August 10, 2010

Dickinson: I like the school very much indeed

Emily Dickinson completed her final term at the Amherst Academy on August 10, 1847. She was 16 years old. As was the tradition, graduates presented public orations; Dickinson was one of them. A "choir of young girls and several youths" also performed; some speculate Dickinson was a member of that choir.

Dickinson presenting a public oration and singing before a crowd seems out of character for her. Soon, Dickinson will, infamously, become a recluse who seldom leaves the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Still a teenager, however, she will instead prepare for college; her first term at Mount Holyoke College began just over a month after her graduation from Amherst Academy.

Dickinson was enrolled at the Academy when she was nine. She studied Latin, Greek, geography, ancient history, botany, physiology, and English grammar. Dickinson seemed to enjoy her experience. At age 11, she wrote a letter to a friend: "I am in the class that you used to be in in Latin — besides Latin I study History and Botany I like the school very much indeed". She also began to show a precociousness and critical view of the world. In the same letter, she describes a fellow student giving an oral presentation: "the Subject was think twice before you speak," she wrote. The boy told the class that he knew a man who believed a woman was so beautiful she neared perfection. But, he warned, "remember that roses conceal thorns." Young Dickinson was not happy. "He is the sillyest creature that ever lived I think... I told him that I thought he had better think twice before he spoke."

She was, by most accounts, an impressive student. Her principal later wrote of her: "I remember her as a very bright but rather delicate and frail looking girl... an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties; but somewhat shy and nervous." His recollections were written after Dickinson's death and can be taken with a grain of salt.

From her poem today labeled "XXI":

Not in this world to see his face
Sounds long, until I read the place
Where this is said to be
But just the primer of life
Unopened, rare, upon the shelf,
Clasped yet to him and me.

And yet, my primer suits me so
I would not choose a book to know
Than that, be sweeter wise;
Might some one else so learned by,
And leave me just my A B C,
Himself could have the skies.

*Some of the information for this post comes from Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief by Roger Lundin.


  1. Rob, Just a note to let you know how much I enjoyed your Margaret tour on Saturday. Very informative, interesting, funny, and opinionated -- everything that makes a great tour (and guide!) Thanks for participating in Discovery Days. Best, Kit

  2. She did do well in school, and I've also heard she was quite social when younger. Some speculate she had severe social anxiety or perhaps epilepsy, but in either case, her condition worsened as she got older. Whatever she did suffer from, it was enough for her to choose a private life. The 19th century was not easy on women's health.