Emily Dickinson was one of the most prolific and important poets to come out of the nineteenth century, not to mention one of the most important women. Her use of form and unconventional methods of writing made her a landmark among her peers, despite the fact that most of her works were published posthumously. From a feminist perspective, she could be seen as an incredibly vital author for that movement. While many scholars seem to separate Dickinson’s poetry from her gender, there are many unique connections to be made between her being a woman and the perspective that her poetry provides. In this paper we will explore the idea that her fame is due to a combination of the quality of her writing and her importance as a feminist figure.
Women in the nineteenth century were still expected to be prim, proper, and ladylike. Most importantly, they were expected to seek out a man early in life and marry him in order to be taken care of. Dickinson did not do this in the least, as she never married. Though she wrote to male friends, (including the mysterious subject of the “Master poems”) she took few lovers, one of which was a judge named Otis Phillips Lord late in life, though this is unconfirmed. (CITE) While most women were urged to form social circles and mingle with each other, Dickinson remained segregated and secluded from the rest, preferring to keep to herself.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. Her family was fairly prestigious, her grandfather essentially being the founder of Amherst College. (CITE) Her grandfather build a big mansion on the Main Street of Amherst in which the Dickinsons would live for many decades. (Wolff 1986, p. 14) Her family having such a close relationship with this place of learning, Dickinson naturally took to pursuits such as music and reading, and her father wanted his children to have as much education as was possible, emphasizing their learning above everything. (Wolff 1986, p. 45) As she grew up, she would read more and more, being given the works of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which were huge early influences on her writing. Her father was a great influence on her, carrying much more favor with her than her mother did. At the same time, her mother would be shy and prefer to “stay out of the limelight,” a trait Dickinson would share with her later in life. (Kirk 2004, p. 3)
When she was old enough to go to school, Dickinson, along with her sister, went to the Amherst Academy, a recently integrated school that was just allowing girls to attend for the second year. In this time, she became a bit of a polymath, studying an alarming array of subjects over her seven years there, including English, Latin, math, and the like. She would even start writing at an early age, creating “mischievous” and “playful” works that were asked to be read aloud in class and published in student publications. (Kirk 2004, p. 2) There were many ways in which Emily resembled the typical girl of the time – she would bake, offer flowers, and the like, but that energy soon turned to writing. (Kirk 2004, p. 3) It is entirely possible that her status as a woman, especially one of the few women who were studying at a formerly all-boys school, drove her to work harder than her male peers and attempt to get ahead.
Even from a young age, however, she was obsessed with death. Often she would have to be kept home or sent to Boston to recover with other family members, due to her immense melancholy. (Wolff 1986, p. 77) This theme of death and diminishing would recur throughout her works – it was a subject that was always on her mind. By the time she had heard of Leonard Humphrey, the principal of Amherst Academy, dying abruptly, depression had set in regarding life and death. She began to exclude herself from her peers and take care of her family. This was exacerbated around the 1850s, as her mother became chronically ill. She was the person to take care of her, and therefore remained effectively exiled from the rest of civilization. (Kirk 2004, p. 44)
However, the morbidly fortunate thing about her seclusion is that it afforded Dickinson the time and energy to write and reflect, and those next few years became some of Dickinson’s most productive. As, unlike most women, she did not carry the desire to find a man and get married, instead taking care of her mother, she was afforded a unique outsider’s perspective on life and its experiences. This set her apart from her other female peers and showed a different set of priorities than the women of the time. Her gospel was writing in lieu of personal relationships.
One of the biggest issues in weighing the success of Emily Dickinson’s poems and how it affected her life is that, for the most part, her poems were published posthumously. Only a few of her poems were published while she was alive, and they had suffered tremendous editing, as well as anonymous authorship (she was not credited). Some of these changes were made to fit conventional rhyme schemes, such as when The Springfield Republican published the poem “I taste a liquor never brewed.” (Kirk 2004, p. 87) Very few of her poems were unedited and released to the public in her lifetime.
Emily had made it expressly clear to her sister Lavinia that her correspondence be burned so as to not make it to the public eye. For the most part, Lavinia complied with her sister’s instructions, but she ended up publishing forty notebooks worth of poetry, which represents the body of work that Dickinson is most known for. Since Dickinson did not get to see these published, the affect of her success on her life was minimal, as she was not around to experience it. During her life, she was ashamed of her poems, as she never felt they were sufficient.
One of Emily Dickinson’s biggest influences was a literary critic named Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she contacted in order to figure out if her verse was “alive,” as he had written an editorial demanding that authors consider that in their writing. (Wolff 1986, p. 249) This started a friendship and mentorship that would affect her writing greatly, and by Dickinson’s own admission, would save her life. (Wolff 1986, p. 254) However, his relative reticence to respond to her would likely lead to her refraining from publishing her work, as she did not know if it was “alive” enough to sent to the people. (Wolff 1986, p. 258) This reticence toward publication would lead to claims by editors, including William Dean Howells, that her work would have benefited from publication within her lifetime, as she could have learned from criticism and adjusted her writing. (Wolff 1986, p. 175)
Despite her influence not having an impact on the woman’s life, it did and does carry significant weight among women of future generations. Much of her influence and significance stems from just how innovative and new her writing style was, particularly as a woman during that time period. She used unconventional punctuation and carried an immediacy to her writing that is unmatched in even her male peers. Her writing was pre-modernist and unconventional, which showed women that they did not have to be restricted to flowery prose about love in order to produce quality writing.
There are many thoughts about Dickinson’s nature as a woman and her nature as a poet; she was a decidedly unconventional woman, choosing to seclude herself in her home and write poetry about death and dying. However, these subjects reflected her mindset, as she was an extremely depressed person, perhaps as she felt she did not belong among the rest of society. Dickinson did not feel the same pull to find a man and marry as other women of her time; it is possible that she lamented that, and that her poetry gave her something to direct her energy into, as she could not join her female contemporaries in settling down. She sacrificed a life among others to live an economical, eccentric life focused on the expression of feeling and thought through poetry.
Even in her work, Dickinson managed to express a lot of women’s issues, even though she managed to segregate herself from the rest of society for the duration of their creation. While she wrote about death, she also wrote about women – their thoughts, their feelings, their despairs. The theme of death could perhaps be interpreted as an expression of the things women sacrifice in a patriarchal world such as she lived in; career, power, money. Her thoughts on death reflected her own loneliness, and this was something that all women of the time could relate to (and still can to an extent). (Kirk 2004, p. 72)
The powerlessness against the unknown reflected the powerlessness that women felt in nineteenth century society, and this is one of the many ways in which Dickinson’s poems resonate among women. If a man were to write about death, it would not have been as poignant or relevant to women’s struggles; therefore, in a sense, it is important to Dickinson’s success that she was a woman. However, this is not the only way to explain the success of her works, as she wrote in such a new, intense, unconventional style that it helped redefine the structure and canvas of a poem.
Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson a biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson . New York: Knopf :, 1986.