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Emily Dickinson


1856–1862: Prolific Writing, a Shock, and Civil War

Summary 1856–1862: Prolific Writing, a Shock, and Civil War

Dr. Charles Wadsworth became an important figure in Dickinson's interior universe, serving as a kind of muse. Dickinson secretly sent letters to him through friends, asking them to write his address on the envelope in their handwriting. She requested that Wadsworth's letters to her, stashed away in a secret drawer, be burned after her death, and all were, except for one.

In 1856, after Austin married Susan Gilbert, he chose to join his father's law office. He had considered moving to Michigan with his new wife. The prospect deeply saddened Dickinson–Sue was one of her closest friends, and Dickinson adored Austin. After a brief reconnaissance trip to Michigan, Austin decided to accept Edward Dickinson's offer of a partnership in the firm and a new house across the lawn, rather than face an uncertain future in a new state. That same year, Emily Norcross Dickinson fell ill and began to rely on Dickinson for care.

In 1857, just as Austin and Sue were getting settled in their new home, Sue read a notice in the newspaper that Ralph Waldo Emerson was scheduled to visit Amherst. Sue admired Emerson's work immensely. She had read everything Emerson had published, rereading his books so often that she knew almost every one by heart. Sue decided to ask Emerson to be her guest after his lecture at the college. He accepted. He and Sue got along wonderfully at Sue's impromptu salon, but Emily Dickinson did not attend despite having read Emerson's work.

In the last two years, Dickinson had taken to her craft with earnest dedication. Some scholars believe that at this time Dickinson was finishing a poem every day. Edward Dickinson noticed Dickinson's desk lamp burning until the wee hours of the morning, and her face was haggard from lack of sleep. Upon discovering that Dickinson was up late reading (she made no mention of her composition) Edward made an uncharacteristically lax decision, saying it was permissable for Dickinson to sleep late. Dickinson was truly reading in addition to writing, and from her reading she was harvesting ideas, images, concepts and even metaphors. Both Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emerson's essays and poems had an enormous influence on Dickinson.

In early spring of 1860, Dickinson was surprised to find Dr. Charles Wadsworth at the door. He had come for an unexpected visit, and Dickinson joined him for a carriage ride. Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi–Austin and Sue's daughter–later said that when Dickinson went for the carriage ride, Lavinia rushed across the lawn into Sue's house and said breathlessly: "I am afraid Emily will go away with him." The couple returned, however, and Lavinia returned to the house to find Wadsworth gone and Dickinson locked in her room.

During the following week, Dickinson did not emerge from her room and, Martha said, did not even leave her bed. She seemed to have suffered some kind of shock. Dickinson's family was so concerned that they called a doctor. After a brief examination, the doctor announced that Dickinson had had a shock to the nervous system from unknown causes. The shock had affected her eyesight, which was now strained and dangerously close to failing. Dickinson would not tell anyone what had happened that had so shocked and distressed her. That year, Austin and Sue had a child, Ned. The birth of the baby was a distraction, and because the baby was sickly, the family's attention was diverted from Dickinson's mysterious illness.

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