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Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the oldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of Congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College, and of Emily Norcross Dickinson, a timid woman. Lavinia, Dickinson’s sister, described Emily as “perfectly well & contented—She is a very good child & but little trouble.” (Sewall 324) She was graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847, which was founded by her grandfather, Samuel Dickinson (Sewall, 337, Wolff, 19–21). She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley in 1847, but severe homesickness led her to return home after one year. At the age of seventeen she settled into the Dickinson home and turned herself into a housekeeper and a more than ordinary observer of Amherst life. Dickinson rarely left the house and always wore white. She became known as a reclusive eccentric. The people she did come in contact with, however, made a major impact on her poetry.
When Emily was 18, she was introduced to Benjamin Franklin Newton, who had the most effect on her life as a poet. He came to Amherst in the fall of 1847 as a twenty-six-year-old aspiring law student desiring to study for two years in the recently formed partnership office of Dickinson and Bowdoin. Emily Dickinson met him just as she enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and she became acquainted with his love of books during the several weeks the following March that she was home nursing a severe cold.
He was able to guide Dickinson to poets and authors he esteemed. He recognized Dickinson’s exceptional mind and encouraged her talent for writing. Newton was still able to keep in contact with Dickinson while studying for his bar, opening up his own law practice, and then became the District Attorney of Worcester County. The most notable thing he’d ever done for her was send her Emerson’s Poems in January 1850. While writing to his young protégé, he gave her few indications that his health was failing. He died from tuberculosis on March 24, 1853. Dickinson was shocked when she read it in the newspaper three days later. She was forced to rely solely on her branch of knowledge as her guide to writing poetry for years to follow.
Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, married Susan Gilbert in 1853. Dickinson sought nothing but approval from her, by writing her many poems. Dickinson wrote, what are arguably considered, intimate letters to Susan Gilbert. The relationship was mostly tempestuous, which seemed to hurt Dickinson. Many believe the letters sent to Susan Gilbert during the course of their “friendship” was the start of her romantic poetry.
In 1862, she became friends with a literary critic named Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson had a long association with the Atlantic Monthly, contributing a number of articles, essays and poems. He published “Letters to a Young Contributor, “in which he encouraged and advised aspiring writers. Within a month, he received a note from Emily Dickinson, then 31 years old, along with four poems. He then became Dickinson’s pedagogue. Written communication between the two continued after their first letter; about 70 letters from their correspondence survive, along with about 100 poems. Higginson also visited the poet twice and attended her funeral in the spring of 1886. After her death, he continued to help other writers, but he will be remembered best by his relationship with Emily Dickinson.
In 1864, five of the Dickinson poems known to have been published in her lifetime appear in newspapers, including the Drum Beat, the Brooklyn Daily Union, and the Round Table. This period is known as her most prolific period of writing. She also underwent treatments for a painful eye condition, now thought to be iritis, with Boston ophthalmologist Henry W. Williams. While under the doctor’s care (eight months in 1864, six months in 1865), she boarded with her cousins, Frances and Louisa Norcross. Those trips were to be her last out of Amherst; after her return in 1865, she rarely ventured beyond the grounds of the Homestead.
In 1865, the Civil War ended, but Emily Dickinson never wrote specifically and “realistically” about the Civil War. She did however; write to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1963 describing the war as “an oblique place”. The years of the Civil War corresponded to Dickinson’s most intense period of productivity as a poet, during which she is thought to have written roughly half of her total number of poems, and yet her precise relation to the war remains something of a puzzle. Because Dickinson is known to have a range of possible references when writing, it is difficult to say whether a particular poem was inspired by the war. Her poem “It feels a shame to be Alive-“could be about the war, but it could be a reference to one of the first letters she wrote to Thomas Higginson asking if her verse was alive. In another letter to Higginson from the winter of 1863, Dickinson included the lines from another poem that could have been inspired by news of the war.
But it could just as well have fit Dickinson’s needs at the time, to share with Higginson her own sense of the danger he faced. Her most direct participation in the war effort may have been the three poems that appeared anonymously, during late February and March of 1864, in a Brooklyn-based newspaper called Drum Beat, conceived for the purpose of raising money for medical supplies and care for the Union Army. These poems, as Karen Dandurand has argued, “must be seen as her contribution to the Union cause.” After Emily Dickinson’s eye treatment, she began intense reclusiveness. Although she rarely ventured beyond the family Homestead, she did entertain several significant visitors, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she met in person for the first time in 1870 when he visited her at home in Amherst.
Although Dickinson did continue to write poetry, she appears to have stopped formal assembly of the poems into booklets. Manuscripts dated to this period appear less finished that those of her intense writing period (1858-1865), though scholars are increasingly intrigued by what these later manuscripts suggest about her writing process. In her later years, Dickinson enjoyed a romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a friend of her fathers. He was a widower when he began a courtship with Dickinson. Letters to Lord suggest that the poet even considered marrying him, but she never did. Dickinson continued to write in her later years, but she stopped editing and organizing her poems.
She also demanded a promise from her sister, Lavinia, to burn her personal papers upon her death (Habegger 604). Dickinson remained in poor health until she died at age 55 on May 15, 1886. She was buried four days later in the town cemetery, now known as West Cemetery. While enacting her promise, Lavinia discovered her elder sister’s hidden collection of nearly eighteen hundred poems and realized the depth of her work. She strove to see Emily’s poetry published, and this was accomplished in 1890. Although many readers did not appreciate or understand Emily’s work from the late 1800′s to the early 1900′s, she is now considered a major American poet.
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