In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emily Dickinson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

American Literature Emily Dickinson
Paul Crumbley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0008


Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830, in the house known as the Homestead, which was built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She would die in the same house on 15 May 1886, but the life she led during her fifty-five years reached far beyond the confines of that single house or the rural community of Amherst. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer and civic leader who held political office for brief periods on the state and national levels; her mother, Emily Norcross, came from a prominent family in nearby Munson. Emily led a happy childhood that included warm relationships with her older brother, Austin; her younger sister, Lavinia; and many friends. Her formal education included a solid grounding at the Amherst Academy and a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. One of Dickinson’s first notable expressions of independence was her refusal to join family and friends who professed their faith as part of the series of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening, which peaked in Amherst c. 1850. As the 1850s advanced, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive, such that by the mid-1860s she rarely left the family property. It was during this period that Dickinson was most dedicated to writing poetry, producing the forty small manuscript books known as fascicles between 1858 and 1864 and completing more than two hundred poems a year in 1862, 1863, and 1865. The fascicles represent a form of domestic publication that Dickinson preferred to print publication, largely because she wanted to preserve poetic innovations, such as her dashes, unusual capitalization, and slant rhyme, that she knew editors would normalize. The ten poems published during her lifetime, all anonymously and without her permission, were modified by editors, justifying her concerns. To secure a readership for her poems while also retaining editorial control, Dickinson sent out at least a third of her poems as part of an extensive correspondence. Her closest friend was her sister-in-law and neighbor, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Austin’s wife. Dickinson communicated with Susan almost daily, frequently sending her poems. Another important correspondent was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a well-known writer and political activist who contributed regularly to the Atlantic Monthly. Dickinson sent Higginson many poems and openly discussed publication, repeatedly asserting that she had no desire to enter print. Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood friend of Dickinson’s and a well-known poet, aggressively urged Dickinson to publish her poems, despite Dickinson’s continued resistance. It was finally Higginson, together with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of the Amherst College astronomer David Todd and Austin’s mistress, who edited and published Dickinson’s poems, in 1890.

General Overviews

The works listed here provide broad discussions of Dickinson that summarize key features of her life, identify central themes, touch on primary formal issues, and look at representative poems and letters. All these books are designed as introductions for readers approaching Dickinson for the first time and tend to be relatively short. Pickard 1967 is the earliest work included and offers a good discussion of Dickinson’s artistic achievement. Ferlazzo 1984, Dickenson 1985, Robinson 1986, Knapp 1989, and Kirkby 1991 all appeared in less than ten years and are similar in their attention to specific poems and their efforts to model reading practices; of these, Kirkby 1991 is particularly accessible and engaging. Martin 2007 challenges the myth of Dickinson as poet, stressing her engagement with the world. Smith 2007 is the most recent introductory work listed here and the one most attuned to digital resources.

  • Dickenson, Donna. Emily Dickinson. Berg’s Women. Dover, NH: Berg, 1985.

    Dickenson pays particular attention to the multiple meanings supported by Dickinson’s poems. She does a good job of presenting the compression and complexity essential to Dickinson’s poetic form.

  • Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson. Twayne’s United States Authors. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    Ferlazzo discusses key poems according to familiar subject categories, such as faith, mortality, love, and nature. The book is notable for its focused study of particular poems.

  • Kirkby, Joan. Emily Dickinson. Women Writers. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1991.

    Kirkby’s brief introductory volume offers a short biographical essay and an overview of major subjects: nature, the gothic, gender identity, artistic self-creation. Kirkby primarily examines Dickinson’s understanding of the intellect and how she uses language to situate the self in the world.

  • Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. Literature and Life: American Writers. New York: Continuum, 1989.

    Knapp looks at some of Dickinson’s more challenging poems, providing lively discussions that make clear Dickinson’s refusal to adhere to social conventions that restricted the sphere of female poetic discourse.

  • Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge Introduction to Literature. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    This introductory volume overturns the myth that Dickinson was an intensely private writer who did not engage with the social issues of her day. Martin organizes the text by concentrating on biography and cultural context in her opening two chapters; she dedicates the remaining two chapters to a discussion of major themes in the poems and letters and an overview of Dickinson’s reception.

  • Pickard, John B. Emily Dickinson: An Introduction and Interpretation. American Authors and Critics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

    An early introduction to Dickinson’s life and work. Pickard includes a brief chronology at the beginning, two chapters that detail early life and artistic maturity, two chapters that focus on artistic principles and practice, four that examine primary themes, and a concluding assessment of her achievement.

  • Robinson, John. Emily Dickinson: Looking to Canaan. A Faber Student Guide. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.

    Good overview of the intellectual and artistic influences that shaped Dickinson’s writing. Robinson gives careful readings of central poems that move easily between poems and letters, in accessible prose.

  • Smith, Martha Nell. Emily Dickinson: A User’s Guide. Blackwell Introductions to Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470696620

    An introduction that studies Dickinson’s life, major poems and letters, and critical reception. This work is particularly good at emphasizing the experience of reading Dickinson and identifying digital resources, such as the Dickinson Electronic Archives (cited under Digital Resources).

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