In 1837 Edward Dickinson became involved in state politics, being elected as one of the 635 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. A few years later the family moved into a bigger house, while Emily moved on into secondary education. She attended Amherst Academy, which had only started accepting female pupils a few years earlier. Emily was a good pupil, both studious and interested. She did suffer from ill health, and missed most of the year she was aged 15, but still impressed the school’s principal. This may have been due to depression though, rather than illness. Life was hard in the 19th century, and the death of a cousin in 1844 from typhoid had left her traumatised. This may have been why she developed a strong Christian faith for a while, though it subsided quickly. When she left Amherst Academy and attended Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley (six miles away from Amherst), she became mildly infamous for her refusal to indulge the religious pretensions of the school’s founder, Mary Lyon. This might be why she only stayed at Mount Holyoke for only a single year before returning to Amherst.
It was around 1850 that Emily first fell in love with poetry. She’d studied literature at school, of course, but it was the modern (at the time) poets who lit a fire inside her. A friend of her father’s gave her a freshly published book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poems, and may have also been the one who introduced her to Wordsworth (who died that year). Wordsworth had brought Romanticism into the mainstream, while Emerson had forged the quintessentially American poetry style of transcendentalism. She was also clearly a fan of Jane Eyre, as she named her dog Carlo after one in the book.
In 1853 Edward Dickinson was elected as a US Congressman, serving until 1855. This was the apex of Edward’s political career – he was offered the nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1863, but declined. In his final year in Congress Emily and her mother spent three weeks visiting him in Washington, then two weeks in Philadelphia. It was the one and only time Emily strayed that far from home. Around this time Emily’s mother fell ill, and she would remain bedbound until her death.
“A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm—”
– from the Master Letters
“Why do I love” You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.
Another possible candidate is Charles Wadsworth, who Emily referred to as her “closest earthly friend”. She met him during the trip to Philadelphia with her mother. Charles was a minister in the city at the time. The pair kept up a correspondence and Charles even visited the Dickinson family in 1860. Sadly in 1862 he moved to San Francisco, and he and Emily only had a long distance correspondence after that. It’s definitely true that the pair shared a close friendship, and if Wadsworth was not her love he was definitely at least her muse. Mark Twain also knew Wadsworth, and commented that he:
never fails to preach an able sermon; but every now and then, with an admirable assumption of not being aware of it, he will get off a first-rate joke and then frown severely at any one who is surprised into smiling at it.
Whoever the letters were addressed to, they seem to have been related to something that resulted in a crisis in Emily’s personal life. Evidence for this comes from her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He wrote a piece in 1862 for Atlantic Monthly offering advice for young writers who wished to “break into print”. Emily sent him some of her poems, and a letter with the plaintive line “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Higginson wrote back encouragingly, and the two began a correspondence with the old literary critic acting as a mentor to the young poet. Emily later told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
One of the few people who managed to get through her shell was Otis Lord, a judge who had known her father for years. He and his wife had been frequent visitors to the Dickinson house, and they were among those who Emily accepted enough to spend time with. In 1875 Otis became concerned enough about Emily’s health to visit on his own, and to confer with her sister Lavinia. At this time the Dickinson home held Emily’s mother, Lavinia (who also never married) and her, with Austin and family next door. As a result of this visit, Otis told Lavinia that Emily seemed distracted and that she admitted that she would often forget that her father was dead.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.
The 1880s were a hard time for Emily. Around 1882 Austin began cheating on his wife with Mabel Todd, the wife of a professor at Amherst College. The affair caused a great deal of pain to Susan, and thus indirectly to her friend Emily. Mabel was also incredibly nosy about Austin’s mysterious reclusive sister, though she never met her. The same year Emily’s friend Charles Wadworth died in San Francisco. And then towards the end of the year her mother passed away. She had been suffering from dementia due to a stroke for the last ten years, and Emily commented that though the two had never been close when she was a child but “when she became our Child, the Affection came.”
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
And Immortality. 
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
These competing volumes helped to raise Emily Dickinson’s profile, and the avant-garde literary set of the 1920s found a kindred spirit in the reclusive woman from Massachusetts. Her poems found an audience they would have missed in her time, and by the 1930s she was recognised as a unique and powerful talent. It wasn’t until 1955 that a complete and unedited collection of her poems was printed, but it cemented her position as part of the pantheon of American poetry. It also contributed to her cult and legend – the Woman in White, the tortured genius. Perhaps she was tortured – but her letters show that she was also a funny, passionate and often happy individual. She wasn’t a terrible person, by any means. But she was pretty terrible at being a person. Then again, who among us isn’t?