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Emily Dickinson, recognized as one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century, was born December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts (Benfey, 1). Dickinson’s greatness and accomplishments were not always recognized. In her time, women were not recognized as serious writers and her talents were often ignored. Only seven of her 1800 poems were ever published. Dickinson’s life was relatively simple, but behind the scenes she worked as a creative and talented poet. Her work was influenced by poets of the seventeenth century in England, and by her puritan upbringing. Dickinson was an obsessively private writer. Dickinson withdrew herself from the social contract around the age of thirty and devoted herself, in secret, to writing. She never married, finding in her poetry, reading, gardening, and close friendships, a rich and fulfilling life.
Emily grew up with a privileged childhood. She was the eldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College. Her father gave here the time, and literary education, as well as confidence to try her hand at free verse. Emily’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a submissive, timid housewife dedicated to her husband, children, and household chores. The Dickinson’s only son, William Austin, also a lawyer, succeeded his father as treasurer of the college. Their youngest child, Lavina, was the chief housekeeper and, like her sister, Emily, remained a home, unmarried, all her life. A sixth member who was added to the family in 1856 was Susan Gilbert, a schoolmate of Emily’s, who married Austin and moved into the house next door the Dickinson home which they called Homestead. Emily and Susan were very close friends and confidantes, until Susan and Austin’s marriage. It was at this time that Susan stopped responding to the notes and poems that were often exchanged between the two ( ). Emily’s letters to Susan have contained lines that have proved to be controversial when interpreted.
“Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me like you used to?”- Emily Dickinson
Some historians describe Emily’s letters to Susan Gilbert as representative of the writing style during the Victorian era. Others, including Dickinson’s biographer Rebecca Patterson, saw the letters as evidence of Emily’s homosexuality (Sullivan, 1). It is not known when Dickinson began to write poetry or what happened to the poems of her early youth. Only five poems can be dated prior to 1858, the year in which she began gathering her work into hand- written copies bound loosely with thread to make small packets called ?????. She sent these fives early poems to friends in letters or as valentines. One of them was published anonymously without her permission in the Springfield Republican in 1852 ( ). This was the first time any of Emily’s writings were published. After 1858, she apparently convinced herself that she had a genuine talent, because now, the packets were carefully stored in an ebony box probably awaiting discovery by future readers or publishers. Perhaps Emily knew that her writing was too far advanced for her time and that her accomplishments would be recognized and given the recognition that they deserved in the future.
Publication remained a considerable conflict throughout her writing. A publisher for her writing was never easily arranged. She befriended Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Republican and for four years sent him poems and letters for publication. Because Bowles did not comprehend Dickinson’s poems only two were published, and even those were published anonymously. Both poems were heavily edited and given titles that she had not given or was not aware of. Only five other poems were published in her lifetime, each altered by editors.
In 1862 Dickinson turned to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson for advice about her poems. She had known him only through his essays in the Atlantic Monthly, but in time he became, in her words, her “safest friend”. She began her first letter to him by asking “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” Six years later a letter to him said “You were not aware that you saved my life.” ( ). They did not meet until 1870 after she urged him continuously, and only once more after that. Higginson told his wife after their first meeting, “I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. I am glad not to live near her” ( ).
What Emily sought for was assurance as well as advice. At times she could not understand why her hard work was not appreciated or accepted. Higginson apparently gave her that assurance without knowing it. Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson was an impression that lasted the rest of her life. He advised against publishing but her also kept her aware of the literacy world. He helped her none with what was most important, establishing her own private poetic method, but he was a friendly ear and a mentor during the most troubling years of her life. Higginson never understood Emily’s rare lyrics, if he had of then he would not have tried to edit them either in the 1860’s or after her death. Dickinson called his editing, “surgery”, and eventually couldn’t take it; however she kept a friendship with Higginson willingly. Between 1858 and 1866 Dickinson wrote more than 1100 poems, full of aphorisms (concise formulation of a truth), paradoxes, and eccentric grammar. The major subjects of these poems are love, separation, death, nature, and God, but especially love. In one poem, she writes “My life closed twice before its close”. I believe Dickinson may have been speaking of heartbreak in this line. It is hard to guess who her real or fantasy lovers were, but I do not believe that Samuel Higginson was one of them. It is possible that her first “love” was Benjamin Newton, a young man who worked in her father’s law office that was too poor to marry. He left Amherst and died in 1853 ( ).
Around the time that her first poem was published by Samuel Bowles, Emily Dickinson was well on her way to becoming a recluse. Up to her mid-twenties, she had lived the kind of social life expected of the daughter of an distinguished citizen, but as she moved towards her thirties, she started to withdraw from the outside world, and by the time she was approaching forty, her seclusion was virtually complete. Jay Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960) quote a letter written by Mabel Loomis Todd in 1881 which conveys the impression made by Dickinson’s withdrawal: “I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom people call the Myth ... She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years ... She dresses wholly in white and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her.” (Leyda, ??) The cause for Emily’s seclusiveness is somewhat unknown, but perhaps she was tired of the rejection of the world. Perhaps Emily wanted to enjoy her talents independently, devoting all her time to the creativeness and organization of these poems to be later discovered by her family and enjoyed by others around the world.
In the last two decades of her life, Dickinson wrote fewer than fifty poems a years, perhaps because of continuing eye trouble, more probably because she had to take increasing responsibility in running the household. Her father dies in 1974, and a year later her mother suffered a paralyzing stroke that left her an invalid until her death. There was little time fir poetry, not even for serious consideration of marriage which may have occurred with Judge Otis Lord. Lord was a widower and old family friend of the Dickinson’s. This genuine love could perhaps dispel rumors or accusations of Dickinson’s homosexuality. Their love was genuine and marriage may have occurred if the timing hadn’t been wrong. Emily Norcross Dickinson died in 1882, Judge Otis Lord two years later. Dickinson’s health failed noticeably after a serious nervous collapse in 1884, and in May 15, 1886, she died of nephritis, a kidney disease( ).
How the complete poems of Dickinson were finally gathered is a publishing saga almost too complicated for brief summary. Lavina Dickinson inherited the ebony box. She asked Mabel Loomis Todd and Samuel Higginson to edit the manuscripts. Unfortunately they felt that must alter the syntax, smooth some rhymes, cut lines, and create titles for each poem. Three volumes appeared in quick succession: 1890, 191, and 1896. In 1915, Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi published some of the poems that her mother Susan had saved ( ). In the next three decades four more volumes appeared, the most important being Bolts of Melody in 1945, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter from the manuscripts that they had never returned to Lavina. In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson prepared for Harvard University Press a three-volume edition, chronologically arranged of Dickinson’s poems and letters. Here, for the first time, the reader saw the poems as Dickinson had left them. This text of the 1,774 poems is now the standard one.
It is clear that Dickinson could not have written to please publishers, who were not ready to risk her striking style and original metaphors. She had the right to educate the public, as Poe and Whitman eventually did, but she never had the invitation. Had she published during her lifetime, public criticism might have driven her into deeper solitude and even silence. The twentieth century has lifted her without a doubt to the first rank among poets.