Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
Used with permission of the Emily Dickinson Museum
Emily Dickinson, the middle child of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, was born on December 10, 1830, in the family house (called the Homestead) on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The crowded house and Edward’s growing legal and political career soon called for new quarters, and when Emily was 9 years old, her family purchased a house on what is now North Pleasant Street in Amherst. Close to her older brother Austin and younger sister Lavinia, Dickinson had a fond attachment to the house on Pleasant Street. Domestic duties like baking and gardening occupied her time, along with school, church activities, reading books, learning to sing and play the piano, writing letters, and taking nature walks to collect wild flowers that she pressed into an album called her “herbarium.”
Dickinson’s formal schooling was exceptional for a girl in the early nineteenth century, though not unusual for girls in Amherst. After a short time at an Amherst district school, she attended Amherst Academy for about seven years before entering Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1847. She stayed at the Seminary for one year, the longest time she ever spent away from home.
In Dickinson’s early twenties, writing became increasingly important to her. Letters to her older brother Austin reveal a growing sense of “difference” between herself and others: “What makes a few of us so different from others? It’s a question I often ask myself” (April 21, 1853). This sense of separation became more pronounced as she grew older and her poetic sensibilities matured. By 1855, the family returned to the Homestead, where Dickinson had her own upstairs room and developed her passion for gardening. That same year, Edward Dickinson’s service in the House of Representatives brought the poet to Washington, DC—one of her only trips away from Amherst.
Although Emily Dickinson’s calling as a poet began in her teens, she came into her own as an artist later, during a short but intense period of creativity that resulted in her composing, revising, and saving hundreds of poems. That period, which scholars identify as 1858—1865, includes many passionate love lyrics and three poetic letters to the mysterious person she calls “Master,” and overlaps with the most significant event of American nineteenth-century history, the Civil War.
In her early thirties, Dickinson underwent treatments for a painful eye condition, now thought to be iritis—sensitivity to light. While under the care of Henry W. Williams for seven months in 1864 and six months in 1865, she boarded with her cousins, Frances and Louisa Norcross in Boston.
After these visits and treatments, Dickinson’s lifestyle further developed into the one that we mythologize today—a more reclusive, quiet existence. Although she rarely ventured beyond the Homestead, she did entertain several significant visitors, including the famous essayist and social reformer Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she finally met in 1870 after a long correspondence when he visited her at home in Amherst.
Dickinson’s adult life was marked by the illness and death of friends and loved ones, including her father, who died in 1874, and her mother, in 1882. Her friendship with Judge Otis Phillips Lord resulted in a marriage proposal that she turned down in 1882; he died two years later. The poet became ill herself shortly after her eight-year-old nephew died—as she wrote to a friend late in 1883, “The Crisis of the sorrow of so many years is all that tires me.” She remained in poor health until she died at age 55 on May 15, 1886. She was buried four days later in the town cemetery, now known as West Cemetery.
Used with permission of the Emily Dickinson Museum
In 1855, Emily Dickinson moved with her family back to “the Homestead,” the house in Amherst where she had been born and lived her first nine years. Her father purchased the home in early 1855 and made significant renovations to it. In 1856, the Homestead became part of an enhanced Dickinson estate when Dickinson’s adored older brother, Austin, married her close friend Susan Huntington Gilbert, and Edward Dickinson built the couple a home next door known as The Evergreens.
That household was a lively nexus for Amherst society, and Dickinson herself took part in social gatherings there early in Austin and Susan’s marriage. Their lifestyle eventually would contrast markedly with her own more reclusive manner. The couple’s three children—Ned, born in 1861; Martha, in 1866; and Gilbert, in 1875—brought great joy to Emily’s life. In addition to providing close proximity to her brother and his family, the renovated Homestead offered Dickinson several other advantages. Her father added a conservatory where Emily could engage year-round in her beloved hobby of gardening and raise climate-sensitive plants.
Perhaps most importantly, Dickinson had a room of her own, the southwest corner bedroom on the second floor, a space essential to her writing. The two Dickinson daughters, who never married, remained at the Homestead for the rest of their lives. After Emily’s death in 1886, Lavinia lived on at the Homestead until she died in 1899, championing the publication of her sister’s poetry.
Today both houses are open to the public year round.
By Judith Farr
During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet. Susan Dickinson’s unfulfilled plan for a memoir of her sister-in-law listed “Love of flowers” as Emily’s first attribute. Her poetry, for the most part privately “published,” was often enclosed in letters pinned together by flowers, or in bouquets that made the poem concealed at the flowers’ center and the flowers themselves one message. […] Even before she wrote poems, Dickinson was engaged in gathering, tending, categorizing, and pressing flowers. After writing poetry became her central preoccupation, cultivating bulbs, plants, and flowers within a portion of her father’s land and in the glass enclosure of a conservatory (built just for her), remained a favorite occupation.
Mid-Victorians liked to pun on the aesthetic associations between "posies" and "poesie." Her flowers were Emily Dickinson's other "poems," which the conservatory could safely enshrine in an age when what Hawthorne contemptuously called women “scribblers” were not always received in society. Indeed, to be a notable gardener was a much more acceptable avocation for mid-Victorian women (meant to be the angel of their house) than to be a poet. Edward Dickinson, who was prouder of his only son’s letters than of his brilliant daughter’s poems, may have given Emily a conservatory not only because he wished to please her but because growing flowers was, to him, a more suitable occupation for a woman than writing verse.
Emily had assisted her mother in the garden since she was twelve: first, at a house on West (now North Pleasant) Street, then in the mansion on Main Street. During her years of greatest artistic productivity (1858-1865), she was also developing skills at growing gardenias, jasmine, sweet peas, camellias, Gallica roses, oleander, lilies, heliotrope, and many other naturalized and native flowers. Just as her poems were uncommon, some of the flowers she chose to grow are unusual, gorgeous, and complex, requiring the grower’s knowledge, prudence, and insight. Others like gentians and anemones were wildflowers, associated for her with simplicity of mind and heart, with youth and humility, fresh imagination, and the possibility of everlasting life. All were indices of her own spiritual and emotional state, while in her letters and poems, she continually associates flowers with herself and making gardens with making poems.
Emily Dickinson, age 16 (Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections)
Dickinson's room (Courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Library of Congress)