Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson Summary

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Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s 1988 book Emily Dickinson is a literary biography detailing the relationship between Dickinson’s life and her poetry. Wolff offers fascinating interpretations of the poems as well as the times in which they were created, linking the poet to the influences of the world around her. Writing a biography of the New England writer remains a challenging undertaking as so many myths continue to surround her, partly because of the seeming starkness of her personal life, which led to much curiosity.

Never married, Emily Dickinson preferred to spend most of her time at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, rarely leaving. Her life seemed to be ordinary in the extreme, aside from the fact that over the course of it she produced upwards of 1,775 poems. Considered one of the greatest poets to have lived in America, her voice helped to define American poetry and literature. Throughout the book, Wolff goes to great lengths to debunk some of the myths surrounding this figure and to give a more accurate representation of her life.

Wolff writes that Dickinson was an active and outgoing teenager, who formed friendships with many girls and boys of her age. Amherst was an intellectual center and the Dickinson home, in particular, served as a meeting place for all kinds of brilliant minds. Therefore, she did not grow up in isolation and was actually quite well socialized. Although she had some of the typical strains in the relationship with her parents, she remained a devoted daughter who spent many years nursing her mother while she was in poor health. Wolff describes Dickinson as humorous, witty, and playful, with a genuine affection for children although she never had any of her own. She had an affectionate relationship with her niece Mattie.

Emily’s grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson was the founder of Amherst College, making her family very influential within the community. He was responsible for a period of religious revival in the town, and Emily grew up with the constant pressure of religious conversion. Wolff writes that Emily rejected this pressure, as well as other social pressures, in order to create for herself a world in which she could survive and produce her work as a poet.

Wolff spends a lot of time detailing the circumstances of the New England in which Emily Dickinson grew up, in order to give the reader a better understanding of the writer’s poetic disposition. She writes that death was a constant reality of this time and that only a fraction of the population lived beyond childhood. Infant mortality rates were high, and death by consumption was common. The process surrounding burial and death was elaborate and institutionalized. Surrounded by death, it is no wonder that the poet ruminated on this theme pervasively in her artistic work.

Women’s work included tending to the sick and the dying, and many women died in childbirth due to carelessness. Dickinson’s own mother was confined to their home while her husband pursued his dreams of becoming a politician, frequently traveling to neighboring cities. Only six of Dickinson’s poems were published while she was alive, and Wolff suggests that this is because women were so limited within the sphere of the household, and at the time, anti-feminist sentiments were high.

Dickinson also stood in stark opposition to the wave of Christianity that swept over her town, eventually refusing to attend church altogether. Wolff writes that Dickinson was still a believer and had faith, yet she opposed wide-spread conformity and refused to convert when everyone else was doing so. Strong-willed, she understood her own principles. Wolff suggests that this rejection of Christianity allowed Dickinson to make room for her own artistic endeavors. She sought to liberate herself by rejecting traditional patterns of behavior, opting to carve out her own life’s path.

Wolff discusses the characteristics that define Dickinson’s poetry, stating that as a young woman she was preoccupied with the visual, needing to see something in order to believe it was real. This translated into the vivid descriptions and rich imagery that define her writing. She also made use of various voices or characters, using whichever best suited the topic at hand. At times, she would write from the perspective of a child, a student, a lover, or a housewife.

Dickinson had relationships with many men, though they seemed mostly founded on a mutual interest in literary pursuits. With Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a widower, she enjoyed a passionate relationship, though she declined his advances towards marriage for reasons that remain unknown. He died shortly after his proposal to her in 1884, and two years later, she joined him in what she so often described in her poems as the kingdom of death.