Emily Dickinson Biography: The Mysterious Life of Emily Dickinson Revealed

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer and politician who served in the Massachusetts state legislature. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a quiet homemaker. Emily had an older brother named William Austin and a younger sister named Lavinia.

The Dickinson family was well-known and influential in Amherst society. Emily’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. Education and reading were highly valued in the Dickinson home. Emily and her siblings all attended Amherst Academy.

Education and Early Writing

As a young girl, Emily was shy and introverted. She was also extremely bright and enjoyed reading. Some of her childhood friends recalled Emily valued books and learning over typical children’s games.

Emily attended Amherst Academy (where her parents had studied before her) in 1840 along with her brother Austin. There, she studied English and classical literature and was influenced by the teachings of a reverend Edward Hitchcock, a geologist at Amherst College. Emily loved science and Latin in particular.

Amherst Academy Curriculum When Emily Attended

Latin and GreekInstruction in translating classical texts into English to appreciate influences on literature and expand vocabularies
RhetoricRules for effective and persuasive writing and speech
GeologyStudy of the physical processes and history of the earth using field work and lectures by Edward Hitchcock
Natural PhilosophyTerm for science disciplines like physics, chemistry, and biology
English CompositionWriting essays, reports, summaries, and analyses of literature to build critical thinking abilities
LogicAnalyzing arguments and claims to identify false logic and improve reasoning skills
ForensicsPublic speaking and debate skills
DeclamationOral interpretation emphasizing memorization, elocution, gestures and theatrical presentation
MusicTraining in notes, rhythm, instruments, and vocals
Bible studyDaily devotionals and analysis of Scripture

Emily was known as a diligent student, but she did not conform to expectations for young women at the time. After attending the more traditional Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for just 10 months, Emily returned home rather than complete the two-year course for teaching or domestic work.

Back in Amherst, Emily continued writing poetry and corresponded with friends through letters. Few of her early poems survive, but they establish themes like nature, spirituality, humor, questioning society’s rules for women, and examinations of self that she expanded on for the rest of her writing career.

Adult Life in Amherst

After her brief departure from Amherst to attend Mount Holyoke in her late teens, Emily remained in her hometown for the rest of her life. She lived in her family home with her parents and siblings, along with the family’s Irish servants.

Emily’s mother and sister took care of domestic tasks, freeing Emily to focus on her poetry and correspondence. She often baked bread for the household and attended community events and social calls in her early adulthood.

In 1855, Emily’s father Edward Dickinson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He moved the family to Washington D.C. to serve his term. Emily accompanied them but did not care for the experience much.

When the family moved back to Amherst less than two years later, Emily mostly stayed at home. Her withdrawal from society intensified over the next few decades as she dedicated herself to writing. This earned her a reputation amongst townspeople as eccentric or aloof.

Life Events

  • 1847 – Attends Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for 10 months
  • 1855-1857 – Family moves to Washington D.C. during Edward Dickinson’s congressional term
  • 1862 – Writes most poems in her most creative year
  • 1874 – First poems published anonymously though likely without consent
  • 1875 – Close friend Samuel Bowles dies suddenly
  • 1882 – Mother Emily Norcross Dickinson dies after series of strokes
  • 1884 – Father Edward Dickinson dies after stroke
  • 1886 – Poems published as a collection for the first time by friends after Dickinson’s death
  • May 15, 1886 – Emily dies at age 55 after experiencing kidney disease

Even while remaining in one home her entire adulthood, Emily engaged deeply with her mind and spirit through reading and writing. Her narrowing world view intensified her poetry’s depth and creativity over the decades.

Emily’s Bedroom Where She Wrote Over 1,700 Poems

  • Small room next to family kitchen reflects private, interior life
  • Desk near window provided thoughtful views of nature
  • She would attach poems to letters “passed through her [sister’s] hand”
  • Basket held scraps of paper and sewing materials inspiring poems
  • Later poems sewn into small handmade books

Dickinson’s self-imposed solitude gave her freedom to write introspective and provocative poems on otherwise taboo topics. She produced the majority of her canon while cloistered in her upstairs bedroom contemplating life, death, religion, society, and nature.

Themes and Style of Poetry

Though half her poems remained unpublished until after her death, Dickinson wrote prolifically throughout adulthood. In total, she composed over 1,700 poems that her family preserved.

Her poems are untitled and mostly without a named narrator. Dictionary-like definition, unusual syntax, surprising metaphors, lack of regular rhythm, and concise yet profound insights characterize her writing style.

Despite living a mostly interior life, Dickinson’s poems contain deep understandings of intimate relationships, death, eternity, faith and doubt, social obligations, and many more universal themes.

Common Themes in Dickinson’s Poetry

  • Isolation and Inner Life – Her poems often dwell in the unseen realm of thought and emotion with references to seclusion, privacy, barriers, borders, and limits
  • Mortality and Eternity – Dickinson contemplated her own mortality frequently and sought meaning in death’s mystery
  • Nature and Science – Natural world imagery on life, decay, seasons, sunrise and sunset appears often along with allusions to contemporary science
  • Love and Loss – Emotions of affection and grief over death or separation from lovers and close friends arise in numerous works
  • Rebellion and Independence – Defiance against expected gender roles for women and authority permeate many verse
  • Religious Faith and Doubt – God, divine judgment and punishment, Protestant Reformation tenets, and uncertainty regarding the afterlife fill multiple poems.

Publishing and Recognition After Death

Despite writing prolifically her entire life, less than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems appeared in print before her death in 1886 at age 55.

Starting in the 1860s, Dickinson had sent many poems in letters to friends like Samuel Bowles, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, who were newspaper and magazine editors. These literary mentors recognized Dickinson’s talent but did not move actively to publish the Amherst native otherwise unknown in literary circles.

After Dickinson died, her sister Lavinia recognized the breathtaking collection of poems gathered in sewn sheets throughout Emily’s room. Lavinia soon sought to have them professionally published.

Mentor Thomas Higginson and Emily’s Amherst friend Mabel Loomis Todd edited and transcribed Dickinson’s verses for publication in 1890. Todd worked painstakingly over multiple years to decipher Emily’s difficult handwriting and idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalizations accurately.

That first volume titled Poems contained just 115 selected works, yet it met with significant critical praise and public appreciation, going through 11 reprints in 2 years. Publications of Dickinson’s poetry have continued regularly right up until the present day – all because of the persistence of her friends and family in bringing her verses to light after the poet’s death.

Posthumous Popularity and Recognition

Since the initial successful publications of her work

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Since the initial successful publications of her work in the 1890s, public and scholarly interest in Emily Dickinson has skyrocketed.

Her complete body of 1,700+ poems was not published until 1955. But many selected volumes have allowed wider access to her canonical verses considered among the greatest in American literature.

Many early critics hailed Dickinson’s talent for concise, imaginative, and profound reflections on universal themes that resonated with modernist tastes. Though some did not understand her unusual syntax and form, labeling the poems sentimental or simple.

In classrooms today, teachers introduce Dickinson’s impactful verses to high schools students as a visionary modern poet. Academics have produced reams of interpretive studies of Dickinson’s influences, intentions, and place within literary traditions. The explosive energy of her compressed language and insight into personal, social, and existential quandaries inspire new fans and analysts regularly.

Why is Dickinson so popular today?

  • Revelatory psychological intimacy – Prefigures psychoanalysis in her introspective revelations of inner turmoil regarding love, death, purpose, etc.
  • Relatable sense of isolation – Speaks to the alienation of modern life with scenes of being alone amid activity
  • Non-traditional views as a woman – Bold curiosity and intellect to question God, society’s constraints on women, etc.
  • Tantalizing mystery about her life choices – Decision to withdraw into dress, household, and writing remains fascinating
  • Jubilant delight in language and imagination – Unexpected imagery, angles, definitions, and quick shifts guide readers to see afresh
  • Secular scripture on life’s profundities – For many, her verses resonate like religious texts or moral parables in their aphoristic gravity

Over a dozen films, plays, songs, and novels have now portrayed Emily Dickinson or drawn directly from her writing. Artists, psychologists, spiritual adherents, activists, and so many more continue finding profound inspiration from her life and work.

That resonance seems certain to persist as new generations approach her verses. Emily Dickinson’s writing remains startlingly fresh in its crisp yet enigmatic excavations of the inner world and outer limits conditioning human thought and emotion.


In her lifetime, less than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s now-iconic poems saw publication. Yet because of the determination of her family and friends in recognizing her dazzling talent only after death in 1886, Dickinson rose to prominence in the 20th century as a cornerstone figure in American letters.

The unusual syntax, surprising images, and profound themes in her verse matched changing tastes that came to view her as a visionary mystic groping towards the psychology of emotion, limits of faith and knowledge, and spectral allurements of eternity often from inside a room. Dickinson forged lifetime themes from seemingly small concepts she returned to with ever-expanding depth and delight.

Today, the poet remains beloved for her revelatory excavations of inner turmoil regarding love, death, purpose, rebellion, and doubt that feel completely fresh and contemporary. Scholars continue releasing interpretive studies and biographies hoping to illuminate her intentions and place in tradition. But most new readers still simply find crisp awe in how much significance and splendor she extracted from a lifetime almost never leaving a small home in Amherst.

Emily Dickinson’s self-imposed isolation that seemed so strange amongst 19th century social norms fueled a creative genius and revealing intimacy that cultivated verses functioning as secular scripture for many. That only around 10 of her 1,700+ compositions appeared publicly while she lived seems inexplicable today.

Yet it makes her renown now as one of the most influential voices in American letters even more impressive. Thanks to the persistence of her family and appreciation of early editors and critics, generations have gained a wellspring of spiritual insight and imaginative depth from Dickinson’s writing forged entirely inwardly from quiet days on a rural Massachusetts homestead.

Frequently Asked Questions about Emily Dickinson’s Life

Why did Emily Dickinson never marry or have children?

Definitive evidence has confirmed romantic attachments, but suggestions of love for Susan Gilbert (who married Emily’s brother Austin) and Charles Wadsworth have persisted. Emily’s commitment to writing likely made marriage unappealing. And as a woman who championed self-reliance and independent thought, she broke expected social norms by remaining single.

Did Emily Dickinson ever travel or leave Amherst as an adult?

Aside from her brief time in Washington D.C, the poet remained in Amherst until her death at 55. Contemporaries recalled Dickinson took long walks around town through woods and fields. But accounts of her venturing father are limited compared to her retreat into the homestead.

Why did Emily wear only white dresses as she aged?

Increasingly avoiding visitors as years passed, Dickinson adopted white cotton frocks likely for convenience rather than as a symbolic statement. Biographers believe she created these practical garments herself sewing while writing in her bedroom.

Was Emily Dickinson lonely living in isolation as a recluse?

Though undoubtedly experiencing loneliness and longing conveyed in poems about love, death, doubt and so on, accounts suggest the poet filled her days with reading, gardening, baking, and luxuriating in observation, reflection, and writing for hours on end. For Dickinson, solitude seemed to birth tremendous creativity.

What is Emily Dickinson’s legacy today?

As one of the earliest American poets to write distinctively modern verse, Dickinson left society profoundly sensitive expressions of human emotion and aspiration. Many revere her as a key inspiration in self-reliant women forging their own paths against social conformity. And generations continue discovering Dickinson’s fresh examinations of existence that demand rereading and memorization.