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The Life of Emily Dickinson Paperback – July 15, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0674530805 ISBN-10: 0674530802 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 924 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (July 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674530802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674530805
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #431,030 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Winner of the National Book Award, this massively detailed biography throws a light into the study of the brilliant poet. How did Emily Dickinson, from the small window over her desk, come to see a life that included the horror, exaltation and humor that lives her poetry? With abundance and impartiality, Sewall shows us not just the poet nor the poetry, but the woman and her life.


[A] brilliant, massively detailed biography...Emily Dickinson emerges in these pages not only as...one of the two greatest poets of America's nineteenth century, but as an extraordinary and credible human being...Sewall is an exemplary biographer and critic, perhaps in some ironic way the kind of friend Emily sought unsuccessfully in her life. (Robert Kirsch Los Angeles Times)

By far the best and the most complete study of the poet's life yet to be written, the result of nearly twenty years of work...The story of a long-standing affair between Austin Dickinson and a woman twenty-seven years younger than he, Mabel Loomis Todd...has not appeared in print before, and it makes an entrancing tale...A plainly authoritative work. (Richard Todd The Atlantic)

Richard Sewall's biographical vision of Emily Dickinson is as complete as human scholarship, ingenuity, stylistic pungency, and common sense can arrive at. (R. W. B. Lewis New Republic)

Although Professor Sewall produces new material everywhere, it is in the account of the scandals that he has the most startling abundance, much of it in the form of primary documents...One must thank him for the fullness and impartiality of his presentation. (Irvin Ehrenpreis New York Review of Books)

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Customer Reviews

Not easy reading, but well worth the effort.
R. J. Howard
This is a book to buy and keep and turn to again and again.
R. J. O'Hara
Starting the book left me hopeful for great things to come.
Kim B. Brandt

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 81 people found the following review helpful By R. J. O'Hara on October 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
There is a famous sketch by Henry Fuseli called "The artist moved by the grandeur of ancient ruins." It shows a tiny mortal figure weeping beside the fragments of a colossal statue. The reader of Sewall's life of Emily Dickinson will find himself in that mortal's place.
This is a book to buy and keep and turn to again and again. Whenever you need to remind yourself what the English language can do, open a page at random and ED will show you. On her own confusion: "I am out with lanterns, looking for myself." On youth: "when I was but an unsifted girl, and you so scholarly." On Shakespearean partings: "I read them in the garret and the rafters wept."
Sewall's scholarship is impeccable, his writing graceful, his sympathy and critical engagement exemplary. If you don't own any volumes of Dickinson's poetry, this biography can serve as a "selected works" since it contains many of the poems and letters in their entirety. Don't deny yourself the pleasure of possessing this book.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Barbara Vaughan on January 10, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have just read this book and enjoyed it thoroughly. However, the title is somewhat misleading, as this is not a conventional biography. Other than a few chapters on her childhood and early education, the book is arranged in "theme" chapters, each focussing on a particular person or aspect of her life, illustrated, and heavily annotated, with letters and poems related to that theme.

I ended the book with more questions about her life than I had at the beginning. Many of them are barely addressed in the book, or just hinted at. Perhaps the book was intended for readers who are already very familiar with the biographical details.

Just as one example, the author mentions several times the eye problem that led to one of Emily's rare trips away from her home for treatement in Boston. I kept thinking that sooner or later some further details about this eye problem would be revealed, but there was never more than a few widely scattered sentences about it. Perhaps there isn't enough evidence to be able to conjecture as to the nature of the problem, but the author doesn't even seem to think it's an important enough detail to require a weighing of the evidence.

Likewise her mother's long illness, which played a role in Emily's withdrawal from the world, is mentioned but its nature is not discussed, other than a mention that she was paralyzed near the end of her life. Did she suffer a stroke? Was she lucid? Since Emily was her primary caregiver, it would seem that these details might bear on her own emotional state during the years of this illness and would warrant at least some speculation.

Even Emily's own final illness remains a mystery.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By tepi on June 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
THE LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON. By Richard B. Sewall. 821 pp. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press. First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 1994. ISBN 0-674-53080-2
Although I haven't yet finished reading Richard B. Sewalls mammoth saga, I fully expect to one day, and I've certainly read enough to realize that this is the single most important biography of Dickinson that we have, and unlikely ever to be bettered.
One thing that strikes me is Sewall's wonderful knack of bringing the various actors in this strange domestic drama vividly before us, and making them real and believable. The marvelous collection of illustrations in this book also help make the world of Amherst real to us.
The book is comprehensive and a mine of interesting facts about anything and everything to do with Emily Dickinson, and is happily free of the unctuousness of Thomas H. Johnson's earlier biography. Besides being richly illustrated with an abundance of photographs, it is also well-written, incredibly well-researched, and is a pleasure to read, being well-printed on excellent smooth paper.
In other words, Sewall's prize-winning biography is essential reading for all students of Dickinson, and is no doubt destined for a wide readership in its compact new paperback format which conveniently gives us Sewall's two volumes in one.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By William E. Adams on December 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Professor Sewall spent about 20 years getting this massive and beautifully presented biography put together, and his scholarship, devotion, persistence and talent shine in every chapter. He used original source material, much of it for the first time anywhere. He describes the lives of many Dickinsons, ancestors and descendants, of the mysterious poet...and getting to know these people helps us comprehend her art and her life. This book came out about l974, and was the first to reveal the now-famous adultery of Emily's brother Austin and Mable Loomis Todd, wife of the Amherst College astronomy professor. This doomed and illicit love lasted 13 years and was a key factor in how and when Emily's poems got published. We didn't get ALL of them until 69 years after the writer died, and Sewall's book tells us why. Professor Sewall hews to common sense in examining Emily's love life, her reclusiveness, and her probable sexual orientation. While he admits that abuse in childhood is possible as a factor in Emily's later choices or limitations, he clearly shows that it is also improbable. I have depended on this work in my own E.D. researches over a 20-year period, and corresponded with the author on and off for about ten years, although I never met him. In my opinion, any study of Emily BEGINS with this book if one wants to do it right. Buy it before it finally goes out of print or you will be sorry. It is a complex and magnificent achievement.
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