Paul Crumbley: On Emily Dickinson's Life

Dickinson's poetic accomplishment was recognized from the moment her first volume appeared in 1890, but never has she enjoyed more acclaim than she does today. Once Thomas H. Johnson made her complete body of 1,775 poems available in his 1955 variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, interest from all quarters soared. Readers immediately discovered a poet of immense depth and stylistic complexity whose work eludes categorization. For example, though she frequently employs the common ballad meter associated with hymnody, her poetry is in no way constrained by that form; rather she performs like a jazz artist who uses rhythm and meter to revolutionize readers' perceptions of those structures. Her fierce defiance of literary and social authority has long appealed to feminist critics, who consistently place Dickinson in the company of such major writers as Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich.

Dickinson was born 10 December 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived until her death from Bright's disease on 15 May 1886. There she spent most of her life in the family home that was built in 1813 by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. His role in founding the Amherst Academy in 1814 and Amherst College in 1821 began a tradition of public service continued by her father, Edward, and her brother, Austin. All the Dickinson men were attorneys with political ambitions; the Dickinson home was a center of Amherst society and the site of annual Amherst College commencement receptions. The effect of growing up in a household of politically active, dominant males can be heard in Dickinson's 1852 letter to her close friend and future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert during a Whig convention in Baltimore: "Why can't I be a Delegate to the great Whig Convention?--dont I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff and the Law?" As the confidence and frustration of this letter attests, the Dickinson family tradition had prepared the poet for a life of political activity and public service, only to deny her that life because of her sex.

By the time she wrote this letter, Dickinson had graduated from Amherst Academy and completed a year of study at Mount Holyoke. Though she was referred to by her close friend Samuel Bowles as "the Queen Recluse" in an 1863 note to Austin, her life was not nearly so sheltered as these terms imply; the "Queen" portion of Bowles's appellation should perhaps receive the greater emphasis. Accounts of her earliest years with Austin and her younger sister Lavinia depict a healthy, happy girl whose precocious intelligence did not prevent her from enjoying a normal childhood. From the time she started school, Dickinson distinguished herself as an original thinker who, in her brother's words, dazzled her teachers: "Her compositions were unlike anything ever heard--and always produced a sensation--both with the scholars and Teachers--her imagination sparkled--and she gave it free rein."

During the 1847-1848 year she spent studying under Mary Lyons at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson acquired limited notoriety as the one student unwilling to publicly confess faith in Christ. Designated a person with "no hope" of salvation, she keenly felt her isolation, writing her friend Abiah Root in 1848, "I am not happy, and I regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian." In 1850, she would share similar sentiments with her friend Jane Humphrey: "Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion."

Such resistance to conversion at a time when friends and family were making public confessions reflects a lifelong willingness to oppose popular sentiment. The experience at Mount Holyoke may well have brought to the surface an independence that fueled Dickinson's writing and led her to cease attending church by the time she was thirty. Following her return to Amherst in 1848 and after the religious awakening that peaked there around 1850, she began to write seriously. The magnitude of her output was not clear until after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered a cherry-wood cabinet containing some 1,147 poems in fair copy. In the meantime, Dickinson increasingly withdrew from public view, participating in commencement receptions but little else after the early sixties. Despite her withdrawal, however, she maintained correspondence with a wide community of friends and associates, including such well-known literary figures as Helen Hunt Jackson. The 1,150 letters in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward in 1958, represent a fraction of what she actually wrote.

Much critical attention has been devoted to the years of Dickinson's greatest poetic production, when her output is estimated to have accelerated from 52 poems in 1858 to 366 poems in 1862, and then declined to 53 poems in 1864. What provoked such a sudden and rich abundance of creativity? And why did Dickinson take the time to carefully gather fair copies of 1,147 poems and bind 833 of them in the individual packets known as the fascicles? Early scholarship sought evidence of a failed love interest in the late fifties to account for this sudden burst of energy. Speculation about her possible lovers has at one time or another touched on almost every person for whom she felt deeply, from her brother, her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, and her friend Kate Scott Anthon, to Charles Wadsworth, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Bowles, and Judge Otis Lord. These various studies reveal that Dickinson felt great passion for her family and friends and that at times her feelings were distinctly sexual. There is no solid evidence linking her romantically to anyone.

Most recent scholarship has abandoned the search for Dickinson's romantic inspiration. Finding in the poetry the reflection of a complex, multifaceted mind, critics have hesitated to simplify her achievement by inscribing it within a single master narrative. Though the suddenness and the intensity of Dickinson's most productive years still excites scholarly interest, the focus has shifted from questions related to motive and origin to those concerned with style and practice. The fascicles, especially, together with Dickinson's refusal to publish when she had ample opportunity in later life, have provoked close examinations of both her manuscripts and her communication with other literary figures.

The likelihood that updated variorum and readers' editions of the poems will shortly appear has intensified debate over the way Dickinson's writing should appear in print. As scholars explore methods for translating her chirography onto the printed page, more is learned about the range of possible readings suggested by her fair copies. Respecting Dickinson’s punctuation, use of variants, and lineation will have a major influence on the way her poems are read and understood. Feminist scholarship has convincingly demonstrated her resistance to patriarchal authority and stimulated interest in the revolutionary nature of the self presented in her work. With the advent of the Emily Dickinson Journal (1992), students of her poetry gained an invaluable tool for monitoring these and other issues that characterize a rapidly expanding field of research.

Major collections of Dickinson manuscripts are located at the Houghton Library of Harvard University and the Jones Library at Amherst.

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Copyright 1995 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

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Criticism Overview
Title Paul Crumbley: On Emily Dickinson's Life Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Paul Crumbley Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 Jul 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States
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