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A physician confronts his own mortality.
  1. A physician confronts his own mortality.
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The students looked to each other for their discussions, grew accustomed to thinking in terms of their identity as scholars, and faced a marked change when they left school. As was common, Dickinson left the academy at the age of 15 in order to pursue a higher, and for women, final, level of education. Under the guidance of Mary Lyon, the school was known for its religious predilection. No one else did. In fact, 30 students finished the school year with that designation. Some have argued that the beginning of her so-called reclusiveness can be seen in her frequent mentions of homesickness in her letters, but in no case do the letters suggest that her regular activities were disrupted.

She did not make the same kind of close friends as she had at Amherst Academy, but her reports on the daily routine suggest that she was fully a part of the activities of the school. Additional questions are raised by the uncertainty over who made the decision that she not return for a second year. Dickinson attributed the decision to her father, but she said nothing further about his reasoning.

A physician confronts his own mortality.

But in other places her description of her father is quite different the individual too busy with his law practice to notice what occurred at home. The least sensational explanation has been offered by biographer Richard Sewall. Looking over the Mount Holyoke curriculum and seeing how many of the texts duplicated those Dickinson had already studied at Amherst, he concludes that Mount Holyoke had little new to offer her.

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It also prompted the dissatisfaction common among young women in the early 19th century. Upon their return, unmarried daughters were indeed expected to demonstrate their dutiful nature by setting aside their own interests in order to meet the needs of the home.

For Dickinson the change was hardly welcome. Her letters from the early s register dislike of domestic work and frustration with the time constraints created by the work that was never done. Particularly annoying were the number of calls expected of the women in the Homestead. The daily rounds of receiving and paying visits were deemed essential to social standing. Not only were visitors to the college welcome at all times in the home, but also members of the Whig Party or the legislators with whom Edward Dickinson worked.

For Dickinson, the pace of such visits was mind-numbing, and she began limiting the number of visits she made or received. She baked bread and tended the garden, but she would neither dust nor visit. There was one other duty she gladly took on. In the 19th century the sister was expected to act as moral guide to her brother; Dickinson rose to that requirement—but on her own terms. In her early letters to Austin, she represented the eldest child as the rising hope of the family. With the first she was in firm agreement with the wisdom of the century: the young man should emerge from his education with a firm loyalty to home.

If he borrowed his ideas, he failed her test of character. There were to be no pieties between them, and when she detected his own reliance on conventional wisdom, she used her language to challenge what he had left unquestioned.

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In her letters to Austin in the early s, while he was teaching and in the mid s during his three years as a law student at Harvard, she presented herself as a keen critic, using extravagant praise to invite him to question the worth of his own perceptions. She positioned herself as a spur to his ambition, readily reminding him of her own work when she wondered about the extent of his. Not only did he return to his hometown, but he also joined his father in his law practice. Born just nine days after Dickinson, Susan Gilbert entered a profoundly different world from the one she would one day share with her sister-in-law.

The daughter of a tavern keeper, Sue was born at the margins of Amherst society. Had her father lived, Sue might never have moved from the world of the working class to the world of educated lawyers. They returned periodically to Amherst to visit their older married sister, Harriet Gilbert Cutler. Sue, however, returned to Amherst to live and attend school in Enrolled at Amherst Academy while Dickinson was at Mount Holyoke, Sue was gradually included in the Dickinson circle of friends by way of her sister Martha.

She took a teaching position in Baltimore in On the eve of her departure, Amherst was in the midst of a religious revival. The community was galvanized by the strong preaching of both its regular and its visiting ministers. The Dickinson household was memorably affected. By the end of the revival, two more of the family members counted themselves among the saved: Edward Dickinson joined the church on August 11, , the day as Susan Gilbert.

Vinnie Dickinson delayed some months longer, until November. Austin Dickinson waited several more years, joining the church in , the year of his marriage. The other daughter never made that profession of faith. But unlike their Puritan predecessors, the members of this generation moved with greater freedom between the latter two categories.

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While God would not simply choose those who chose themselves, he also would only make his choice from those present and accounted for—thus, the importance of church attendance as well as the centrality of religious self-examination. Revivals guaranteed that both would be inescapable. In her scheme of redemption, salvation depended upon freedom. Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless.

Within those 10 years she defined what was incontrovertibly precious to her.

Not religion, but poetry; not the vehicle reduced to its tenor, but the process of making metaphor and watching the meaning emerge. As early as her letters suggest that her mind was turning over the possibility of her own work.

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She described the winter as one long dream from which she had not yet awakened. Her letters of the period are frequent and long. Their heightened language provided working space for herself as writer. In these passionate letters to her female friends, she tried out different voices.

At times she sounded like the female protagonist from a contemporary novel; at times, she was the narrator who chastises her characters for their failure to see beyond complicated circumstances. Lacking the letters written to Dickinson, readers cannot know whether the language of her friends matched her own, but the freedom with which Dickinson wrote to Humphrey and to Fowler suggests that their own responses encouraged hers.

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Perhaps this sense of encouragement was nowhere stronger than with Gilbert. Although little is known of their early relations, the letters written to Gilbert while she was teaching at Baltimore speak with a kind of hope for a shared perspective, if not a shared vocation. Recent critics have speculated that Gilbert, like Dickinson, thought of herself as a poet.

She sent Gilbert more than of her poems. Gilbert may well have read most of the poems that Dickinson wrote. In many cases the poems were written for her. They functioned as letters, with perhaps an additional line of greeting or closing.

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  7. In there had been some minor argument, perhaps about religion. In the mid s a more serious break occurred, one that was healed, yet one that marked a change in the nature of the relationship. Critics have speculated about its connection with religion, with Austin Dickinson, with poetry, with their own love for each other.

    Her words are the declarations of a lover, but such language is not unique to the letters to Gilbert. It appears in the correspondence with Fowler and Humphrey. But modern categories of sexual relations do not fit neatly with the verbal record of the 19th century.


    From her own housework as dutiful daughter, she had seen how secondary her own work became. In her observation of married women, her mother not excluded, she saw the failing health, the unmet demands, the absenting of self that was part of the husband-wife relationship. That remains to be discovered—too late—by the wife. Rather, that bond belongs to another relationship, one that clearly she broached with Gilbert. Defined by an illuminating aim, it is particular to its holder, yet shared deeply with another.

    As Dickinson had predicted, their paths diverged, but the letters and poems continued. The letters grow more cryptic, aphorism defining the distance between them. The s marked a shift in her friendships. As her school friends married, she sought new companions. Defined by the written word, they divided between the known correspondent and the admired author.

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