Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson Introduction

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?

Emily Dickinson Trivia

Edward Dickinson—Emily's father—went out in his underwear one night and woke up the entire town of Amherst with the church bells so that residents could see the northern lights.

For a long time, it was believed that there was only one authenticated photograph of the adult Emily Dickinson. In 2000, Dickinson scholar Philip F. Gura found and purchased (on eBay!) a photograph that seemed to be a previously undiscovered portrait of the poet. Scholars are still debating whether the portrait actually is Emily Dickinson, though Gura's forensic analysis says that it is.

The epitaph on Emily Dickinson's grave reads simply, "Called Back."

As an unmarried daughter, Dickinson was expected to handle chores around her parents' home. She willingly did the baking and the gardening, but balked at dusting and (not surprisingly) paying social visits.

Was Emily Dickinson depressed or even suicidal? It is possible. In one of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she wrote, "Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life."

Whenever she was asked why her sister chose to shut herself off from society, Lavinia Dickinson responded, "It was only a happen."

Emily Dickinson Resources

Books

Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Dickinson abhorred the idea of releasing her poetry to the public, calling the act of publishing "the auction of the mind."_CITATION34_ After Dickinson died in 1886, her sister Lavinia discovered more than 800 poems neatly bound and copied in her bedroom. The collection of Emily Dickinson's poetry was published in 1890 and has been beloved since.

Martha Dickinson Bianchi, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson (1924)
Dickinson's niece Martha published this biography of her aunt nearly 40 years after the poet's death. It is far from definitive, but offers an intimate portrait of an unusual woman, a woman whose loved ones remembered as warm and funny.

Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974)
Sewall's biography is considered to be the definitive word on Dickinson's life, and no one has surpassed it since. Prior to publication, Dickinson had acquired a reputation as a shy, fragile woman unable to leave her house. Sewall's research showed that Emily Dickinson was a lot smarter and pluckier than biographers had given her credit for.

Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008)
In 1862, after reading his essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Dickinson wrote to literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson to ask him to review her poetry. What followed was a fascinating, unusual correspondence that lasted decades. In her letters, Dickinson showed herself to be intelligent, sensitive, coquettish, and eccentric. This book looks at Dickinson's illuminating relationship with a man she called her "master."

Music

Aaron Copland
The Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Aaron Copland—composer of songs such as Fanfare for the Common Man—was a big fan of Emily Dickinson's. He created vocal and piano arrangements for twelve of Dickinson's poems. The first was performed in 1950.

Leo Smit, The Ecstatic Pilgrimage
When the American composer, musician, and educator Leo Smit read the works of Emily Dickinson, he declared that he had found "a soulmate who answered my emotional needs and stimulated my musical desires."_CITATION35_ Already a fan of Aaron Copland's arrangement of her poems, Smit composed six song cycles referencing more than 80 of Dickinson's poems, together known as The Ecstatic Pilgrimage.

Ernst Bacon
Ernst Bacon was an American composer who often turned to the nation's great poets for inspiration. Emily Dickinson was an obvious choice. Bacon set several Dickinson poems to music, as well as excerpts from her diary.

Jules Langert, Three Emily Dickinson Songs
Composer Jules Langert created a song cycle based on three Emily Dickinson poems. The poems are "Much Madness Is Divinest Sense," "The Spider Holds a Silver Ball," and "The Heart Asks Pleasure First."

Jay Anthony Gach, Letter to Abiah
This arrangement for voice and piano was inspired by a letter that Dickinson wrote to her childhood friend Abiah Root in 1850. The young women traded many letters over the years.

Michael Gordon, Lightning At Our Feet
Artist Michael Gordon composed this multimedia work in homage to Emily Dickinson. It includes vocal performances of poems such as "The Soul Selects Her Own Society," as well as chamber music and visual dramatics.

Images

Emily Dickinson
The only confirmed portrait of Dickinson in adulthood, taken while she was a student at Mount Holyoke.

Young Dickinson
A drawing of Emily Dickinson, age nine.

Maybe Dickinson?
An unauthenticated portrait rumored to depict a young Dickinson.

The Homestead
The Amherst house where Dickinson lived all of her life. It is now the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Dickinson's room
Emily Dickinson's bedroom at The Homestead.

Dickinson's Grave
Her burial site in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Dickinson Tattoo
The ink on Dickinson fan Phillip Jenks's back. We don't recommend this, to be honest.

Movies & TV

Angles of a Landscape (2008)
The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts created this 32-minute documentary about Dickinson's life. It focuses on the house in Amherst where Dickinson spent the vast majority of her adult life. Known as The Homestead, Dickinson was born in the home and gradually shut herself away within it as she became an adult.

Official Selection (2008)
This short film is a spoof of pretentious short films. The film breaks down into three different storylines—all parodies—two of which feature Emily Dickinson. We don't know if we're more interested in the one about Dickinson and her "psycho-sexual visions of her past affairs" or the one in which a present-day woman named Emily Dickinson "is trapped by the imperialist policy of modern America war."

Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson (2002)
When filmmaker Jim Wolpaw embarked on a quest to find the "real" Emily Dickinson, he found that the reclusive poet's nature eluded him. After exhausting the typical routes of a documentary filmmaker—biographers, historians, and such—he holds a "casting call" for a Hollywood-type film of Dickinson's life. The documentary takes an unusual turn from there.

Voices and Visions: Emily Dickinson (1999)
This entry in the celebrated documentary series looks at Emily Dickinson. The documentary is noteworthy for the famous writers who are commentators, such as Adrienne Rich and Joyce Carol Oates.

Beauty Crowds Me (1998)
This award-winning, Canadian short film is based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It made the rounds of the film festival circuit about ten years ago, but might be hard to find now.

Emily Dickinson: A Certain Slant of Light (1978)
Acclaimed actress and Dickinson devotee Julie Harris narrates this documentary about the poet's life. Harris leads viewers through Dickinson-related sites in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent nearly all of her life.

Websites

Dickinson Electronic Archives
The Dickinson Electronic Archives is an online center dedicated to Dickinson's work. It features rare images of writing by Dickinson, her family and friends, as well as transcriptions of the faint, hard-to-read 19th century script. Unfortunately, you have to have a password to access some materials, but you can still find enough on here to sate your curiosity (or your research requirements).

The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation has a thorough, insightful biography of Dickinson, as well as links to her poems. It also has a detailed reading list and bibliography to point you in the right direction if you're doing an in-depth project.

Academy of American Poets
The Academy is one of the best resources on the Web for poets and poetry. Dickinson's page offers a biography, as well as links to her poems and critical essays about her. We like poet Michael Ryan's essay on why Dickinson is his favorite poet.

Erin's Emily Dickinson Page
Dickinson fan Erin has put together this swell website linking the best Dickinson-related sites and articles on the Web. Some of the links are out of date, but she has some fun finds. She also helpfully explains how to cite her page—don't plagiarize from her (or anyone)!

Emily Dickinson Museum
Dickinson spent almost her entire life in two homes in Amherst, Massachusetts: The Homestead, where she was born and raised, and the Evergreens, the house next door where her brother and sister-in-law lived. The two homes have now been turned into a museum dedicated to honoring Dickinson's life and works.

Emily Dickinson Page, Brooklyn College
Associate professor Lilia Melani has put together a great Web component to her Brooklyn College course on Emily Dickinson. Her page has information on Dickinson's biography and poems, as well as some helpful instructions on how to read and analyze Dickinson's work.

Video & Audio

Dickinson Readings
Dickinson's poetry read by actress Julie Harris.

"Because I Could Not Stop for Death"—Rap
Ashley Steeckel, Kelsey Larsen, and Casey Riley made this rap video for their AP Literature class. And we love it.

"Because I Could Not Stop for Death"—Chamber Music
Charles Jason Bechtold composed the musical arrangement of Dickinson's poem.

"I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"
A beautifully animated version of the poem.

"Ample Make This Bed"
A Dickinson poem read in the film Sophie's Choice.

Dickinson's Grave
No cash for a ticket to Amherst? The Springfield Intruder shares his trip to her gravesite.

Primary Sources

The Complete Poems
Text of the 1924 edition of Dickinson's poetry, with a foreword by her niece.

Dickinson's Obituary
The 1886 obit in the Springfield Republican, written by her sister in law Susan Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson's Letters
An essay Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about his correspondence with Dickinson, published in 1891 after her death five years earlier.

Letter to a Young Contributor
Higginson's 1862 essay that sparked the correspondence between Higginson and Dickinson.

Higginson Letter
Image of a letter Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

"Wild Nights"
The manuscript of Dickinson's poem in her own handwriting.

"A Route of Evanescence"
The original manuscript of the poem.

"Soul at the White Heat"
A 1987 critical essay on Dickinson by novelist Joyce Carol Oates.