On this date the American poet EMILY DICKINSON died in Amherst, Massachusetts. In her twenties, Emily led a busy social life, but she became more reclusive with each passing year. By her thirties, she stayed to her home and withdrew when visitors arrived. She developed a reputation as a myth, because almost never seen and, when people did catch sight of her, she was always wearing white.
But while she withdrew from physical contact with people, she did not withdraw from them mentally. Emily was an avid letter-writer who corresponded with a great number of friends and relatives. A thousand of these letters (a portion of what she wrote) survived her death, and they show her letter writing to be very similar to her poetic style–enigmatic and abstract, sometimes fragmented, and often forcefully sudden in emotion.
Emily often included poetry with her letters to friends. Her friends encouraged her to publish, but after an attempt to do so in 1860 (when the publisher suggested she hold off) Emily did not appear to try again. The eight poems that were published in her lifetime were primarily poems submitted by her friends without her permission. Her death revealed 1768 more poems.
The idea of finding out who inspired Emily to write so prolifically has intrigued literary researchers for decades. For a while, the popular assumption was that she had a male mentor encouraging her, and that this is perhaps the person she addressed in three letters written to “Master.”
Some have speculated she was in love with Samuel Bowles (editor of a prominent local newspaper) for a time, and others speculate that she had a relationship with Judge Otis Lorde, and either of these men could have been the mysterious “Master.” She may have been in love with both or either of these men; it’s hard to confirm or deny the nature of her involvements with them. But the evidence that is available seems to show that the person who most affected her life and her work was Susan Gilbert — friend, eventual sister-in-law, and Emily’s passionate love. This is the woman about which Emily wrote hundreds of poems, and the person who received three times more poems of any of Emily’s other friends.
Susan and Emily probably met at Amherst. They were close friends from the beginning, sharing similar interests and desires. Emily trusted Susan completely, and was very affectionate toward Susan in all their correspondence. While Susan seems to have responded initially, Emily’s attention turned cloying when Susan became engaged to Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother. For two years, their correspondence stopped completely. When Susan and Austin moved next door, their correspondence resumed again, and Emily continued her expressions of worshipful love.
Feminist scholars who have examined Emily’s letters from a Lesbian viewpoint note that her letters move beyond romantic friendship to the blatantly passionate. It isn’t possible to know how Susan responded to Emily’s proclamations of love, her desires to hold and kiss Susan, or her sorrow at being without Susan. When Emily died, all of Susan’s letters were destroyed.
Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady’s Slipper orchid and a “knot of blue field violets” placed about it. The funeral service, held in the Homestead’s library, was simple and short; Dickenson’s Atlantic Monthly editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had only met her twice, read “No Coward Soul Is Mine“, a poem by Emily Brontë that had been a favorite of Dickinson’s. At Dickinson’s request, her “coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups” for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.