Emily Dickinson, the "Belle of Amherst", is one of the most highly-regarded poets ever to write. In America, perhaps only Walt Whitman is her equal in legend and in degree of influence. Dickinson, the famous recluse dressed in white, secretly produced an enormous canon of poetry while locked in her room and refusing visitor after visitor. Her personal life and its mysteries have sometimes overshadowed her achievements in poetry and her extraordinary innovations in poetic form, to the dismay of some scholars.
Dickinson was born in December of 1830 to a well-known family, long established in New England. Her family lived in the then-small farming town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The middle child, Dickinson was adored by both her older brother Austin and her younger Dickinson Lavinia. Her relationship with her mother was distant, and though she was likely her father's favorite, her relationship with him was sometimes frosty.
Dickinson regularly attended her family's church, and New England Calvinism surrounded her. Dickinson stood out as an eccentric when, as a young girl, she refused to join the church officially or even to call herself a Christian. At school she proved a good student, but spent only one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before leaving the school due to health problems. In the years prior to her cloistered existence at the house in Amherst, Dickinson was quite social, attending parties, impressing her father's Washington political comrades during a trip there, and amusing everyone with her witticisms. Emily Dickinson was a fun, fiercely intelligent, young woman.
Something changed in her life, and that change is one of the greatest mysteries surrounding Dickinson's legend. Some time around 1850 she began writing poetry. Her first poems were traditional and followed established form, but as time passed and she began producing huge amounts of poetry, Dickinson began experimenting. In 1855, Dickinson, already a homebody, took a trip to Washington D.C. after much prodding from her family. She also went to Philadelphia, spending three weeks there. While in Philadelphia, she made the acquaintance of a brilliant, serious man named Dr. Charles Wadsworth, a married reverend at one of the Presbyterian churches in the city. He was an arresting figure and Dickinson deeply admired him. Most scholars agree that Wadsworth was the man Dickinson fell in love with, and the man who inspired much of her love poetry. Just before he left his Philadelphia church in 1861 to move to San Francisco, Wadsworth visited Dickinson to tell her of his plans to leave. No one in the family witnessed their meeting, but when he left, Dickinson suffered a nervous breakdown that incapacitated her for a week and nearly ruined her eyesight.
Dickinson was experimenting with the form and structure of the poem. Many of her innovations form the basis of modern poetry. She sent her poems as birthday greetings and as valentines, but her love poetry was private. She tied it in tight little bundles and hid it away. She did, however, seek out a mentor in Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent literary critic in Boston. They began a correspondence that would last for the rest of her life. Though she doggedly sought out his advice, she never took the advice he gave, much to Higginson's annoyance.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Dickinson grew even more reclusive. She stopped wearing clothes that had any hint of color and dressed only in white, she turned away almost every visitor who came to see her, and she locked herself in her room for days at a time. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a number of people close to Dickinson died in quick succession, including her mother, her friend Judge Otis Lord, her young nephew, her good friend Helen Fiske Hunt and Dr. Charles Wadsworth.
In 1886, Dickinson's health began deteriorating and she found herself slowly becoming an invalid. Dickinson was only fifty-six, but she was suffering from a severe case of Bright's disease. She died on May 15, 1886, and was buried in a white coffin in Amherst.