Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
I, Empress Cindy, was born on August 8, 1950, in Chicago, Illinois.
You, ___________, were born on ___________, in ____________.
On the surface, each line contains three pieces of information. But underneath this information lies a story about the times in which we were born.
I’ll start with myself. I was born in a hospital in Chicago. My parents lived in an apartment with electricity and indoor plumbing, but without air conditioning. My father drove a car. They had the same basics of everyday life that we have now, but they lived without a television set and, of course, without computers, since the desktop hadn’t been invented.
Now we’re in not only the computer age, but in the Internet Age as well. Families usually have more than one television, several different ways to receive dozens of channels, DVD and BVD players, cell phones, and a wide range of electronic gadgets that few people had even imagined in 1950. There are also many new drugs, especially antibiotics, as well as new kinds of surgeries and new techniques to perform them.
When Emily Dickinson was born, her family had none of what we consider the necessities of everyday life. Her family had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no sewer system. Medical care was crude, people died from diseases that are now treated with antibiotics, and women often died in childbirth. Health insurance didn’t exist–you either paid for your medical care yourself or you did without. Dental care was worse than medical care, and since there were no heating and cooling systems, people were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Imagine being on a permanent camping trip, only inside your own home.
People in Amherst had to work very hard just to make it through the day. If you wanted to take a bath, you had to get the water and then heat it up. If you wanted to cook, you had to get the wood and then put it in the stove, ignite it, and wait for it to heat up the burners and ovens. You had to wash your clothes by hand and then figure out how to dry them when it was too cold or wet to hang them outside. Most people grew at least some of their own food and made most of their own clothes. There were no shopping malls, few stores, and unless you were wealthy, few servants to help you out.
And just think about moving around. You went to places on foot, on horseback, or in a horse-drawn carriage. There were some railroads, but using them was expensive and time-consuming.
Married women rarely worked outside their homes because they had to much work to do inside them! Even if they had servants, they still had to supervise the work, and unless they were extremely wealthy, they still had to do a lot of the cooking and cleaning themselves.
And then there’s the town of Amherst, itself. Today, Amherst is a sophisticated college town, but when ED was born, it was small and in the countryside. If you’ve even seen any of the BBC shows set in rural England during this time, you’ll probably have some idea of what life was like.
Like any small town, Amherst had a strong social structure. Although the United States has the Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, which go a long way in creating a foundation for equality, we all know that money and social position have a lot to do with the quality of people’s lives. For example, in my part of the U.S., Metro Detroit, kids who live in the wealthier suburbs go to much better schools than kids who live in Detroit. That doesn’t mean that a child who decides to go to college can’t make it from Detroit, but it does mean that she’ll have to overcome more obstacles and work harder to find opportunities, especially if she wants to go to one of the top-notch schools like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
During ED’s life, if you wanted to send your children to school, you often had to pay for it. Since ED came from an upper-middle class family, she went to public school for a few years, and then went to a private school. (Habegger, pp. 96-97) I’ll talk more about ED’s education later, but it’s important to understand that most children didn’t have her opportunities–newspapers, magazines, and books at home, plus a private school from the time she was almost ten, and then a year at Mount Holyoke for college.
The Dickinson family also had considerable social standing. Her father, Edward, was a lawyer, and her grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was a successful lawyer and businessman who helped found Amherst Academy, the private school she attended. Later on, Samuel lost his money while helping to found Amherst College and eventually left town. But Edward made sure that his family was able to hold onto its social position by working extremely had to earn a solid income and as Treasurer of Amherst College after his father’s departure. (Wolff, pp. 13-35)
In many ways, ED’s family was similar to families in the 1950’s, when I grew up. Fathers worked a lot and spent little time at home, and mothers ran the households and rarely worked at outside jobs. Of course, my mother had electricity and indoor plumbing and a telephone and (eventually) a television and a washer and dryer and food stores a few blocks away, plus plenty of stores for buying clothes and furniture and anything else we needed. But women during both times suffered a lot from loneliness and boredom, especially once their children started going off to school.
Women can respond to feeling isolated by creating a strong interior life, by glomming onto their family (especially their children) like a suckerfish, or by withdrawing. According to ED’s letters, her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, withdrew. But we can’t be sure–ED was an interested party, as a lawyer would claim, so whatever she wrote about her mother was going to be biased. Still, we do know that her mother was alone a lot because her father was away so much on business, whether because of travel or working long hours.
Her mother’s difficulties intensified when ED was very young because of illness and death in her own family and Samuel Dickinson’s increasing financial problems. And then, when ED, was two, her mother gave birth to Lavinia and both mother and baby were very ill for quite awhile. (Remember–medical care was crude and when there were problems during childbirth, there few remedies besides rest and hope.) So ED’s parents decided to send her to her mother’s sister. Not only was her new home strange and unfamiliar, but her aunt was also taking care of her dying stepmother. And when ED returned home, her grandfather and his family were gone. (Wolff, pp. 59-60) And since she was so young, ED had no way to understand what was going on. She must have felt that her life was out of her control and that she’d better behave sweetly if she wanted to survive.
Family dynamics are family dynamics. We can all tell stories about difficult times we endured when we children. But the major difference between 1830 and 1950 is physical hardship. Women took care of sick people, when they weren’t sick themselves. They endured childbirth without anesthetics, and they died in childbirth far too often. Their children also died far too often from illnesses we can treat today. And consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis) was a major killer, slow and devastating for both the patient and her caretakers.
And that’s probably why death became such a major theme in ED’s poetry.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: The Modern Library, 2001, 2002.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1986, 1988.