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A monumental biography filled out with a chronology, plentiful footnotes and appendices -- all the signals of a study that has become a scholarly passion. Twenty years of research brings a benefit beyond comprehensiveness -- Sewall seems to have entered into Emily Dickinson's world and come back to tell the stories. Stories, because Dickinson lived her life in pieces, each hidden from the other, compartmentalized, secretive as those 1,775 elliptical verses found on scraps of paper in her bedroom after her death. Even in middle age, she was a legend in Amherst -- the brilliant eccentric daughter of a prominent family who shut herself away from all social intercourse, it was rumored, because of a frustration in love. Sewall's debunking of the misty romanticism surrounding the work of the real woman is divided into three nexus: first, her eminent forebears and her immediate family -- father Edward, mother Emily Norcross, brother Austin, sister Vinnie; second -- and a significant light on Dickinson's tragic mood -- the combatants in what Sewall calls ""War Between the Houses"" -- Austin, his wife Sue Gilbert (a girlhood friend so beloved to E.D. there have been suggestions of lesbianism) and Mabel Todd, Austin's paramour and the editor of Emily's first posthumous publication; and finally, half a dozen close friendships of the poet's maturity. The surprise here is that ""shy"" Emily counted among her friends a number of men and women of local and national prominence. She was more canny, more eager for publication, more worldly (if only via the post) than any one of her ""crowd"" dreamed. Impish in her youth, increasingly enigmatic as she grew, is it any wonder that, as she complained to editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ""all men say 'What' to me""9 She did such an outstanding job of covering all her tracks, you begin to think her intention, like Joyce's was to achieve immortality through inscrutability. Her stature (Sewall ranks her with Whitman as ""America's two poets"") sustains the staggering data of this ""Life"" and if more new questions are raised than old ones answered, the riddle has been made that much more human and that much more luminous.

Pub Date: Dec. 6th, 1974
ISBN: 0674530802
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux