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My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinsonby Alfred Habegger
Reading Group Guide
1. A biography of a poet ought to give readers a deeper understanding of that persons poetry. Do any of Dickinsons poems seem clearer to you now that you have read My Wars Are Laid Away in Books? Which ones? Did you get a clearer sense of her impetus as a writer — of the motives, the purposes, that drove her?
2. Habegger pays close attention to the books Dickinson is known to have read. Which books or authors seem to have made a big difference to her? Were there any that helped her define her own vocation as poet
3. Does it surprise you that over a thousand letters by Dickinson have survived, including several long ones from her girlhood? What does this extensive correspondence suggest about her? Was there anything in her letters that struck you as especially revealing? Do you see any connections between her writing of letters and her writing of poems?
4. Does it make sense to you that Dickinson was (apparently) opposed to the publication of her poems yet sent many of them to friends? How would you explain the contradiction?
5. One of the difficulties a biographer faces in understanding Dickinsons relationships is that almost none of her friends letters to her are extant. What effect does this gap in the evidence have on our understanding of her life? What patterns do you see in her relationships? As a rule, who seems to be the more needy, she or her correspondents and friends? How would you characterize her thirty-year friendship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson?
6. Habegger gives considerable attention to the poets relationship with “Master,” identifying this figure as the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Do you find this identification convincing? If so, what do you think Dickinsons love of this man tells us about her? Why did Wadsworth appeal to her? In what ways was he a surprising and even inappropriate choice? Was there something in her that gravitated toward an impossible and inaccessible lover?
7. Edward Dickinson, the poets father, has been viewed by some as a tyrannical presence in her life. Habegger doesnt see him in this way, yet emphasizes his reactionary views on women and his authority as an old-fashioned paterfamilias. In what ways was the poet apparently satisfied to depend on Edwards authority? In what ways did she challenge or escape it? Can it be said that in some ways she modeled herself on him? Finally, how would you characterize the father-daughter relationship?
8. Although Dickinson was clearly not a hermit, she spent a great deal of time alone. What do you see as her most unusual qualities and tendencies? At what moments in her life did she strike you as seriously isolated from others? At what points did she seem recognizably — maybe even ordinarily — social?
9. To judge from the reviews of My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, some readers feel impatient that Emily Dickinsons birth doesnt come until the end of Chapter 4. Why do you think Habegger gives so much attention to her mothers and fathers families, and to early nineteenth-century developments such as the resurgence of Calvinist evangelicalism and the founding of Amherst College? Did these preliminary and contextual matters help you understand Dickinsons development?
10. Certain Christian ideas — the crucifixion, the immortal soul, heaven — often show up in Dickinsons poetry. Yet from girlhood on, she resisted the “conversion” experienced by most of her early friends and by everyone in her immediate family. So what would you say: Was she a religious poet or not?
11. What unanswered questions do you have about Dickinson after reading Habeggers biography? What one question would you ask him if you had the chance?
12. What one moment in the poets life do you wish you could have witnessed, or asked her about? Do you think she would have been willing to satisfy your curiosity?
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