Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December of 1830. Her parents were prominent in local society, but were not wealthy. Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel, was one of the founders of Amherst College, an institution her father, Edward, would later work at. Edward also worked as a lawyer and and served a number of terms as a State Legislator. He married Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross, in 1828. Together they have three children, two girls and a boy.
Early Life and Education
As a young girl Emily Dickinson was well-behaved. She attended a primary school on Pleasant Street where she began her classical education. It was her father’s determination that all his children were well-educated. She had a good relationship with her father, but a somewhat cool one with her mother. In 1840, when she was nine years old, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started attending Amherst Academy which had just opened to female students. She studied English as well as classical literature, history and botany. Dickinson was considered to be a bright and dedicated student.
The only times she missed her classes were due to periods of illness. From a young age she was plagued with a fear of death. This stemmed form the deaths of family members and friends. The young girl entered into periods of depression from which she always recovered.
In 1847, Dickinson moved on to Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. She was only there for ten months and had trouble making friends. The reason for her departure is unclear. It could’ve been the result of poor health or her father’s demand that she stay at home.
Writing Career and Relationships
Over the next years Dickinson became familiar with poets such as Wordsworth and Emerson. A family friend, Newton, was responsible for these literary introductions. He considered Dickinson to have great promise as a poet. Another prominent influence on her writing was the Bible. Christian religion went through a great revival over the previous years and Emily was dedicated herself to her faith.
It is a well-known fact that Dickinson was alone for most of her life. She did maintain strong relationships with a select few though, such as with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. They had a massive correspondence and Gilbert provided her with support for her writing career. In 1855 Dickinson traveled with her mother and sister to Washington, then later to Philadelphia. The same decade saw Dickinson’s mother fall ill. She was bedridden until her death in 1882. The weight of her mother’s illness was heavy on Dickinson’s life. Her duties to the household and to her family resulted in her effectual confinement within the home.
In 1858, Dickinson began to write and review her poems. She assembled a total of nearly eight hundred poems in forty fascicles, or informal collections. These works were not discovered until after her death. A few years later Dickinson began a correspondence with the writer and critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She read his aspirational message to writers in The Atlantic Monthly and decided to reach out to him. Higginson praised Dickinson’s writing but warned her away from publication for the time being. She took Higginson’s advice seriously and the two corresponded until her death.
With the early 1860s behind her, Dickinson’s productivity dropped off. She was constantly dealing with personal problems, losses and the struggles of the household. It was around this period that Dickinson became a true recluse. She did not leave the house unless she absolutely had to and therefore began to develop something of a reputation in town. The writer did not stop contact with the outside world entirely though. She maintained her habit of letter writing and pursued a lifelong passion for botany. Her home garden on which she worked for many years was well-known in the local community. It is thought today that it contained huge numbers of pansies, lily-of-the-valley and sweet-peas, among others.
Dickinson’s father died in June of 1874 and Emily did not leave her room to attend the funeral. Almost exactly a year later her mother suffered a stroke. The final years of Dickinson’s own life were difficult. Her mother’s death was followed quickly by one of Dickinson’s nephews.
In 1885, Dickinson fainted while cooking and was confined to her bed for the following months. Her final letter was sent to her cousins in mid-1886. She died on 15 May 1886 at the age of fifty-five. At the time, her death was put down to Bright’s disease. A kidney disease which is accompanied by high blood pressure and heart disease.
Although today she is known as an incredibly prolific writer, during her lifetime only a dozen or so poems were ever published. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered a collection of almost 1800 poems amongst her possessions. Eventually her work was published in Complete Poems in 1955.