Emily Dickinson’s Schooling: Amherst Academy

“Viny and I both go to school this term. We have a very fine school. There are 63 scholars. I have four studies. They are Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany. How large they sound, don’t they? I don’t believe you have such big studies.” 
– Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, May 7, 1845 (L6)

Such pleasure and pride in Amherst schools was a family trait. The Dickinson family had played an influential and generous role in the founding of many of the educational institutions in the town of Amherst. The district primary school that it seems most likely the Dickinson children attended as youngsters was built on land that had belonged to their grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. The school Emily Dickinson boasts about in this letter, Amherst Academy, was founded in 1814 by a group of town leaders including her grandfather and Noah Webster, who sat together on the school’s first Board of Trustees. The Academy quickly became known as one of the best private academies in the state, and helped to raise the educational aspirations of the town.

A picture of Amherst Academy when it still stood in Amherst center

Amherst Academy

Amherst College, founded in 1821, developed out of the Academy and similarly relied on the efforts and support of the Dickinson family. Samuel Fowler Dickinson staked most of his fortune on this fledgling college. The poet’s father, Edward Dickinson, studied at Amherst College in its first year and her brother Austin graduated from the College in 1850. Both Edward and Austin served as Amherst College treasurers, and the intellectual and social life of the institution did much to shape both Dickinson households.

Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy from 1840-1847. The school had fallen upon more precarious times by then, and in 1861, with the opening of Amherst’s first public high school, it closed completely. During the Dickinson children’s years at the Academy most of the teachers and even the principals were recent graduates of Amherst College or various female seminaries, and in general they taught for a year or less. Still they were young and intellectually curious, and Dickinson writes of them with great fondness: “you know I am always in love with my teachers” (L15).

It seems clear that Dickinson was an eager and inventive student, and that in some ways the very laxness of the school’s structure gave her valuable freedom. Daniel Fiske, who became principal of the Academy at the age of twenty-three, recalled that Dickinson’s “compositions were strikingly original … and always attracted much attention at the school and, I am afraid, excited not a little envy” (Sewall, p. 342). Dickinson herself joked that her school compositions proved “exceedingly edifying to myself as well as everybody else” (L6). The exchanged notes and little jokes written in the margins of the Latin schoolbook she used at the Academy (now in the Amherst College Special Collections) suggest that she wasn’t always paying attention in class. These were social and lively years for her, full of pleasurable activities with “the five” as she called her circle of girlfriends (L11).

Amherst Academy, like virtually all schools of the period, grounded its educational mission in “morality, piety, and religion” as its papers of incorporation affirm, but from the beginning the curriculum was broad and ambitious. Both the Classical and English programs were available to girls as well as boys. Academy students were permitted to attend lectures at Amherst College, and while there is no definitive evidence that Emily Dickinson did so, it seems likely. The famous geologist Edward Hitchcock became President of Amherst College during Dickinson’s years at the Academy; many Academy students attended his lectures, and the school used his Elementary Geology as a textbook. Hitchcock’s discussions of volcanoes, fossils, and rock formations would provide a powerful vocabulary for Dickinson’s poetry. So, too, the lessons gleaned from Almira Hart Lincoln’s Familiar Lectures on Botany prompted Dickinson to keep an herbarium and to write about flowers with an unusual level of botanical precision.

Dickinson’s poetry has a far larger and richer scientific vocabulary than that of most of her contemporaries, and her years at Amherst Academy were surely a source of that knowledge and interest.

Further Reading:

Lombardo, Daniel. A Look Back: “Amherst’s Ragged Schools.” Amherst, Massachusetts: Jones Library, 1995.

Lowenberg, Carlton. Emily Dickinson’s Textbooks. Lafayette, California, 1986.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Tuckerman, Frederick. Amherst Academy: A New England School of the Past.Amherst: The Trustees of Amherst College, 1929.