Emily Dickinson read about the world around her, but for most of her adult life, she did not live in it. She spent much of her life behind locked doors, refusing visitors and producing poem after poem in her room. However, politics engaged Dickinson's attention for some time. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a United States Congressman. Dickinson's ancestry traced back to the beginnings of New England history. The Dickinsons had come to America with John Winthrop in 1630 and had settled all over the Connecticut River Valley by the time Emily Dickinson was born two hundred years later.
During Dickinson's life, a number of important events and movements took place. A social and religious movement called the Great Revival renewed religious fervor among the people of New England. It resulted in the closing of saloons all over Massachusetts and Connecticut. Dickinson's father joined the Great Revival movement in supporting the temperance pledge, but Dickinson looked on the movement with skepticism.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the abolitionist movement–a social movement organized in the North to abolish the institution of slavery–gained support. On May 30, 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This bill made the Kansas and Nebraska territories full-fledged states. As a result of granting Kansas and Nebraska statehood, the slave debate in America intensified, for the new bill permitted slavery, enraging some United States citizens. The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that the new states would decide to adopt slavery or not based on "popular sovereignty," or the will of the inhabitants of the territory. Leaving the adoption of slavery up to the individual states directly contradicted the Missouri Compromise, which barred the extension of slavery into new states. Edward Dickinson fought vehemently against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The bill passed, and as a result, Edward Dickinson and about forty other U.S. Congressmen began planning an entirely new political party, which would come to be called the Republican party.
The Civil War also touched Emily Dickinson's life. Her brother Austin paid a conscript to take his place in the war, avoiding it, but Emily's great friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led the first black regiment in the Union army, and one of her dearest friend's husbands was killed by an explosion in the conflict.
The American literary world was not closed to female writers, but it did not welcome them, either. Harriet Beecher Stowe was the notable exception to the unspoken rules barring women from the literary club. In 1852, Stowe published the immensely popular, controversial novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Despite the gains made in fiction by women like Stowe, poetry was still considered a man's arena, especially in New England, where heavyweights like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman practiced their art.
Dickinson's father was liberal in some respects and conservative in others. He would have disapproved if he knew Dickinson spent her time writing in her room, so she kept her massive collection of writings locked in a secret drawer in her room. Dickinson's only publicly disseminated poems were those she sent to friends and family as notes, birthday greetings, and Valentines. In her lifetime, Dickinson published only seven poem out of the nearly 2,000 that would eventually be published after her death. During Dickinson's life, nearly all of the seven published poems were published anonymously in the Springfield Republican newspaper. Dickinson, socially brilliant as a young woman, became increasingly reclusive as her life progressed. In her mid-twenties, she began wearing only clothing that was white. Eventually, she stopped receiving most visitors, even refusing to see dear friends that came to her house.
Dickinson's great poetic achievement was not fully realized until years after her death, even though Dickinson understood her own genius when she lived. Many scholars now identify Dickinson's style as the forerunner, by more than fifty years, of modern poetry. At the time in which Dickinson wrote, the conventions of poetry demanded strict form. Dickinson's broken meter, unusual rhythmic patterns, and assonance struck even respected critics of the time as sloppy and inept. In time, her style was echoed by many of our most revered poets, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. However, while she lived, the few publishers could not appreciate the innovation of Dickinson's form. Her unique technique discomfited them, and they could not see beyond it to appreciate her jewels of imagery and her unexpected and fresh metaphors.
Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Dickinson's sister Lavinia collected and published some of Dickinson's poetry after her death, but the world was still slow to recognize Dickinson. In 1945, the collection of poems titled Bolts of Melody was published. In 1955 Dickinson's letters and selected commentaries on her life and work were published, and in 1960, her complete poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, were published. At last the world began to recognize Dickinson's innovation and brilliance. Today, Dickinson is ensconced in the canon and almost universally considered one of the greatest poets in history.
In recent years, many scholars have rejected the popular view of Emily Dickinson as a heartsick recluse who spent her entire life pining for an unnamed lover, foregoing sex and companionship in order to concentrate more fully on her writing. Some scholars have argued that research on Emily Dickinson has focused too heavily on her personal life and on the importance of men to her poetry. There can be no doubt, however, that her poetry was a forerunner to modern poetry and that her poems contained some of the most unusual and daring innovations in the history of American poetry.