Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. She was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, in her family’s homestead, to her lawyer father, Edward Dickinson, and mother, Emily Norcross. According to many accounts, she was a well-behaved girl, educated, and mannered. She displayed an interest in music and art at a young age and was considered a bright and excellent student.
Emily Dickinson had an average childhood. She went to school with her siblings and finished her education without any significant life events. Her interest in writing formed when she was 18 years old. The young Dickinson befriended Benjamin Franklin Newton and was introduced to the works of Williams Woodsworth. Her other influences include Charlotte Bronte and William Shakespeare.
Though now widely known in the literary world, Dickinson was unpopular in her time. She only managed to publish around ten poems. It is believed that she lived most of her adult life in isolation. She was considered eccentric by the locals as she developed a commitment to wearing only white clothing. She was also infamous for her reluctance to greet guests. Later in life, it is believed that she barely left her bedroom. She died on May 15, 1886, at age 55, after suffering a stroke.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry endures until the modern day. Many writers and poets find relatability and inspiration in her work. Though Dickinson wrote many poems, she didn’t commonly make references or allusions to her romantic life. This hasn’t stopped historians, linguists, and fans of her work from coming up with their own interpretations concerning the poet’s sexuality. Was Emily Dickinson gay? Let’s take a look at some of Dickinson’s most significant relationships to find out.
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Emily Dickinson’s Relationships
Emily Dickinson never married, and most of her friendships were made and maintained solely through letters and other correspondence. She chose seclusion in her later years, preferring to stay within the confines of her home for most of her adult life. This decision didn’t stop her from making and nurturing relationships through poetry and letters.
Emily Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth
Dickinson had met Charles Wadsworth in Philadelphia in 1855. He was a minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church. Dickinson had reportedly forged a strong and lasting friendship with the clergyman and maintained it until his death in 1882. Despite only having met him in person a handful of times, Dickinson held Wadsworth in high regard and esteem. They would exchange letters, and Dickinson would refer to him as “my Philadelphia,” “my Clergyman,” “my dearest earthly friend,” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girlhood.”
Though they wrote to each other rather frequently, the letters contained no allusions to their relationship being more than friendship. Subsequent examinations of Dickinson’s letters also revealed that the pair had more of a father-daughter or mentor-student relationship.
Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert
Susan Huntington Gilbert, who later married Dickinson’s brother, Austin, was a close friend of Dickinson’s. Soon after Susan became her sister-in-law, Dickinson constantly exchanged letters with her, referring to her as her “most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser.” She is believed to be Dickinson’s strongest and most affectionate relationship.
Dickinson’s relationship with Susan may have been initially overlooked due to Mabel Lewis Todd, another friend who had prior relations with Austin. Todd may have downplayed the importance of Susan in Dickinson’s life as Todd saw her as a rival for Austin. She was often referred to as “cruel Susan” in Dickinson’s work, but this may have also been the result of her works being edited after her death.
Dickinson’s nephews, Susan and Austin’s children, claimed that their mother and aunt were very close, and their mother was never cruel to anyone. Scholars have agreed that the relationship between Susan and Dickinson may have been romantic. Researchers have interpreted Dickinson’s letters to Susan and have found them expressing “strong homoerotic feelings.” An excerpt from one of Dickinson’s letters to Susan, whom she called “Susie,” reads as follows:
Emily Dickinson’s Writings
Though she was a prolific writer, Dickinson only managed to get 10-11 of her poems published during her lifetime. She had amassed over 1,800 poems in total. Most of her work was published after her death. Her acquaintances, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, made the first published collection of her works after her death. It is believed that most of her work was heavily edited.
Dickinson began most of her writing in 1858. She began reviewing and rewriting older poems, revisiting them, and making clean copies. She was most productive in her writings in the early 1860s, when she also withdrew herself from everyone the most. Nobody had knowledge of these poems aside from Dickinson. They were only discovered after her death.
Clues to Emily Dickinson’s Sexuality
In 1998, The New York Times reported on a published study where infrared technology was used to examine Dickinson’s original writings. It was revealed that much of her work had been deliberately censored to exclude the name “Susan.” At least ten of Dickinson’s works and poems were dedicated to Susan. All other remaining dedications were removed, presumably by Todd. This censorship, many believe, was a deliberate act to hide the true nature of Emily and Susan’s relationship. Many who claim Dickinson was a lesbian cite this instance to strengthen their claim.
Was Emily Dickinson Gay?
Yes, Emily Dickinson was gay. Emily Dickinson may have been a lesbian. Her correspondence with Susan is the strongest piece of evidence that supports this claim. The subsequent discovery of deletion and omission of any reference to Susan from Dickinson’s works only strengthened the possibility of a relationship between the pair.