glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Bookmark and Share
Dickinson, Emily (1830-1886)  
page: 1  2  3  4  

Emily Dickinson's life has been traditionally viewed through her relationships with men--her father, her brother, her mentor, and the unidentified man she addressed as "Master" in three love letters and a number of poems.

However, in the last decade, critics have begun to recognize the importance of her relationships with women. Dickinson sent many more of her 1,776 poems to women than to men, particularly to her sister-in-law Susan ("Sue") Gilbert Dickinson who provided her with both a source of material and a faithful audience for a large portion of her writings.

Because the poet's first editors were anxious to conceal the erotic implications and the literary significance of this relationship, they minimized Sue's role, but recent critics have shown her to have been crucial to Dickinson's life and work.

The poet was born December 10, 1830--200 years after the first Dickinson arrived in America--to one of Amherst, Massachusetts's leading families. Her grandfather helped found Amherst Academy, and her father and brother, both lawyers, served it as treasurer after it became Amherst College. Dickinson attended the Academy for seven years and Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary for one, leaving early because she resisted its coercive religious environment and her parents wanted her at home.

But they did not curtail her social life, as some have maintained: In her early twenties, the poet wrote wacky valentines to Amherst freshmen and uproarious letters to her brother Austin and her girlfriends recounting picnics, sugarings-off, sledding parties, and a seemingly endless round of social calls. She spent nearly two months in 1855 visiting Washington and Philadelphia with her father and sister Lavinia, meeting "many sweet ladies and noble gentlemen."

But by age thirty, Dickinson would tell one correspondent, "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town," and inform another of her "custom" of "fleeing" when visitors arrived. Except for a few trips to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to have her eyes treated, the poet remained in Amherst for the rest of her life, seeing only her immediate family and a select group of children; in the years before she died, even her doctor had to examine her from another room.

Local gossips referred to Dickinson as "the Myth," expressing fascination at her "withdrawal," her habit of wearing only white, and her enigmatic notes accompanying gifts of food or flowers.

Those who knew her better accepted her reclusiveness, prizing her letters for the love and sympathy expressed in them, however elliptically. For all her reticence, Dickinson corresponded with a wide variety of relatives and friends: Sue; her nieces Louise and Frances Norcross; Elizabeth Holland and her husband Josiah, an editor at Scribner's; Samuel Bowles, editor of a prominent local newspaper, and his wife Mary; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor at the Atlantic, whom Dickinson adopted as her mentor; and the most popular woman poet of her day, Helen Hunt Jackson.

Dickinson remained deeply involved in the lives of these people, readily celebrating their triumphs and mourning their losses, and leaving over a thousand letters, many of which contained poems.

Though Dickinson "published" her work to her correspondents throughout her life, she seems to have felt too ambivalent toward what she called "the Auction / Of the Mind" to pursue publication actively. In the early 1860s, she expressed enthusiasm about her literary prospects, writing Sue that she hoped to make her and Austin "proud--sometime--a great way off," and telling the Norcrosses, after alluding to her writing, that "every day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be, more stupendous."

But once she had solicited Higginson's view of her work in 1862 and he had suggested that she delay publishing, she insisted that she had never harbored any intention of seeing her poems into print. In the early 1880s, Jackson asked Dickinson if she might serve as her literary executor, and the publisher Thomas Niles offered to issue a book of her poems, but she politely ignored both requests.

All told, only eight of her poems were published during her lifetime, most of them submitted without her permission by friends. But Dickinson did order her poems for her own purposes--and possibly for posterity--by sewing them into packets or "fascicles"; these were found by her sister Vinnie and edited by Higginson and her brother's lover, Mabel Loomis Todd.

When the poet's work was published four years after her death in 1886, reviewers expressed surprise that a seemingly eventless life could generate such passion. However, critics have since come to recognize that the less Dickinson interacted with others in person, the more intense her epistolary exchanges with them became. Her letters explaining why she could not see people suggest that she avoided those she loved because they affected her too powerfully.

    page: 1  2  3  4   next page>  
zoom in
Emily Dickinson (ca 1847 or 1848).
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Literature
Popular Topics:

The Arts

Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators
Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall
Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall

Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male
Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male

New Queer Cinema

White, Minor

Halston (Roy Halston Frowick)


Winfield, Paul

McDowall, Roddy
McDowall, Roddy

Cadinot, Jean-Daniel
Cadinot, Jean-Daniel




This Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.