Study Guide

Emily Dickinson Childhood

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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.

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