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“If we had come up for the first time from two wells,” Emily once said of Lavinia, “her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say.” Only after the poet’s death did Lavinia and Austin realize how dedicated she was to her art.

Sent to her brother, Austin, or to friends of her own sex, especially Abiah Root, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Gilbert (who would marry Austin), these generous communications overflow with humour, anecdote, invention, and sombre reflection.

Questioning this tradition soon after leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson was to be the only member of her family who did not experience conversion or join Amherst’s First Congregational Church.

Yet she seems to have retained a belief in the soul’s immortality or at least to have transmuted it into a Romantic quest for the transcendent and absolute.

For her first nine years she resided in a mansion built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, who had helped found Amherst College but then went bankrupt shortly before her birth.

Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a forceful and prosperous Whig lawyer who served as treasurer of the college and was elected to one term in Congress.

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