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Emily Dickinson: Recluse

Higginson was not the only person who found Emily Dickinson elusive. By 1867, she had begun to withdraw from public life in ways her neighbors couldn't help but notice. She began speaking to callers only through the door, instead of face to face. She politely refused to meet company at The Homestead, retiring to her room instead when visitors called. Around this time, she also took to dressing exclusively in white dresses that she sewed herself. It wasn't that she was rude—she sent flowers or gifts in her place when she knew a visitor was coming. She spent time with her family and lavished attention on children, especially her nieces and nephews. She just preferred to be alone, thank you very much.

The Amherst social scene's loss was literature's gain. As Dickinson pulled away from society, her creative life blossomed. She wrote hundreds, even thousands of poems, all of which were dutifully copied down into the books. "In her astonishing body of 1,775 poems Dickinson records what is surely one of the most meticulous examinations of the phenomenon of human 'consciousness' ever undertaken," the novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote.13 Dickinson may not have known much of the outside world, but she knew herself completely.

Higginson traveled to Amherst to meet Dickinson for the first time in 1870—after the pair had been corresponding for eight years. "After a little delay, I heard an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child, in the hall," he wrote of the meeting. "She came toward me with two day-lilies, which she put in a childlike way into my hand, saying softly, under her breath, 'These are my introduction,' and adding, also, under her breath, in childlike fashion, 'Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.'"14 Once she started talking, however, Dickinson wouldn't shut up. Higginson sat in stunned silence as Dickinson talked nonstop through their visit. "She seemed to speak absolutely for her own relief, and wholly without watching its effect on her hearer," he wrote. "She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods."15

Dickinson didn't shut herself off completely from the world. In 1872 or 1873, she met and began writing to Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Otis Phillips Lord. Some scholars believe their relationship turned romantic after the death of Lord's wife in 1877. Unfortunately, we can't know for sure. Lavinia Dickinson adhered to her sister's instructions to burn her letters after her death. Did Emily Dickinson ever have a boyfriend? Like so many things about her life, that remains a mystery.

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