Dickinson Biography
Smothers Her Fiery Spirit

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2001

There is a pain — so utter —

It swallows substance up —

Then covers the Abyss with Trance —

So Memory can step

Around — across — upon it —

As one within a Swoon —

Goes safely — where an open eye —

Would drop Him — Bone by Bone.

Where, you have to wonder, did something like that come from? What forces of heredity, environment, and culture combined to produce Emily Dickinson?

Bristling with facts, daunting in its poundage, a new biography lumbers in to help us solve the mystery of the woman who may be the greatest American poet. The biographer, Alfred Habegger, is a former professor of English at the University of Kansas, and he has done his work as a scholar — to a fault.

Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Mass. Her grandfather, who helped found Amherst College, came close to financial ruin through a series of unwise investments. Her father, Edward, reacted against his father’s carelessness: “He had observed from close up a father’s disaster, and after being repeatedly bruised by it, gained an unshakable belief in the priority of family security and the importance of buckling on all the armor of fortitude and determination.”

Edward Dickinson believed that women’s education should prepare them to be homemakers and nothing more. Emily later told a correspondent that her father “buys me many Books — but begs me not to read them — because he fears they joggle the Mind.” Her mother, also named Emily, seems to have been in need of joggling: “a melancholy, inexpressive, and relatively inelastic spirit,” Habegger calls her. The poet’s later literary mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, recalled that she once told him, “I never had a mother.”

The Amherst of her childhood and youth was a place where an intense religiosity swept through in waves of revivalistic enthusiasm. At the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which she attended for a year, students were divided into three classes: those who were had been saved, those who believed they were on the way to salvation, and the “impenitent.” The last was Emily’s group, but she would remain unregenerate, even when her father and her sister, Lavinia, experienced a conversion at a revival in 1850. About this time, she wrote her first known poem.

In 1855, the family moved into the Homestead, which had been lost by Emily’s grandfather during his financial troubles, and plans were made for her brother, Austin, to move into an adjacent house after his own marriage. Her fate was sealed when, about the time of the move, her mother had a physical/emotional breakdown. Emily, the elder sister, would have to be the woman of the house: “Her work in life would be to attempt and achieve an unprecedented imaginative freedom while dwelling in what looks like privileged captivity,” Habegger observes.

By 1858 she was collecting her poems into handmade booklets – carefully copying the poems on notepaper and sewing the leaves together. But she resisted publication, even though she received encouragement as a poet from men such as Higginson, whose essays in The Atlantic Monthly inspired Dickinson to begin a correspondence with him in 1862. After her death, Higginson would be involved in the first edition of her poems.

When Higginson visited her in 1870, he found “a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair,” and referred to her twice as “childlike.” But in later years he also recalled his discomfort at her eccentricity: ”The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of something abnormal.”

The glimpses of her emotional life found in Dickinson’s letters and poems are catnip to a biographer such as Habegger. For instance, “Of the twenty-one instances of the word ‘hurt’ in her poems (noun or verb),” Habegger enumerates, “every single one occurs between 1860 and 1863.” This was a period when many of her poems seem to be addressed to a man. “That the love poems were a response to an actual and painful relationship with a man seems the only plausible way to take them,” Habegger comments. His candidate is the Rev. Charles Wadsworth, whom she had met in Philadelphia and who moved to San Francisco in 1862. But whether this was more than a heavy crush seems doubtful.

But there’s evidence that she and Otis Phillips Lord, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, may have had something more substantial going on – though it’s circumstantial evidence, for most of their letters were destroyed. Judge Lord was in his 60s and she in her 40s when they apparently fell in love. Her attraction to him seems to have developed around the time of her father’s death, in 1873. Lord, whose wife died in 1877, apparently proposed marriage to her sometime after her mother’s death in 1882. But she declined, and he died in 1884, two years before she did.

Throughout the book, Habegger steers a steady course around sensationalism and speculation. But the cumulative effect of his book is oppressive, smothering the spirit of its subject under a tedious account of her daily life. Lost in the mundane are what we really want to know about Dickinson: What sparked this utterly original writer to wrangle with God and nature and life and death? What emboldened her to break away from the conventions of poetic diction?

Her verse is that of a woman who knew the life of a small western Massachusetts town, the intensity of its religion and both the frivolity and the earnestness of its citizens; who dwelt in a countryside barely tamed out of wilderness, saw the arrival of the railroad and the expansion of a country; who lived in a time when war divided that country; who transmuted daily experience and a slim knowledge of the world into poems that can be nothing short of hair-raising.

Inebriate of Air — am I —

And Debauchee of Dew —

Reeling — thro endless summer days —

From inns of Molten Blue —

That ecstatic Emily Dickinson is nowhere to be found in this book. The Dickinson of Habegger’s biography gazes at the world from behind doors and out of upstairs windows, and we don’t learn much by standing there with her.