- Paperback: 924 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (July 15, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674530802
- ISBN-13: 978-0674530805
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #639,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Life of Emily Dickinson Reprint Edition
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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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The first “volume” in this book is not specifically about Dickinson herself but about her family. Individual chapters focus on her father, mother, brother, sister and her New England background. Much is made of the “war between the houses” which refers to the fact that Emily’s brother Austin and his wife Susan moved next door to the Dickinson family home. After a positive beginning the relationship between Susan and the rest of the family became difficult, spurred on by brother Austin’s long affair with Mabel Todd who subsequently became instrumental in publishing Dickinson’s poems after her death. We now know that Susan Dickinson’s life may have been more complicated than Sewall presents. Nevertheless, the point of these 240 pages of context is to show how the isolated Emily, as she is usually perceived, fit into the larger framework of life around her. Sewall does this well. The reader will find this first section not just useful in understanding Emily Dickinson but an insightful study of life in mid-19th century New England.
The second “volume” deals directly with Emily herself. Sewall ties many of Emily’s poems into the events in her life, from her educational experiences to her interesting (and one-sided) relationship with two of her potential publishers, Samuel Bowles and Thomas Higginson. Emily Dickinson did not have many personal relationships or friends but Sewall spells out all of them in detail, all the while bringing in Dickinson’s poems sent to them in letters or sent in hopes of publication. The combination of the poetry and the chronological development of Emily’s life helps the reader understand both the poems and the source of many of them.
After 700 plus pages (including about 75 pages of appendices) Sewall admits that Emily Dickinson is still a psychological enigma. But the reader will get as detailed and complete a picture of this isolated literary genius as he or she will find anywhere. The book is a tribute to one of America’s most original minds. This is a complete, well-written, and insightful discussion of Emily Dickinson.
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. We learn that her sister blamed it on the ill treatment received from her sister-in-law, and that her doctor attributed it to "nerves". However, from other hints, it seems to be a progessively debilitating illness. There is never as much as a paragraph in the entire book which speculates on the nature of this fatal illness or how much she might have been incapacitated between the first attack in June 1884 and her death in May 1885. "Nerves" seems to me to be an insufficient explanation for the death of the poet after an illness of eleven months. Are we sure the fainting spell was related to the final illness? Was she ill for the entire eleven months? For how long was she bedridden? The author doesn't even pose these questions.
In a book of 821 pages, there is no index entry for "illness". "Death [of ED]" has 7 widely scattered and brief entries, one of which is a footnote, one of which is a 13-sentence entry on how her death affected her brother, one of which is the text of her obituary and three of which describe her funeral(on pages 273, 575 and 667, to show how scattered they are). The seventh entry refers to her obituary, but seems to be a mistake, as I find no mention of her death or obituary on the page cited.
The book is especially good on the life of her brother Austin, and is also good on her father. Her mother and sister remain mysterious, probably because they were not much more exposed to public scrutiny than Emily herself was. It is obvious that her sister was nearly as much of a recluse as Emily, or at least was perceived as such by their neighbors.
In such a scattered book, there is inevitably a good deal of repetition of details. The three mentions of Emily's funeral cited above, for example, are mostly identical. Poems are also quoted in part or in their entirety multiple times.
There is an index of the poems and the pages on which they are discussed, which is useful for understanding the context of some of these, although the author acknowledges that the dating of the poems presents many problems.
There is a chronology at the beginning of the book, which really is the closest there is to a temporal ordering of the poet's life. I would suggest photocopying it and using it as a bookmark, because there is little chronological ordering, even within chapters at times. I found myself asking such things as, "Was this before her brother's marriage or after? Was her father still alive when this happened?" As a matter of fact, because I didn't have the chronology in front of me, I was surprised to realize, when I had almost finished the book, that Emily's father was still alive during the period of her most intense literary activity. After the early chapter devoted to her father's life, he is not often mentioned again, and I had somehow remained with the impression that he had died much earlier in her life.
Much as I enjoyed this book, I am left wanting another book to fill in the gaps. However, I learned enough about the partisanal nature of her biographers to be wary of choosing one.