Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in the quiet community of Amherst, Massachusetts, the second daughter of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily, Austin (her older brother) and her younger sister Lavinia were nurtured in a quiet, reserved family headed by their authoritative father Edward. Throughout Emily’s life, her mother was not “emotionally accessible,” the absence of which might have caused some of Emily’s eccentricity. Being rooted in the puritanical Massachusetts of the 1800’s, the Dickinson children were raised in the Christian tradition, and they were expected to take up their father’s religious beliefs and values without argument. Later in life, Emily would come to challenge these conventional religious viewpoints of her father and the church, and the challenges she met with would later contribute to the strength of her poetry.
The Dickinson family was prominent in Amherst. In fact, Emily’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College, and her father served as lawyer and treasurer for the institution. Emily’s father also served in powerful positions on the General Court of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Senate, and the United States House of Representatives. Unlike her father, Emily did not enjoy the popularity and excitement of public life in Amherst, and she began to withdraw. Emily did not fit in with her father’s religion in Amherst, and her father began to censor the books she read because of their potential to draw her away from the faith.
Being the daughter of a prominent politician, Emily had the benefit of a good education and attended the Amherst Academy. After her time at the academy, Emily left for the South Hadley Female Seminary (currently Mount Holyoke College) where she started to blossom into a delicate young woman – “her eyes lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head with her delicate teeth and skin.” She had a demure manner that was almost fun with her close friends, but Emily could be shy, silent, or even depreciating in the presence of strangers. Although she was successful at college, Emily returned after only one year at the seminary in 1848 to Amherst where she began her life of seclusion.
Although Emily never married, she had several significant relationships with a select few. It was during this period following her return from school that Emily began to dress all in white and choose those precious few that would be her own private society. Refusing to see almost everyone that came to visit, Emily seldom left her father’s house. In Emily’s entire life, she took one trip to Philadelphia (due to eye problems), one to Washington, and a few trips to Boston. Other than those occasional ventures, Emily had no extended exposure to the world outside her home town. During this time, her early twenties, Emily began to write poetry seriously. Fortunately, during those rare journeys Emily met two very influential men that would be sources of inspiration and guidance: Charles Wadsworth and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. There were other less influential individuals that affected Emily, such as Samuel Bowles and J.G. Holland, but the impact that Wadsworth and Higginson had on Dickinson was monumental.
The Reverend Charles Wadsworth, age 41, had a powerful effect on Emily’s life and her poetry. On her trip to Philadelphia, Emily met Wadsworth, a clergyman, who was to become her “dearest earthly friend”. A romantic figure, Wadsworth was an outlet for Emily, because his orthodox Calvinism acted as a beneficial catalyst to her theoretical inferences. Wadsworth, like Dickinson, was a solitary, romantic person that Emily could confide in when writing her poetry. He had the same poise in the pulpit that Emily had in her poetry. Wadsworth’s religious beliefs and presumptions also gave Emily a sharp, and often welcome, contrast to the transcendentalist writings and easy assumptions of Emerson. Most importantly, it is widely believed that Emily had a great love for this Reverend from Philadelphia even though he was married. Many of Dickinson’s critics believe that Wadsworth was the focal point of Emily’s love poems.
When Emily had a sizable backlog of poems, she sought out somebody for advice about anonymous publication, and on April 15, 1862 she found Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an eminent literary man. She wrote a letter to Higginson and enclosed four poems to inquire his appraisal and advice.
Although Higginson advised Dickinson against publishing her poetry, he did see the creative originality in her poetry, and he remained Emily’s “preceptor” for the remainder of her life. It was after that correspondence in 1862 that Emily decided against publishing her poems, and, as a result, only seven of her poems were published in her lifetime – five of them in the Springfield Republican. The remainder of the works would wait until after Dickinson’s death.
Emily continued to write poetry, but when the United States Civil War broke out a lot of emotional turmoil came through in Dickinson’s work. Some changes in her poetry came directly as a result of the war, but there were other events that distracted Emily and these things came through in the most productive period of her lifetime – about 800 poems.
Even though she looked inward and not to the war for the substance of her poetry, the tense atmosphere of the war years may have contributed to the urgency of her writing. The year of greatest stress was 1862, when distance and danger threatened Emily’s friends – Samuel Bowles, in Europe for his health; Charles Wadsworth, who had moved to a new pastorate at the Calvary Church in San Francisco; and T.W. Higginson, serving as an officer in the Union Army. Emily also had persistent eye trouble, which led her, in 1864 and 1865, to spend several months in Cambridge, Mass. for treatment. Once back in Amherst she never traveled again and after the late 1860s never left the boundaries of the family’s property.
I like to think that Wadsworth, on his way to California in the 1800’s, traveled through some of the “Wild West” towns of the time such as Deadwood, South Dakota or maybe Tombstone, Arizona. There’s no record of it happening, but he could have met, for example, a young Doc Holliday or maybe even legendary lawman Wyatt Earp. Wouldn’t that have been cool!
The later years of Dickinson’s life were primarily spent in mourning because of several deaths within the time frame of a few years. Emily’s father died in 1874, Samuel Bowles died in 1878, J.G. Holland died in 1881, her nephew Gilbert died in 1883, and both Charles Wadsworth and Emily’s mother died in 1882. Over those few years, many of the most influential and precious friendships of Emily’s passed away, and that gave way to the more concentrated obsession with death in her poetry. On June 14, 1884 Emily’s obsessions and poetic speculations started to come to a stop when she suffered the first attack of her terminal illness. Throughout the year of 1885, Emily was confined to bed in her family’s house where she had lived her entire life, and on May 15, 1886 Emily took her last breath at the age of 55. At that moment the world lost one of its most talented and insightful poets. Emily left behind nearly 2,000 poems.
As a result of Emily Dickinson’s life of solitude, she was able to focus on her world more sharply than other authors of her time – contemporary authors who had no effect on her writing. Emily was original and innovative in her poetry, most often drawing on the Bible, classical mythology, and Shakespeare for allusions and references. Many of her poems were not completed and written on scraps of paper, such as old grocery lists. Eventually when her poetry was published, editors took it upon themselves to group them into classes – Friends, Nature, Love, and Death. These same editors arranged her works with titles, rearranged the syntax, and standardized Dickinson’s grammar. Fortunately in 1955, Thomas Johnson published Dickinson’s poems in their original formats, thus displaying the creative genius and peculiarity of her poetry.