1848–1850: The Great Revival and Poetic Beginnings
In the fall of 1848, a group of young, unmarried Amherst women formed a social group called the Sewing Society. The group met twice a month at the Amherst House, a hotel in town. They sewed for two hours, making things they would donate to charities, and then received any male callers who wanted to visit. Emily Dickinson and her friends joined this group. Many of Austin Dickinson's male friends found Emily charming and witty, though few had romantic designs on her.
Despite being "plain", as her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson would later describe her, Dickinson drew admirers with her intelligence, charm, and wit. However, although she flirted with her visitors, Dickinson did not seem to have deep feelings for any of them. In 1849, Benjamin Newton told Dickinson that he had decided to move back to Worcester, Massachusetts, the town in which he grew up. Dickinson was devastated by his departure. As a parting gift, Benjamin gave her a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems.
In 1849, Dickinson's sister Lavinia left home for Ipswich Female Seminary, a boarding school. Many of the household chores fell to Dickinson, and they usually took all day. Dickinson reserved her evenings for reading. For the first time, she began to write poetry. She often kept her lamp burning late as she sat at her desk, poring over a book or composing a poem. No one in her family knew of Dickinson's inclinations toward poetry. She kept her writing a secret from them, locking away everything she produced in a secret drawer in her desk.
When Dickinson read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront ë during the winter of 1849–1850, it had a transformative effect on her. Dickinson may have identified with the novel's heroine, a frail, intelligent, and plain girl who lamented women's destiny: remaining forever chained to the domestic realm. The novel's effect on Dickinson was, as she put it in a letter, "electric."
Within a few months, Dickinson left the Sewing Society. Her old friend Leonard Humphrey began tutoring her privately. A sickly, socially awkward young man of twenty-four, Humphrey was almost a romantic figure to Dickinson. It was after Dickinson's rapturous reading of Jane Eyre, and during Humphrey's tutelage, that Dickinson began hesitantly considering herself a poet.
One of Dickinson's old school friends created a social club she called "Poetry in Motion." It had little to do with poetry; its meetings were mostly an excuse for the young club members to dance. Dancing was still considered unseemly in the late 1840s in small-town New England, so the young people kept their club's activities secret. Once, when Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson went away for the weekend, Dickinson and her brother Austin threw a party at the house. Austin and Dickinson held a "Poetry in Motion" meeting at the Dickinson house. Dickinson rolled up the rug and the club members danced in the living room. Unfortunately, when Dickinson replaced the rug after the meeting, she replaced it upside down. Her mother noticed, and although she was shocked and dismayed to learn what had happened, she decided her husband didn't need to know about the incident.
Dickinson turned twenty in 1850, an eventful year both politically and socially. In New England, a religious movement called The Great Revival was taking place. A fervent renewal of Christian spirituality, the Revival inspired huge numbers of people to officially join churches and declare themselves "for Christ." It also resulted in the Temperance Movement, which argued for banning the consumption of alcohol. The Temperance Movement gained great strength. In Amherst, a number of town saloons were forced to close. Dickinson's father joined the Temperance Movement and even officially joined his Congregational Church. Officially joining the church required a public declaration of faith, and for a man like Edward Dickinson, faith was a private matter. However, on August 11, 1850, he officially joined his church. Lavinia did, too. Dickinson, still unconvinced and unsure, did not. Also during this year, the 1850 Compromise was passed, heating up the anti- slavery debate.
Dickinson thought a lot about the Congregationalist faith. She could not accept all of its tenets, and its concepts of judgment and hell frightened her. She gave religious matters her thorough attention. Religious imagery found its way into her poems, which she was writing with more frequency now. She wrote about faith, domestic matters, nature, immortality and, increasingly, death. Dickinson was becoming preoccupied with death and the soul, and her own spiritual investigations gave her a deep well of imagery and metaphor for her poems. She began holding together her many poems in little books which she stitched together using needle and thread.
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