Turns Out, Emily Dickinson Was a Blast

History has painted the renowned poet as a recluse. Her correspondence shows the opposite
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 27, 2024 2:30 PM CDT
New Letters Buck Somber Stereotype of Emily Dickinson
This photo released by Amherst College Archives and Special Collections and the Emily Dickinson Museum shows a copy of a circa 1860 daguerreotype purported to show a 30-year-old Emily Dickinson, left, with her friend Kate Scott Turner.   (AP Photo/Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, and the Emily Dickinson Museum)

Emily Dickinson's reputation as a reclusive genius squirreling away poems in her Amherst, Massachusetts, home until her work was posthumously discovered and published by her sister has long been the crux of her story in popular culture. But an updated volume of her letters upends this narrative, showing instead an engaged, civic-minded, and oftentimes funny woman who cherished her friendships and showered her loved ones with homemade baked goods. "Her supposed withdrawal from the world—and readers' continued interest with such a narrative—has an apocryphal dimension we must be willing to forego in order to see and hear the poet clearly, perhaps for the first time," writes Maya C. Popa for the Poetry Foundation.

The Letters of Emily Dickinson was first published in 1958, during an era when Dickinson's importance in the literary world was still being debated. NPR notes that this 2024 update edited by scholars Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell, includes 300 new letters recovered over time, bringing the total of her correspondence to 1,304. While the thought of destroying anything touched by the poet would be considered sacrilege today, at the time of Dickinson's death in 1886, people traditionally burned letters after someone passed away.

This new volume of letters not only offers a glimpse into the poet as a baker of gingerbread, devoted sister, and a person still sad she never received valentines at school ("I have not quite done hoping for one"), but also categorizes them by date more accurately through an intensive study of weather patterns and harvest cycles in 19th-century New England, and provides thoughtful annotations and context to what was happening in the world, and in her own work. The result is what NPR calls "the closest thing we'll probably ever have to an intimate autobiography of the poet," which may upend previous assumptions about her life, especially as she grew ill and accepted fewer visitors, but offer something much more delicious in return. (Emily Dickinson's tortured poet relative: Taylor Swift. (More Emily Dickinson stories.)

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