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Emily Dickinson: The Making of the Lady in White

Part I: Most of the action in the poet's life was interior.

Key points

  • She viewed her father, who was often gone, as warm and caring, and believed her mother to be emotionally distant.
  • The deaths of a close friend and a schoolmaster set the stage for a sense of loss in her letters and works.
  • At age 31 she entered a period she termed The Terror, from which she recovered with renewed energy for her work.

To write about Emily Dickinson is a very different experience than chronicling the lives of Herman Melville and Charles Darwin who appeared in earlier posts. Her life had little of the exterior action, and certainly none of the world travel of Melville or Darwin. She did not seek relief from distress in the Holy Land, as had Melville, or the Scottish Highlands as had Darwin. Indeed, most of her life was spent in a single town—Amherst, Massachusetts—and indeed in a single house. The action in her life was interior and expressed in her letters and her poetry. I write about her here as part of a continuing series on brilliant writers and poets who led troubled lives, and it is fitting to do so at this point because we can see the influence of Darwin’s thinking on her worldview and poetry.

Image by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Homestead, where Dickinson lived for all but 15 years of her life, is now known as the Emily Dickinson Museum, 2008.
Source: Image by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

She was born in Amherst in 1830. Her father’s family had come from England as part of the Puritan migrations of the early 1600s. Her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was a lawyer and founder of Amherst College, whose life was characterized by bursts of energy alternating with "depression of spirits," and he was viewed as the black sheep of the family1. In 1813 he built a grand brick house, known as The Homestead, in Amherst. When in financial distress in 1828 he sold it, but in 1830 his lawyer son Edward bought back the western half of the house and settled in with his wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson, and their infant son Austin. Emily was born within the year, and her sister Lavinia followed after three years.

The Early Years

Emily was described as well-behaved, though frail, and responded well to her father’s enthusiasm for education. Her teachers recognized her skills with both the piano and composition. Though often away (he was a state legislator and later a U.S. congressman), Emily seemed to view him as warm and caring, while in contrast, she thought of her mother as emotionally distant. In later years, when her mother was chronically ill and cared for by Emily, the two formed a closer bond.

In 1840, financial concerns led the family to leave The Homestead, moving to another house adjacent to Amherst’s West Cemetery; they returned after 15 years, when her father was more successful. It was in 1840 as well that Emily began her seven years of attendance at Amherst Academy. She was known as a good student, but due to vaguely described illnesses was frequently kept at home. These absences may have been related to what she referred to in her letters in adolescence as "fixed melancholy"2. In 1844 her cousin Sophia Holland, to whom she felt very close, died of typhus. Emily’s distress was so great that her parents had her live with relatives in Boston. Two months later she returned with her melancholy seemingly improved. This was her first experience of losing a loved one, and thoughts of bereavement began to appear in her letters.

After her return to the Academy, she also made two acquaintances who altered her life. One was the young principal Leonard Humphrey, with whom she was friendly and would later represent another loss in her life. The other was Susan Huntington Gilbert, a young woman who had been orphaned at an early age and was living with her sister in Amherst. Emily and Susan became close friends, and later possibly something more. Jumping ahead some years, Susan met Emily’s older brother Austin in 1853 and married him in 1856. Scholars continue to argue to what degree the passionate closeness that Emily professed in their correspondence was literary metaphor or instead evidence of an actual romance.

After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later Mount Holyoke College). She returned home after only 10 months for reasons that are not clear, perhaps unhappiness with its emphasis on religious devotion, health problems, or homesickness. In the meantime, her thinking about religion and the place of humanity in the world continued to evolve. She had been brought up in a Calvinist family, which had strong beliefs that everything observable was based on immutable and unchanging facts springing from a miraculous creation. As the nineteenth century progressed, the challenge from the more liberal views of Unitarianism led to a corresponding resurgence of Calvinist doctrine. Her response to this may have been part of the impetus for her to decline to make the public pronouncement of her faith required for membership in her family’s First Congregational Church.

Dickinson’s outward life in those years was one of attending to the house and social activities. During this time she met Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young attorney with a literary bent, who introduced her to the poetry of Wordsworth, Emerson, and others. He became one of the possible men she referred to as 'Master' in several letters, which has never been clarified. In 1850, her former school principal Leonard Humphrey died unexpectedly. It was Dickinson’s second loss, and it affected her deeply.

The Terror and Its Aftermath

A few months after their return to Amherst from a trip to Washington and Philadelphia in 1855, her mother became ill and remained bedridden for most of the next three decades. The need to maintain the house and care for her occupied Emily and Lavinia, but by 1858 Dickinson entered what were to be her most productive years. She assembled her earlier poems into fascicles (notebooks of pages sewn together) and wrote perhaps 800 more by 1865. In the fall of 1861, she experienced a difficult period she later referred to as "The Terror." It has never been fully explained, but may have involved disappointment at the lack of romantic reciprocation from the never-identified Master, the perceived emotional withdrawal by her sister-in-law Susan who was having her first child, or some other factor3. It is possible she began to feel abandoned and alone but turned her distress into a kind of defiance and source of strength.

Dickinson expressed her resilience in an 1862 poem, "The zeroes taught us phosphorus." Phosphorus matches had become popular since their introduction in the 1820s, and for her, they apparently emblemized the ability of fire to blaze suddenly even in cold conditions; by implication, coldness can suddenly turn to vitality and creativity. It certainly was a period in which her own creativity, and ambition as well, was sparked. This was also at least in part due to her correspondence with the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who sent her supportive letters that she later said had saved her life during this difficult time.

In the period between 1862 to 1865, she created more than half of her lifetime work. Some of her poems were inspired by the suffering caused by the Civil War, while others were more optimistic, often emphasizing the pleasures of observing nature, with a sense of growing self-reliance and pride in skillful creativity. By 1865 her work was interrupted by eye difficulties requiring trips to see doctors in Boston, and by 1866 her output began to diminish.

In the next post, we will present the remainder of Dickinson's life, as well as later analyses that have suggested possible conditions that might help elucidate her behavior. A few comments about what we have described so far: Her quiet, secluded life has been viewed many different ways over the years. Since the first complete volumes appeared in the 1950s, it is not surprising that many analyses of that time had a psychoanalytic bent, often emphasizing, the effects of a domineering father, a cold mother, and an "ambiguous sexuality." Such views suggest that as a result of a poor relationship with her mother she felt unloved, and was hesitant to grow into a woman’s role lest she comes to resemble her.

Psychoanalytic interpretations later came under criticism for emphasizing sexuality at the cost of neglecting other influences including social standards, women’s roles both in college and the community, and the religious movements of the time, as well as authors she admired such as Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Browning4. In the next few decades, the suggestion was made that seclusion was a reasonable and consciously adopted lifestyle that made her work possible.


This post is adapted from Fragile Brilliance: The Troubled Lives of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Other Great Writers.

1. McDermott, J.F.: Emily Dickinson revisited: a study of periodicity in her work. Am. J. Psychiatry online May 1, 2001.

2. Johnson, T.H. and Ward, T. (eds.): The letters of Emily Dickinson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1986.

3. Habegger, A.: My wars are laid away in books: the life of Emily Dickinson. Random House, 2001.

4. Tanner, S.L.: Emily Dickinson and the psychoanalyst. Estudos Germanicos 8:6, December 1987.