Do you know Emily Dickinson?
December 14, 2010 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I would like to read a biography of Emily Dickinson. Do you know of a well written, not too highly academic one?

It has been suggested to me that I should research her life and try to read a biography about her by my therapist. Seeing as I know nothing about her and am not that familiar with her poems I am not quite sure what would be a good place to start. I did the Wiki thing but reviews of biographies on Amazon fall into "this is good" and "the author knows nothing and is just making it up".

Has anyone read a good biography on her and have suggestions of books or even websites I could go to get a gist of her life?
posted by kanata to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a biography, it's a selection of her poems with commentary:

It's written for the general reader and provides a way to get into the poems. It just came out. The author is a good reader of poems and a good writer too.

There is an introduction with biographical information. I've been enjoying reading it.
posted by Paquda at 1:48 PM on December 14, 2010

I remember reading and really enjoying The Belle of Amherst when I was younger. It's a play, though.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:49 PM on December 14, 2010

I just read a review of a recent Dickinson biography Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, which sounds fascinating.
posted by kaybdc at 2:21 PM on December 14, 2010

There are lots of biographies available, but only a few that I would recommend. Probably the best place for you to start is Alfred Habegger's My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (2002) — it's very readable for the non-academic, and does a good job of laying out the mysteries and controversies surrounding Dickinson's life and work without taking sides. It's not perfect, but absolutely a good place to start.

For sheer depth of research and elegance of prose, the finest biography is still Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974). Sewall makes a few arguments here and there that have been contradicted by newer evidence, but if you were looking for one Dickinson book to come back to throughout your life, it'd be this one. Probably too massive and detailed for a total novice, and it's arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which makes reading it straight through difficult. I do think Sewall captures Dickinson's spirit, and poetic gift, in a way that no other biographer has.

Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns (2010) is the one that everyone's talking about, but I do not recommend it. Its boldest claims (Dickinson was epileptic, etc.) are poorly supported, and it's hardly evenhanded or fair in dealing with some of the longstanding controversies that continue to plague Dickinson studies.

Also steer clear of Cynthia Griffin Wolff's Emily Dickinson, which is doomed throughout by inadequate research and specious leaps.
posted by cirripede at 2:34 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, listen to cirripede exactly — yes to Habegger and Sewall (I'd personally still start with Sewall), and no to Gordon and Wolff.
posted by RogerB at 2:38 PM on December 14, 2010

Since you mentioned that you're interested in web resources as well, I'll add that the Emily Dickinson Museum's website is a great place to start getting to know the poet. The Museum has a thorough, fair, and accessible collection of pages on Dickinson's life and times (along with a helpful FAQ).
posted by cirripede at 2:45 PM on December 14, 2010

You know, on second thought I think you need to ask your therapist which biography he or she thinks you ought to read. The biographies have different claims and lacunae and are of wildly varying merit and credibility, but most importantly for your purposes, they tell very different stories. It might not matter that Gordon's scholarship and accuracy are dubious, if that's the one that tells the story that your therapist thinks you'd profit from reading.
posted by RogerB at 3:01 PM on December 14, 2010

I missed the part about being interested in websites, so I'll add the Dickinson Electronic Archives.

I knew that there was some controversy surrounding the Gordon book, but the review that I initially read (can't remember where...I think someone in either the NYT, Artforum, or the Guardian had it on a top 10 of 2010 list) made it sound like a respectable, if controversial, entry into arena of Dickinson studies. I can see how whatever you think about the scholarship, it's probably not the best jumping off point to learn about Dickinson's life.
posted by kaybdc at 3:18 PM on December 14, 2010

Adrienne Rich wrote an essay on Emily Dickinson's poetry - "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" (1975). There are bits online, and it's been reprinted a few places. Rich was heavily influenced by Dickinson in some of her own poems, as well.

But yeah, I'd clarify your therapist's intent in suggesting Dickinson. There are a lot of stories to tell about her, and they have pretty different "morals" (unless that's part of the point!).
posted by momus_window at 4:21 PM on December 14, 2010

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