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Emily Dickinson

1847–1848: Boarding School and a Return Home

1830–1847: Childhood Years

1848–1850: The Great Revival and Poetic Beginnings

Emily Dickinson was growing into an interesting woman. She mentioned in letters to her old Amherst Academy school friends that she was disappointed in her stick-straight figure, but she did have beautiful auburn curls, translucent skin, and large brown eyes. In 1848, the daguerreotype craze was in full swing–photography was a new and exciting invention–and Dickinson had her photograph taken. The likeness she saw disappointed her deeply. This photograph is one of the only ones of Dickinson in existence. Because of her posthumous fame, the photograph is one of the most famous of an American author.

At school, Dickinson was coming into her own. She enjoyed her studies and excelled at them. Although she still missed her family terribly, she had adjusted well to life away from home. Mount Holyoke's headmistress, Mary Lyon, felt religion was an important part of the girls' education, and she made it clear that she expected a public declaration of Christian faith from each of her pupils. Dickinson did not feel prepared to make such a declaration. One morning, Lyon stood in front of the entire school at devotions and said: "All young ladies who wish to share that inestimable privilege of becoming Christians will please rise." Every girl in the school stood up except Dickinson, who remained quietly in her seat. Her refusal to stand was an act of bravery, and she fully expected a reprimand. She did not receive one, but for the rest of her time at Mount Holyoke, the other girls thought her very peculiar. Dickinson was labeled an impenitent or a "no-hoper," for there was no hope for her soul. Although everyone in Dickinson's family–including Dickinson herself–went to church, only Dickinson's mother had officially joined the church as a member.

Dickinson's philosophical differences with Mary Lyon were not over. Around Christmastime at Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon asked that each student fast and meditate in observance of the Christian holiday. Dickinson was unwilling to go along with such a plan. The Dickinson family believed Christmas was a pagan holiday, with its Santa Claus and its materialism. At another school wide gathering, Lyon made another announcement, this time asking all girls in favor of the fasting and meditation to stand. Again, Dickinson was the only resister. She was given permission to go home, but she was not punished.

The Dickinsons were slightly perplexed by Emily Dickinson's behavior at school. They had not told her to object to the school's fasting and meditation dictate, and they did wish Dickinson were more religious, but they were not angry with her. The Mount Holyoke administration, though slightly scandalized, welcomed Dickinson back to school despite her steadfast objections.

Dickinson was still sickly much of the time, and by March of 1848, she had developed a severe cough. One day, Dickinson's parents entertained a visitor who had just returned from South Hadley. The visitor had seen Dickinson while there, and told Dickinson's parents that their daughter seemed ill. Edward Dickinson sent for Emily Dickinson immediately and although she pleaded with him to allow her to stay and complete the school year, he insisted that she return home at once. After resting at home for a few weeks Dickinson did finish her term at Mount Holyoke, but she never returned for another school year. Edward Dickinson preferred that Emily stay in Amherst and, if she wanted, take classes at Amherst College.

Once back at home, Dickinson's health improved. Dickinson was very social as a young woman, despite her later reputation as a recluse. When she resettled at the family home in Amherst, Dickinson regularly attended parties and usually found herself the center of a group of people who were dazzled by her intelligence and wit. She often kept her friends laughing for hours on end. She outraged her parents by pulling pranks such as leaving the funeral of a family friend with her wild cousin Willie in his fast horse and buggy. Dickinson's father was deeply angered by this breach of propriety.

Dickinson's father introduced her to a young man from his law office named Benjamin Franklin Newton. Newton had joined the office in 1847 when Dickinson was away at school. He was a frequent visitor to the Dickinson house, often talking about Transcendentalism in the Dickinsons' parlor. Benjamin and Dickinson hit it off at once and began spending a great deal of time together. They took long walks, admired and identified rare flora, and discussed and debated literature. Dickinson even consented to show Benjamin some of her poetry. Benjamin was impressed by Dickinson's work, but told her she would have to work extremely hard to become great. This encouraged her and she came to think of Newton as a tutor of sorts. He recommended authors to her and she read nearly every book he suggested. At this time, Dickinson particularly enjoyed Dickens and Longfellow, whom she tended to quote in conversation.

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