Emily Dickinson, probably the most loved and certainly the greatest of American poets, continues to be seen as the most elusive. One reason she has become a timeless icon of mystery for many readers is that her developmental phases have not been clarified. In this exhaustively researched biography, Alfred Habegger presents the first thorough account of Dickinson’s growth–a richly contextualized story of genius in the process of formation and then in the act of overwhelming production.
Building on the work of former and contemporary scholars, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books brings to light a wide range of new material from legal archives, congregational records, contemporary women's writing, and previously unpublished fragments of Dickinson’s own letters. Habegger discovers the best available answers to the pressing questions about the poet: Was she lesbian? Who was the person she evidently loved? Why did she refuse to publish and why was this refusal so integral an aspect of her work? Habegger also illuminates many of the essential connection sin Dickinson’s story: between the decay of doctrinal Protestantism and the emergence of her riddling lyric vision; between her father’s political isolation after the Whig Party’s collapse and her private poetic vocation; between her frustrated quest for human intimacy and the tuning of her uniquely seductive voice.
The definitive treatment of Dickinson’s life and times, and of her poetic development, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books shows how she could be both a woman of her era and a timeless creator. Although many aspects of her life and work will always elude scrutiny, her living, changing profile at least comes into focus in this meticulous and magisterial biography.
About the Author
Alfred Habegger, formerly a professor of English at the University of Kansas, lives with his wife, Nellie, in northeastern Oregon. His previous books include Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature an da prize-winning biography, The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr.
Read an Excerpt
Amherst and the Fathers
Sometime between 1636 and 1638, Emily Dickinson's earliest American progenitors in the paternal line, Nathaniel and Ann Gull Dickinson, left the parish of Billingborough in Lincolnshire, England, for the raw British outpost of Wethersfield, Connecticut. One motive for their drastic move was a determination to practice without interference the militant late-Reformation faith known as Puritanism. The times were hot with rebellion against the Church of England.
In 1659 Nathaniel, Ann, and their children moved north into Massachusetts with a number of other families and established a town along the fertile Connecticut Valley deep in Norwottuck country. They called it Hadley, and Nathaniel played a leading role in organizing and regulating its municipal, educational, religious, and military affairs. When savage warfare broke out in 1675 between the indigenous peoples and the English, three of his nine sons were slain. When England's Puritan rule ended and those who had condemned Charles I to the headsman's block fled for their lives, they ended up in this frontier town, founded on righteousness and violence. And when a new town was carved out of Hadley's eastern parts a century later, in 1759, it was named for the man who would recommend using smallpox-infected blankets to "extirpate" the Indians: Lord Jeffrey Amherst.
By 1830, the year Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, the area was thick with light-skinned farmers bearing her last name, and the ancestral zealotry had moderated into a quirky hardheaded stubbornness known locally as Dickinson grit. A Dickinson reunion held there in 1883 was attended by a huge number of Nathaniel's descendants, who listened to a minister declaim a versified panegyric composed by Elizabeth Dickinson Currier, one of Emily's aunts. The poem termed the clan's patriarchs "men of muscle, as of mind" and denounced any falling away from their evangelical zeal. What the ancestral legacy meant to the event's organizers is suggested by a photograph of the stage, which shows a slender gun standing on the floor next to portraits of Dickinson judges, generals, governors, and ministers. The weapon was said to have been "used in killing Indians and wolves."
Although Emily Dickinson would not have attended this pious family gathering, she was very much a member of the tribe-savvy, tough, resolute, heaven-obsessed, independent, unusual. In one of her most eye-catching poems, "My life had stood a loaded gun," she, or at least the speaker, almost seems to be the deadly Dickinson musket come to life:
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Fr764 (about 1863)
A later and less enigmatic poem concerns the unavoidability of "fighting" for one's life "In that Campaign inscrutable / Of the Interior" (Fr1230). Another, "My wars are laid away in books" (Fr1579), obviously retrospective, dates from about 1882, not long before the reunion. Hard battle resulting in victory or defeat was a central, lifelong metaphor for her. Far from being a wispy escapist, she was as martial a Dickinson as any of them. Yet she had no one's blood on her hands and paid little or no attention to family or local history, including her father's toast at Hadley's 1859 bicentennial invoking the by now moss-covered theme of New England's errand into the (so-called) wilderness.
What complicated this inheritance for the poet was that she was not only disqualified by her sex from entering public life but actively instructed not to define herself in terms of the collective struggles of her time. Unlike her father, Edward, a conservative bulwark of the public world as she knew it, she was relegated to the private sphere, and that at a time when specifically domestic and affectionate qualities were assigned to women and given an extreme emphasis and development. Also, sentimental writing by both sexes was in vogue. If Emily's letters and poems often express a kind of ultimate in exquisite tenderness, we should bear in mind that the energies that might have been expended otherwise in different conditions were, with her, compressed into writing that had to remain a part of private life, even when confided to close friends.
One of her poems from early in the Civil War sums up a woman's life and death by tracing her footprints into a deserted and unfamiliar place. Although the woman's path is untraveled by others, it is, paradoxically, already there, familiar, old:
'Twas the old - road - through pain -
That unfrequented - One -
These lines take us back to the old Puritan allegories of life's hard and lonely course, except that here the journey begins not in sin but in anguish. Observing the woman's tracks as if from just above, the speaker follows with breathless engagement:
This - was the Town - she passed -
There - where she - rested - last -
Then - stepped more fast -
The little tracks - close prest -
Then - not so swift -
Slow - slow - as feet did weary - grow -
Then - stopped - no other track!
The footprints hint at an extreme and convulsive effort, which appears to have failed. But the story isn't over:
Wait! Look! Her little Book -
The leaf - at love - turned back -
Her very Hat -
And this worn shoe just fits the track . . .
In the end, we are assured the traveler has been translated to a bed in "Chambers bright." That her place of rest is made up by women, not angels, hints that her impassioned but unknown errand into the wilderness was in some way specific to her sex.
The only friends to whom Dickinson is known to have sent the poem were two first cousins on her mother's side, sisters, of whom she was especially fond. At the time she copied it in her secret manuscript books, about 1862, her own tracks were also extremely "close prest," resulting in 227 poems for that year alone, by R. W. Franklin's count. Her book, too, was dog-eared at love, and pain and solitude, and laughter and risk and freshness and power and so much more. Devious, disguised, and mostly obliterated, Dickinson's tracks are going to be harder to read than those of the risk-taking woman she wrote about. Is the poem about a single woman whose capacity for love drives her into panic, solitude, and death? At times it will look as if the poet was on that "unfrequented" road. But hers kept going where the other woman's stopped.
In 1850, writing the future president of Dartmouth College, Charles Hammond described Amherst, the town Dickinson passed, as "the land of the fathers," the place where "the ancient altars" were still honored and tended. To follow her road to greatness, we have to go back to her paternal grandfather, whose dedication to those altars helped set the terms within which she defined and dared to exercise her high calling-an artist's heroic errand into and out of a wilderness all her own.
All the Armor of Fortitude and Determination
Samuel Fowler Dickinson, the poet's grandfather, embodied much of her paternal heritage, being both a man of means and a man of thought-a promoter of education, a community leader, a defender of Calvinist orthodoxy. He rose to greatness as a cofounder of Amherst College, but he also proved an obsessive, unbalanced, and scattered man whose judgment went astray and whose life ended in a shambles.
After graduating from Dartmouth as Latin salutatorian in 1795, Samuel spent a year teaching school, an occupation he found too dependent on the "whims" of constituents. His lungs unwell, he underwent a conversion and began studying with the Reverend Nathanael Emmons, one of New England's most energetic and eminent Calvinists. Four months of Emmons convinced the young man he was not cut out for the ministry, but he continued to regard his instructor as a "great Divine." Indeed, judging from Samuel's intense lifelong drive, it looks as if he took to heart Emmons's curious "Exercise Scheme," a religious teaching that gave unusual emphasis to the power of the will and the obligation to use it.1
Returning to Amherst, Samuel put himself under the tutelage of Judge Simeon Strong, the town's leading lawyer and the owner of much valuable land in its center. In a letter to a college friend dating from this period, the young man wrote that "for entering the world we need all the armour of fortitude and determination." This statement, that of someone putting the Exercise Scheme into motion, catches the embattled drive working within Samuel and some of his descendants: all the armor and determination was precisely what they required. His imagery gives us our first sight of the resolute will to be great that his granddaughter would quietly assert some sixty years later.
But Squire Dickinson, as he came to be known (the title being honorary only), was an overreacher, with little sense of his natural limits. Although he played a leading role in Amherst's affairs, he never acquired the calm and powerful reserve traditionally associated with a pillar of the community. Instead, as Elizabeth Currier recalled, he gave "himself but four hours of sleep, studying and reading till midnight, and rising at four o'clock he often walked to Pelham or some other town before breakfast. Going to court at Northampton, he would catch up his green bag and walk the whole seven miles. 'I cannot wait to ride.' " Ambitious and
public-spirited, he was also frenetic, the kind of man who undoes his own success. He acquired title to a great deal of land in and about Amherst, as had Judge Strong, but he couldn't carry the mortgages. In state elections, he was sent to the house ten times and once to the senate, but when he ran for a congressional seat in 1828 after opposing his district on the tariff issue, he was crushed 1,968 to 246, his hometown turning against him two to one. Three years later, addressing the regional Agricultural Society, he unloaded a vast collection of opinions on education, militia reform, Sabbath schools, ardent spirits, excessive government expenditures, and all aspects of farming. "He works very hard," a daughter reported in his old age; "he thinks he cannot get along without lending a helping hand to every man's plough."
The woman Samuel married on March 21, 1802, Lucretia Gunn of nearby Montague, was said by one of her daughters to be slow "to form acquaintances or attachments," which may mean either that she was withdrawn or that she was unfriendly. Her few extant letters, mainly to her son Edward (the poet's father), bespeak an ordinary and down-to-earth range of interests and a strikingly ungenteel directness: "We are engaged killing hogs to day of course must shorten my letter." "Do not recollect any remarkable occurrence except Mrs. Hicks who once attempted to cut her throat last week jumped into the well and put an end to her existence." In 1820 news of a revival inspired the hope her son would be converted "and not have to lament the 'Harvest is past the Summer is ended & you are not saved.' " Curiously, 1820 seems to have been the year she herself joined Amherst's First Congregational Church-twenty years after her husband. According to Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's grandmother "was by tradition of somewhat tart disposition, and was often referred to in moments of bad temper as 'coming out' in her high-strung grandchildren. If a door was banged-'It's not me-it's my Grandmother Gunn!' was an excuse glibly offered by the three small rascals."
Toward his children, Samuel was anything but a cold, uncaring patriarch. When a son became feverish, the Squire let everything go and "devoted my time, night & day, to him," writing this very letter "by his bedside." After another son contracted the same illness, the anxious father was "able to attend to little other business" despite his desperate need of money. Concerned about his daughters' education, he was so eager to have them attend a course of lectures by the botanist Amos Eaton that he urged Edward to come home at Yale's term break and escort his sisters. He added, uncoercively, "I do not mean to direct, but to express my desire, that you should do this."
By 1813 Samuel had fathered five of his nine children and it was time to enlarge his family's living space and mark his own civic prominence. Replacing the home previously standing on the site, he erected a spacious and imposing house that looked down on Main Street from a slight elevation. Amherst's first brick house, the Dickinson Homestead2 was a symmetrical, hip-roofed structure in the Federal style, with four large rooms on each of its two stories. Although this was the building in which the poet was born and spent her first nine and last thirty years, it had yet to undergo the extensive additions and remodeling she would take for granted as an adult. The modifications seem to have begun quite early. A one-story wooden "office" (no longer standing) was attached to the west wall, and in 1821 a daughter noted that "Papa has had ten men to work for him all the week they are to work upon his house." A year and a half later she triumphantly announced to brother Edward, "we have got some curtains to the west front-chamber, we expect to have our blinds up in two, or three, weeks, and when you come home you wont hardly know our house." The change from "his" to "our" speaks volumes. The Dickinsons' life at home was originally much more improvised than the stately mansion of the present suggests.
In 1817, well before the Squire's contributions to Amherst College began consuming his estate, he mortgaged this house for $2,500 (today roughly $75,000), an encumbrance he was never able to lift. The household that shaped the poet's father was marked by high dreams and ambitions, a generosity as reckless as it was shining, worsening indebtedness, and a series of desperate expedients concluding in disaster. Having known what it was like to live without the security and dignity that should have gone with his rank, Edward Dickinson would prove extremely protective of his own family, particularly his wife and older daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. A biography of a poet ought to give readers a deeper understanding of that person’s poetry. Do any of Dickinson’s poems seem clearer to you now that you have read My Wars Are Laid Away in Books? Which ones? Did you get a clearer sense of her impetus as a writer — of the motives, the purposes, that drove her?
2. Habegger pays close attention to the books Dickinson is known to have read. Which books or authors seem to have made a big difference to her? Were there any that helped her define her own vocation as poet
3. Does it surprise you that over a thousand letters by Dickinson have survived, including several long ones from her girlhood? What does this extensive correspondence suggest about her? Was there anything in her letters that struck you as especially revealing? Do you see any connections between her writing of letters and her writing of poems?
4. Does it make sense to you that Dickinson was (apparently) opposed to the publication of her poems yet sent many of them to friends? How would you explain the contradiction?
5. One of the difficulties a biographer faces in understanding Dickinson’s relationships is that almost none of her friends’ letters to her are extant. What effect does this gap in the evidence have on our understanding of her life? What patterns do you see in her relationships? As a rule, who seems to be the more needy, she or her correspondents and friends? How would you characterize her thirty-year friendship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson?
6. Habegger gives considerable attention to the poet’s relationship with “Master,” identifying this figure as the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Do you find this identification convincing? If so, what do you think Dickinson’s love of this man tells us about her? Why did Wadsworth appeal to her? In what ways was he a surprising and even inappropriate choice? Was there something in her that gravitated toward an impossible and inaccessible lover?
7. Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, has been viewed by some as a tyrannical presence in her life. Habegger doesn’t see him in this way, yet emphasizes his reactionary views on women and his authority as an old-fashioned paterfamilias. In what ways was the poet apparently satisfied to depend on Edward’s authority? In what ways did she challenge or escape it? Can it be said that in some ways she modeled herself on him? Finally, how would you characterize the father-daughter relationship?
8. Although Dickinson was clearly not a hermit, she spent a great deal of time alone. What do you see as her most unusual qualities and tendencies? At what moments in her life did she strike you as seriously isolated from others? At what points did she seem recognizably — maybe even ordinarily — social?
9. To judge from the reviews of My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, some readers feel impatient that Emily Dickinson’s birth doesn’t come until the end of Chapter 4. Why do you think Habegger gives so much attention to her mother’s and father’s families, and to early nineteenth-century developments such as the resurgence of Calvinist evangelicalism and the founding of Amherst College? Did these preliminary and contextual matters help you understand Dickinson’s development?
10. Certain Christian ideas — the crucifixion, the immortal soul, heaven — often show up in Dickinson’s poetry. Yet from girlhood on, she resisted the “conversion” experienced by most of her early friends and by everyone in her immediate family. So what would you say: Was she a religious poet or not?
11. What unanswered questions do you have about Dickinson after reading Habegger’s biography? What one question would you ask him if you had the chance?
12. What one moment in the poet’s life do you wish you could have witnessed, or asked her about? Do you think she would have been willing to satisfy your curiosity?