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Emily Dickinson

1830–1847: Childhood Years

Important Terms, People, and Events

1847–1848: Boarding School and a Return Home

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. The Dickinson family had been in America for nearly two hundred years, an epoch for dwellers in such a young country. The first Dickinsons arrived in America with John Winthrop in 1630. The family spread across New England, eventually becoming deeply entrenched in the Connecticut River Valley. The Dickinson name became synonymous with power and prestige. Samuel Dickinson, Emily's grandfather, was one of the founders of Amherst College. However, Emily's parents, Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross, belonged to an impoverished branch of the Dickinson family. Before Emily was born, Edward Dickinson took over his father's law firm. Many years later, Austin Dickinson, Edward's son, would take the firm over from his father.

In 1830, Amherst was a small farming village. In the next decades, with Edward Dickinson's help, it would become an intellectual center full of schools and colleges. But Amherst was still quite provincial when Emily was born there, in the only brick house in town. Emily was the middle child in the Dickinson family. Her brother Austin was a year and a half older, and her sister Lavinia was two years younger. Their father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent Amherst lawyer, the treasurer of Amherst College and, later, a U.S. Congressman. A taciturn and sometimes cold man, he demanded a lot from his children. He was so inexpressive that when his rare smiles were almost "embarrassing," as Emily wrote to a friend. Emily was Edward's favorite, although he took pains to hide his affection for his middle child. Emily Norcross Dickinson, Emily's mother, was also a detached and somewhat absent- minded parent. She shared little in common with her daughter Emily, and the two women remained wary of each other for most of their lives.

The Dickinsons were a visibly spiritual family, attending church every Sunday at the Congregational Church in Amherst. Early in her life, Emily found she was ambivalent about religion and could not commit to joining the church officially. Emily attended West Middle District Public School, which was near her home. Despite frequently missing classes due to frequent illness, Emily was a focused, competent student who kept atop her studies. After graduating from West Middle District, Emily attended Amherst Academy for six years. There she studied philosophy, Latin, geology, botany, astronomy, theology, church history, ancient history, geography, chemistry, grammar and composition, among other subjects. Emily was particularly enchanted by botany, and her proficiency in the subject attracted the attention of Amherst Academy's young principal, Leonard Humphrey, himself an avid botany scholar. He loaned Emily many books on botany from his own library. Emily had to hide the books from her father, who would have considered them unacceptably light reading.

Edward Dickinson was a free thinker and liberal in many of his views, but he ascribed to the common views of his time, many of which we would consider misogynist today. For example, Edward supported educational opportunities for women, but he disparaged suffragists who were demanding that women be allowed to vote in elections. As his daughters grew older, Edward became slightly tyrannical. Emily's mother seemed meek by comparison, and intellectually indifferent. The three Dickinson siblings were extremely close, forming a bond that perhaps gave them the emotional support they lacked from their parents.

When Emily was sixteen, she began to prepare for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, at that time one of the best boarding schools in New England. Emily spent hours in her room preparing for her admittance exam, studying mathematics, ecclesiastical history, geometry, and science. Her father was an ardent believer in the benefit of a girls' boarding school experience, even if it meant his favorite daughter would spent much of the next year away from home.

In the fall of 1847, Emily and her father traveled by stagecoach to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. When her father dropped her off, Emily summoned her courage and tried to conquer her severe homesickness. The headmistress of Mount Holyoke was a woman named Mary Lyon. Noticing Emily's homesickness, Lyon assigned Emily to room with her cousin, Emily Norcross. Lyon was a religious woman who hoped that many of her pupils would become missionaries and travel to distant lands to convert people to Christianity.

When Emily took the exhausting three-day entrance exam, her scores placed her in the middle class of the school. Her day was plotted out with almost military precision. When the girls were not in classes, they were often completing chores. Each boarder paid only sixty dollars a year in tuition, paying for the rest of her board with domestic labor. Emily was assigned to polish silver. Her handsome older brother, now a sophomore at Amherst College, visited Emily and often brought her gifts and sweets from home. As time passed, Emily's homesickness dissipated. She grew to enjoy the routine of school, the stimulation of her studies, and the friendships she made.

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