Emily Dickinson: Special Topics

 The Kitchen at The Evergreens

Photo by Jeff Morgan

A glimpse into the kitchen at The Evergreens

This section of the website introduces users to significant topics in Dickinson’s biography. Included here are essays about members of Dickinson's family; important friends (including her dog Carlo); her impressive schooling; her loves of reading and of gardening; domestic life in the Dickinson household; Dickinson's love life; her attitudes toward and experiences with religion, the Civil War, illness, and death; and her iconic white dress.

For general information about researching Emily Dickinson, please see Resources & Bibliography.

Emily Dickinson's Family & Friends

Dickinson's family and friends

Family and friends as seen in the Museum's exhibit "my Verse is alive"

Although Emily Dickinson is popularly remembered as a recluse, her life with its joys and sorrows depended on strong relationships with family and close friends. The poet and her immediate family lived with or near one another for their entire lives. The poet's friends went farther afield, but her correspondence with them demonstrates her connections to the world beyond Amherst.

In this section of the website, biographies of family members and significant friends and acquaintances illuminate the poet's life story.

Family Tree

Emily Dickinson family tree

Click here for a larger version A PDF will open in a new window.

Samuel Fowler Dickinson (1775-1838) and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson (1775-1840), grandparents

“one of the most industrious and persevering men that I ever saw”
- Edward Hitchcock, President of Amherst College, on Samuel Fowler Dickinson.

Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson were Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandparents. Fowler, or “Squire,” his honorary title, was a prominent Amherst lawyer, and a man of rare public spirit. Though his life overlapped with Emily’s for only a short time, Fowler Dickinson built a brick house on Main Street that would become Emily’s home and sanctuary for most of her life.

Amherst College

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

College Row, Amherst College. ca. 1830.

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A deeply religious man, Squire Dickinson became deacon of the church in 1798 at the unusually young age of 23. A farmer and major land-owner in the country, he served the community into which he had been born with legendary determination and energy. He was Town Clerk, served twelve years as a state Representative (1803-1827), and spent one as a Senator (1828). He planted trees. He represented the town in legal matters. Edward Hitchcock, President of Amherst College from 1845 to 1854, recalled Fowler as “one of the most industrious and persevering men that I ever saw” (Reminiscences of Amherst College, Northampton, Mass.: Bridgman & Childs, 1863, p. 5). Lucretia Gunn of Montague, whom Fowler married in 1802, kept their home, raised nine children, and supported her husband’s work.

A driving force behind the creation of Amherst Academy in 1814, Fowler Dickinson was one of the first to subscribe to the charitable fund that served as the foundation for Amherst College (opened in 1821). He expressed his fervent belief in the virtue of education for both sexes, evident in the admission policy of the Academy, in a public address in 1831:

“A good husbandman will also educate well his daughters…daughters should be well instructed in the useful sciences; comprising a good English education: including a thorough knowledge of our own language, geography, history, mathematics and natural philosophy. The female mind, so sensitive, so susceptible of improvement, should not be neglected….God hath designed nothing in vain.” (address given to the Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Agricultural Society on October 27, 1831, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Cited in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, pp.17-18)

His support of these educational endeavors came at great personal cost. By 1833, he was bankrupt. Fowler had “sacrificed his property, his time and his professional opportunities” for the College (The History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst: Carpenter & Morehouse, 1896, p. 187). Although his son Edward, the poet's father, tried to mitigate the situation by purchasing half of the family's Homestead, eventually Fowler Dickinson was forced to leave Amherst with his wife and two youngest daughters and move to Cincinnati, where he became Steward of the Lane Theological Seminary. He later served as Treasurer of Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio. By April 22, 1838 he was dead of “lung fever” at age 62.

His Ohio obituary, reprinted in the Hampshire Gazette on June 6, 1838 noted: “…his piety consisted much in a deep laid principle of active, yet meek and unostentatious beneficence. The grand practical maxim of his life seemed to be to ‘esteem others better than himself’—to lead him to neglect his own interests, and attempt to make all others within his sphere comfortable and happy” (Leyda, Vol. I, p. 49).

After her husband’s death, Lucretia returned east. She died in Enfield, Massachusetts, on May 11, 1840. Both Samuel Fowler and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson were reinterred in the family plot in the Amherst burying ground in the 1840s.

Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson’s most lasting legacy for their granddaughter was the home she lived in, the academy she attended as a child, and the college that was her family’s community for decades.

Edward Dickinson (1803-1874), father

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.”
- Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, July 1874 (L418)

E dward Dickinson embraced the conservative Whig political party and embodied its ethics of responsibility, fairness, and personal restraint to a point that contemporaries found his demeanor severe and unyielding. He took his role as head of his family seriously, and within his home his decisions and his word were law. An incident Emily Dickinson described speaks volumes about life within her home: "I never knew how to tell time by the clock till I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know" (L342b).

Edward Dickinson

Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard


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The eldest of nine children of Samuel Fowler and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, Edward was born on January 1, 1803. He grew up in the Dickinson Homestead and, earlier, in the house that preceded it. Educated in the district school and at Amherst Academy, he attended Yale College except for his Junior year, which was spent at Amherst College during its first year of operation. He graduated from Yale in 1823, attended the Northampton Law School for a year, and opened his own practice in Amherst in the fall of 1826. On May 6, 1828 he married shy, pretty Emily Norcross of Monson, Massachusetts, after a two and a half year courtship. Their three children were born in 1829 (Austin), 1830 (Emily) and 1833 (Lavinia).

During the time Edward was establishing his legal practice, his father's great effort and financial overcommitment in helping found Amherst College led to the collapse of the family's wealth in land holdings. Within a few years all members of his immediate family, one way or another, left Amherst for the rest of their lives. Edward remained, devoting himself to his legal career and laboring to restore his father's blighted reputation as well as to regain some of his family's financial well-being.

Edward for over forty-five years led a disciplined, civic-minded public life that included several times representing Amherst in the state legislature, serving thirty-seven years as treasurer of Amherst College, and being elected to the Thirty-third Congress from his region. He was a prominent citizen, active in several reform societies, on the board of regional institutions, and involved in major civic improvements, such as leading the effort to bring the railroad to town in the mid 1850s.

Ever respectful of her father's nature ("the straightest engine" that "never played" [L360]), Dickinson obeyed him as a child, but found ways to rebel or circumvent him as a young woman, and finally, with wit and occasional exasperation, learned to accommodate with his autocratic ways.

Her early resistance slowly shifted to a mutual respect, and finally subsided after his death in pathos, love, and awe. Despite his public involvements, the poet viewed her father as an isolated, solitary figure, "the oldest and the oddest sort of foreigner," she told a friend (Sewall, The Lyman Letters, p. 70), a man who read "lonely & rigorous books" (L342a), yet who made sure the birds were fed in winter.

Edward Dickinson's lonely death in a Boston boardinghouse following his collapse while giving a speech in the state legislature the hot morning of June 6, 1874, was unbearable to the whole family. The entire town closed down on the afternoon of his funeral, and his eldest daughter later paid this tribute: "Lay this Laurel on the one\ Too intrinsic for Renown -\ Laurel - vail your deathless Tree -\ Him you chasten - that is he -" (Fr1428).

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Emily Dickinson’s Home. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 44-73.

_____. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965. p. 70.

Emily Norcross Dickinson (1804-1882), mother

“To have had a Mother—how mighty!”
- Emily Dickinson to Mrs. James C. Greenough, late October 1885 (L1022)

Emily Norcross Dickinson was born in Monson, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1804, to Betsy Fay and Joel Norcross. The eldest daughter of nine children, Emily Norcross had an extraordinary education for a young woman in the early nineteenth century. From age seven to nineteen, she attended co-educational Monson Academy, which her father had helped to found.  She then went to a New Haven, Connecticut, boarding school for one term.

Emily Norcross Dickinson

Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Emily Norcross Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard


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In 1826 Emily Norcross began a courtship with Edward Dickinson. Unlike her future husband or her daughter the poet, Emily Norcross Dickinson had little interest in writing. Edward sent her seventy letters and she responded with only twenty-four extant replies. When her fiancé inquired about her lack of writing Emily stated, “I am sensible that I have never exercised that freedom [of expression] which I presume you have desired me to” (Pollak, p. 56).

After a two-year courtship the couple married on May 6, 1828. Eleven months later Emily Norcross Dickinson gave birth to their first child, William Austin Dickinson. In the fall of 1830 the Dickinsons moved into the Homestead in Amherst where Emily gave birth to their two daughters: Emily in 1830 and Lavinia (Vinnie) in 1833.

Emily Norcross Dickinson kept an immaculate house and was praised for her cooking. She appears to have had little interest in family conversations on politics, history and literature (though she was capable) but instead focused on housekeeping and gardening. She particularly loved roses of all varieties and was also known for her figs, a difficult fruit to grow in the western Massachusetts climate.  

Although she suffered one severe bout of depression after the family moved back to the Homestead in 1855, Emily Norcross Dickinson was in good physical health and outlived most of her siblings. Almost a year to the day after her husband's death in 1874, Mrs. Dickinson had a stroke that left her paralyzed. For the next seven years, until her death on November 14, 1882, her daughters took care of their mother. Later the poet wrote of her mother: “When we were Children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now, would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift” (L792).

Further Reading:

Bernhard, Mary Elizabeth Kromer. "Portrait of a Family: Emily Dickinson's Norcross Connection." The New England Quarterly 60.3 (1987): 363-81.

Pollak, Vivian R. A Poet's Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895), brother

“There was always such a Hurrah wherever you was”
- Emily Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, April 18, 1842 (L1)

The world of the close-knit Dickinson family revolved around Austin. The oldest of the three Dickinson children, William Austin Dickinson was born on April 16, 1829, about a year and half before his sister Emily. Educated at Amherst Academy and at Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, Austin graduated from Amherst College with the class of 1850. After a short-lived career as a teacher, Austin turned his full attention to law, the profession that both grandfather Fowler and father Edward pursued.

Austin Dickinson

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Austin Dickinson, early 1850s.

 


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Upon graduation from Harvard Law School and in anticipation of a new life with his fiancée, Susan Gilbert, Austin considered a move west, to Chicago. Edward's offer to make his son a partner in his Amherst law firm and to build a house (The Evergreens) for Austin and Susan changed such plans. Like the other members of his family, Austin remained an Amherst resident until the end of his life.

Austin's law practice, his home and family (he and Susan had three children), numerous civic obligations, a fascination with landscape architecture, and a "passion" for pictures, particularly landscape paintings, consumed him. He succeeded his father as treasurer of Amherst College in 1873; served as Town Moderator from 1881 until his death in 1895; was president of Amherst's Village Improvement Society; and was a founder of Wildwood Cemetery, the town's private cemetery (where he and his family are buried). Through his activities he befriended numerous notables, including the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. A friend once told him: “I suppose nobody in the town could be born or married or buried, or make an investment, or buy a house-lot, or a cemetery-lot, or sell a newspaper, or build a house, or choose a profession, without you close at hand” (Longsworth, p. 117).

Emily Dickinson was especially close to her brother in their youth. Her letters to him when he was away from home reveal their shared interests in intellectual pursuits, nature, and local affairs, as well as Emily's--indeed the entire household's--deep affection for him: "Our apples are ripening fast—I am fully convinced that with your approbation they will not only pick themselves, but arrange one another in baskets, and present themselves to be eaten" (L48).

After Austin settled into The Evergreens, his relationship with Emily changed. With his attention pulled in other directions, he had less time for sisterly concerns. Once, when Austin stayed at the Homestead while his wife and children were out of town, Emily noted: "It seemed peculiar—pathetic—and Antediluvian. We missed him while he was with us and missed him when he was gone" (L432). Yet Austin did care for his sisters, especially after their parents' deaths, and he was by Emily's side when she died.

Austin's personal life was complicated. Despite the joy that their children brought to the household, Susan and Austin did not maintain that joy in their own relationship. In 1882 Austin met Mabel Loomis Todd, an accomplished young woman twenty-seven years his junior and the wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor. The two fell in love and were involved in a deeply committed relationship for almost thirteen years, although each remained married and the affair was known to their spouses.

While Austin was not directly involved in the posthumous editing of his sister's poetry, his affair with Todd, who served as a principal editor of Dickinson's work, created additional tensions with his wife and surviving sister. Austin died from heart failure on August 16, 1895. He was 66.

Further Reading:

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 91-127.

Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833-1899), sister

“[Emily] had to think – she was the only one of us who had that to do. Father believed; and mother loved; and Austin had Amherst; and I had the family to take care of.”
- Lavinia Dickinson (Emily Dickinson's Home, pp. 413-414)

One of the most significant people in Emily Dickinson’s life was her sister Lavinia. Born two years after Emily, on February 28, 1833, the two were raised as if of an age. They began attending Amherst Academy together in the spring of 1841 at ages ten and eight, and shared a room and a bed into their twenties. Each, however, had her own circle of friends and very different personality. As Emily once told a friend, “if we had come up for the first time from two wells where we had hitherto been bred her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say” (Sewall, Lyman Letters, 70).

Lavinia Dickinson

Image: The Jones Library Special Collections

Lavinia Dickinson, ca. 1896


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Vinnie grew to be the practical sister, who did the errands and managed the housekeeping. “I don’t see much of Vinnie – she’s mostly dusting stairs!” (L176) Emily once sighed. Clever and pretty, musical and an accomplished mimic, Vinnie had a sharp tongue and sometimes shaded the truth, nor was she a serious student. After eight years at Amherst Academy and two terms imbibing an “abbreviated course” at Ipswich Academy, she settled into an active social life in Amherst for several years. Her friendly flirtatiousness attracted the Amherst College students, but despite several proposals of marriage, including a long-term “understanding” with the Dickinsons’ friend Joseph Lyman, Vinnie, like her sister, remained unwed.

"Upon her, very early, depended the real solidarity of the family,” her niece Martha later wrote. “It was Lavinia who knew where everything was, from a lost quotation to a last year’s muffler. It was she who remembered to have the fruit picked for canning, or the seeds kept for next year’s planting, or the perfunctory letters written to the aunts" (Bianchi, Life and Letters, p. 13). Vinnie shared her mother and sister’s horticultural talents. Her passion for colorful, overflowing flower beds was exceeded only by an equally abundant love of cats, which followed her in procession about the Homestead.

Different as they were, the sisters were extremely close. While Austin was often exasperated by his youngest sister, the poet called her bond with Lavinia “early, earnest, indissoluble” (L827). Indeed, from young womanhood, Emily depended upon Vinnie’s physical presence when engaged in social activities or even going through the seasonal construction of new clothing, for Vinnie worked with the dressmaker and served as model for both of them. As she neared age thirty, the reclusive poet admitted, “Vinnie has been all, so long, I feel the oddest fright at parting with her for an hour, lest a storm arise, and I go unsheltered” (L200).

Vinnie’s pride in her brilliant sister was as strong as her devotion to protecting her. After their father’s death in 1874 and their mother’s stroke the following year, Vinnie and Emily, with the help of their maid Margaret Maher, cared for their invalid mother until her death in 1882. When Emily died in May 1886, Vinnie burned her sister's correspondence, as requested, but to her amazement discovered hundreds of poems about which Emily had given no instructions. Determined to share these with the world, Vinnie spent the next thirteen years successfully urging and cajoling others – Susan Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the publishers Roberts Brothers – to publish her sister’s poems and letters. Without what Emily called Vinnie’s “inciting voice” (L827), we would know little or nothing of Dickinson’s great lyric poetry.

Lavinia Dickinson died at age 66 of an “enlarged heart” on August 31, 1899. Her health and spirits suffered greatly the last two years from the strain of the lawsuit with Mabel Loomis and David Todd, the death of her nephew Ned, and recriminations that flew between the Homestead and The Evergreens.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Emily Dickinson’s Home. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. 138-157.

Sewall, Richard B. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965.

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913), sister-in-law

“"With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise"
- Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, about 1882 (L757)

Susan Huntington Gilbert was born on December 19, 1830, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of seven children of Thomas and Harriet Arms Gilbert. After the death of her mother in 1835, she was raised with her sisters in Geneva, New York, by her aunt Sophia van Vranken. As a girl of sixteen she visited Amherst, where her eldest sister resided, and attended Amherst Academy during the summer of 1847. Thereafter she attended Utica Female Academy in New York through 1848, then returned to Amherst for the rest of her life. Susan was a vivacious, intelligent, and cultivated woman, a great reader, a sparkling conversationalist, and a book collector of wide-ranging interests. Late in life she traveled in Europe several times before her death from heart disease on May 12, 1913.

Susan Dickinson

Image; Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b, Series I, (29.4)

Susan Dickinson, n.d.

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In 1850, Susan and Austin Dickinson, the poet's brother, began courting. They announced their engagement on Thanksgiving Day in 1853 and were married three years later on July 1, 1856. At their newly-built home, The Evergreens, next door to the Homestead, Susan enjoyed entertaining friends and the numerous literary figures attracted to the town, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the early years of Austin and Susan's marriage, Emily Dickinson would often visit The Evergreens and enjoy the company she found there. Susan and Austin had three children: Edward ("Ned"), born in 1861; Martha, born in 1866; and Thomas Gilbert ("Gib"), born in 1875.

The Evergreens was the setting for two family tragedies. After a time, Austin and Susan's marriage gradually deteriorated, and in the fall of 1882 Austin began a thirteen-year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that caused great rancor and bitterness within the family. Then, in the fall of 1883, eight-year-old Gib, beloved of all the family, died of typhoid fever. The child's death crippled both houses, leaving Susan desolated and the poet ill for weeks.

Susan had become close friends with Emily Dickinson in 1850. Their intimate correspondence, occasionally interrupted by periods of seeming estrangement, nevertheless lasted until the poet's death in 1886. Susan, a writer herself, was the most familiar of all the family members with Dickinson's poetry, having received more than 250 poems from her over the years. At least once she offered constructive criticism and advice. Susan wrote the poet's remarkable obituary, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886. After the poet's death, her sister Lavinia asked Susan to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia soon grew impatient with Susan's slow editorial pace, however, and transferred the poems into the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd, who published three volumes during the 1890s with the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Susan's friendship helped expand the poet's horizons, and their sharing of books and ideas was a vital component of her intellectual life. In her later days, Emily Dickinson wrote to Susan, "With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise" (L757).

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Susan H. "Annals of The Evergreens." Writings by Susan Dickinson, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. http://www.emilydickinson.org/susan/table_of_contents.html. Original manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dickinson, Susan H. "Obituary of Miss Emily Dickinson." Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886. Reprinted in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. II, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 472-474.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Mudge, Jean McClure. “Emily Dickinson and ‘Sister Sue.’” Prairie Schooner 52 (1978). 90-108.

Smith, Martha Nell. "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters." The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 51-73.

Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898), nephew

“A dark cold morning. Children at church. I at home reading Emerson on immortality with the good and silent company of my pipe.”
- Ned Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, August 29, 1882 (St. Armand, 365)

Austin and Susan Dickinson’s eldest child was born on June 19, 1861. Named Edward, after his paternal grandfather, he was called “Ned” within the family. Although the poem Emily Dickinson sent to Susan at Ned’s birth admits her “fear of joggling Him!” (L232), she developed a very close and gleeful relationship with her nephew. They shared a pleasure in playing with words. “Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie,” Dickinson crowed in a letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, when Ned was not yet five (L315).

Ned Dickinson

Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Am 1118.99b (19)

Ned Dickinson, 1874

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In February 1877, Ned had a seizure that greatly worried the family, and these attacks of epilepsy recurred. In light of these and other health issues, Austin arranged for Ned to take an “abbreviated course” at Amherst College, attending classes but not sitting exams and hence not receiving an official degree.

Ironic, witty, deeply vested in his family, surprisingly tender and domestic, but also iconoclastic, Ned grew up to be very much a Dickinson. His letters to his family are, as he frequently signed himself, “prodigal.” He clearly enjoyed playing the role of the bad, but intelligent, boy preferring his pipe and Emerson to church. But when his mother was away from home, the letters he sent her were full of domestic details, as he oversaw spring cleaning or took it upon himself to hire new servants.

His father’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd hit Ned hard, in part perhaps because he had been smitten with Mrs. Todd himself, but more because of the enormous pain it caused his mother, and he strongly took her side. He confided to his sister Mattie: “My only ambition in life Dear Mopsy, is to have a quiet, pleasant little house somewhere - with you and Mother in it where things can be pleasant - no fame, no brains, no family, no scholarship, no anything amounts to anything beside that" (Longsworth, 202).

Ned became an assistant librarian at Amherst College, which did indeed permit him some space for brains and scholarship if not for fame. An undated notebook produced by Ned sometime in the late 1880s contains copies of poems by his mother and his aunt, as well as some passages from Tennyson. It is unclear whether this was intended as a personal commonplace book, or whether he understood this transcription work as a first step toward more formal publication. Interestingly, a number of his transcriptions are clearly based on fascicle versions of the poems rather than on the versions Dickinson had sent to the family.

In 1890 Austin’s lover Mabel Loomis Todd published the first edition of Dickinson’s poems, exacerbating Susan and her children’s sense of betrayal. In August 1895 Austin Dickinson died, and less than two years later Ned accompanied his mother and sister on a tour of Europe. Upon his return he became engaged to Alice (Alix) Hill. Yet for Ned this period proved far more stressful than happy as the rancor produced by Austin and Mabel’s relationship entered its most public stage in a law suit between the Dickinson and Todd families. In May1898, just two weeks after the verdict against Todd, Ned died of angina; he was just thirty-six years old.

Further Reading:

Edward (Ned) Dickinson: Correspondence and Notebook, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. http://www.emilydickinson.org/family/ned/table_of_contents.html.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. "'Your Prodigal': Letters from Ned Dickinson, 1879.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Sept., 1988). 358-380.

Smith, Martha Nell, et al, ed., Dickinson Electronic Archives http://www.emilydickinson.org/family/ned/table_of_contents.html.

Martha Dickinson Bianchi (1866-1943), niece

“I cannot tell when I first became aware that she [Emily Dickinson] had elected her own way of life. To us she had always been as fixed in her orbit as any other star. We had been born into her life. It never seemed to us that it should have been any other than it was.”
- Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Emily Dickinson Face to Face, p. 48)

Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi, or Mattie, was born on November 30, 1866, the only daughter of Austin and Susan Dickinson. After her two brothers’ early deaths and the deaths of her parents, she became the last surviving member of the Dickinson line.

Martha Dickinson

Image: Emily Dickinson Museum Collection

Martha Dickinson Bianchi, n.d.

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Martha studied at three private schools--Miss Howland's (1879-1880), Miss Marsh's (1882-1883), and Miss Porter's (1884-1885)--and had tutors from Amherst College. Before heading off to school in 1884, Mattie received a note of advice from her aunt Emily: “Be true to yourself, Mattie, and ‘Honor and Immortality’—although the first will do—the last is only inferential" (L942). An excellent pianist, Martha studied at the Smith College School of Music (1885-1889) and took private lessons in New York City.

In 1902 while abroad in Bohemia, Martha married the romantic Alexander Bianchi, a captain in the Russian Imperial Horse Guards. He was later jailed on charges of fraud, and the couple separated in 1908, divorcing in 1920.

In her early thirties, Bianchi began writing poetry. Her work appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. She also wrote several novels, including The Cuckoo’s Nest (1909), A Cossack Lover (1911) and The Kiss of Apollo (1915).

Bianchi, however, is best known for her work editing her aunt's poetry. After her mother Susan and her aunt Lavinia died, Bianchi inherited the Dickinson manuscripts that remained in her family (the other significant portion of the manuscripts was held by Mabel Loomis Todd). In 1914 Bianchi published The Single Hound: Poems of Emily Dickinson, which helped revive interest in her aunt's work. She published several more books of Dickinson’s poetry and letters as well her own reminiscences about her aunt. Bianchi and her secretary, Alfred Leete Hampson, like editors before them, edited Dickinson's poetry with the intent of making it easier to read by removing dashes and changing line breaks. Some of Bianchi’s collections of Dickinson's poems may still be found at bookstores today.

Bianchi traveled extensively to European destinations, and eventually divided her time between The Evergreens in the summer and New York City in the winter. She died in New York City in 1943.

After her mother's death in 1913, Bianchi made few physical alterations to The Evergreens. In her will, she bequeathed the house to Hampson, who later married a mutual friend, Mary Landis. Bianchi’s will stipulated that, should Hampson and his family ever choose not to live in the house, The Evergreens should be torn down rather than sold to another owner. Mary Landis Hampson, the last resident and owner of The Evergreens, made arrangements in her own will to establish the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust to preserve the house for public use. In 2003, the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust transferred its assets to the Trustees of Amherst College so that The Evergreens and the Homestead could operate as a single Emily Dickinson Museum.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1932.

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883), nephew

Memoirs of Little Boys that live—
“Weren’t you chasing Pussy,” said Vinnie to Gilbert?
“No—she was chasing herself”—
“But wasn’t she running pretty fast”? “Well, some slow and some fast” said the beguiling Villain—Pussy’s Nemesis quailed—
Talk of “hoary Reprobates”!
Your Urchin is more antique in wiles than the Egyptian Sphinx—
- Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, about 1880 (L664)

Thomas Gilbert Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's second nephew, was born on August 1, 1875. Susan and Austin Dickinson had been married for almost twenty years when their third child was born; their eldest Ned was already fourteen and daughter Mattie, eight, by then. The whole family doted on “little Gib.” Many of Ned’s letters, for example, describe the antics of his little brother with clear pride and affection: “Gib is all right and as naughty as ever,” he declares in a letter to their mother (Jan 11, 1879). “Gilbert has a most tremendous reputation for brilliant remarks out here,” he boasts in another (Oct 10, 1881). Emily Dickinson’s letters suggest that she, too, took great pleasure in her youngest nephew’s beguiling wiles.

Gilbert Dickinson

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Gilbert Dickinson, n.d.

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A number of Gib’s own letters remain, confirming this charming precociousness. A letter he wrote to “Santy Clause” and posted with a hand-drawn stamp concludes: “Please bring me whatever you think best. I don’t mean a spanking I mean some common place toys.” In fact the Evergreens contains a far-from-commonplace collection of his toys, including an elaborate rocking horse and a velocipede (tricycle), which Gib rode avidly in town. The furnishings of the Dickinson nursery display the Victorian era celebration of childhood as a special and cherished life stage, the Dickinsons going so far as to allow their children to paste pictures from books and magazines on the doors of the nursery and adjacent hall. When Gib decided to host a circus in The Evergreens' yard, the family printed up abundant tickets.

In the fall of 1883 Gib contracted typhoid fever, and died on October 5. He was just eight years old. In a rare excursion from the Homestead, Emily Dickinson came to sit by his bedside the night before he died, and her letter of condolence to Sue is seared with her grief. “His life was full of Boon” she wrote. “I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies—His life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an echo—his Requiem ecstasy—” (L868). Her own health deteriorated swiftly thereafter, and some scholars have associated her decline with the wrenching loss of this beloved boy. The family as a whole was deeply shaken by his death. No other children ever lived in The Evergreens and the nursery was largely preserved intact as a kind of family memorial.

Gilbert Dickinson's manuscripts (unpublished) are part of the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection at the John Hay Library, Brown University.

Further Reading:

Kirk, Connie Ann. "'Open the Door, They Are Waiting for Me': An Introduction to The Evergreens Nursery."Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (16:1), May/June 2004. 4-6.

Kirk, Connie Ann. "'To Stay Behind-With Just the Toys': Gilbert Dickinson's Living Treasures in The Evergreens."Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (15:2), November/December 2003. 12-13, 34-35.

Frances (1847-1919) and Louisa (1842-1896) Norcross, cousins

"For you remember, dear, you are one of the ones from whom I do not run away!”
- Emily Dickinson to Louisa Norcross, about January 4, 1859 (L199)

Frances and Louisa Norcross were Emily Dickinson's first cousins, the daughters of Emily Norcross Dickinson's favorite sister, Lavinia Norcross Norcross. They were born on August 4, 1847, and April 17, 1842, respectively. Fanny and Loo, as Emily affectionately called them, are considered to have been some of Dickinson's closest friends. When the cousins were orphaned in 1863, Dickinson offered her home as a refuge:“What shall I tell these darlings except that my father and mother are half their father and mother, and my home is half theirs, whenever, and for as long as, they will. . .” (L278).


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While the cousins never did live with their Dickinson relatives in Amherst—the two settled in Boston, their birthplace—Fanny and Loo were beloved guests of the Homestead and The Evergreens. Frances was described by Martha Dickinson (daughter of Susan and Austin Dickinson) as “a great favorite with both houses,” while “Cousin Lou was more like Aunt Emily than anybody."  Emily Dickinson herself fondly reminisced about visits from her cousins when she recalled a time when “You (Loo) and I in the dining-room decided to be distinguished” (L199).

In 1884 the sisters moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where they participated in various intellectual and political activities. Dedicated to the study of literature, they joined the Concord Saturday Club, which included as members Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In addition to studying published literature, the club also heard works-in-progress as well as the works of unknown writers. Fanny was also involved in theater and worked as a librarian at the Harvard Divinity School Library, a role that was uncommon for women at the time. She helped expand the library and implemented a new cataloguing system.

The cousins' interest in literature may have led Emily Dickinson to include the two in her creative process. She sent them at least twenty-five poems, and the cousins witnessed Dickinson composing “in the pantry …while she skimmed the milk” (Scharnhorst, 485). For the posthumous volumes of Dickinson's work that Mabel Loomis Todd edited, Fanny provided transcripts of poems and letters that she and her sister had received, but because Fanny insisted on keeping the originals of Dickinson’s work as well as excising letters that she believed were too personal to be published, Todd found the cousin's involvement trying.

The sisters remained active in the Concord community until their respective deaths: Frances on April 14, 1919, and Louisa on February 20, 1896. The magnitude of Dickinson's love for her cousins is evident in the simple, last letter the poet wrote before her death: “Little Cousins, / Called Back. / Emily" (L1046).

Further Reading:

Ackmann, Martha. "'I'm glad I finally surfaced': A Norcross Descendent Remembers Emily Dickinson." Emily Dickinson Journal. 5.2 (1996): 120-126.

Ackmann, Martha. "The Matrilineage of Emily Dickinson." University Microfilms International. 1988.

Bernhard, Mary Elizabeth Kromer. "Portrait of a Family: Emily Dickinson's Norcross Connection." The New England Quarterly 60.3 (1987): 363-81.

Scharnhorst, Gary. "A Glimpse of Dickinson at Work." American Literature 57.3 (1985): 483-5.

Mary Lyon (1797-1849), teacher

“Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do.”
- Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon was a pioneering educator of women. In 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Emily Dickinson attended in 1847-48. Lyon was born in Buckland, Massachusetts, on February 28, 1797. She was one of seven children born to Aaron Lyon, a Scottish farmer, and Jemima Shepherd Lyon. Mary Lyon attended Buckland School from the age of four until she was thirteen, often boarding with local families since it was too far to travel home each day.

Mary Lyon

Image: Mary Lyon Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

Mary Lyon, ca. 1845

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When Lyon was seventeen, she was invited to teach summer school in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. At that time teachers often entered the work force with few formal qualifications. For twenty years Lyon continued her teaching career at several schools, including Ipswich Female Seminary, which Lavinia Dickinson later attended. While teaching, Lyon used her income and a small inheritance to further her education by traveling and studying educational reform.

In 1834 Lyon decided to leave teaching in order to raise funds for a female seminary accessible to women of modest means. Lyon conceived of a seminary founded on the principles of public benevolence, as opposed to the customary practice of funding by a wealthy benefactor. She tirelessly traveled the country collecting donations in a green velvet purse. She made a special request of church sewing societies throughout New England to contribute quilts and bedding that would furnish a chamber for each student. To keep tuition low, seminary students would live together as a family in one large building and would do much of the school's housework (cleaning, cooking, and laundering).

On November 8, 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary admitted its first eighty students. Mary Lyon had high academic standards for her students. An admirer of the Amherst College curriculum, she developed a rigorous course of study that included the sciences, not a subject commonly emphasized at men's or women's schools. She also tirelessly worked to improve the students' religious lives, holding year-long revivals intended to culminate in each student's personal confession of faith.

Emily Dickinson entered the seminary in 1847, a decade after its founding. Writing her friend Abiah Root, Dickinson observed that the atmosphere at the seminary was congenial. “One thing is certain,” she wrote, “& that is, that Miss Lyon & all the teachers, seem to consult our comfort & happiness in everything they do & you know that is pleasant” (L18). Like many of the students, she stayed for only one year; unlike most of them, she remained one of those "without hope" where faith was concerned.

Mary Lyon pursued her mission to educate women until her death on April 5, 1849. Educators later viewed Mount Holyoke as a model for women's education. In 1893, the seminary became Mount Holyoke College. Lyon's gravesite is on the College grounds. Mary Lyon’s legacy is celebrated at her graveside during the annual Mount Holyoke College commencement ceremony and every year on her birthday.

Further Reading

Green, Elizabeth Alden. Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1979.

Mount Holyoke College History http://www.mtholyoke.edu/cic/about/history.shtml

Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), friend

“My earliest friend wrote me the week before he died “If I live, I will go to Amherst – if I die, I certainly will.”
- Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, spring 1876 (L457)

“My earliest friend,” “My dying Tutor” (L265), “my Father’s Law Student” (L750), “The first of my own friends” (L110), “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor” (L153) “an elder brother, loved indeed very much” (L153) – these were all phrases Emily Dickinson employed in speaking of Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young man whose effect upon her development as a poet was early and profound, and to whom she long paid tribute.

R.W. Emerson, Poems
Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Presented to Emily Dickinson by Benjamin Newton, August 1849.


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Newton, as she called him, came to Amherst in the fall of 1847, a twenty-six-year-old aspiring law student desiring to study for two years in the recently formed partnership office of Dickinson and Bowdoin. Like other such law students of Edward Dickinson’s over the years, Newton became a familiar presence in the Dickinson household, befriending the Dickinson children and often partaking of family meals. Emily Dickinson met him just as she enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and she became acquainted with his love of books during several weeks the following March that she was home nursing a severe cold. She later wrote: “Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen” (L153).

The spare facts of Ben Newton’s upbringing indicate he was born into a farm family in Berlin, Massachusetts, near Worcester, on September 30, 1821. Unable to afford college, and perhaps not of sturdy enough health to farm, Newton may have taught school during the decade before he came to Amherst. By that time he was widely read, and able to guide Dickinson to poets and authors he esteemed. She spoke afterwards of admiring “the strength and grace, of an intellect far surpassing my own,” which “taught me many lessons” (L153). Most important, he recognized Dickinson’s exceptional mind and encouraged her talent for writing. “All can write autographs, but few paragraphs, for we are mostly no more than names," he inscribed in her autograph book when he left Amherst for Worcester in August 1849. (Dickinson's autograph book is housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Newton corresponded with Dickinson--most notably sending her Emerson’s Poems in January 1850--while he studied for the bar, opened his own law practice, and then became the District Attorney of Worcester County. He married in June 1851, and while he continued to write and to guide his young protégé, he evidently gave her few indications that his health was failing. News of his death from tuberculosis on March 24, 1853, shocked Dickinson when she read of it in the newspaper three days later. Loss of her “gentle, yet grave Preceptor” led her to rely principally on her lexicon (her dictionary) as her guide to writing poetry for several years to follow (see L261).

Although it has been suggested that Newton and Dickinson may have been romantically attached, this seems unlikely. The theory scarcely fits the tone of the three letters the poet wrote to Newton’s minister, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, for reassurance he had died peacefully. She did, however, regret for the rest of her life that the importance to her of this “first friend” had “slipped my simple fingers through / While just a Girl at school” (Fr418). She treasured the advice of his letters, and never forgot him.

Further Reading:

Mamunes, George. “So has a Daisy Vanished”: Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008.

Abby Wood Bliss (1830-1915), friend

"Our particular friend"
- Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 25, 1845 (L8)

Abby Maria Wood Bliss was Dickinson’s “particular friend” (L8) and schoolmate at Amherst Academy. Together with Abiah Root, Harriet Merrill, and Sarah Tracy, Abby Wood and Emily Dickinson made up the close group of girlhood friends that the poet called “our circle of five” (L11).

Abby Wood Bliss

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Abby Wood Bliss

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Both Emily and Abby were born in 1830, Abby on October 12, in Westminster, Massachusetts. By 1838, after her father Joel’s death left her mother burdened with several small children, Abby was living in Amherst with her Uncle Luke Sweetser, a well-respected member of the community.

Though the two girls had bouts of frail health, they shared a strong interest in music and their studies at Amherst Academy during the 1840s. Penciled notes in their joint 1838 copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil show two girls trying to survive their lessons with humor. Emily, like schoolchildren for generations, complains of the tediousness, writing that “Abby and I are plodding over our books pretty much as ever” (L7). (Emily Dickinson's copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil is now housed at the Amherst College Library, Amherst, Massachusetts.)

Their friendship reached a turning point in 1850 when Abby joined Amherst's First Congregational Church, succumbing to a powerful religious revival of that year. Although the two friends had both been uncommitted, Emily early on recognized that Abby “only desires to be good” (L23).  After Abby joined the church, Emily acknowledged that they now “take different views of life” (L39). Dickinson never did join the church.

In 1855 Abby married the newly-ordained minister Daniel Bliss, an 1852 graduate of Amherst. The couple sailed off on a mission to Syria, where they spent the remainder of their lives, and where Reverend Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College (now The American University of Beirut).  Dickinson's friendship with Abby had “drooped a little” (L91) in the early 1850s, but when the time came for Abby to depart, Emily presented her with their shared Virgil text.  In it she had written out line 203 of Book I of the Aeneid, which she translated as “Afterwards you may rejoice at the remembrance of these (our school days)” and then inscribed it “When I am far far away then think of me—E. Dickinson.”

While the intimacy of their relationship changed, the two never lost touch. They both retained their interest in botany and horticulture (subjects they had studied at Amherst Academy), and there is strong evidence that Abby sent botanical specimens for Emily's herbarium, as well as a piece of olivewood, from the Middle East.

When Abby brought her children from Syria for a year's visit to Amherst in 1873, she found that Emily “had become the village mystery, inaccessible to all but an elect few, who were admitted to the sanctuary with appropriate preliminaries and ceremonies.” Abby, demonstrating her own honest and independent spirit, would have none of it, and claimed her right to be “received on the old basis” (Daniel Bliss, The Reminiscences of Daniel Bliss, New York: Revell, 1920. Cited inThe Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, p. 205).

Inspired by the visit, Emily composed:

I saw that the Flake was on it
But plotted with Time to dispute –
“Unchanged” I urged with a candor
That cost me my honest Heart –

But “you” – she returned with valor
Sagacious of my mistake
“Have altered – Accept the pillage
For the progress’ sake”—
(Fr1304)

Daniel and Abby Bliss had four children, Mary, Frederick, Howard, and William. All four spent the academic year of 1873-74 in the Amherst school system, and the two older sons later graduated from Amherst College.  Frederick Bliss, a good pianist, often played for Emily Dickinson, while Howard Sweetser Bliss became a good friend of Emily’s nephew Ned Dickinson. Howard succeeded his father as President of Syrian Protestant College in 1902. Together Daniel and Abby dedicated their lives to education through their missionary work in Syria. Abby died on April 12, 1915, the year before her husband. Both are buried in the Anglo-American Cemetery in Beirut.

Abiah Root (1830-1915), friend

“I am not unconcerned Dear A. upon the all important subject, to which you have so frequently & so affectionately called my attention in your letters. But I feel I have not yet made my peace with God…. Abby & I talk much of the happy hours we used to spend together with yourself, Sarah & Hattie Merrill. Oh! What would I give could we all meet again. Do write me soon Dear A & let it be a long—long letter. Don’t forget—!!!!!”
- Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 8, 1846 (L13)

Abiah Palmer Root came to Amherst to live with her cousins the Palmers and attend Amherst Academy, where she joined Emily Dickinson’s group of five close girlhood friends. After one or two terms at the Academy, “Biah” returned home to Feeding Hills, near Springfield, Massachusetts, and enrolled in Miss Campbell’s school. Thus the intimacy between the two girls came to rely upon the mail and Root’s occasional visits. Root clearly valued this correspondence, saving Dickinson’s letters, and making them available to Mabel Loomis Todd for her 1894 edition of the poet’s Letters.

Abiah Root

Image: Archives, Yale University

Abiah Root (Strong), n.d.

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Abiah Root’s side of the correspondence has been lost but the twenty-two extant letters Dickinson wrote to her friend between 1845 and 1854 provide a rich portrait of the poet’s youth. These letters are full of information about Dickinson’s activities and schooling from her tourist outings in Boston (L13) to the pleasures of a “Candy Scrape” (L20), the trials of household chores (L36), and the rules and schedule at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (L18). The letters express deep affection for her friends, and Dickinson's whimsical and often highly self-conscious writing reveals her experimenting with literary style.

Dickinson described Root as “dignified” and serious (L91), and she appears to be the friend whom Dickinson most trusted to hear her own spiritual wrestling. The daughter of a deacon and later married to a minister, Root’s own commitment to Christ seems to have come with easy clarity: “I shed many a tear & gave many a serious thought to your letter & wished that I had found the peace which has been given to you,” Dickinson wrote to her friend in 1846 (L11). “You know of this depth, and fullness [sic], will you try to tell me about it?” Dickinson asked four years later in a letter that describes the spiritual revivals in Amherst and her own unsaved plight as “one of the lingering bad ones” (L36).

Distance did have costs for their friendship. “I can think of no other way than for you, my dear girl, to come here—we are growing away from each other, and talk even now like strangers,” Dickinson complained in one letter (L39). Yet more than geographic distance their correspondence reveals their growing differences not only in religious feeling, but also in life roles and avocation. In the summer before her marriage to Reverend Samuel Strong, Abiah Root wrote to Dickinson urging her friend to visit and presumably to meet Rev. Strong. Dickinson’s response, sent more than a month later, expresses nostalgic gratitude for “loving me long ago and today,” but it ends with a sharp assertion of Dickinson’s willful disengagement from the social world. In declining to visit she calls herself “old fashioned” and explains that she leaves home “obstinately, and draw back if I can” (L166). “Why think of it seriously, Abiah," she continues, "—do you think it my duty to leave?” (L166).

At fourteen Dickinson laughed with Root at the idea of “finishing” an education--“you may then be Plato, and I will be Socrates” she joked--and she celebrated her letters for having “so much nonsense to tell” (L5). A decade later Root had chosen the expected roles and responsibilities of marriage, while Dickinson, just beginning to write her poetry, claimed a very different sense of duty, where telling nonsense and unfinished seeking still reigned.

Elizabeth Holland (1823-1896), friend

“I hope you may live till I am asleep in my personal Grave . . . I would not like to outlive the smile on your guileless Face.”
- Emily Dickinson to Mrs. J. G. Holland, early 1877 (L487)

Emily Dickinson's friendship with Elizabeth Holland came at a turning point in the poet's life. The two met in Amherst in 1853 through Mrs. Holland's husband, Josiah Holland, an editor at the Springfield Republican: "Dr Holland and his wife, spent last Friday with us—came unexpectedly—we had a charming time, and have promised to visit them after Commencement" (L132).

Elizabeth Holland

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Elizabeth Holland

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In the early 1850s Dickinson's social life was changing considerably. Good childhood girlfriends married or moved away, and even her brother, Austin, seemed more distant as he completed his law studies and began a drawn-out courtship with one of her closest friends, Susan Gilbert. A friendship with a slightly older woman, already married with an established household, must have been a welcome one.

Elizabeth Chapin Holland was born in Springfield and educated in Albany, New York. She married Josiah Holland, a newly minted physician who later turned his attention to writing, in 1845. They lived briefly in Virginia and Mississippi before returning to Springfield, where Dr. Holland quickly became indispensable at the Republican. They later moved to New York when he took over editorship of Scribner's. Mrs. Holland's granddaughter, Theodora Van Wagenen Ward (who helped to edit Emily Dickinson's poems and letters in the 1950s), described her as "a good and thrifty housekeeper [who] shared her home with Dr. Holland's widowed mother and her own younger sister, took care of her [three children], and was her husband's best adviser on important decisions" (Emily Dickinson's Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland, p. 18).

The friendship between Elizabeth Holland and Emily Dickinson--communicated primarily through correspondence as well as occasional visits--was unlike many of the poet's other relationships: "no flavor of crisis, no sudden intensity of feeling or purpose only to diminish decorously over the years" (Sewall, p. 594). Dickinson's more than ninety letters to the Hollands, written between 1853 and 1886, share the details of life that one would impart to a close family member: the status of the garden, the health and activities of members of the household, references to recently-read books. Indeed, by 1859 Dickinson addressed Mrs. Holland as "Sister" (L 204).

Although she occasionally sent Mrs. Holland poems, Dickinson does not seem to have considered Mrs. Holland a confidante for that aspect of her life. Instead, the two exchanged plants—"Yours was my first arbutus. It was a rosy boast. I will send you the first witch hazel" (L 318)—and shared a love of sweets. After receiving a gift of confections, Dickinson thanked the "Chocolate Sister": "The Bonbons were delightful, but better than Bonbons was the love—for that is the basis of Bonbons" (L555). With Mrs. Holland the poet shared her famous gingerbread recipe: "I am pleased the Gingerbread triumphed"(L369). Dickinson also turned to Mrs. Holland for help with deeply personal issues, such as embarrassment over a social faux pas (see L202) or concerns of spiritual matters.

For Dickinson biographers, the details contained within the Holland letters help to reconstruct everyday aspects of the poet's life. For Dickinson, the friendship with Mrs. Holland provided stability and reassurance throughout her adult years.

Further Reading:

Emily Dickinson's Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland. Ed. Theodora van Wagenen Ward. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974). 593-625.

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878), friend

“a creator of endless perspectives”
- Susan Dickinson, “Annals of Evergreens,” p. 2

Samuel Bowles was the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, New England’s most influential newspaper of the day. Under Bowles's direction, the paper became one of the country's "most progressive and influential" newspapers (Habegger, p. 377). Progressive in his own politics, he helped to establish the Republican party, supported the antislavery movement, and advocated for social reform on a number of fronts.

Samuel Bowles
Samuel Bowles

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Susan Dickinson remembered Bowles as "the first guest in our newly married home" (Annals," p. 2). That visit to The Evergreens, made during a trip to Amherst to observe demonstrations of agricultural machinery, led to a lifelong friendship with Austin and Susan Dickinson. Susan recalled that Bowles's visits to The Evergreens rarely ended until after midnight: "His range of topics was unlimited, now some plot of local politics, rousing his honest rage, now some rare effusion of fine sentiment over an unpublished poem which he would draw from his pocket, having received it in advance from the fascinated editor" ("Annals," p. 3). His presence in The Evergreens "seemed to enrich and widen all life for us, a creator of endless perspectives" ("Annals," p. 2). For Bowles, who suffered from bouts of ill health, visits to The Evergreens provided a respite from his busy life as an influential editor with close ties to politicians in Washington.

Emily Dickinson's friendship with Bowles began on a good note. She wrote to Bowles shortly after meeting him at The Evergreens: "Though it is almost nine o'clock, the skies are gay and yellow, and there's a purple craft or so, in which a friend could sail. Tonight looks like 'Jerusalem.' I think Jerusalem must be like Sue's Drawing Room, when we are talking and laughing there, and you and Mrs Bowles are by" (L189). About fifty letters to Bowles (some also written to his wife, Mary) survive, with the majority written during 1861 and 1862, a particularly difficult time for Dickinson.

Bowles was one of the primary recipients of Dickinson's poems—about 40 in all. Several of the poems, written in the early 1860s, allude to the turmoil she was experiencing during that time but do not disclose its specific nature. After the text of her poem "Title divine—is mine! / The Wife without the sign," she wrote to Bowles: "Here's – what I had to 'tell you' – You will tell no other? Honor – is it's [sic] own pawn—" (L 250; Fr 194). Although scholars generally agree that Dickinson's relationship with Bowles was one of the most significant in her life, interpretations of the nature of their friendship vary. While some feel he is a primary candidate for the Master figure, others argue he was simply a close friend whom she trusted enough to share her deepest troubles.

Although Bowles remained good friends with Austin and Susan, Emily and Bowles may have endured a long breach that was finally repaired when Edward Dickinson died in 1874. Bowles was the only person outside of the family to speak with the now reclusive poet at the funeral, and he sent flowers to the family each year on the anniversary of Edward's death.

When Samuel Bowles himself died early in 1878, Dickinson wrote to his widow: "Dear 'Mr. Sam' is very near, these midwinter days. When purples come on Pelham, in the afternoon we say 'Mr. Bowles's colors'" (L 536). His loss, like that of Dickinson's father, was one of a number that the poet endured with great sadness in her own final years.

Despite Bowles's prominent position at the Republican, none of the poems that he is known to have received from Dickinson are among the seven published in the Republican during her lifetime. It remains unknown how those poems made their way to the paper.

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Susan H. "Annals of The Evergreens." Writings by Susan Dickinson, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. http://www.emilydickinson.org/susan/table_of_contents.html. Original manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Habegger, Alfred.My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001. 375-382.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 463-511.

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), friend

“Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never”
- Emily Dickinson to William S. Jackson, late summer, 1885 (L1015)

Helen Hunt Jackson, a popular American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist was--like Dickinson--a daughter of Amherst. She was born on October 14, 1830, two months before Emily Dickinson, but it was not until later in life that she formed a friendship with the poet.

Helen Hunt Jackson

Image: William S. Jackson Photo Collection, PP85-30s, Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Helen Hunt Jackson, ca. 1875

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The accidental death of Jackson's first husband, Edward Hunt, in 1863, along with the deaths of both of her children may have propelled her toward writing as a way of dealing with grief. From the mid-1860s, she focused on establishing herself as a writer and avidly sought publication. In 1875 she married her second husband, William S. Jackson, and the couple settled in Colorado, making occasional trips back to New England.

Jackson was re-introduced to Emily Dickinson through editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a mentor to both women. Jackson visited the poet on two occasions, first in 1876 and two years later in 1878. During one of those visits, Jackson tried to persuade Dickinson to submit her poem, “Success is counted sweetest” (Fr112), to an upcoming volume of anonymous poetry, A Masque of Poets, published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. Dickinson’s poem did eventually appear in the book, although it is unclear whether the poet actually submitted it or if Jackson sent it without the poet’s explicit consent.

Jackson did not understand Dickinson’s reluctance to publish since, she argued, the poet had such remarkable verse to share. Writing out of frustration in 1884, she told Dickinson, “It is cruel and wrong to your 'day & generation' that you will not give them light…I do not think we have a right to withhold from the world a word or a thought any more than a deed, which might help a single soul” (L937a). Jackson even offered to be Dickinson's literary executor, but Jackson died before the poet did, making such a possibility—if Dickinson had even wished to accept it--moot.

Toward the end of her career, Helen Hunt Jackson became a passionate advocate for the rights of Native American people. Her political commitment inspired a critique of U.S. policy, A Century of Dishonor (1881) and her most famous work, the novel Ramona (1883-1884). Even from her death bed Jackson continued to work politically and wrote to President Grover Cleveland with a plea that he might redress “the wrongs of the Indian race” (Phillips, p. 272).

Jackson died in 1885, a year before the poet, after a bad fall and complications from cancer. In a sympathy letter to the writer’s husband, Dickinson remembered her last written exchange with the indefatigable Jackson. “Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. I can fly—her immortal (soaring) reply” (L1015).

Further reading:

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Phillips, Kate. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), correspondent

“Dear friend, A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”
- Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson, June 1869 (L330)

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems, was a man of astonishingly varied talents and accomplishments. A lifelong radical, he was an outspoken abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, and founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. During the Civil War, he served as commander of the first Union regiment of freed African American soldiers. An ordained Unitarian minister, Higginson was also a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and daughter, ca. 1884

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in Cambridge in 1823 into a distinguished family whose ancestors trace back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He attended Harvard College and graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. Before the Civil War, Higginson served as a minister at several Unitarian churches and was involved in a number of radical political causes and activities, including active support of John Brown as well as membership in the Free Soil party.

Higginson had a long association with the Atlantic Monthly, contributing a number of articles, essays and poems. In the April 1862 issue, he published “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he encouraged and advised aspiring writers. Within a month, he received a note from Emily Dickinson, then 31 years old, along with four poems, thus beginning a relationship that was to last until the poet’s death in 1886.

Although he did not actively urge Emily Dickinson to publish during her lifetime, Higginson became, in Dickinson’s own term, her “Preceptor.” Written communication between the two continued after their first letter; about 70 letters from their correspondence survive, along with about 100 poems. Higginson also visited the poet twice and attended her funeral in the spring of 1886, reading a poem by Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine.”

After Dickinson’s death, Higginson assisted Mabel Loomis Todd in editing her poems, lending his considerable literary influence to the eventual publication by Roberts Brothers, Boston, of a first series in 1890 and a second the following year. Both volumes were well received by critics and the public.

Higginson published more than 500 essays and 35 books during his long life. He was active into the twentieth century, producing memoirs, novels, political tracts, and biographies. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1911, survived by his second wife, Mary Thacher Higginson, and two daughters.

The influence of Thomas Wentworth Higginson as a liberal thinker and activist remains historically significant, and several of his books are in print. However, it is Higginson’s relationship with Emily Dickinson, as correspondent, advisor and editor, for which he is best remembered.

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd, Ancestor’s Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York, Dover, 1945.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Atlantic Monthly LXVIII (October 1891), pp. 444-456.

_________“Letter to a Young Contributor,” Atlantic Monthly IX (April 1862), pp. 401-11.

__________ The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Edited by Howard N. Meyer. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2000.

Wineapple, Brenda, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York, Knopf Publishing Group, 2008.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932), correspondent

“That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural.”
- Emily Dickinson to Mabel Loomis Todd, late September 1882 (L769)

Born November 10, 1856, Mabel Loomis Todd was the only child of Eben J. and Mary Wilder Loomis of Washington, D.C. Her father, a clerk in the Nautical Almanac Office, was an amateur naturalist and poet. A pretty, vivacious, talented young woman, she attended Georgetown Female Seminary, then studied piano and voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She cultivated, as well, her talents for flower-painting and writing, and had had stories published by the time of her marriage in 1876 to astronomer David Todd.

Mabel Loomis Todd

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Mabel Loomis Todd, n.d.

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In September 1881, the Todds moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, so that David could take the new professorship of astronomy at Amherst College. Mabel Todd wrote her parents of a Miss Dickinson who wrote poetry and lived such a secluded life she was called by some in town “the myth.” Todd soon became friends with the poet's sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and was invited by the poet's siblings, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson, to play the piano and sing for their reclusive sister and invalid mother. Over the next four and a half years Todd often performed music in the Homestead, becoming acquainted with the poet by way of exchanged notes and occasional conversations between rooms, yet never saw her face to face.

Nearly two years after Emily Dickinson’s death, Lavinia brought to Todd a portion of her sister’s recently-found poems and begged the younger woman to get them published. By that time Mabel was well into a thirteen-year clandestine love affair with Austin Dickinson, an intimacy that had alienated her from Susan, Austin’s wife. Lavinia had first asked Sue to publish the poems, but, impatient with Sue’s slow progress, Lavinia retrieved the manuscripts and brought them secretly to Mabel.

Despite initial reluctance, Todd spent the next nine years ordering, transcribing, and editing hundreds of poems into three volumes of Poems by Emily Dickinson published in 1890, 1891, and 1896 respectively. Todd enlisted the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the selection process, the two making changes in punctuation and some rhymes, and adding titles, attempting to shape Emily Dickinson’s unusual verse forms to the tastes of late 19th-century readers. Both also worked assiduously to herald and promote the volumes. With Lavinia’s help, Todd rounded up Dickinson’s vast correspondence with friends for a two-volume Letters of Emily Dickinson, published in 1894. She gave lectures about the mysterious poet of Amherst, thus influencing the public’s initial image of Dickinson.

After Austin’s death in 1895, tensions between the Todds and Dickinsons led to a March 1898 lawsuit over a piece of land, fueled by long-standing jealousies, fears, and vindictiveness on both sides. When Mabel lost the suit, she angrily locked away a mass of unpublished poems and Dickinson family papers still in her possession. For fifteen years she enjoyed a lecture career that took her all over the northeast United States speaking on some three dozen topics. She accompanied her husband on eclipse expeditions around the world and locally was instrumental in founding the Amherst Historical Society, the Amherst Woman’s Club, and the Amherst chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A stroke in 1913 ended Todd’s writing and lecturing. The Todds moved to Florida soon afterwards, but in 1931 Mrs. Todd was goaded by Martha Bianchi’s publications of her Aunt Emily’s materials to reissue, with her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham’s help, an enlarged version of the earlier Letters of Emily Dickinson. Other materials in Todd’s possession were later published by Bingham following her mother’s death from stroke in October 1932. Bingham subsequently gave Amherst College the Dickinson poems and letters in her family’s possession.

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1945.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Carlo (1849-1866), dog

“My Shaggy Ally”
- Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson, February 1863 (L280)

Carlo was Edward Dickinson’s gift to Emily, his eldest daughter, in the fall of 1849, presumably to accompany her on the long walks she enjoyed in the woods and fields of Amherst. Apparently a brown Newfoundland (perhaps a curly-coated Lesser Newfoundland, for Dickinson once jokingly sent one of the dog’s tawny curls to a friend purporting it to be her own), Carlo may have been procured from family friends, the Huntingtons, who raised litters of the massive breed at their farm on the Connecticut River in Hadley. If so, it adds wit to Dickinson’s naming Carlo after the pointer of St. John Rivers in her favorite novel at the time, Jane Eyre.

Newfoundland

Image: From Anecdotes of Dogs by Edward Jesse. Londond: Henry G. Bohn, 1858. opp. p. 168

Newfoundland Dog. Painted by Col. H. Smith, eng. Lizars


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Other novels soon featured dogs named Carlo – Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford Rise – and by 1858 five dogs named Carlo were registered in Amherst, including another Newfoundland owned by local photographer J.L. Lovell. The breed, known for its friendly, inquisitive intelligence, enjoyed popularity among the Romantics, and was a favorite of authors whom Dickinson admired – Byron, Scott, Dickens, and Robert Burns among them. Harriet Beecher Stowe included a Newfoundland named Bruno in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Dickinson’s first written mention of her “mute confederate” occurred in an 1850 valentine that was published by the Amherst College student magazine, The Indicator.

Thereafter she spoke often of Carlo in several dozen letters and even in a few poems, usually with homely humor, and always with affection and respect. She delighted that Major Edward B. Hunt, watching Carlo snap up a bit of fallen cake at the Commencement Tea in 1860, believed her dog “understood gravitation” (L342b). In April 1862, she introduced Carlo to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson by letter, saying, “You ask of my Companions. Hills – sir – and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself, that my Father bought me -” (L261). It seems clear from her commentary that Carlo provided the poet great psychological comfort over the years, while her dependence on his protective presence can be gauged by her marked reclusivity once he was gone.

Neighbors described Dickinson coming to call with her outsize dog beside her. One remembered Dickinson saying to her when, as a child, she walked with the poet and her “huge dog": “Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful old friend Carlo?” (Years and Hours, Vol. II, p. 21).

When Carlo died at about age 17 in January 1866, Dickinson announced his death in a terse letter to Higginson: “Carlo died. / E. Dickinson / Would you instruct me now?” (L314). Months later, still feeling his absence, she paid him this tribute:

Time is a test of trouble
But not a remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.
(Fr861)

Work cited:

The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960

Emily Dickinson's Schooling: Amherst Academy

"Viny and I both go to school this term. We have a very fine school. There are 63 scholars. I have four studies. They are Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany. How large they sound, don’t they? I don’t believe you have such big studies.”
- Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, May 7, 1845 (L6)

Such pleasure and pride in Amherst schools was a family trait. The Dickinson family had played an influential and generous role in the founding of many of the educational institutions in the town of Amherst. The district primary school that it seems most likely the Dickinson children attended as youngsters was built on land that had belonged to their grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. The school Emily Dickinson boasts about in this letter, Amherst Academy, was founded in 1814 by a group of town leaders including her grandfather and Noah Webster, who sat together on the school’s first Board of Trustees. The Academy quickly became known as one of the best private academies in the state, and helped to raise the educational aspirations of the town.

Amherst Academy

Image: Jones Library Special Collections

Amherst Academy


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Amherst College, founded in 1821, developed out of the Academy and similarly relied on the efforts and support of the Dickinson family. Samuel Fowler Dickinson staked most of his fortune on this fledgling college. The poet’s father, Edward Dickinson, studied at Amherst College in its first year and her brother Austin graduated from the College in 1850. Both Edward and Austin served as Amherst College treasurers, and the intellectual and social life of the institution did much to shape both Dickinson households.

Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy from 1840-1847. The school had fallen upon more precarious times by then, and in 1861, with the opening of Amherst’s first public high school, it closed completely. During the Dickinson children’s years at the Academy most of the teachers and even the principals were recent graduates of Amherst College or various female seminaries, and in general they taught for a year or less. Still they were young and intellectually curious, and Dickinson writes of them with great fondness: “you know I am always in love with my teachers” (L15).

It seems clear that Dickinson was an eager and inventive student, and that in some ways the very laxness of the school’s structure gave her valuable freedom. Daniel Fiske, who became principal of the Academy at the age of twenty-three, recalled that Dickinson’s “compositions were strikingly original ... and always attracted much attention at the school and, I am afraid, excited not a little envy” (Sewall, p. 342). Dickinson herself joked that her school compositions proved “exceedingly edifying to myself as well as everybody else” (L6). The exchanged notes and little jokes written in the margins of the Latin schoolbook she used at the Academy (now in the Amherst College Special Collections) suggest that she wasn’t always paying attention in class. These were social and lively years for her, full of pleasurable activities with “the five” as she called her circle of girlfriends (L11).

Amherst Academy, like virtually all schools of the period, grounded its educational mission in “morality, piety, and religion” as its papers of incorporation affirm, but from the beginning the curriculum was broad and ambitious. Both the Classical and English programs were available to girls as well as boys. Academy students were permitted to attend lectures at Amherst College, and while there is no definitive evidence that Emily Dickinson did so, it seems likely. The famous geologist Edward Hitchcock became President of Amherst College during Dickinson’s years at the Academy; many Academy students attended his lectures, and the school used his Elementary Geology as a textbook. Hitchcock’s discussions of volcanoes, fossils, and rock formations would provide a powerful vocabulary for Dickinson’s poetry. So, too, the lessons gleaned from Almira Hart Lincoln’s Familiar Lectures on Botany prompted Dickinson to keep an herbarium and to write about flowers with an unusual level of botanical precision.

Dickinson’s poetry has a far larger and richer scientific vocabulary than that of most of her contemporaries, and her years at Amherst Academy were surely a source of that knowledge and interest.

Further Reading:

Lombardo, Daniel. A Look Back: "Amherst’s Ragged Schools." Amherst, Massachusetts: Jones Library, 1995.

Lowenberg, Carlton. Emily Dickinson’s Textbooks. Lafayette, California, 1986.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Tuckerman, Frederick. Amherst Academy: A New England School of the Past.Amherst: The Trustees of Amherst College, 1929.

Emily Dickinson's Schooling: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

“[O]n the whole, there is an ease & grace a desire to make one another happy, which delights & at the same time, surprises me very much.”
- Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, South Hadley, November 6, 1874
(L18)

After completing her schooling at Amherst Academy, Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-1848. Founded ten years before, the seminary was located eleven miles south of Amherst in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The school offered a curriculum that was based on a college course of study and was among the most rigorous academic institutions a young woman could attend at the time.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Image: Physical Plant Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary ca. 1845. Print by Currier and Ives, based on a drawing by Persis Thurston, 1845 graduate of Mount Holyoke


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Dickinson was sixteen when she entered the seminary, younger than most of the other 234 students. Students who attended came primarily from New England but also from Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and the Cherokee Indian Nation. The poet shared a room with her cousin, Emily Norcross, who graduated at the close of the 1848 year.

Dickinson took examinations during her first week at the seminary and scores placed her in the first of three academic levels. By midterm, she was promoted to the middle class. Dickinson remarked that Mary Lyon, the seminary’s founder and principal, was “raising her standard of scholarship a good deal…& on account of that she makes the examinations more severe than usual” (L18).

Mount Holyoke’s curriculum reflected Lyon’s interest in science (she was a chemist by training) and courses included botany, natural history and astronomy. Early in her time at the seminary, Dickinson reported to her brother, Austin, that she was “all engrossed in the history of Sulphuric Acid!!!!!” (L22). Other courses included English grammar, Latin, history, music, algebra, philosophy and logic. Mount Holyoke’s curriculum was innovative with its emphasis on individual discovery through laboratory science and its insistence that students engage in physical exercise – Dickinson mentions practicing calisthenics. All students also were required to help maintain the seminary by participating in some form of domestic work. Dickinson’s job was to carry, wash and dry knives at every meal table “morning & noon & night” (L18).

Like most other educational institutions at the time, Mount Holyoke also believed that students’ moral and religious lives were part of its responsibility and conducted revivals that encouraged students to profess their faith. Students were organized into one of three groups: those who professed, those who hoped to and those who were without hope. Dickinson was among eighty without hope when she entered and was among twenty-nine who remained so by the end of the year. She wrote her friend Abiah Root, “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject” (L20).

Dickinson did not return to the seminary after her first year, a decision that has sparked considerable scholarly speculation. Some believe the poet suffered from religious oppression at the school; others contend the curriculum was not challenging. Still others argue that she was too homesick to continue to live apart from her family. One possibility that bears noting is that most young women did not return to the seminary for a second or third year. Societal attitudes at the time maintained that women did not need higher education since their primary adult responsibilities would center on domestic life. Less than 20 percent of the students during Dickinson’s year returned to the seminary for additional study. Many of them married missionaries or became teachers in the United States, as did the poet’s cousin, or in schools abroad established by the American Board of Missions. Whatever the reason Dickinson chose to leave Mount Holyoke, the seminary and its formidable leader, Mary Lyon, left the poet with an enduring legacy: the belief that women were capable of and entitled to a life of the mind.

Further Reading:

Christopher Benfey, “Emily Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke.” Five Colleges, Five Histories. Ed. Ronald Story. Amherst: Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield, 1992. 29-48.

Journal Letter 1847-1848. Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. Mount Holyoke College. South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Sydney McLean, “Emily Dickinson at Mount Holyoke.” New England Quarterly 7 (1934) 25-42.

Anna Mary Wells. “Emily Dickinson, 1849.” Dickinson Studies 73. (1990): 23-30.

To read a letter written by Dickinson while she was at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, click here.

Emily Dickinson and Gardening

“I was reared in the garden, you know.”
- Emily Dickinson to Louise Norcross, late April 1859 (L206)

The cultivated world of plants, as well as the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that made up Emily Dickinson's Amherst, provided the poet with a constant source of inspiration and companionship.

Foxgloves in the Homestead garden

Foxgloves in the Homestead garden

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Emily Dickinson gardened throughout her life. At age 11, she announced to a friend: "My Plants grow beautifully" (L3). In her middle years, she was able to tend plants year-round in the conservatory her father added to the Homestead: “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles” (L315). A letter written just a few years before her death reminds us that Dickinson had to work to make such magic happen: "I am very busy picking up stems and stamens as the hollyhocks leave their clothes around" (L771).

Dickinson's mother is generally credited with instilling in both Emily and her sister Lavinia a love of gardening. The family's roses included a Greville rose (yellow and white) that Mrs. Dickinson is said to have brought to Amherst from Monson in 1828 and nurtured at the Homestead. Mrs. Dickinson was also known for her ability with sensitive plants, receiving a commendation from the local paper, the Express, for her "delicious ripe figs," a "great rarity" in New England (Years and Hours, Vol. 1, p. 359).

Emily Dickinson also learned about plants in botany courses at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. During her school years she assembled an extensive herbarium (a book of pressed plants) that included more than 400 specimens, each labeled by the poet with its Latin name. The herbarium, now in the collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard University, demonstrates Dickinson's intimate familiarity with her natural surroundings.

In the Homestead garden, Emily, Lavinia and Mrs. Dickinson grew a great variety of flowering plants: shrubs, climbing vines, annuals, perennials and bulbs. Dickinson's poems and letters mention roses, lilacs, peonies, sweet williams, daisies, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtiums and zinnias, among others. Although the exact location of the flower beds is unknown, Dickinson's niece Martha remembered that "there were long beds filling the main garden, where one walked between a succession of daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths in spring—through the mid-summer richness—up to the hardy chrysanthemums that smelled of Thanksgiving, savory and chill, when only the marigolds . . . were left to rival them in pungency" (Bianchi, p. 2).

As a gardener, Emily Dickinson was attuned to the weather, the changing seasons, transitions in times of day, and the populations of bees, flies, and birds that dwelled among her plants. Her observations made their way into countless poems. An ominous thunderstorm gives notice in "The Wind begun to rock the Grass" (Fr796):

The Leaves unhooked themselves from Trees
And started all abroad –
The Dust did scoop itself like Hands
And throw away the Road -

The speaker of "It will be Summer - eventually" (Fr374) muses from winter's "pallid landscape" on the coming glories of summer:

The Lilacs –bending many a year –
Will sway with purple load –
The Bees – will not despise the tune –
Their Forefathers – have hummed –

As she became more reclusive, both Dickinson's flowers and her poems served as emissaries for her. She sent both to friends and acquaintances to acknowledge birthdays, comfort in time of illness, or express condolences: "Intrusiveness of flowers is brooked even by troubled hearts. / They enter and then knock—then chide their ruthless sweetness, and then remain forgiven. / May these molest as fondly!" (L540)

Further reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. "Emily Dickinson's Garden." Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov/Dec 1990). 1-2, 4.

Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium (Harvard’s Houghton Library) http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4184689?n=1&res=3&imagesize=1200

Farr, Judith. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

McDowell, Marta.Emily Dickinson's Gardens. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

Emily Dickinson and Reading

“I am glad there are Books. They are better than Heaven, for that is unavoidable, while one may miss these.”
- Emily Dickinson to F. B. Sanborn, about 1873 (L402)

For Emily Dickinson books were vehicles of the imagination – she defined them variously in poems as a “Frigate,” a “Bequest of Wings,” and “the Chariot / That bears the Human soul,” while those she loved best became her “Kinsmen of the Shelf.” She was born into a book-loving household and became a voracious reader who read widely, well beyond the well-stocked libraries of the Homestead and her brother Austin’s home next door.

Books in the Dickinson library

The museum's "Replenishing the Shelves" project restores some of the book titles Emily Dickinson was known to have read. On view in museum.

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In childhood, aside from her schoolbooks, she read the Bible, and was given carefully chosen, principally moralistic, Sabbath School stories by her parents and relatives. Sometime later, a young man studying in her father’s law office slipped one of Lydia Maria Child’s historical novels into the Dickinson children’s hands. “This then is a book! And there are more of them,” was her ecstatic response (L342b). Her youth was the hey-day of the Romantic literary era, with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott, Byron and Wordsworth, Longfellow and Tennyson at the height of popularity, not to mention the novels of Dickens and a host of minor novelists whose now forgotten titles provided popular girlhood reading. In 1848 the novels of the Brontës launched a new era of psychological fiction, much of it by women, which captured Dickinson’s sensibilities, and initiated her particular love, in turn, for the works of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and novelist George Eliot.

In her early twenties, discussing books was Dickinson’s stock in trade with the Amherst students and tutors who were her friends and among whom circulated books by Thomas De Quincey, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Carlyle, and German novelist Jean Paul Richter. Dickinson belonged to a reading group of Amherst young people who tackled reading Shakespeare aloud, and she was introduced to Emerson’s work by his first book of poems, a gift from her early mentor Benjamin Franklin Newton. Friendships of early adulthood, such as that with Amherst student Henry Vaughn Emmons, enlarged her awareness of and access to books beyond her own home shelves. While her father might prefer “lonely & rigorous books” (L342a) and spurn the authors his eldest daughter preferred as “modern Literati” (L113), he seems always to have purchased any books she asked for.

In addition, Dickinson kept up with current events through the daily reading of The Springfield Republican, perhaps New England’s best political and literary newspaper. She read every issue of sister-in-law Susan Dickinson’s subscription to The Atlantic Monthly, in addition to perusing a range of other periodicals that came to the Homestead, so that her gradual reclusiveness in no way interfered with knowing what was going on in the world, particularly the world of books.

Of all the literature that Dickinson devoured, the one book to which she returned again and again was the King James Bible. She read and reread it, often quoting it from memory. Its stories and personages made frequent appearances in her letters and poems, sometimes through the deftest of references. She once told a friend that all literature might be sifted to the Bible and Shakespeare.

A vital ally in the poet's love of books, Susan Dickinson was an astonishing book acquirer for her time and equally enamored of the Brownings, Tennyson, Ruskin, and other Romantics. Sue had a taste for religious philosophers, such as Francis Quarles and Thomas à Kempis, books that became essential to the poet as well. Susan and Emily shared Sue’s library; their markings of favorite passages with light pencil strokes provides a guide to the books and authorial insights that interested them most.

Today the libraries of the Dickinson houses are in the possession of two major universities. Many books from the Homestead are in the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the majority of those from The Evergreens are in the John Hay Library at Brown. The Museum has begun a program, called “Replenishing the Shelves,” to replace the hundreds of nineteenth-century titles that once occupied the family bookcases and were important to the poet and her family members.

Further reading:

Capps, Jack. Emily Dickinson’s Reading 1836-1886. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. See especially Chapter 28, "Books and Reading," 668-705.

Domestic Labor in the Dickinson Family Households

"How many times these low feet staggered”
(Fr238)

Edward Dickinson has been chided by some biographers for giving his young wife a copy of Lydia Maria Child’s popular household guide The American Frugal Housewife. Edward Dickinson had good reasons for frugality, living as the family did during these early years in the shadow of his father Samuel Fowler Dickinson’s increasing insolvency. Moreover, Child’s book expresses a new middle-class domestic ideal, that the good housewife, regardless of her wealth, should be intimately engaged with the details of domestic work. Emily Norcross Dickinson became just such a housewife, maintaining an immaculate and orderly home, and insisting that her daughters learn to do likewise.

Dickinson's twin loaf pan

A baking pan from the Dickinson family

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The poet took pleasure in the sweeter culinary arts, baking the family’s bread and cake, but Emily Dickinson wanted nothing to do with cleaning. She complained of her more willing sister to one girlhood friend, “I don’t see much of Vinnie—she’s mostly dusting stairs” (L176). “God keep me from what they call households,” she prayed (L36). Her understanding of the dynamics of women’s work proves more complicated than these youthful tirades. The poem “How many times these low feet staggered” (Fr238) both registers the stultifying effect of housework on women’s lives and criticizes a society that fails to value the work of sweeping cobwebs and washing windows.

In March 1850 Edward Dickinson placed an advertisement in the local paper: “Wanted. To hire a girl or woman who is capable of doing the entire work of a small family. One who can come well recommended, may find constant employment and good wages” (Years and Hours, Vol. 1, p. 170). Mrs. Dickinson and her daughters worked alongside this hired help. The first Dickinson household servant whose name we know was Margaret O’Brien, a recent Irish immigrant who began working for the Dickinsons in the mid 1850s and stayed with them until her own marriage in 1865. Dickinson researcher Aífe Murray has suggested that Emily Dickinson’s lessening of poetic production after 1865 correlates not only to issues of health and emotional need, but also to the loss of regular domestic help at the Homestead.

In 1869 the Dickinsons hired another Irish immigrant, Margaret Maher, who had intended to move on to California in a few months, but instead stayed with the Dickinson family for thirty years. Maggie, as the family called her, proved an immensely important figure to Dickinson. Emily Dickinson’s letters are full of brief references to Maggie that present her very much as part of the family, despite her marked differences: “Maggie, good and noisy, the North Wind of the Family, but sweets without a salt would at last cloy” (L689). There is good evidence that the bulk of Dickinson’s poetic manuscripts were stored in Maher’s trunk, and the one daguerreotype we have of the poet is an image the family appears not to have liked, but that Maher kept, and offered as an illustration for the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.

The Dickinson household, like most rural homes of this period, included a small working farm. Behind the Homestead stood a large barn for horses, pigs, and a cow. The family kept chickens, and tended a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and on the other side of Main Street the Dickinson meadow grew wheat or rye. Hired yardmen did most of the farm work, and these men, by the mid-1850s all Irish immigrants, became important figures in Emily Dickinson’s life. Defying customary practice, she requested that six of the Homestead workmen, rather than the town's leading citizens, carry the casket at her funeral. Thomas Kelly, who had married Margaret Maher’s sister Mary, served as the chief pallbearer.

Further Reading:

Leyda, Jay. “Miss Emily’s Maggie” New World Writing. New York: New American Library, 1953. 255-67.

Murray, Aífe. “Miss Margaret’s Emily Dickinson.” Signs 24 (1999). 697-732.

The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

Emily Dickinson and Cooking

"I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, salaratus, etc., with a great deal of grace. I advise you if you don’t know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.”
- Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 25, 1845 (L8)

In later years Emily Dickinson claimed that her father approved no bread except hers; she was, indeed, an accomplished baker. Her round loaf of Indian and Rye won second prize in the Amherst Cattle Show of 1856, though admittedly her sister Lavinia was one of the judges. Dickinson specialized in desserts as well. Thomas Wentworth Higginson reported Dickinson’s comments about sweets in a letter to his wife: “‘People must have puddings’ this [was said] very dreamily, as if they were comets—so she makes them” (L342a)

Dickinson cookware

The kitchen at The Evergreens


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The pride and pleasure that Dickinson associates with baking are one of the ways in which she seems most aligned with traditional female roles, though her version of these activities stresses the marvelous: she described “twin loaves of bread” as “the glory” (L36) and was “pleased the Gingerbread triumphed” (L369).

The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home, and her letters give frequent testimony to the pleasures of family conversation held there. The many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.

On the back of a wrapper of Parisian baking chocolate she scribbled words toward a poem. A poem drafted on the back of Mrs. Carmichael’s recipe for coconut cake (“The Things that never can come back, are several” [Fr1564]) meditates on loss and on the precarious ways that distant “Joys” might return “Here” to “Native Land.” The account book of Cutler’s General Store in the center of Amherst shows the Dickinson family purchasing such exotic ingredients as fresh coconuts--distant joys, indeed.

Dickinson’s use of French chocolate and Caribbean coconut attests to how an increasingly global market was changing the culinary habits of even a small western Massachusetts town. In the house next door, where Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin lived with his new wife, the far worldlier Susan Dickinson wrote out menu cards for her elegant dinners with as many thirteen courses beginning with caviar and ending with coffee and Brie cheese.

Dickinson used baking to express her fondness for friends, often sending cakes and candies as gifts. When a young, not yet married, Susan was away teaching in Baltimore, Dickinson sent her treats: “You thank me for the Rice cake—you tell me Susie, you have just been tasting it—and how happy I am to send you anything you love,” she wrote (L56). Dickinson understood the strong bonds that sharing food creates. Her bountiful baking, her famous basket of gingerbread lowered to the neighborhood children, her many gifts of food, her practice of sharing recipes with friends—all present her not as a recluse, but as someone intimately bound to the community. “'Love’s oven,'” she wrote in a note accompanying a packet of her delectable caramel rule (chocolate caramel), “'is warm'” (L545).

Further Reading:

Mudge, Jean, et al. Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook, with Selected Recipes. Amherst, Mass. 1976

Click here for a link tothe recipe for Emily Dickinson's gingerbread

Emily Dickinson's Love Life

Emily Dickinson Master Letter

Image:Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

"Master" letter draft ("Master / If you saw a bullet hit a bird") Click here for larger image

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Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
- From Fr269

Emily Dickinson never married, but because her canon includes magnificent love poems, questions concerning her love life have intrigued readers since her first publication in the 1890s. Speculation about whom she may have loved has filled and continues to fill volumes.  Her girlhood relationships, her “Master Letters,” and her relationship with Judge Otis Lord form the backbone of these discussions.

Dickinson’s school days and young adulthood included several significant male friends, among them Benjamin Newton, a law student in her father’s office; Henry Vaughn Emmons, an Amherst College student; and George Gould, an Amherst College classmate of the poet’s brother Austin.  Early Dickinson biographers identified Gould as a suitor who may have been briefly engaged to the poet in the 1850s, and recent scholarship has shed new light on the theory (Andrews, pp. 334-335).  Her female friendships, notably with schoolmate and later sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert and with mutual friend Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, have also interested Dickinson biographers, who argue whether these friendships represent typical nineteenth-century girlhood friendships or more intensely sexual relationships.

Found among Emily Dickinson's papers shortly after her death, drafts of three letters to an unidentified "Master" provide a source of intrigue, although there is no evidence to confirm that finished versions of the letters were ever sent.  Written during the poet’s most productive period, the letters reveal passionate yet changing feelings toward the recipient.  The first, dated to spring 1858, begins "Dear Master / I am ill"; the second, dated to early 1861, starts with "Oh, did I offend it"; and the third, dated to summer 1861, opens with "Master / If you saw a bullet hit a bird” (date attributions made by R.W. Franklin).

Judge Otis Lord

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Otis Phillips Lord

While the letters are remarkable examples of Dickinson’s exceptional power with words, they are studied as much to attempt identification of the intended recipient as for their literary mastery.  The lengthy list of proposed candidates includes Samuel Bowles, family friend, newspaper editor and publisher; William Smith Clark, a scientist and educator based in Amherst; Charles Wadsworth, a minister whom Dickinson heard preach in Philadelphia; as well as George Gould and Susan Dickinson.  Others have posited that the letters are simply literary exercises or that the author is attempting to resolve an internal crisis.  So much about Dickinson’s life remains unknown that an entirely different or as-yet unknown candidate may yet be revealed. Unless a contemporary account is discovered that clearly identifies the “Master,” the poet’s public will remain in suspense.

A romantic relationship late in the poet’s life with Judge Otis Phillips Lord is supported in Dickinson’s correspondence with him as well as in family references.  Lord (1812-1884) was a close friend of Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, with whom he shared conservative political views.  Lord and his wife Elizabeth were familiar guests in the Dickinson household.  In 1859 Lord was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court and later served on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (1875-1882).  His relationship with the poet developed after the death of Elizabeth Lord in 1877.  Only fifteen manuscripts in Dickinson’s hand survive from their correspondence, most in draft or fragmentary form.  Some passages seem to suggest that Dickinson and Lord contemplated marrying.  The question of whether the reclusive poet would have consented to move to Lord’s home in Salem, Massachusetts, was mooted by Lord’s decline in health.  He died in 1884, two years before Emily Dickinson.

Whatever the reality of Dickinson’s personal experiences, her poetry explores the complexities and passions of human relationships with language that is as evocative and compelling as her writings on spirituality, death, and nature.

Further Reading:

For a complete text of the Master letters, see The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed.R.W. Franklin (Amherst, Mass.:  Amherst College Press, 1986).

For an account of the discovery of Dickinson's letters to Judge Lord, see Millicent Todd Bingham's Emily Dickinson:  A Revelation (New York: Harper and Bros, 1954)

Most biographies discuss the "Master" letters and Lord relationship in some detail.  Significant discussions of the Master letters include those in Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974); Cynthia G. Wolff's Emily Dickinson (New York: Knopf, 1986); and Alfred Habegger's My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001).

In addition, several works address more directly specific individuals and their qualifications for "Master."  Among them are

Emily Dickinson and the Civil War

“Austin is chilled—by Frazer’s murder—He says—his Brain keeps saying over ‘Frazer is killed’—‘Frazer is killed,’ just as Father told it—to Him. Two or three words of lead—that dropped so deep, they keep weighing—”
-Emily Dickinson to Samuel Bowles, late March 1862 (L256)

“War feels to me an oblique place,” Emily Dickinson wrote Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863 (L280). Higginson was commander of the First South Carolina Regiment, which was comprised of African-American soldiers, and saw action in Florida and South Carolina. Dickinson had initiated a correspondence with Higginson, and sought advice about her poems, after his “Letter to a Young Contributor” appeared in the April 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Frazar Stearns

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Frazar Stearns

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The years of the Civil War corresponded to Dickinson’s most intense period of productivity as a poet, during which she is thought to have written roughly half of her total number of poems, and yet her precise relation to the war remains something of a puzzle. She had friends like Higginson who fought in the war. Her brother, Austin (who paid $500 for a substitute, the standard way to avoid military service), was particularly close to Frazar Stearns, son of the Amherst College president. Stearns’s death at the Battle of Newbern, North Carolina, was a blow to the whole town, recorded in Dickinson’s moving letter above and also, possibly, in the poem “Victory comes late” (Fr195), which she sent to Samuel Bowles. Dickinson followed the war news closely, and in May 1865 wrote with satisfaction of the capture of Jefferson Davis and the rumor that he had been disguised in a woman’s skirt (L308).

Because it is the very nature of Dickinson’s poems to have a range of possible references, it is difficult to say whether a particular poem was inspired by the war. “It feels a shame to be Alive-" (Fr524) certainly seems like a response to the Civil War. In another letter to Higginson from the winter of 1863 (L282), Dickinson included the lines from another poem that could have been inspired by news of the war: “The possibility to pass/ Without a Moment’s Bell—/ Into Conjecture’s presence--/ Is like a face of steel” (Fr243). But it could just as well have fit Dickinson’s needs at the time, to share with Higginson her own sense of the danger he faced.

Though she told her Norcross cousins, perhaps in 1864, “I myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps” (L298), Dickinson never wrote a poem as explicit in its patriotic fervor as, for example, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her poems tend to assume a less heroic, “smaller” posture. Her most direct participation in the war effort may have been the three poems that appeared anonymously, during late February and March of 1864, in a Brooklyn-based newspaper called Drum Beat, conceived for the purpose of raising money for medical supplies and care for the Union Army. These poems, as Karen Dandurand has argued, “must be seen as her contribution to the Union cause.”

To learn more about Emily Dickinson and the Civil War, watch an excerpt from the recent film Angles of a Landscape: Seeing New Englandly

Further Reading:

Benfey, Christopher. A Summer of Hummingbirds. New York: Random House, 2008.

Dandurand, Karen. “New Dickinson Civil War Publications,” American Literature, (March 1984): 17-27.

Ford, Thomas. "Emily Dickinson and the Civil War." University of Kansas City Review 31 (Spring 1965): 199-203.

Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Emily Dickinson and The Church

"Faith" is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Fr202

Emily Dickinson's Bible
Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844.  (Published in Philadelphia in 1843. )

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Emily Dickinson lived in an age defined by the struggle to reconcile traditional Christian beliefs with newly emerging scientific concepts, the most influential being Darwinism. Dickinson's struggles with faith and doubt reflect her society's diverse perceptions of God, nature, and humankind.

Brought up in a Calvinist household, the young Emily Dickinson attended religious services with her family at the village meetinghouse, Amherst's First Congregational Church (the building now houses Amherst College administrative offices). Congregationalism was the predominant denomination of early New England. Amherst College itself was founded in 1821 by Congregationalists to educate more young men for Christian ministry. During Dickinson's lifetime, the religious landscape diversified to include Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, and, eventually, Catholics.

Like most Amherst families, the Dickinsons held daily religious observances in their home. Dickinson received her own Bible from her father at age 13. Her familiarity with the Bible and her facile references to it in letters and poems have long impressed scholars.

Ministers from the church were regular guests at the Dickinsons' house, and several became close friends. Dickinson commented on sermons in her letters ("We had such a splendid sermon from that Prof Park-I never heard anything like it . . . "(L142)), and the influence of church music on her poems is apparent in her use of the common meter on which many hymns are based.

First Congregational Church of Amherst
Image: Jones Library and Special Collections

First Congregational Church in Amherst

In Dickinson's teen years, a wave of religious revivals moved through New England. One by one, her friends and family members made the public profession of belief in Christ that was necessary to become a full member of the church. Although she agonized over her relationship to God, Dickinson ultimately did not join the church--not out of defiance but in order to remain true to herself: "I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die" (L13). By the time the First Congregational Church moved to a site near the Homestead on Main Street in 1868, Emily Dickinson had stopped attending services altogether.

Dickinson's attitude toward spiritual matters was more complex than her poem "Some keep the Sabbath going to church / I keep it staying at home" (Fr236) implies. While her poems are saturated with the language, ritual, and expectation of traditional religious experience, her tone varies tremendously. Some poems affirm the need for faith: "Faith - is the Pierless Bridge / Supporting what We see / Unto the Scene that We do not - " (Fr978). Irreverence underlies other aspects of her work: "The Bible is an antique Volume - / Written by faded Men / At the suggestion of Holy Spectres -" (Fr1577). At times Dickinson's poetry expresses outright anger with an absent God:

Of Course - I prayed -
And did God care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird - had stamped her foot -
And cried "Give Me" -
(Fr581)

Despite her non-participation in public religious life, Dickinson's poems reveal a keen interest in issues of faith and doubt, suffering and salvation, mortality and immortality. Deaths of friends and family members, the Civil War, and close observation of nature's cycles prompted poetic musings on religious themes throughout her life.

Although Dickinson's immediate family accepted the poet's decision to keep the Sabbath "staying at home," her father once asked Rev. Jonathan Jenkins, minister of First Church from 1867-77, to meet with his daughter and assess her spiritual health. Rev. Jenkins's diagnosis? "Sound" (Habegger, p. 542).

Further Reading:

"'And Do Not Forget Emily':  Confidante Abby Wood on Dickinson's Lonely Religious Rebellion."  Ed. Polly Longsworth.  The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXXXII, No. 2 (June 2009).  335-346.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Esp. Chapter 6, "Believing and Doubting," pp. 171-210.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Emily Dickinson's Health

“We are hardly ever sick at home, and don’t know what to do when it comes….”
- Emily Dicksinson to Abiah Root, May 7 and 17, 1850 (L36)

In the Dickinson family, Edward Dickinson was the chief guardian of health. When his children were little, his letters when absent from home were full of cautions to them against taking cold or attending school in inclement weather or ignoring symptoms of illness. Such anxieties were well founded in a time before antibiotics and knowledge of germ theory, when illnesses that we shrug off today could be serious, even fatal.

Ophthalmic Science

Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Frontispiece of Recent Advances in Ophthalmic Science by Henry W. Williams, Dickinson's ophthalmologist.  


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Edward’s particular fear of tuberculosis (also called consumption), a rampant nineteenth-century lung disease then understood to be heritable, and which apparently “ran” in Mrs. Dickinson’s family, led Mr. Dickinson to excessive caution. Late in life the poet mentioned that her father thought her consumptive when a child (L401), and at least twice she was kept from finishing the term at Amherst Academy because of severe colds. Edward’s abrupt month-long removal of his daughter from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in late winter of 1848 because of her lung congestion and cough inspired Dickinson’s comment, “Father is quite a hand to give medicine, especially if it is not desirable to the patient” (L23).

In 1851, a year when several of her contemporaries died of tuberculosis, Dickinson also displayed consumptive symptoms for which she consulted local and Boston doctors. For two years she dosed with a glycerine prescription from Boston’s eminent TB specialist, Dr. James Jackson, until her symptoms apparently subsided.

The key medical concern of Dickinson’s adult life was an eye affliction suffered in her mid-thirties, during her most prolific period of writing poems. By her own account it began in the fall of 1863 (L290), and in February 1864 she consulted the eminent Boston ophthalmologist Dr. Henry Willard Williams. Then for eight months, from April to December 1864, she lived with her Norcross cousins in Cambridgeport to be near that physician for treatment. The next year, with her eyes still painful and sensitive to light, she repeated the treatment from April to October 1865. By then she was apparently cured.

While several theories have been advanced, the most likely explanation for the eye problem, based on clues in Dickinson’s letters and what is known of Dr. Williams’ therapies, is that she suffered from iritis, an inflammation of the fine muscles of the eye. For Dickinson, who feared blindness, prolongation of this illness was agonizing in ways beyond the physical. Her doctor’s orders for confinement in dim light, no reading, and writing only with a pencil explain why she called her first Cambridge siege “eight months of Siberia” (Sewall, Lyman Letters, p. 76). Yet she managed to write letters (in pencil) and confessed that despite the deprivations, “I work in my prison, and make Guests [poems] for myself”(L290).

No discussion of the poet’s health is complete without mentioning her increasing withdrawal from normal social situations, which began in her mid-twenties. Among Dickinson scholars, disagreement exists concerning whether hers was a deliberate choice as an artist to isolate herself so she could focus on her work or whether such unusual behavior as her startled flight from the doorbell, an increasing inability to see or visit friends, and speaking with select visitors from behind a darkened door rather than face to face, had a medical origin, such as an anxiety condition. In any event, the poet and her family accommodated her unusual ways, which left strong marks on her poetry, including her desire not to publicly publish her poems during her lifetime.

For Dickinson’s medical concerns at the time of her death, please see Emily Dickinson and Death.

Further Reading:

Hirschhorn, Norbert, and Polly Longsworth. “’Medicine Posthumous’: A New Look at Emily Dickinson’s Medical Conditions.” The New England Quarterly (June 1996). 299-316.

Hirschhorn, Norbert. “Was it Tuberculosis? Another Glimpse of Emily Dickinson’s Health." The New England Quarterly (March 1999). 102-118.

Mamunes. George. “So has a Daisy vanished": Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2007.

Sewall, Richard B. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965.

Emily Dickinson and Death

The subject of death, including her own death, occurs throughout Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. Although some find the preoccupation morbid, hers was not an unusual mindset for a time and place where religious attention focused on being prepared to die and where people died of illness and accident more readily than they do today. Nor was it an unusual concern for a sensitive young woman who lived fifteen years of her youth next door to the town cemetery.

Original Dickinson family gravestones

Photo: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Original Dickinson family gravestones at West Cemetery

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The poet’s death on 15 May 1886 came after two and a half years of ill health. From the time her nephew Gib died in October 1883 and she suffered a consequent “nervous prostration,” Dickinson became what her sister termed “delicate.” On two later occasions she experienced “blackouts,” and she was confined to bed for the seven months preceding her death.

During the 1880s Dickinson also endured the loss of several close friends - Charles Wadsworth, Judge Otis P. Lord, and Helen Hunt Jackson - and several family members, including Gib and her mother. The effect of these strains, the symptoms of severe headache and nausea mentioned in her letters, and her deathbed coma punctuated by raspy and difficult breathing, have led researchers to conclude that she died of heart failure induced by severe hypertension (high blood pressure).

Dickinson’s Amherst physician, Dr. Otis F. Bigelow, was handicapped in assisting his patient by her reclusiveness, for she would not admit him to her bedside to take a pulse. “She would walk by the open door of a room in which I was seated – Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!” he is supposed to have said (Years and Hours, Vol. I, xxix-xxx). The “cause of death” that Bigelow entered on her death certificate was “Bright’s Disease,” at the time a general diagnosis that included hypertensive symptoms, as well as symptoms for nephritis, a disease of the kidneys. Although Dickinson scholars once assumed she suffered kidney ailments, no documentary evidence notes the distinct yellow pallor and characteristic odor associated with nephritis.

On her death day, her brother Austin recorded in his diary: "She ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the whistles sounded for six [p.m.]" (Years and Hours, Vol. II, p. 471). In a remarkable obituary for The Springfield Republican, Susan Dickinson wrote about her friend: "A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see" (Years and Hours, Vol. II, 473).

On a beautiful May afternoon four days later, Dickinson’s white-garbed body lay in a white coffin in the Homestead parlor, where the family’s former pastor Rev. Jonathan Jenkins of Pittsfield (Mass.) led a prayer and Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Cambridge (Mass.) read Emily Bronte’s poem on immortality, “No coward soul is mine.” Higginson, who gazed into the casket before it was closed for the service, reported: “E.D.’s face a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 54 [55] & looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle, & perfect peace on the beautiful brow. There was a little bunch of violets at the neck & one pink cypripedium; the sister Vinnie put in two heliotropes by her hand ‘to take to Judge Lord’” (Years and Hours, Vol. II, 475).

The honorary pallbearers, among them the president and professors of Amherst College, set the casket down after exiting the Homestead’s back door, and their burden was shouldered, at the poet’s own request, by six Irish workmen who had been hired men on the Dickinson grounds.

Following her late directions, they circled her flower garden, walked through the great barn that stood behind the house, and took a grassy path across house lots and fields of buttercups to West Cemetery, followed by the friends who had attended the simple service. There Emily Dickinson was interred in a grave Sue had lined with evergreen boughs, within the family plot enclosed by an iron fence.

Originally the grave was marked by a low granite stone with her initials, E.E.D., but some decades later niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi replaced it with a marble slab bearing the message “Called Back.” The title of a popular Hugh Conway novel, the words were also the complete content of a letter the poet sent her cousins as she entered her final phase of illness.

Further Reading:

Hirschhorn, Norbert, and Polly Longsworth. “’Medicine Posthumous’: A New Look at Emily Dickinson’s Medical Conditions.” The New England Quarterly (June 1996). 299-316.

The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

Emily Dickinson's White Dress

“She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful."
- Mabel Loomis Todd on Emily Dickinson (Sewall, p. 216)

As Emily Dickinson’s writings have grown in popularity since her death, certain objects associated with the poet have become icons. Chief among them is the white dress thought to have been Dickinson’s. The dress is a typical house garment of the late 1870s and early 1880s, worn when Dickinson was in her late 40s and early 50s. But the posthumous fame of the dress’s owner has given the garment an extraordinary life of its own. For many of Dickinson’s fans, the white dress embodies the essence of their beloved writer.

Dickinson's white dress

Photo: Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

Dickinson's white dress.

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The dress, made of a cotton fabric with mother-of-pearl buttons, is a style known as a wrapper or a house dress, worn by women as everyday clothing for doing chores and other activities inside the house. It was not a particularly unusual or expensive dress for its time. The dress is primarily machine stitched, with supplemental hand-stitching. The maker of the dress is unknown.

After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia gave this dress to a cousin, Kate Ives Hall Porter, who in turn gave it to her sister Eugenia Hall (later, Hunt). Little is known about how or why the dress was given to the Halls, or about what happened to the dress while it was in her possession. In 1946, Mrs. Hunt's daughter, Margaret Bradlee, gave the dress to the Amherst Historical Society. For many years the dress was loaned to the Dickinson Homestead for display in the poet's bedroom. In 2000 the dress returned to the Amherst Historical Society, and a replica was made for display at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Despite popular conceptions of Dickinson clad in her white dress, the poet herself never mentions wearing white, nor does she wear white in the few existing images of herself. The references that she does make to clothing, particularly in her twenties and thirties, reveal outfits that vary in material and color. In 1852, she wrote to brother Austin, away in Cambridge, “have you plenty of time before you come home, then try and match this bit of calico, and get me 10. yards of it? It is but a 12 ½ c[en]t. calico, but very pretty indeed, and as Vinnie has one, I think I would like to have one” (L 83). Later, Dickinson wrote to a cousin: “You seem to take a smiling view of my finery. If you knew how solemn it was to me, you might be induced to curtail your jests. My sphere is doubtless calicoes, nevertheless I thought it meet to sport a little wool. . . . Won’t you tell ‘the public’ that at present I wear a brown dress with a cape if possible browner, and carry a parasol of the same!” (L228)

Thomas Wentworth Higginson provides one of the few contemporary descriptions of Dickinson’s wearing white. After his visit to the Homestead in 1870, he recalled that the poet was dressed in “a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue net worsted shawl" (L342a). Local townspeople promoted the image of Dickinson in white. Shortly after moving to Amherst in 1881, Mabel Loomis Todd wrote to her parents of the town’s “Myth”: “She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful" (Sewall, p. 216).

Did wearing the color white have symbolic meaning for Dickinson? The poet's friends as well as subsequent Dickinson scholars have debated this question. Dickinson herself used white in her own writings to describe anything from the soul to a wedding gown. The complex religious associations with the color white would have been well known to the poet, a knowledgeable reader of the Bible. The poet heroine of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, one of Dickinson's best-loved books, wore white. Yet white was also practical, easy to care for in a time when bleaching was considered a most reliable solution for cleaning soiled garments. Whatever the reason for her color choice, Dickinson was buried in white and enclosed in a white casket.

Further Reading:

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Wald, Jane H. Emily Dickinson's White Dress. New York Botanical Garden's Plant Talk Blog, posted June 4, 2010.