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Early Childhood at the Homestead
Imagine a young woman, small like a wren, with chestnut-colored hair and matching eyes, strolling through a garden ablaze with colorful flowers: yellow heliotrope, pink and purple sweet peas, red cinnamon roses, and white jasmine. These are her children; she lovingly tends to them, year after year. A bobolink sings overhead. Soon she may wander with her big brown dog, Carlo, into the nearby woods, where her favorite wildflowers grow: violets, anemones, pink and yellow lady's slippers, and Indian pipes. She is whispering what sounds like a prayer, but is a poem:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying at Home -
With a Bobolink for a Chorister -
And an Orchard, for a Dome -
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice -
I, just wear my Wings -
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton - sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman -
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -
I'm going, all along.
It is a warm Sunday in June in the town of Amherst, in western Massachusetts. The young woman's family is at church, but she is where she feels closest to God, in nature. Soon her beloved parents and siblings will return, and they will all be together in the home she holds so dear. But for now, Emily Dickinson is blessedly alone in her own sacred place: her garden.
Emily was born in the house that stands near that garden. Built by her grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, in 1813, it was the first brick house in town. When Emily was born there, on the cold Friday morning of December 10, 1830, just before 5:00 AM, Amherst had already been home to the Dickinsons for many generations.
Emily's ancestors had come to western Massachusetts from England in 1659 and had been among the town's founders 100 years later. The Dickinsons, like many English families in the 1600s, had left England because they wanted to simplify, or purify, the Church of England. They called themselves Puritans. Puritans thought the focus in church should be on reading the Bible, listening to sermons, and praying, in ordinary language, not the Latin of the Church of England. They believed that all decorations should be removed from churches and that no music should be played during services. They believed church leaders should be ordinary people who wore ordinary clothes, not priests. They tried to live simple lives of faith in God, hard work, and strict rules. The leaders of the Church of England opposed the Puritan tenets and outlawed them. As a result, many Puritans left England for the new land of America so they could practice their faith freely. By the time Emily was born, Puritanism as a formal religion had died out, but her family, like numerous others in New England, still lived by many of their ancestors' rules and beliefs.
Emily's grandparents, Samuel and Lucretia, lived in the house they called the Homestead, on Amherst's Main Street, along with several of their nine children, even after the children grew up. Emily was welcomed into the large household by her parents, Edward and Emily, and her brother, Austin, several months shy of his second birthday. She was walking by the time she was 11 months old, and soon after her second birthday she had a little sister, Lavinia, who was called Vinnie.
The Homestead was a big house, set on higher ground than the street, with views of the town center to the west, the surrounding mountains to the east, and a large meadow across the road. When Emily was young, there were ten rooms, but with so many people — sometimes as many as 13 — living there, Edward's family had only two bedrooms. Emily, Austin, and Vinnie shared one, and their parents used the other. Edward, a lawyer with a growing political career, was often away on business, and their mother was a shy, quiet woman who rarely showed affection, so the siblings looked to each other for companionship and comfort. They remained deeply close all their lives; they always depended on each other and hated to be separated.
After Vinnie's birth in February 1833, their mother remained weak for several months. When spring came, her sister, after whom the new baby had been named, offered to help by taking two-year-old Emily to her home in the town of Monson, about 20 miles away from Amherst. The journey took a long time in those days and grew frightening when a severe thunderstorm erupted about halfway through the trip. They were in the middle of a pine forest, and aunt and niece were both scared. Emily called the lightning "the fire" and asked to go home to her mother. But Aunt Lavinia managed to protect the little girl from much of the rain by covering her with her cloak. They made it to Monson that night.
Aunt Lavinia found little Emily to be "a very good child." She took her to church, where she behaved well, and to visit her maternal grandparents, who were pleasantly amused by her. She sewed a gingham apron for her niece to wear. And, according to Aunt Lavinia, Emily enjoyed her long visit very much; she "is perfectly well and contented," Lavinia wrote to her sister, adding that Emily had learned to play the piano — "she calls it the moosic" — and other than talking sometimes about big brother Austin, she "does not moan for any of you."
Perhaps Emily was content because she had older cousins for playmates at the house in Monson — William, who was 10, and another Emily, who was 4. They were the children of her Uncle Hiram, her mother and Aunt Lavinia's brother who had recently died of consumption (a disease of the lungs now known as tuberculosis), and his widow, Amanda, who was now suffering from the disease. Besides caring for her young nieces and nephew, Aunt Lavinia was busy nursing her sister-in-law, Amanda, during Emily's visit.
Not yet three years old, Emily lived in the atmosphere of illness and death that filled the house. While she most likely didn't understand exactly what had happened to her late uncle, or why Aunt Lavinia sometimes seemed sad and worried, she would surely have absorbed the anxiety and grief that surrounded her.
The visit lasted about a month, and when it was time for Emily to return to Amherst, Aunt Lavinia found herself lonely without her sweet companion. Emily had left behind the gingham apron, and when Aunt Lavinia found it, she wanted to cry.
Soon after Emily's return, her grandparents left Amherst. Their departure was felt keenly not only by Edward's family — Emily and Austin had lived with their grandparents for all of their short lives — but also by the entire town. Samuel had been a prominent though not wealthy member of Amherst society. He had served his community as a landowner, lawyer, and political representative. A firm believer in educating girls as well as boys (a radical view in that time), he had helped found Amherst Academy, a coeducational school, in 1814. He went on to help establish Amherst College, which opened in 1821.
But his zeal for these institutions was expensive. He had given so much money to the college that by 1833 he had run out of funds and had to sell the Homestead. He was offered a job in Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved there with Lucretia and their two youngest daughters. Emily never saw her grandfather again. Edward rented half of the Homestead from the new owners, the Macks, so his family — including his youngest brother, Frederick — could continue to live there.
It was from the Homestead, then, that four-and-a-half-year-old Emily — with big brother Austin as her protective companion — left for her first day of school in September 1835. The primary school was a two-story whitewashed brick building, about half a mile from the Homestead. The education provided was far from stimulating. Over the five years Emily attended the school, she learned only the basics: reading, writing, and simple arithmetic.
When the weather was cold or stormy, or the ground deep with mud, as it often could be in western Massachusetts, her parents kept Emily home. If it was terribly bad, they kept Austin home, too. But he was a boy, stronger and older, so they were more worried about Emily's health than his. And even though the Dickinsons believed firmly in education for girls, in Edward's mind, Austin's education was more important than his sister's. Away on one of his frequent business trips, Edward wrote to his older daughter, "You must not go to school, when it is cold, or bad going — You must be very careful, & not get sick."
In the mid-1800s, illness was frightening, especially when it hit children. Many of the Dickinsons' friends and relatives had lost their children to diseases that began with a simple cough or a rash. Fearful, Edward liked to order his family to bedrest at the slightest sign of sickness. If any of them grew ill while he was away, he rushed home.
Her father's concern meant that Emily spent nearly as much time learning at home as at school. When she was seven years old, her father advised her in a letter to "keep school, & not disturb Mother" and to "learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned since I came away."
"Keeping school" meant doing her lessons at home. She was to learn things by memorization so she could recite them upon his return. And although Emily wasn't supposed to disturb her, her mother sometimes sat with her and oversaw her schoolwork, especially the written parts.
Edward also regularly admonished the children not to cause their mother any trouble or anxiety. He worried a lot about his wife, who was not only shy and quiet but also often nervous. She was a hardworking, frugal housekeeper, preferring not to pay for a servant but to do all the housework herself. The house was always spotless. She was an excellent cook and a devoted gardener. She grew roses and figs — especially difficult in that climate — that were the talk of the town.
As in many New England households in the mid-1800s, father ruled in the Dickinson home. When Edward was home, he began every day by reading the Bible to the family. Then he led them in prayer. The children were expected to obey their parents without question. In a letter Edward wrote them while on another business trip, he expressed how happy their good behavior made him: "My Dear little Children, Your mother writes me that you have been quite good since I came away. — You don't know what a pleasure it is for me to have such good news from you — I want to have you do perfectly right — always be kind & pleasant, & always tell the truth, & never deceive."
Years later, Emily may have been remembering how constricted she felt by the expectation to always be well behaved when she wrote a poem that began like this: "They shut me up in Prose - / As when a little Girl / They put me in the Closet - / Because they liked me 'still' -."
It's doubtful that she was literally shut up in a closet. But sometimes she felt that her naturally playful and lively spirit had to be locked away.
At age 21, though, she remembered in letters to friends how much she had enjoyed the freedoms of childhood. To one she wrote that she yearned to "ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again." When she was 22, she wrote to Austin that she wished they could do the "things we did when children," adding, "I wish we were children now."
Things she liked to do included the squishy joy of wading in the mud. Once she lost one of her shoes in the mud and arrived home barefoot. Her mother didn't scold or punish her as she usually did when Emily was too loud or misbehaved. This time, Emily remembered, her mother merely "frowned with a smile" — probably because Emily had also been looking for flowers as she waded.
She, along with Austin and Vinnie, loved to read. There weren't many books or magazines published for children in the 1830s, but when Emily was six, Edward arranged for them to receive the Sabbath School Visitor every month. Meant to inspire young readers to love and fear God and to lead a good and moral life, it was edited by Emily's uncle, Asa Bullard. Every month the Sabbath School Visitor included a (probably fictional) story about the harrowing death of an innocent God-loving child. There was Frederick, who fell into a barrel of boiling water at the age of three and, just before dying, turned over his last 60 cents to religious missionaries. Another month, devout Abigail died of an enlarged heart. Two issues were devoted to four-year-old Charles, who went blind and then died a painful death, all without a word of complaint.
Happily, Edward's next magazine subscription for his children was a little lighter in tone. When Emily was seven, the monthly Parley's Magazine began to arrive in the Dickinson home. Also published for children, each issue of Parley's offered material on travel, biography, history, poetry, moral tales, and puzzles, including rhymed riddles or other brainteasers.
Although Emily was an avid reader at a young age, she was not inspired to write poetry or anything else during her childhood. Until she was nine years old, her life centered around the Homestead, playing with her siblings, pleasing her father, and not worrying her mother. The religion she took for granted in her very youngest years began to seem increasingly mysterious: the Bible verses she heard in church, the hymns the congregation sang, the daily readings her father presented to the family, the stories in the Sabbath School Visitor — all made a strong impression on thoughtful Emily.CHAPTER 2
A Beloved School with Beloved Friends
When Emily was nine, her father decided it was time for his family to have an entire house to themselves. His law practice was doing well; the Dickinsons did not have to worry about money. In the spring of 1840 he bought a large home on West Street, not far from the Homestead. It sat on more than two acres of land bordering Amherst's cemetery, which could be seen from the rear windows on the second floor. There was room for a garden, an orchard, and grapevines, and Austin even planted a small grove of pine trees.
The children often walked with their mother in the nearby woods, looking for wildflowers and other natural treasures. They discovered yellow lady's slippers, white Indian pipes, pink-and-white trillium, and climbing fern. As she grew older, Emily became known for her gardening skills, but wildflowers — especially small ones — were always her favorites. By the time she was a teenager, there was hardly one she couldn't identify.
Early in 1840 a traveling portrait painter, Otis A. Bullard (no relation to Emily's uncle Asa), arrived in Amherst. Edward liked the idea of having permanent images of his family. He hired Bullard to paint individual portraits of himself and his wife and one of their three children together. For the sitting, Austin, Emily, and Vinnie put on their good clothes — a black white-collared suit for Austin and white-lace-trimmed dresses for the girls (dark green for Emily, silvery-blue for Vinnie). The painter gave Emily an open book with a rose laid on its pages to hold.
That autumn, Emily and Vinnie enrolled at Amherst Academy, which Austin was already attending. A three-story brick building, it was an enormous leap from the school Emily had attended for the previous five years. She loved her seven years at Amherst Academy. The remarkable school, which had begun accepting girls only two years earlier, had an open-minded curriculum that included a strong emphasis on the sciences. The level of studies was exceptional. Students were even allowed to attend science lectures at nearby Amherst College. The teachers were young and passionate. Many of them had just graduated from the college. Friendships between students and teachers were encouraged.
Emily was one of about 100 female students. It was at Amherst Academy that she first began to be recognized for her original and inventive writing. A teacher later described her as "very bright, but rather delicate and frail looking." He called her an excellent scholar, whose compositions "in both thought and style seemed beyond her years, and always attracted much attention in the school and, I am afraid, excited not a little envy." One older classmate recalled that Emily and another girl were "the wits of the school." Another one remembered Emily often surrounded by girls at recess, listening with fascination to the funny, peculiar stories she was making up on the spot.
Emily's schoolmates were able to admire her writing because Amherst Academy held regular essay competitions. Every other Wednesday the entire student body gathered in a large hall on the third floor to listen to each other recite their original compositions. (A sign of the school's progressive thinking was that girls were encouraged to express themselves through reciting their words aloud. In that time, women were generally discouraged from public speaking.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Becoming Emily"
Copyright © 2019 Krystyna Poray Goddu.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Early Childhood at the Homestead,
2 A Beloved School with Beloved Friends,
3 Science, Nature, and Religion,
4 Higher Education,
5 A Merry Life in Amherst,
6 Emily at Twenty,
7 A Budding Poet,
8 A Second Sister,
9 Back to the Homestead,
10 The Poet in Full Bloom,
11 Shunning Society, Seeking Seclusion,
12 The Final Years — Love, And Much Loss,
Epilogue: Discovering and Publishing the Poems,