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." 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.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was born into a prominent family, though not an especially wealthy one. The Dickinsons were one of those noble New England clans who took their children to church, educated them well, and went about the business of quietly building the young republic. Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, founded Amherst College. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College, a Massachusetts state representative and senator, a member of the governor's cabinet, and a U.S. Congressman. From Emily's journals and letters, it seems that her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, had an aloof personality and possibly suffered from depression. Emily was closer to her father (who exacted a powerful influence on her) and to her older brother William Austin and her younger sister Lavinia.
Emily Dickinson was born (and eventually died) in The Homestead, her father's house in Amherst. In 1840, Emily and Lavinia both started school at Amherst Academy, a converted boys' boarding school located in their hometown. Always physically frail, Emily was frequently absent in her seven years at the academy due to illness. In April 1844, when she was just thirteen, Emily's second cousin and close friend, Sophia Holland, died of typhus. The young girl's death was devastating to Dickinson, and she recovered from the loss only slowly. Holland's was the first of many partings that hung like a cloud over Dickinson's life and her poetry. "Parting is all we know of heaven/ And all we know of hell,"blank">wrote.
In 1846, Amherst Academy got a new headmaster, a young twentysomething named Leonard Humphrey. Dickinson grew close to her new principal. It turned out that Humphrey was just the first of many older men to whom Emily Dickinson latched onto throughout her lifetime, developing a powerful teacher-pupil relationship (always with Dickinson filling the role of student). She called Humphrey "master," a title she would give to all of her older mentors throughout her life.
After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, Dickinson enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). In her short time there, Dickinson stood out by refusing to take part in the school's Christian evangelical efforts. Dickinson held organized religion at arm's length all her life. She considered herself a believer, but never joined a church. "Some keep the Sabbath going to church," Dickinson wrote in a poem, "I keep it staying home." By the mid-1850s, her mother had become bedridden with various illnesses that would plague her for the rest of her life. The burden of caring for her mother was great, and confined Dickinson to the house.
Perhaps because of the mundane quality of her daily life, by the late 1850s Dickinson started taking her poetry more seriously. In 1858, she began the project of copying all of her previously written poems down into books. She also published a few poems around this time in the Springfield Republican newspaper, which was owned by family friend Samuel Bowles. Dickinson abhorred publishing, though, and only a handful of her poems were ever published during her lifetime.
In April 1862, literary critic and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an essay for The Atlantic Monthly addressed to aspiring writers. Soon after, Higginson received a letter postmarked from Amherst. "It was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town,"
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.blank">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.
The last decade of Emily Dickinson's life was marked by death and loss. In 1874, her father Edward died of a stroke in Boston. Emily stayed upstairs in her room while the funeral service took place in the living room below. In 1882, her mother died. The year after that, her favorite nephew Gilbert died And the year after that, her friend and maybe-boyfriend Judge Lord died as well.
Soon it was the poet's turn. On 15 May 1886, after battling a kidney disease now known as nephritis, Emily Dickinson died at The Homestead, the house in which she was born. She was buried in a white dress, her casket carried across a field of buttercups before being laid to rest in Amherst's town cemetery. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered the books that Emily had been carefully filling with poems—forty volumes, containing more than 800 poems. They were published for the first time in 1890 and have been wildly popular ever since.
Today we tend to see the color white as a symbol of virginity and innocence. Maybe we'd understand Emily Dickinson better if we remembered that she saw it as passion.
Dare you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door;
Red is the fire's common tint,
But when the vivid ore
Has sated flame's conditions,
Its quivering substance plays
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed blaze.
Father: Edward Dickinson (1803-1874)
Mother: Emily Norcross Dickinson (1804-1882)
Brother: William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895)
Sister: Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833-1899)
Amherst Academy (1840-1847)
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (1847-1848)
(Dickinson wrote thousands of poems; these are among her best known)
"Because I could not stop for death"
"I heard a fly buzz when I died"
"Hope is the thing with feathers"
"My life closed twice before its close"
"I felt a Funeral, in my brain"
"The Soul selects her own society"
"There is no frigate like a book"
"There's a certain slant of light"
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?"
"Safe in their Alabaster chambers"