Emily Dickinson

Life

Dickinson spent almost all her life in her birthplace. Her father was a prominent lawyer who was active in civic affairs. His three children (Emily; a son, Austin; and another daughter, Lavinia) thus had the opportunity to meet many distinguished visitors. Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy irregularly for six years and Mount Holyoke Seminary for one, and in those years lived a normal life filled with friendships, parties, church, and housekeeping. Before she was 30, however, she began to withdraw from village activities and gradually ceased to leave home at all. While she corresponded with many friends, she eventually stopped seeing them. She often fled from visitors and eventually lived as a virtual recluse in her father's house. As a mature woman, she was intense and sensitive and was exhausted by emotional contact with others.

Even before her withdrawal from the world Dickinson had been writing poetry, and her creative peak seems to have been reached in the period from 1858 to 1862. She was encouraged by the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her chosen reader and an advocate who may never have fully comprehended her genius but who, through their considerable correspondence, helped make her aware of events in the world beyond Amherst, and by Helen Hunt Jackson, who believed she was a great poet. Nonetheless, Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime. Her mode of existence, although circumscribed, was evidently satisfying, even essential, to her. After her death in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson discovered over 1,000 poems in her sister's bureau. For too long Dickinson was treated less as a serious artist than as a romantic figure who had renounced the world after a disappointment in love. This legend, based on conjecture, distortion, and even fabrication, has plagued even some of her modern biographers.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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