Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Emily Dickinson

Episode Summary

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is considered one of America’s greatest and most original poets.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Beautiful Mind is considered one of America’s greatest and most original poets, and perhaps one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. She is said to have been singularly brilliant, breaking conventions and boldly experimenting with new forms and ideas way ahead of her time. Though very few of her poems were published during her lifetime, her work has had an immense impact on subsequent generations. Let’s talk about Emily Dickinson

Emily was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830 to Edward and Emily Dickinson. She was the second of three children. 

Her father Edward, an ambitious lawyer and native son of Amherst, prided himself on playing a large role in the community as an elected state Congressman, the treasurer of Amherst College, and the chairman of the annual cattle show. He also served one term as a U.S. Congressman. 

Much less is known about Emily’s mother, though her surviving correspondence suggests a quirky intelligence that belies her reputation as a passive wife.

Emily, her older brother Austin, and younger sister Lavinia all attended the one-room elementary school in Amherst before moving to Amherst Academy, a prestigious school out of which Amherst College had grown. Emily loved Amherst Academy, where she was celebrated by teachers and peers alike for her prodigious skills in composition. She was particularly drawn to the study of botany during her time there.  

After graduation from Amherst Academy, Emily enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary- now Mount Holyoke College- but her experience there was not a happy one. She found the strict and invasive rules and religious requirements to be problematic. Emily was homesick, so she left Mount Holyoke after just one year and returned to her family home.

At Mount Holyoke, as well as at home, Emily was surrounded by the religious tradition of strict evangelical Calvinism, which centered on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can only be saved if they accept Jesus. Emily had a hard time with these beliefs and was the only member of her family to never join the church. Instead, she believed in the soul’s immortality and the concepts of transcendentalism. She was disinterested in less symbolic conceptions of religious truth. This would become an important component of her poetry. 

Emily started writing poetry during her teen years, mostly in letters to friends, and none of it meant for publication or public viewing. A surprising number of these letters still exist today and show Emily’s humor, gift for relaying anecdotes, and her sense that her correspondents were responding to her letters with less interest than she would have liked. This would become a bit of a constant theme. 

By her early 20s, Emily started to become more reclusive. She restricted her social activities and reduced her correspondents to a select few with whom she maintained intense relationships through letters. 

In 1855, Emily’s mother fell ill.  Because neither Emily nor her sister were married, the two were subsequently required to spend significant time on domestic pursuits taking care of the Dickinson household. During that period, Emily increased her self-imposed isolation even further.

Between 1855-1858, Emily wrote a lot of poetry. In the summer of 1858, Emily began compiling her work into little books. She wrote clean copies of her poems onto fine stationery and then sewed the sheets together at the fold to create small booklets. Over the course of about seven years, Emily created 40 booklets filled with about 800 poems. 

Poem 45 from Emily’s collection, entitled “Snow Flakes,” reads:

I counted till they danced so

Their slippers leaped the town –

And then I took a pencil

To note the rebels down –

And then they grew so jolly

I did resign the prig –

And ten of my once stately toes

Are marshalled for a jig!

Because Emily never left any instructions regarding these booklets, we can only guess what her intentions were for them. Some believe that she was simply organizing her poems for convenience. Others believe that Emily wanted these booklets to eventually be published after her death. She stated in an 1863 poem, “This is my letter to the world.”

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Emily seems to have suffered through some kind of personal crisis that may have been partially due to romantic rejection. We don’t have a clear record of exactly what was going on, but this along with other issues in her family, made Emily heavily distressed and further increased  her isolation. Instead of succumbing to whatever she was going through, Emily wrote extraordinary poems at an even more prolific rate. 

During the Civil War era, Emily explored the ironies of humanity, often tragic, such as the constant denial of fulfillment and the search for the divine in the everyday in her poems. She also wrote profoundly about what it meant to be a woman during her time, women’s subjectivity and subordination, and the need for self-reliance and greater liberty. 

By the 1860s, Emily was almost a complete recluse. In her last 15 years, her social life was nearly completely conducted by correspondence. After her father’s death in 1874, Emily even had a passionate romance with a Massachusetts Supreme Court judge entirely by letter. She continued to write about 35 poems a year. 

In the 1880s, Emily experienced tragedy after tragedy as first her mother died, and then many of her closest correspondents, one after another. This culminated in the sudden death of her beloved 8 year old nephew. After that, she stopped seeing almost everyone. 

Emily Dickinson died of a stroke in 1886. She was 55 years old. 

After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia put extraordinary effort into getting Emily’s poems published. With the help of Emily’s remaining literary friends, Poems by Emily Dickinson was published in 1890. The volume received significant public interest, and was acclaimed by famous author and critic William Dean Howells as a distinctly American voice. 

Because Emily’s poetry, both in terms of content and especially style, was really quite ahead of its time, it took years before her greatness fully registered with the American poetry community and with the world at large. By the 1950s, leading poets like Hart Crane, Allen Tate and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as the New Critics, were enthralled with Emily’s brilliance, and were instrumental in establishing her place in the pantheon of great lyric poets. 

Today, Emily’s poetry is widely translated and is  available around the world.   

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!