Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth (1830-1886), America's best-known female poet and one of the foremost authors in American literature. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson was the middle child of a lawyer and one-term United States congressional representative, Edward Dickinson, and his wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson. From 1840 to 1847 she attended the Amherst Academy, and from 1847 to 1848 she studied at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, a few miles from Amherst. Dickinson remained in Amherst, living in the same house on Main Street from 1855 until her death. During her lifetime, she published only about 10 of her nearly 2, 000 poems, in newspapers, Civil War journals, and a poetry anthology.
The notion that Dickinson was extremely reclusive is a popular one, but it is at best a partial truth. Although she never married and certainly became more selective over the years about the company she kept, Dickinson was far more sociable than most descriptions would have us believe. Biographers are increasingly recognizing the vital role of Dickinson's sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, in her writing. For more than 35 years the two women lived next door to each other, sharing mutual passions for literature, music, cooking, and gardening.
Emily sent Susan more than 400 poems and letter-poems, twice as many as she sent to any other correspondent. In 1998 Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson was published, documenting the two women's friendship. Dickinson enjoyed the King James Version of the Bible, as well as authors such as English writers William Shakespeare, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Thomas Carlyle. Dickinson's early style shows the strong influence of Barrett Browning, Scottish poet Robert Browning, and English poets John Keats and George Herbert.
In the early stages of her career, Dickinson's handwritten lyrics imitated the formalities of print, and her poetic techniques were conventional, but she later began to attend to the visual aspects of her work. For example, she arranged and broke lines of verse in highly unusual ways to underscore meaning and she created extravagantly shaped letters of the alphabet to emphasize or play with a poem's sense. She also incorporated cutouts from novels, magazines, and even the Bible to augment her own use of language. Although few of Dickinson's poems were formally published during her lifetime, she herself "published" by sending out at least one-third of her poems in the more than 1, 000 letters she wrote to at least 100 different correspondents.