ONE IMAGE OF Emily Dickinson is found on T-shirts and coffee mugs and in the ever-growing number of studies of her life and work. She is seventeen, a student at a rigorous school for young women. No effort has been spared in standardizing her appearance. Her hair, which she described as brash like a chestnut burr, must have tended to wildness; in the school photograph, her hair lies obedient. She gazes unsmilingly at the camera, or if there is a smile, it is suppressed into one corner of her mouth.
No American poet · and no woman poet writing in English · has enjoyed wider circulation, greater popularity, or more secure canonicity than Dickinson. Critics have celebrated her body of short poems as if they encapsulate structures of the psyche that transcend time and place. Yet she wrote during a time of dramatic social change and national trauma. Sequestering herself in an upper-middle-class private life, Dickinson fended off historical forces, encoding events such as the Civil War with cryptic metaphysical symbols. She wrote for her own purposes, "publishing" her poems by copying them into personal correspondence. By avoiding the literary marketplace, she exercised strict control over who would read her poems and protected her sensibility from commercialism. Yet in the ways she organized and stored her poems, and in their preoccupation with the vocation of the poet, Dickinson seems to have anticipated what would become of them after her death: they would be taken from their hiding place, published, read, loved, and immortalized.
"And once you begin, how to tell the story of a life that had no story?" Richard Sewall asked himself this question as he prepared a two-volume biography of Dickinson in the 1970s. Because of her reclusiveness and her refusal to publish, Dickinson's life and poems were continually reinvented long after her death. The posthumous publication of her poems and letters occurred in several phases, under different editorial hands, and spanned more than half a century. Her letters are nearly as enigmatic as her poems and do not provide clear windows onto her life. Firsthand reports of her life came from relatives and family friends who had their own secrets to hide. The story seemed to be one of genius, with little of what is usually called experience. She made trips to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston, but otherwise spent most of her life in her father's house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson was a nearly blank screen receptive to projected myths.
Sewall recalled that when he first taught Dickinson's poetry to college classes in the 1930s, she was summed up in cliché: Frustrated Lover, Great Renunciation, Queen Recluse, New England Nun, Moth of Amherst. The myth of a mad, mystical, diminutive genius began to take shape in her lifetime. An often-cited account of her comes from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a correspondent who met her in 1870. In a letter to his wife, he described Dickinson as a little, plain woman in a white dress whose puzzling chatter...