Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December
10, 1830 to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her brother,
William Austin Dickinson was one year old when she was born. Then, In
1833, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, Emily's sister, was born. The Dickinsons
were a prominent family in Amherst, though Edward still lived in the
shadow of his distinguished father, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. They lived
in half of a four bedroom house called
that was built by Samuel Fowler Dickinson. The other half was inhabited
by relatives. However, in 1833, the Dickinsons foreclosed the mortgage
and General David Mack, Jr., bought the house. Edward began renting
the west half of the house until 1840, when he had enough money to buy
a new house for his family. (Check out a video
tour of the grave site and homestead!
On September 7, 1840, Lavinia and Emily began their first year at Amherst Academy, and in 1842, Emily wrote a letter to Austin at Williston Seminary: this is the oldest surviving letter written by Emily. She became friends with Abiah Root while in Amherst, and began writing letters to him in 1845 when he left Amherst.
Emily always had a hard time understanding organized religion, and in 1844, there were two religious revivals in Amherst that Emily decided not to attend.
After seven years at the Academy, Emily entered Mount Holyoke College. On December 7, 1847, she sat for a daguerreotype at Mount Holyoke: this proved to be the only surviving image (and probably the only image ever taken) of Emily. While at Mount Holyoke, she continued writing, but also enjoyed her science courses, like chemistry, physiology, and astronomy. As in the past, she stood in defiance of the church.
Her studies were cut short when, after only one year at school, her father decided not to send her back due to her severe homesickness.
After college, Emily went to live at home, inhabiting a second floor room overlooking her garden. As the years went on, she became more and more removed from society as she created a world of her own; a world of poetry, intense friendships (usually manifested through letters), and imagination. Most of the poems we know were written from the desk in her second story room. She was such a prolific letter writer that many of her correspondents could not keep up with her, and she would often become agitated if she did not hear back from a person within a few weeks.
After 1858, she began to recopy her poems and bound the copies into forty books which are now known as the "fascicles," containing over 800 of her poems. She stopped making the fascicles in 1864.
By 1860, she lived almost exclusively within the bounds of her parents house. In 1862, Dickinson read Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Letter to a Young Contributor" and responded to him with a personal letter, initiating a lifetime of correspondence. He began reading the poetry which she sent to him, but she paid little attention to his suggestions. Indeed, many people have criticized Higginson for never having realized the genius of Dickinson's work.
In 1874, her father, Edward Dickinson, died in Boston and in 1875, her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was stricken with paralysis until her death in 1882.
In 1884, Dickinson was struck with an illness that began her final decline. She died at The Homestead on May 15, 1886, of Bright's disease. She was buried in an Amherst, Massachusetts graveyard.
Over the course of her lifetime, she wrote 1,775 poems of which we have record, and possibly many more.