The Hidden World of Emily Dickinson: Understanding the Life and Times of an American Literary Icon

Emily Dickinson sepia picture main

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) had a drive to write poetry. She never married and spent most of her life in and around her family home in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily had an enthusiastic and quirky side. Her life and times help us to understand Emily’s poetry. Some themes of her poetry are nature, religion, and death. Her transcendentalist beliefs provide insights into her love of nature. She published little while still alive. Her sister and others were responsible for publishing her poetry. Readers continuously discover new insights in her poetry, including her gender-bending style. 

Emily Dickinson’s Life 

Emily Elizabeth Dickson was born on December 10, 1830. 

Her father was a lawyer and served in multiple state and federal offices. Emily had an older brother (Austin) and a younger sister  (Lavinia or “Vinnie”). 

The Dickinsons lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson was an outgoing, lively girl.  She enthusiastically expressed her feelings in letters to family and friends. Letters were a fundamental way to communicate before computers or phones.

Many people today associate Emily Dickinson as a morbid recluse. A closer look at her life shows this is an unfair stereotype. Modern portrayals try to provide a more complex look. She never married. Neither did Jane Austen. Both had complex lives without leaving their family homes.  

Emily had the writing bug. She wrote a ton of poetry. Emily’s poetry was primarily a private affair, including to family and friends. Family members who lived next door included. She did not see much of her poetry published in her lifetime. 

She never married. Dickinson suffered health problems, including panic attacks. She mostly stayed at home after the mid-1860s. She continued to have rich connections through her letters. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for instance, was a mentor and friend. 

Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886.  

Complex Family Drama 

Emily’s father was a strict head of the household. His two daughters never married. Edward Dickinson closely controlled their lives as if they were perennial teenagers. 

Emily Norcross Dickinson was a traditional wife and mother. She had bursts of depression and ill health, especially when her husband was away on business. 

William Austin Dickinson (“Austin”) was the beloved brother. He married Susan Dickinson. Emily remained a close friend. She often asked Susan for advice about her poetry. Emily and Susan’s relationship is one of multiple cases where Dickinson scholars see hints of same-sex attractions.

Austin had an open affair with Mabel Loomis Todd. The affair led to a lot of hard feelings and family drama.  Ironically, Mabel later helped publish Emily’s poetry. 

Emily’s Poetry 

Emily Dickinson composed almost 1800 poems. She is a beloved poet. Her work is often colorful, powerful, and quirky. She loved using different-sized dashes and other creative punctuation. Her rhyme schemes did not follow traditional rules.  

Emily’s “death poems” are famous. To be fair, death was a large part of everyday life in the 19th Century, before, after, and during the Civil War

She also loved nature, including having special knowledge about plants and flowers. Love, music, nature, and religion are common themes in her poetry.  

Dickinson left a ton of manuscripts behind when she died. The people who published her work sometimes tried to “correct” her outside the box thinking. They used the first lines to provide nonexistent titles. They tried to decipher her suspect handwriting. I can relate. 

Readers continue to study Emily Dickinson’s letters and poetry to obtain new interpretations. Her flexible usage of gender provides an LGBTQ flavor to her work. Emily’s writings allow us a window into her inner life. They supply new insights each time we read them. 

Religious Faith

Religion has played a significant role in American history from the times of the Puritans and Pilgrims. The theme continued in the 19th Century, including the growth of the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). Religion influenced reform movements, including anti-slavery efforts.

The Second Great Awakening involved a high degree of individual religious enthusiasm. People did not just worry about personal salvation. They had a desire to improve society.  


Transcendentalism was a philosophy honoring the goodness of all humans and nature. Individuals could instinctively determine moral truths. Certain truths “transcended” all things. 

A personal connection to nature, outside of more strict religious institutions, was a significant theme in Dickinson’s poetry. She was an “I’m more spiritual than religious” person.  

Women’s Rights 

Women played a significant role in anti-slavery and other reform movements. Women could appeal to traditional roles to care for society as they care for their families. Likewise, religious and philosophical beliefs held that everyone, men and women, had value to the community.  

Emily Dickinson’s father had an old-fashioned view of the proper roles of his daughters. Nonetheless, they still had the opportunity to obtain an education. 

Women were public speakers and published authors. Fiction provided a means as much as nonfiction to spread ideas and values. Students continue to read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Dickinson’s poetry.  Her inner life continues to shine through her writings.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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