FAQs

Questions about Emily Dickinson abound! Below are brief answers to some of the most frequently asked questions at the Emily Dickinson Museum. More information is available at the related links.


Q: Why did Dickinson never publish, except anonymously, during her lifetime?

A: As with so many questions about Emily Dickinson, the answer is unknown. Her comments about publication tend to be negative (“Publication is the auction of the mind”), yet she voiced no severe objections to the inclusion of a few of her poems in newspapers.  Given Dickinson’s reclusive nature, the idea of becoming famous may have been distasteful. See The Publication Question.

Q: How does Dickinson’s poetry differ from that of her contemporaries?

A: Emily Dickinson’s poetry shares characteristics with her contemporaries, but her work departs in other ways from poetry written at the time.  She wrote about topics (spirituality, nature, art) that interested her contemporaries, and the structure of her poems often imitates common hymn meter, used frequently in both religious and non-religious music. However, Dickinson’s treatment of these subjects and her vast vocabulary resulted in poems that are more concise, less sentimental, and more layered than that of her contemporaries: “Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone” (Fr 124) to describe a grave, “Zero at the Bone” to denote fear (Fr 1096), and “Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies” (Fr 373) to portray the human effort to believe in something beyond the here and now. Learn more about Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry.

Q: Did she ever marry or have children?

A: Emily Dickinson never married, nor did she have children.  Scholars continue to research Dickinson’s romantic life, particularly as it pertains to her “Master Letters,” three drafts of passionate letters written to a still-unidentified person addressed as “Master.”  Learn more about Emily Dickinson’s Love Life.

Lavinia Dickinson, the poet’s sister, also never married or had children. Emily’s brother Austin had three children (Ned, Martha, and Gib), but none had children of their own.

Q: Why was Emily Dickinson reclusive?

A: No one knows why Emily Dickinson, later in her life, lived reclusively at her family’s Homestead. As a young girl, she frequented social events, enjoyed school, and had many friends. As she grew older, she saw people less and less but remained open to visits from close friends and family. Whether she suffered from a medical condition that made her uncomfortable around people or whether she chose to separate herself from society is not known. Learn more about Emily Dickinson’s Health.

Q: Is it true that Emily Dickinson always wore white?

A: Legend has it that later in her life Dickinson wore white all the time. When Thomas Higginson met her in 1870, she was dressed in white; her one surviving dress is white; and she was buried in white. During Dickinson’s lifetime, townspeople who had never seen her propagated the myth, as did Dickinson’s family after her death.  Although many theories exist about her assumed preference for white, Dickinson herself made no reference in any of her existing correspondence to wearing that color. Learn more about Emily Dickinson’s white dress.

Q: How did Emily Dickinson die, and where is she buried?

A: Although Dickinson’s death certificate says Bright’s disease (a common denomination for a kidney ailment), recent research into her symptoms and medication indicates that she may actually have suffered from severe primary hypertension (high blood pressure), which could have led to heart failure or a brain hemorrhage. Emily Dickinson is buried in West Cemetery, located in the center of Amherst. The primary entrance to the Cemetery, which is owned by the town of Amherst, is on Triangle Street. Dickinson’s grave is in the center of the Cemetery, surrounded by an iron fence. She is buried there with her sister, parents, and paternal grandparents. Her brother and his family are buried in Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street in Amherst.

Q: How did her brother Austin’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd affect the publication of Dickinson’s poetry?

A: It is impossible to imagine the path that Emily Dickinson’s poetry would have taken if Mabel Loomis Todd had not been involved in its publication.  Todd became intimately involved with Austin Dickinson in 1883, shortly after the death of his young son Gilbert.  Todd never met Emily Dickinson but was friends with Lavinia, Austin and Emily’s younger sister.  After the poet died in 1886, Lavinia first approached Austin’s wife, Susan, with a request to prepare some of Emily’s work for publication.  When Susan, who had been one of the poet’s closest friends, did not complete the task as Lavinia had hoped, she turned to Mabel Todd.  A good choice, perhaps, in terms of Todd’s artistic and literary sensibilities, but a poor one in terms of family relations.  While Austin Dickinson had little to do with the editing project itself, both he and Lavinia kept Susan in the dark about Todd’s involvement in the publication effort; Susan, who was aware of the love affair, learned about Todd’s work with Dickinson’s poems only after the first edition appeared in print in 1890.  For the next 65 years, shadows cast by the affair affected not only the publication of Dickinson’s poems but also the disposition of her manuscripts. Learn more about The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poems.

Q: Where are Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts?

A: Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts are primarily housed at two repositories:  Amherst College Archives and Special Collections in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Other Dickinson-related holdings are at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island;  Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. See Resources & Bibliography for more.

Q: What do  “Fr” and “L” mean?

A: Throughout this website, after quotations from Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, you will see either “Fr” or”L” followed by a number.  These abbreviations refer to specific editions of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, respectively.

This website cites Dickinson poems as published in The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998), ed. by R. W. Franklin.  Because Emily Dickinson titled few of her poems, they are generally known by their first lines or by numbers assigned to them by editors.  Franklin, like his predecessor Thomas Johnson, arranged Dickinson’s poems chronologically and then assigned each one a number.  References to poems in the Franklin edition are indicated by an “Fr” followed by the poem number. Learn more about the posthumous discovery of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

“L,” followed by a number, refers to an Emily Dickinson letter as it appears in The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958), ed. by Thomas Johnson.   Thomas Johnson’s edition, assembled with the assistance of Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, is considered the most complete edition of Dickinson’s surviving correspondence and includes about 1000 letters.  Learn more about Emily Dickinson’s letters.