A biography of the elusive Belle of Amherst (1830–86) that celebrates her imaginative witchery and triumph over adversity without penetrating her enigma.
Because her sister fulfilled Emily Dickinson’s request to burn her correspondence after her death, biographers experience considerable difficulty in sounding the deep currents of her life. To establish how she became so reclusive, Habegger (The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr., 1994) is at great pains to delve into her family—sometimes excessively so (the poet’s birth does not occur until page 72). Her father, Edward Dickinson, a lawyer and one-term Whig congressman, was as zealous in guarding his children against all physical and financial danger as he was in claiming that women had no intellectual powers worth exercising. Her brother Austin, who lived with his wife next door to Edward and Emily, was too narrowly egotistical to appreciate Emily’s writing and in later years embarked on an affair that affected posthumous publication of her work. Deaths involving close relatives and friends when she was young led Dickinson into existential doubt about God’s justice, making her the lone family holdout from the local Congregational Church. Given these circumstances, Habegger plausibly suggests, Emily “perfected the art of living separately in close proximity,” discovering boundless independence and creative freedom even as her outer world contracted. Using extensive research on her associations, he adroitly analyzes Dickinson’s intense attachments: friendships with fellow schoolgirls, relationships with male intellectuals such as Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and particularly her late-blooming romance with Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly jurist and friend of her father. Yet, despite his chronological organization, Habegger never helps the reader get a handle on the stages of Dickinson’s development as poet and adult, and he sometimes dismisses claims of earlier Dickinson scholars without offering an equally adequate explanation for events.
In the end, in an irony she would have appreciated, another biographer has mapped Dickinson’s outer world without leaving adequate markers for her interior landscape.