Emily Dickinson’s Biography

Emily Dickinson's daguerreotype

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Emily Dickinson's daguerreotype, circa 1846

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst at the Homestead on December 10, 1830. Her quiet life was infused with a creative energy that produced almost 1800 poems and a profusion of vibrant letters.

Her lively Childhood and Youth were filled with schooling, reading, explorations of nature, religious activities, significant friendships, and several key encounters with poetry. Her most intense Writing Years consumed the decade of her late 20s and early 30s; during that time she composed almost 1100 poems. She made few attempts to publish her work, choosing instead to share them privately with family and friends. In her Later Years Dickinson increasingly withdrew from public life. Her garden, her family (especially her brother’s family at The Evergreens) and close friends, and health concerns occupied her.

With a few exceptions, her poetry remained virtually unpublished until after she died on May 15, 1886. After her death, her poems and life story were brought to the attention of the wider world through the competing efforts of family members and intimates.

A Timeline of Emily Dickinson's Life

Emily Dickinson timeline

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Emily Dickinson: Her Childhood and Youth (1830-1855)

Emily Dickinson, the middle child of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, was born on December 10, 1830, in the family Homestead on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. Just two months earlier, her parents and older brother Austin had moved into the Homestead to live with Edward's parents, Samuel Fowler and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, and several of Edward's siblings.

Emily Dickinson's North Pleasant Street home

Image: Jones Library Special Collections

Dickinson's house on North Pleasant Street (photo ca. 1870)

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Shortly after Emily's younger sister Lavinia was born in 1833, their grandparents moved to Ohio after several years of troubling financial problems in Amherst. The Homestead was sold out of the family, but Emily's family remained in the Homestead as tenants for seven more years.

The crowded house and Edward's growing legal and political career called for new quarters, and when Emily was nine years old, her family purchased a house on what is now North Pleasant Street in Amherst. Close to her older brother Austin and younger sister Lavinia, Dickinson had a fond attachment to the house on Pleasant Street. Domestic duties like baking and gardening occupied her time along with attending school, taking part in church activities, reading books, learning to sing and play the piano, writing letters, and taking walks.

Dickinson's formal schooling was exceptional for girls in the early nineteenth century, though not unusual for girls in Amherst. After a short time at an Amherst district school, she attended Amherst Academy for about seven years before entering Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1847. She stayed at the Seminary for one year, the longest time she spent away from home.

In youth Dickinson exhibited a social flair that retreated as she grew older: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I will have crowds of admirers at that age" (L6). She found delight in numerous female friendships, including those with Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Emily Fowler, and Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law. Although Dickinson never married, she had several significant male friends, among them Benjamin Newton, from whom she received her beloved copy of Emerson's Poems, and Henry Vaughn Emmons, with whom she shared some of her own early poetry. There is evidence she received at least one marriage proposal, from George H. Gould, a graduate of Amherst College, which came to naught.

Dickinson's youthful years were not without turmoil. Deaths of friends and relatives, including her young cousin Sophia Holland, prompted questions about death and immortality. From the Pleasant Street house, located near the town cemetery, Dickinson could not have ignored the frequent burials that later provided powerful imagery for her poems.

Emily Dickinson Silhouette

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Silhouette of Emily Dickinson (1845)

A wave of religious revivals in Dickinson's teen years addressed her Calvinist society's concern for the disposition of the human soul. Although Dickinson's friends, sister, father, and eventually brother all joined the church (her mother had joined the year after Emily was born), Emily never did, acknowledging plainly to a friend, "I am one of the lingering bad ones" (L36).

In Dickinson's early twenties, writing became increasingly important to her. In a letter to Austin that took him to task for writing poetry, she reveals something more significant about herself: "I’ve been in the habit myself of writing some few things, and it rather appears to me that you’re getting away my patent, so you’d better be somewhat careful, or I’ll call the police!” (L110) Her earliest extant writings—both are Valentines and uncharacteristic of her later work--were published anonymously during this period. A letter ("Magnum bonum, harem scarum") appeared in the Amherst College student publication The Indicator in 1850, and a poem "'Sic transit gloria mundi,'" in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.

Dickinson's letters to her brother also reveal a growing sense of "difference" between herself and others: “What makes a few of us so different from others? It’s a question I often ask myself” (L118). This sense of distinction became more pronounced as she grew older and as her poetic sensibilities matured.

Emily Dickinson: The Writing Years (1855-1865)

Although Emily Dickinson's calling as a poet began in her teen years, she came into her own as an artist during a short but intense period of creativity that resulted in her composing, revising, and saving hundreds of poems. That period, which scholars identify as 1858-1865, overlaps with the most significant event of American nineteenth-century history, the Civil War. During this time, Dickinson's personal life also underwent tremendous change.


Emily Dickinson's writing desk

Inside Emily Dickinson's bedroom at the Homestead

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In late 1855, Dickinson moved, somewhat reluctantly, with her family back to the Homestead, her birthplace. Her father had purchased the home in early 1855 and made significant renovations to it. The Homestead became part of an enhanced Dickinson estate when in 1856 Dickinson's older brother, Austin, married her close friend Susan Huntington Gilbert, and the couple built a home next door known as The Evergreens.

That household was a lively nexus for Amherst society, and Dickinson herself took part in social gatherings there early in the couple's marriage. Their lifestyle eventually would contrast markedly with her own, more reclusive manner. The couple's three children—Ned, born in 1861; Martha, in 1866; and Gilbert, in 1875—brought much joy to Dickinson's life, even though Susan's developing role as a mother may have put more distance between her and the poet.

In addition to providing close proximity to her brother and his family, the renovated Homestead offered Dickinson several other advantages. Edward Dickinson added a conservatory to the Homestead, where Emily could raise climate-sensitive plants. Now she could engage in her beloved hobby of gardening year-round. And Dickinson had her own bedroom, the southwest corner room on the second floor, a space essential to her writing.

By the time Dickinson turned 35, she had composed more than 1100 concise, powerful lyrics that astutely examine pain, grief, joy, love, nature, and art. She recorded about 800 of these poems in small handmade booklets (now called “fascicles”), very private “publications” that she shared with no one.

Dickinson did share a portion of her poems with family and selected friends whose literary taste she admired. Susan Dickinson received more than 250 poems throughout the two women's forty-year relationship, and to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who authored an article in an 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly that encouraged young people to write and publish, Dickinson sent about 100 poems. Although a few of her poems were published in newspapers, they were printed anonymously and apparently without her prior consent. The vast majority of her work remained known only to its author.

Some events in Dickinson's life during her intense writing period are difficult to re-construct. Drafts of three letters, now called the "Master Letters," survive from late 1858 and early 1861. They suggest a serious and troubled (though unidentified) romantic attachment that some scholars believe drove Dickinson's creative output. During this time Dickinson also referred to a trauma that she described in a letter: "I had a terror -- since September -- I could tell to none" (L261). The cause of that terror is unknown.

Significant friendships such as those with Samuel Bowles, Rev. Edward Dwight, and Rev. Charles Wadsworth changed during this time, and Dickinson began to feel an increasing need for a "preceptor" to cope with her outpouring of verse and with questions about publication.

In 1864 and 1865, Dickinson underwent treatments for a painful eye condition, now thought to be iritis, with Boston ophthalmologist Henry W. Williams. While under the doctor's care (eight months in 1864, six months in 1865), she boarded with her cousins, Frances and Louisa Norcross. Those trips were to be her last out of Amherst; after her return in 1865, she rarely ventured beyond the grounds of the Homestead.

Emily Dickinson: The Later Years (1865-1886)

After Emily Dickinson's visits to Cambridge for eye treatment in the mid-1860s, the poet settled into a quiet, reclusive existence with her parents and sister. Although she rarely ventured beyond the family Homestead, she did entertain several significant visitors, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she met in person for the first time in 1870 when he visited her at home in Amherst. To Higginson she offered her own definition of poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” (L342a)

Detail of Dickinson's paisley shawl

Detail of Dickinson's paisley shawl

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Although Dickinson did continue to write poetry, she appears to have stopped formal assembly of the poems into booklets. Manuscripts dated to this period appear less finished than those of her intense writing period (1858-1865), though scholars are increasingly intrigued by what these later manuscripts—some of which are written on scraps of paper—suggest about her writing process. Dickinson's work reached the eyes of several writers and publishers who did express interest in publishing her work. In 1875 Higginson read a few poems by “Two Unknown Poetesses” to the New England Woman’s Club, and one of the "poetesses," who were not named during the reading, is believed to have been Dickinson.

Around the same time, the author and Amherst native Helen Hunt Jackson begged Dickinson to contribute a poem to a volume of anonymous verse:

"Would it be of any use to ask you once more for one or two of your poems, to come out in the volume of 'no name' poetry which is to be published before long by Roberts Bros.? If you will give me permission I will copy them—sending them in my own handwriting—and promise never to tell any one, not even the publishers, whose the poems are. Could you not bear this much of publicity? only you and I would recognize the poems." (L573a)

Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest" does appear in A Masque of Poets (1878), though whether Dickinson actually gave advance permission is still in question.

In her later years, Dickinson enjoyed a romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a friend of her father. He and his wife had been frequent guests at the Homestead. A widower when he began courting Emily Dickinson, Lord lived in Salem, Massachusetts. Drafts of letters to Lord suggest that the poet even considered marrying him, though she never did.

Dickinson's later life is marked by illness and death: her father's death in 1874, her mother's stroke in 1875, her nephew Gib's death at age eight in 1883, Otis Lord's death in 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson's death in 1885. The poet herself became ill shortly after her nephew Gib died: "The Crisis of the sorrow of so many years is all that tires me" (L873). She remained in poor health until she died at age 55 on May 15, 1886. She was buried four days later in the town cemetery, now known as West Cemetery.