Emily Dickinson
(1830-1886)
For Emily Dickinson, the immeasurable, unrecorded life was far more real
than the verifiable one; the intersections of visible and invisible worlds
far more electric than facts recognized by biographers. A sketch of her
known dates and places cannot capture or account for Dickinson's
extraordinary sensibility or originality, which brought fresh currents into
American thought and literature and expanded the possibilities of poetry.

Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was born in 1830 and
died in 1886. She shared her family's household with her younger sister
Lavinia, her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, and her father, Edward
Dickinson, a lawyer, congressman, and treasurer of Amherst College. Her
brother Austin, one year older, a lawyer like his father, lived for most of
his life in the house next door, after marrying Dickinson's friend Susan
Huntington Gilbert. We know few details about Dickinson's mother: she had a
year of higher education, rather unusual for a woman in the early
nineteenth century; like Emily, she was a skilled and avid gardener; she
shared domestic responsibilities with her daughters, and Lavinia took on
much of the household management.

Squire Edward Dickinson emerges as a dominant and domineering figure in the
family, whom Emily Dickinson seems to have both honored and humored. To her
brother Austin, away at law school, she wrote:

We dont have many jokes tho' now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do
not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that its pretty much
all real life. Fathers real life and mine sometimes come into collision,
but as yet, escape unhurt!...

About ten years later she wrote to a friend: "He buys me many Books-but
begs me not to read them-because he fears they joggle the Mind." Dickinson
implied that her parents neither comprehended nor aided her development,
but we know that their quiet style of living, their secure economic class,
and perhaps even their emotional remoteness allowed her the privacy in
which to develop her writing. Lavinia protected that privacy, and said
after Dickinson's death that Emily was the one of the family who had
thinking to do.

By the age of twelve, Dickinson was a fluent and prolific writer of
letters. Austin described the dramatic effect of her talent at Amherst
Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College),
where she spent one year. "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. She was full of courage-but
always had a peculiar personal sensitiveness. She saw things directly and
just as they were. She abhorred sham...."

Dickinson's early letters reveal a witty, startling, irreverent
imagination, and a passion for situations which combined friendship,
honesty, secrecy, private jokes, and talk about books and ideas. Though her
childhood was a time of mass evangelistic conversions, or revivals, in the
churches of western Massachusetts, when all souls were urged to commit
themselves to Christ, Dickinson refused to think badly of "the world," or
believe that greater pleasures could be found in heaven than on earth. Of
her family's habits of traditional prayer and churchgoing she wrote,
"[They] are religious-except me-and address an Eclipse, every morning-whom
they call 'Father.'" Her letters indicate that she found life exhilarating
and sufficient, if only it would last, and that for her, heaven was
embodied in familiar surroundings, in nature, in love, and in the power of
thought.

Why Dickinson spent only one year at Mount Holyoke, we do not know. Her
father seems to have wanted her at home. Religious pressure may also have
contributed to her departure. Mary Lyon, founder of the Seminary, ranked
incoming students on the basis of their spiritual condition, and her staff
made separate lists of those who "had a hope" (of receiving God's grace),
or had "indulged" a hope, or had no hope. Dickinson's name remained on the
final list, despite intense public pressure to attend religious meetings
and re-examine her soul. Her letters suggest that she refused to profess a
sense of sin; such a refusal required an astonishing degree of originality
and courage. Her poems and letters indicate that throughout her life she
felt she had a direct route to the Infinite, especially through the world
of the mind, and that churches, sermons, preachers, revival meetings, and
theological vocabulary did not express her sense of eternity,
tremendousness, awe, or spiritual center, which she also named
Circumference. Attention to her own experience was her great route to the
Infinite.

After one year of college, Dickinson made only five or six trips away from
Amherst, traveling in her twenty-fifth