Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma

About Her Life

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson. Three Lions / Getty Images

Known for: inventive poetry, mostly published after her death
Occupation: poet
Dates: December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886
Also known as: Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, E.D

Emily Dickinson, whose odd and inventive poems helped to initiate modern poetry, is a continuing enigma. 

Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime. We know of her work only because her sister and two of her long-time friends brought them to public attention.

Most of the poems we have were written in just six years, between 1858 and 1864. She bound them into small volumes she called fascicles, and forty of these were found in her room at her death.

She also shared poems with friends in letters. From the few drafts of letters that were not destroyed, at her instruction, when she died, it's apparent that she worked on each letter as a piece of artwork in itself, often picking phrases that she'd used years before. Sometimes she changed little, sometimes she changed a lot.

It's hard to even tell for sure what "a poem" by Dickinson really "is," because she changed and edited and reworked so many, writing them differently to different correspondents.

Emily Dickinson Biography

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father and mother were both what we would today call "distant." Her brother, Austin, was bossy but ineffective; her sister, Lavinia, never married, and lived with Emily and was protective of the much shyer Emily.

Emily at School

While signs of her introspective and introverted nature were apparent early, she traveled from home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, an institution of higher education founded by Mary Lyons. Lyons was a pioneer in women's education, and envisioned Mount Holyoke as training young women for active roles in life. She saw that many women could be trained as missionary teachers, especially to bring the Christian message to American Indians.

A religious crisis seems to have been behind young Emily's decision to leave Mount Holyoke after a year, as she found herself unable to fully accept the religious orientation of those at the school. But beyond religious differences, Emily also apparently found the social life at Mount Holyoke difficult.

Withdrawn Into Writing

Emily Dickinson returned home to Amherst. She traveled a few times after that -- once, notably, to Washington, DC, with her father during a term he served in the U.S. Congress. But gradually, she withdrew into her writing and her home, and became reclusive. She began to wear dresses exclusively in white. In her later years, she did not leave her home's property, living in her home and garden.

Her writing did include letters to many friends, and while she became more eccentric about visitors and correspondence as she aged, she had many visitors: women like Helen Hunt Jackson, a popular writer of the time, among them. She shared letters with friends and family, even those who lived nearby and could visit easily.

Emily Dickinson's Relationships

From the evidence, Emily Dickinson fell in love with several men over time, though apparently never even considered marriage. Her close friend, Susan Huntington, later married Emily's brother Austin, and Susan and Austin Dickinson moved to a home next door. Emily and Susan exchanged ardent and passionate letters over many years; scholars are divided today on the nature of the relationship. (Some say that the passionate language between women was simply an acceptable norm between friends in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; others find evidence that the Emily/Susan friendship was a lesbian relationship. I find the evidence ambiguous at best.)

Mabel Loomis Todd, a descendent of John and Priscilla Alden of Plymouth colony, moved to Amherst in 1881 when her astronomer husband, David Peck Todd, was appointed to the faculty of Amherst College. Mabel was twenty-five at the time. Both the Todds became friends of Austin and Susan -- in fact, Austin and Mabel had an affair. Through Susan and Austin, Mabel met Lavinia and Emily.

"Met" Emily is not exactly the right description: they never met face-to-face. Mabel Todd read and was impressed by some of Emily's poems, read to her by Susan. Later, Mabel and Emily exchanged some letters, and Emily occasionally invited Mabel to play music for her while Emily observed out of sight. When Emily died in 1886, Lavinia invited Todd to attempt to edit and publish the poems Lavinia had discovered in manuscript form.

A Young Contributor and Her Friend

The story of Emily Dickinson's poems, with their interesting relationship to women's history, is highlighted by the most fertile period of Emily Dickinson's writing, the early 1860s. A key character in this story is better known in American history for his support of abolition, woman suffrage, and transcendentalist religion: Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He's also known in history as the commander of a regiment of black troops in the American Civil War; for this accomplishment he proudly used the title "Colonel" Higginson to the end of his life. He was the minister at the wedding of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, at which he read their statement renouncing any strictures that the law placed on the woman when she married, and stating why Stone would keep her last name rather than assuming Blackwell's.

Higginson was part of the American literary Renaissance known as the Transcendentalist movement. He was already an recognized writer when he published in 1862, in The Atlantic Monthly, a short notice titled "Letter to a Young Contributor." In this notice, he solicited "young men and women" to submit their work, adding, "every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties."

Higginson told the story later (in The Atlantic Monthly, after her death), that on April 16, 1862, he picked up a letter at the post office. Opening it, he found "a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town." It began with these words:

"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?"

With that letter began a decades-long correspondence that ended only at her death.

Higginson, in their long friendship (they seem only to have met in person once or twice, it was mostly by mail), urged her not to publish her poetry. Why? He doesn't say, at least not clearly. My own guess? He expected that her poems would be considered too odd by the general public to be accepted as she wrote them. And he also concluded that she would not be amenable to the changes that he thought necessary to make the poems acceptable.

Fortunately for literary history, the story doesn't end there.

Editing Emily

After Emily Dickinson died, her sister, Lavinia, contacted two friends of Emily's when she discovered the forty fascicles in Emily's rooms: Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. First Todd began to work on the editing; then Higginson joined her, persuaded by Lavinia. Together, they reworked the poems for publication. Over some years, they published three volumes of Emily Dickinson's poems.

The extensive editing changes they made "regularized" Emily's odd spellings, word usage, and especially punctuation. Emily Dickinson was, for instance, very fond of dashes. Yet the Todd/Higginson volumes have included few of them. Todd was sole editor of the third volume of poems, but kept to the editing principles they'd worked out together.

Higginson and Todd were likely correct in their judgment, that the public could not accept the poems as they were. The daughter of Austin and Susan Dickinson, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published her own edition of Emily Dickinson's poems in 1914.

It remained until the 1950s, when Thomas Johnson "un-edited" Dickinson's poetry, for the general public to experience her poems more as she'd written them, and as her correspondents had received them. He compared versions in the fascicles, in her many remaining letters, and published his own edition of 1,775 poems. He also edited and published a volume of Dickinson letters, themselves literary gems.

More recently, William Shurr has edited a volume of "new" poems, by gleaning poetic and prose fragments from Dickinson's letters.

Today, scholars still discuss and argue over the paradoxes and ambiguities of Dickinson's life and work. Her work is now included in the humanities education of most American students. Her place in the history of American literature is secure, even if the enigma of her life is still mysterious..


  • Father: Edward Dickinson (treasurer of Amherst College, state legislator, U.S. Congressman)
  • Mother: Emily Norcross
  • Two siblings: William Austin 1829-1895, Lavinia 1833-1899