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My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson
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My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  384 Ratings  ·  44 Reviews
Emily Dickinson, probably the most loved and certainly the greatest of American poets, continues to be seen as the most elusive. One reason she has become a timeless icon of mystery for many readers is that her developmental phases have not been clarified. In this exhaustively researched biography, Alfred Habegger presents the first thorough account of Dickinson’s growth–a ...more
Hardcover, 784 pages
Published October 16th 2001 by Random House (first published 2001)
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Mar 05, 2013 Gloria rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd have given this 2 stars were it not solely for the massive amount of research and collecting of letters, dates, history, etc. that precluded the writing of something like this.

However, Emily Dickinson remains just as an elusive figure as before this (or any other attempt at her biography) was written.

In the introduction, a literary critic addressed the fact that sometimes a poet's works were written for personal reasons and were never meant for others' eyes at all.

"At certain levels, we are
Mar 31, 2010 Terry rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, poetry
This book is maddening. At some point biographers (and scholars/academics) have GOT to get together and realize that there is just not enough material to write a decent biography of Dickinson! GIVE IT UP. Habegger writes an exhaustive biography of everyone ELSE in Dickinson's life and tries to connect that to her, but even he frequently admits that "we just don't know" what she was thinking or even DOING most of the time. Knowing what everyone else around me is doing isn't going to tell you a wh ...more
Deborah Markus
May 25, 2015 Deborah Markus rated it liked it
The short review: If you're going to read a biography of Dickinson, this one is probably your best bet.

The dirty details: I sought this out when I was about 250 pages into Cynthia Griffin Wolff's biography of Dickinson. Hers is a beautiful book, and I intend to finish it; but although it gives valuable context to Dickinson's life, I felt a certain lack in the nuts-and-bolts department. I wanted more basic facts.

This book has them, in abundance. Dickinson herself remains elusive, of course. We ma
I’m a fairly ravenous reader – and I also teach Dickinson to college freshmen in my Intro to American Literature class – but it took me more than four months to finish this biography of one of my favorite writers, and almost every page was a slog. Dickinson herself struggles to appear in Habegger's version of her life, in part because she is obscured by such a mountain of minutiae and of scholarly score-settling (Habegger’s pedantic and persnickety comments regarding other writers’ bad research ...more
Ironic that a biography of a creative poetic genius would be written in prose so clunky and inflexible that it could be carved into several pairs of wooden shoes.

Well-researched, but not exactly a riveting page turner.
Nov 16, 2013 Diane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Evenhanded, thorough and engrossing examination of Dickinson's life, background, and social and personal milieu. Habegger has helped me form my opinion that Dickinson was a highly intelligent young woman, with a strong rebellious spirit and a determination to beat whatever adversities she faced. And she faced a great many. For example, she was most probably an emotional, needy, and therefore difficult person to be around as a young woman, if one expected normal 19th century female behavior. Male ...more
Apr 04, 2013 Deb rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

Gee, what to say? I'm not qualified to assess this book in terms of its value to scholars, only in the pleasure it may afford to readers. It has been decades since I have read the Richard Sewall biography, but my memory of that work was that it was less dry and more fun to read than this one. It is a very careful book that seldom strays from verifable information and therefore does not present a grand thesis that might catch one's attention. That makes it more trustworthy but less readable than
Long time since I read an academic biography cover to cover - I'm very good at spending excess time in the picture section. And it's always fair to ask if the draw is the author (Habegger) or the author (Dickinson). In my particular case, I skewed toward the poet - one of the oddest of odd American authors, firmly embedded in her time and place (as limited as the latter was), and probably what we used to refer to in the sixties as a head case. But oh! The verse! Though I thought of the drinking ...more
Jan 04, 2013 Carol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I recently took a tour of Emily Dickinson's house and the tour guide recommended this biography. I have to admit it was a little beyond me in that it assumed a much greater familiarity with her work and with some of the major scholarly theories about her life than I have. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this book, even though it was slower going than usual. The author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about Dickinson's life and work; has extensively studied her writings and those of her famil ...more
Andy Oram
Sep 03, 2010 Andy Oram rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature
Having read discouraging reviews about two recent books about
Dickinson, and having heard that this was highly recommended, I
decided that (as a busy person) I would just sample it, but I ended up
reading all 620 pages straight through. Habegger does an impressive
job weighing evidence and avoiding the speculations of earlier
biographers and critics. Yet in the end, Dickinson proves elusive. I
feel I know a lot more about her life, but I realize Habegger had to
do some speculation of his own. I recomme
This book is a biography of Emily Dickinson. A very thorough biography. That being said, if you're interested in the growth of prominent literary figures, this would be a great biography to pick up. It is a slow read. I began this book for a free Barnes & Noble University course about Emily Dickinson and her poetry last October, read ax. 250 pages during the month-long course, and set the book down. Determined to finish during this course's July session, though! Despite being slow to read, t ...more
Jan 07, 2016 Leslie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4/5 one of my favorite literary individuals is Emily Dickinson. I may not be able to understand all of her poetry but that is OK; it is in the appreciation of her craft that drives me and her autobiographical story. As a side note, it wasn't until I took a class on the famous poet in grad school (creative writing) that I knew about the collection I letters that Emily wrote and that people wrote back to her. If you are at all a fan of Dickinson, I would look the letters publication up because it ...more
Joe Ward
Aug 08, 2015 Joe Ward rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I finally finished "My Wars Are Laid Away in Books." Took me most of the winter, only reading on Sunday afternoon & some weekday evenings. I must say that I enjoyed Habegger's Emily biography but that I liked Sewell's better. Habegger offers some insights based on recent scholarship that weren't available to Sewell. In places I found Habegger's prose to be rather convoluted and difficult to interpret. Overall, though, it's a well researched & well written work, that will take you back &a ...more
Notes when I started this book MONTHS AGO: I'm not generally an avid reader of biographies, but I do love Emily Dickinson, and this particular biography, while of epic length, comes highly recommended.

Notes now that I'm finally %&!(@%^ done with it: DEAR SWEET LORD, this felt like the longest book I have ever read. Perhaps it suffered from my bright idea three chapters in to read the collected poems along with it. Perhaps it suffered from the painfully dry prose and eye-crossing footnotes. I
Very mixed feelings as I love the level of historic detail available here (still enigmatic, our Emily, never fear). Often the author assumes and presumes things which have no given objective basis but must therefore originate in interpretation and yet are presented as ultimate authority. Also, I sincerely tired of descriptions calling notice to "erotic" elements of E.D.'s writing every time there was mention of a Bee. A count of the times the word "erotic" or its derivatives is used in this text ...more
Nov 18, 2009 Lizzie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am not a poetry person, though I like some of Dickenson's poems. Her self aggrandizing suffering fits with mental stance for most of my life of bearing a secret sorrow (usually because of some romantic disappointment.) Her secret sorrows seem to be about a minister with whom she had a spiritual relationship & meeting of minds that made her call herself his wife. But much is shrouded in mystery, which makes her story so interesting.

Although I'd read another biography of her 30 years ago, I'
Feb 23, 2007 Richard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: poets and historians
Shelves: biography
I've read and re-read this book a couple of times! Its THE best biography of Emily Dickenson, who is the love of my life (yeah yeah, I know she's been dead for 130 years...)
It gives you a really good picture of her family life, her loves and the things that influenced her poetry (almost all of which went undiscovered until after her death). Its a biography, yes, but its also a culteral history of Emily's life and times.
Emily and Walt Whitman are, in my mind, THE 2 most important American poets o
Aug 28, 2016 Alexa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Extremely thorough and well-documented. Also very dense and hard to get through for the casual reader. This is the second biography of Emily Dickinson I have read. I would only recommend this book to the most fervent fans of Dickinson. It assumes a level of knowledge of her poems that not all will know. It was hard to keep track of all the names, although there was a helpful family chart in the appendix. A great scholarly work, but not for the masses.
Mar 27, 2010 booklady marked it as abandoned  ·  review of another edition
Although this is on my 'abandoned' shelf, it doesn't really belong there and -- God willing -- won't stay there forever. I read a good portion of this book before getting side-tracked by other books I needed to read at the time. This was back when I was still homeschooling and (much like now) I bought books to read--meaning to finish them--but didn't always succeed. What I did read, was excellent!
Mar 20, 2016 Jennifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry, biography
The best biography of ED I've read. It was recommended to me by the docents at the ED museum in Amherst MA. I'm not sure ED was a very nice woman, and that makes me glad. Confusing at times, especially regarding the friends and correspondents she had all her life, but the biographical information is great and the insight into alternative ordering of poems and matching to life events is most interesting.
Diann Blakely
The aptly titled new biography, by former University of Kansas professor Alfred Habegger, respects the personal and aesthetic fury of many of Dickinson’s best poems—”My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” for example—without falling into the trap of reducing them solely to political documents, as is too often the case with contemporary criticism written by academics.

(originally published as part of an omnibus in the NASHVILLE SCENE)
Non ho ancora finito di leggere questa ricchissima biografia perch in un certo senso ho paura di conoscere... "troppo" di Emily. Ma ho comprato il libro durante la mia breve e indimenticabile visita ad Amherst e ne vado scioccamente fiera. Guardo la bellissima copertina e so che verr il tempo di leggerlo fino in fondo. Non ora, per. ...more
Jun 08, 2012 Mikael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Habegger's bio of Emily Dickinson is thorough, well-written, fully researched. Chronologically arranged, but it does a good job of tying together various periods of ED's life and thought. Gives a real feeling for the people in her life. May not agree with all of Habegger's comments, but they are generally reasonable, not outlandish or strained. Reads easily - almost a page-turner. Excellent book.
Lizzie Jones
Oct 05, 2016 Lizzie Jones rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not the biggest fans of fact-heavy biographies, so this wasn't my favorite. I like it when a biographer can adequately tell someone's story. However, I understand that this is especially difficult when it comes to Dickinson since she was so private and there are so many unanswered questions about her life. I think Habegger did a really good job researching this book.
Nov 19, 2016 Judy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
I found this was just too detailed for me - I do love Emily Dickinson's poetry, but I'm not ready to assimilate quite this much information about her family background, home town, school, etc, etc. I am impressed by how much research the author has done and his love of his subject, but I'd have done better to start with a shorter overview.
Sep 19, 2010 Mitzi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Very interesting read - the level of research is obviously extremely high and carefully done. I might have edited down slightly, but other than that I couldn't have asked for a better or more in depth look at ED's life and work.
May 16, 2008 Carol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a remarkable poet. She wrote many letters, often including poems, but didn't seek publication. This is a book to read with a dictionary at hand. I found it fascinating.
Jul 04, 2012 Gloria rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
O.K., if you're not an Emily fan, this may not be the book for you; however, as bios go, it's entirely readable and even fun. Also offers theory as to why such a brilliant poet didn't want her work published in her lifetime.
Biography of Emily Dickinson that provides detailed background information on her parents, their upbringings, personalities, and how this characteristics affected the late poetess. While interesting, I didn't finish this book because it is more information than I need for Weber Reads.
Sep 17, 2011 stevenallenmay rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is a vast book about the family and region and times of Emily Dickinson. That's entirely way more than I was interested in reading about, nor do I have to time to read about the ancestors of the poet. There are many who I am certain will love this book, minus one.
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