty, intelligent, even flirtatious. Having lost many of her loved ones to untimely death, perhaps Dickinson withdrew as a way of rejecting a world so full of pain. Who knows why she chose to cut herself off from the world? Dickinson had her reasons, and she kept them to herself. As she told us in her poems, the soul selects its own society. It just so happens that her soul found completeness in itself.

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