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Life and Works

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) is undoubtedly one of the most mysterious and idiosyncratic figures in the history of American letters. Leading the not atypical life of a 19th-century New England spinster in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, she came to be regarded in the 20th century as a central poet of the accepted literary canon. The posthumous "redemption" of her poetry from the anonymity of her personal existence (and thus her own redemption from oblivion) is, in a very real sense, a vindication of her lifelong struggle to believe in some form in the promise of resurrection.

She was the second of three children (the others were Austin, b. 1829, and Lavinia, b. 1833) of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer and political figure, and his wife Emily Norcross. Apart from her marked love of books and an unusual spirit of intellectual independence, Emily's childhood gave little indication of the profound poetic originality she would eventually develop, nor of the initially inexplicable reclusive lifestyle she would adopt as an adult.

She attended the Amherst Academy, a school for girls, from 1840 to 1847 and formed the kind of friendships that one would expect of a young woman of her time and place. She entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, located a few miles from Amherst, in the autumn of 1847. However, she felt deeply unhappy living away from the family and returned to Amherst in 1848, after only three terms. Possibly the most significant act of her youth was her refusal to yield to the social pressures to participate in the religious revivals in Amherst, both in 1846 and 1850, that captivated the minds of most of her contemporaries in the community.

Her earliest known poems are a few occasional verses inscribed in valentines sent to friends in 1850, and it seems clear from the evidence of the existing manuscripts that she had begun to work seriously at her poetry by the second half of that decade. The content of her poems indicates that she underwent a severe emotional crisis as the result of a disappointment in love around the end of 1861 or early 1862. Just who the object of her love was, or whether it was a man or a woman, are still open questions. Among the most credible suspects may be counted Samuel Bowles (1826-78), the charismatic editor of The Springfield Daily Republican and a friend of the Dickinson family, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (1814-82), pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and one of the best-known religious orators of the day, and Susan Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913), a very close friend of Emily's during the early 1850s, who became a member of the family when she married Austin in 1856. This crisis may have been related with her appeal by mail in 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent man of letters of the time, to evaluate some of her poems and to become, in effect, her poetic mentor. Thus began an intriguing friendship by post that lasted until her death. This emotional crisis, along with Higginson's polite recommendation that she was not yet ready to publish, seems to have been the catalyst for her decision to withdraw from social relationships with any but the closest family and friends and dedicate her life to a completely private cultivation of her art.

Over the course of this most unassuming life she wrote almost 1,800 short, introverted and gnomic poems, many of which she included in the numerous and equally gnomic letters she sent to a large number of relatives and friends. This voluminous correspondence was clearly a substitute for the direct social relationships that she had renounced. At present, only ten of her poems are known to have been published, anonymously, during her lifetime, mostly in local periodicals and invariably with significant editorial changes to correct what were considered to be her deficient grammatical and prosodic practices. (The well-known writer Helen Hunt Jackson, also a friend and correspondent of Dickinson's, convinced her to contribute a poem to an anthology of contemporary verse, A Masque of Poets, that Jackson edited in 1878 in the popular "No Name Series". While ED never titled her poems, Jackson, like so many of her earliest editors, did. This one (J49) was published with the title "Success" and was generally believed to have been written by Emerson.)

After Dickinson's death in 1886, from Bright's disease, her sister Lavinia, who never married either, and continued living in the family home all her life, discovered a box containing hundreds of hand-written manuscripts. This was a large part of the 1, 775 poems that constituted Emily Dickinson's "hidden" life. And thus began the long and extremely complicated process of the posthumous publication of her poetry and letters. In a search for possible editors, Lavinia contacted both her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, who had been Austin's mistress since 1882. This was not a recipe for harmony, and it inevitably led to two conflicting lines of partial publication of Dickinson's work over the next six decades (see Bibliography, section 1). This schism was finally breached in 1955 with Thomas H. Johnson's brilliant three-volume scholarly edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. On the basis of a highly detailed study of all of the manuscripts, Johnson attempted to present the texts in chronological order and exactly as Dickinson had written them, including all possible variants. Three years later, with Theodora Ward, he published The Letters of Emily Dickinson, also in three volumes.

The next important step in the advancement of Dickinson studies was taken by Ralph W. Franklin, in 1981, with The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. This is a careful facsimile edition of what many consider to be the most important part of Dickinson's work, the forty small volumes of her own poetry (each one containing between sixteen and twenty-nine poems) that Dickinson laboriously copied and bound with needle and thread and which have come to be referred to as her fascicles. If is safe to suppose that, had she sought to have her work published, this would have been the form she would have chosen. Apart from offering readers the opportunity to examine Dickinson's handwriting, the many variations in her repeated use of dashes and her particular treatment of her own texts, Franklin's edition has served to direct the attention of many Dickinson scholars to a study of the contents, arrangement and structure of the fascicles.

In 1998, Franklin published a new, three-volume edition of her poetry, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, which proposes several differences in the chronological ordering of the poems and includes much critical material that Johnson did not have access to.

It has taken more than a century for Emily Dickinson to acquire the recognition that she deserves. During her lifetime she was considered, at best, a quirky Yankee original--"my partially cracked poetess at Amherst" Higginson once called her. And yet, on the basis of her profound assimilation of the New England Puritan heritage and the complexities of Romantic thought, especially as expressed by Emerson, she was able to create an astonishing body of poetry that anticipates both the stylistic revolutions of the Modernists and the philosophical quandaries of Existentialism.

 

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