Alfred Habegger's magnificent biography of Emily Dickinson, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, is a comprehensive portrait of the poet's life and art. Exploring the lives of those closest to her, Habegger discusses the sources of many of the influences on her work. A former professor of English at the University of Kansas, he believes that an understanding of Dickinson's chronology shows not only how her work reflects various stages in her life, but also how her poetry developed over time.

The world beyond Emily Dickinson's family circle was, in most ways, effectively closed to her. Her father dominated the family and regarded women as intellectually inferior to men. Home was secure, but it was also oppressive and anxious. The brilliant Emily, however, not only adapted to her circumstances but used them to her advantage in writing some of the world's finest poetry. Another influential figure was her sister-in-law Susan. Married to Emily's brother Austin, Susan's entry into the family would change it forever, Habegger writes. Among other things, for a significant period, Sue seems to have been a constantly available audience alert, intelligent, tasteful, nodding approval, often silent. During one of her most productive periods, from 1863-65, Emily sent Sue 73 poems. The complexity of the relationship between the two women is explored in detail by Habegger, who notes that Dickinson was always seeking intimacy and finding it withheld. This pattern shows up not only in her friendships but in her orientation to nature and religion. The biography examines in depth the place of religion and the roles of ministers in Dickinson's life and thought. An early influence was the Reverend Aaron M. Colton, who was her minister for 13 years. Instead of being a polished public speaker, Colton devised a laconic, not always correct, yet vividly expressive style that seems to have had a major influence on the future poet, Habegger says. Whatever else she may have learned from him, the young poet derived something else of incalculable value from her minister: a sense of the power of language. Habegger discusses the two collections Dickinson assembled during her lifetime. One was, of course, the bundles of poems discovered after her death. The other, her sixty-six page book of pressed flowers, has been all but ignored by her biographers. But it had a particular significance for Dickinson. The experience of being outdoors collecting the specimens was a defining activity for her. They announced the seasons, Habegger writes, and the seasons came to be emblems of psychic existence. In this and other ways, the poet turned from nature and the outdoors to the conservatory of the imagination. Habegger notes that it would have been easy for the poet to find a publisher. Those who received her poems and realized how special they were often shared them with equally fascinated friends. This seems to be how Dickinson wanted to be read . . . It would have been unthinkable for her to give up the protection and privacy she required. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books abounds with astute observations and insights into Dickinson's personal life. Illuminating the mystery behind this elusive literary figure, Habegger has produced an exhaustive and detailed biography of perhaps the greatest of American poets.

Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.

 

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