NEH Landmarks Workshop for Schoolteachers 2014

Emily Dickinson:  Person, Poetry, and Place

Scope and Content

Emily Dickinson

Workshop Information:

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“I see – New Englandly,” writes Emily Dickinson in one of her poems.  Although Dickinson (1830-1886) was a lifelong New Englander, rarely leaving her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, her poems traverse universal topics such as pain, loss, and immortality.  Her verses constitute journeys of the mind and spirit.  Published posthumously, the poems have today been translated into more than thirty languages and captivate readers young and old.

Although Dickinson’s poetry looms large in the literary canon, myths and misperceptions continue to surround her life and work, making her one of the most challenging and fascinating figures of American poetry.  Even as her poetry speaks eloquently to the twenty-first century reader, it remains inseparable from the cultural, social, historical, and literary environments in which it was written. How did a reclusive unmarried woman living in rural western Massachusetts come to write such original, brilliant, and timeless work—and not publish it?   What are the enduring qualities of Dickinson’s poetry?  What can her poetry and her life teach us about nineteenth-century New England and its role in shaping America’s social, intellectual, and cultural identity?

No place is better suited to explore these questions than Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.  As past workshops have demonstrated, a week spent in Emily Dickinson’s environment can profoundly affect one’s understanding of her world and her work.   The Emily Dickinson Museum, the workshop’s host, is uniquely positioned to provide a stimulating workshop that examines these many questions and allows participants to explore, literally and contextually, the person, poetry, and place of Emily Dickinson.

Intellectual Content

Steeped in the work of her literary forebears, Emily Dickinson developed a unique poetic voice characterized by startling diction, economy of language, sharp wit, and vivid depictions of struggle and ecstasy.  That voice—“given to me by the Gods”—was shaped by her exhaustive reading of Shakespeare and the Bible as well as the work of her contemporaries like the Brownings, the Brontes, Emerson, and Longfellow.  Despite her confidence as a writer, and despite a growing public acceptance for the publication of women writers, Dickinson shied away from publication.  Of the almost 1,800 poems she composed, only ten were published in her lifetime—anonymously and without her permission.  Yet today Dickinson holds a place in the literary canon alongside such writers as Whitman, Shakespeare, and Dante.

Emily Dickinson’s internal musings, manifested through poetry and letters, were most significantly affected by personal relationships, a superior education, and an intense intellectual curiosity about religion and the natural world.  Even as nineteenth-century social and economic trends began to disperse families geographically, the closeness and interdependence of the Dickinson family was a significant factor and protective layer in the poet’s sense of artistic independence. This close family included her parents, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson; her older brother Austin, his wife Susan Gilbert, and their three children; and her sister Lavinia, who, like Emily, never married.  The family occupied two adjacent households—the Homestead and The Evergreens--on Main Street in Amherst throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Dickinson maintained and cherished a special personal relationship with each of her intimate family members, as a daughter, sister, sister-in-law, and aunt.  The proximity of the two family houses made possible these meaningful, individual relationships.  Her relationships outside this immediate family circle, with school friends, extended family, and other correspondents, also nurtured her interests.

The family’s prominence and geographic location offered the Dickinson women, including Emily, Lavinia, and Susan Gilbert, an education and intellectual life not available universally to women in the United States at this time.  The poet’s religious upbringing, and her exposure in her teens to a series of religious revivals, prompted a life-long artistic and intellectual exploration of faith, immortality, and God.  At the same time, Dickinson's observations of the natural world--on her family’s fourteen acres and throughout western Massachusetts countryside--provided a lens through which to better understand her place in the world.   Her interest in the natural world was shared with her parents and siblings and reflects Americans’ growing interest in integrating the natural world into the domestic environment.

The Dickinson family was prominent in Amherst, its fortunes intimately connected with that of the community and the larger social, political, and economic climate.   The family’s social and intellectual ambitions affected and informed their lives in significant ways. Edward Dickinson and his son Austin Dickinson typified ambitious and relatively prosperous male residents of a small town through their profession as lawyers and through their involvements with cultural, civic, and political pursuits.  Their houses, and the changes they and their families made to them, also provide evidence of these ambitions and standing.

Daily life at the Homestead and The Evergreens included roles typical for rural New England women of the nineteenth century and demonstrates how women’s public and private worlds intersected, through managing households and housekeeping, entertaining, child-rearing, and pursuing cultural and educational enrichment.  Emily Dickinson participated in an active and involved family life but by the mid-1860s had withdrawn from the social obligations expected of a woman of her class.  Next door at The Evergreens, Susan Dickinson displayed to Amherst society her proficiencies as a housekeeper, hostess, and intellect while privately serving as a trusted audience for Dickinson’s work.