“Coming out as a Poet”
“The Correspondence of Dickinson and Higginson–Begins”
“On April 16, 1862, I took [Emily Dickinson’s letter of the previous day] from the post office in Worcester, Mass., where I was then living," Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) recalled in an article he published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891. "The letter was postmarked 'Amherst,' and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town.” What happened after he read this letter was momentous in the lives of both writer and recipient, as well as American literature.
On the previous day, April 15th, Dickinson read Higginson’s essay, which had just appeared in the recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly titled “Letter to a Young Contributor,” containing advice to young writers about writing and publishing. She immediately wrote to him and asked the famous question, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Higginson responded, and Dickinson wrote again the following week. They corresponded until the month she died in 1886, but most of Higginson's letters to Dickinson are lost. Still, we have the letters Dickinson wrote to him and they tell us a good deal about her ambitions, her writing process, and herself.
It is an important correspondence because Dickinson, who had become reclusive at this time, initiated contact with someone she did not know personally who was a well-known literary figure and radical abolitionist. And she sent him samples of her poetry, effectively coming out as a poet. Over the course of their long correspondence, Dickinson sent Higginson around a hundred poems, more than any other recipient aside from her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson (who received around 500 letters and poems from Dickinson). This week, we explore Higginson’s essay that prompted Dickinson into outward motion, and her first rather coy and alluring response to him.
“We are getting out gradually into the light, and into the free, fresh air”
Springfield Republican, April 19th, 1862: Review of the Week. Progress of the War:
This week, which opened with a general act of thanksgiving and praise, by armies in the field and the people at home, on Sunday, at the request of the president, has witnessed important advance and success without any great amount of fighting. … the capture of Fort Pulaski, commanding the approaches to Savannah, and the occupation of Huntsville, Alabama, by Gen. Mitchell’s division.
Emancipation in the District––
The bill emancipating the slaves in the District of Columbia has passed both houses of Congress, and needs only the president’s signature to become operative. … Only two members from slaves states voted for the bill, but of the thirty-nine who votes against it, twenty-two were from free states [their emphasis; and SR prints their names.] We account this one of the greatest victories of the war …We now have a government and a Congress on the side of freedom, and not on the side of slavery. The president has signed the the gradual emancipation resolution …Verily the world does move. We are getting out gradually into the light, and into the free, fresh air. Now, if the white slaves from the free states who voted against emancipation in the District could be emancipated by act of Congress, Washington would become quite a decent place to live in. But everything in its time. Events will cure or kill these fellows.
From the Springfield Republican:
The all engrossing subject in England and on the continent, is the immense revolution taking place in naval warfare. It is generally admitted that the Monitor is a solution of the question between wooden vessels and iron ones, and the engagement between this vessel and the Merrimac is the subject of universal comment by the English parliament and press. It is seen that old fashioned fortifications for the defense of harbors and coasts, are no longer to be depended on …
Presentation of Rebel Cannon to Amherst College ––.
inscribed at Chicopee … formally presented to [Amherst College] Monday afternoon. … taken by the 21st Massachusetts regiment near the spot where Adjutant Frazar Stearns fell. … he was a model soldier, faithful, active, intelligent and brave among the bravest. … Edward Dickinson, chairman of the occasion, made known the object of the gathering in a few appropriate remarks. He referred to the sacred associations of the day, it being the anniversary of the time when the great uprising of the people began. He spoke of the death of three of the sons of the college since the war began, and closed by referring to the sacred memory of the brave adjutant, which the emblems of war brought so vividly to mind.
Poetry on page 7: “The Fashionable City Church and the Country Meeting-House” by Park Benjamin, in heroic couplets, and “A Lay for the Cumberland” by "the Peasant Bard." (Longfellow also wrote a poem about the Cumberland.) This poem is framed with the following note:
The fight of the Cumberland frigate with the iron-clad Merrimac [the Confederate ironclad] was gallant in the extreme. Accounts state that, after her sides were opened by the steam ram, she went down with her colors flying, in the thunder of her last broadside, as she disappeared; many of her gunners embracing their guns and going down with her.
and on p. 8 “Our Little One,” a poem about the death of a child.
Hampshire Gazette for Tuesday April 22 leads with the poem, “Lists of the Killed:”
Mothers who sit in dumb terror and dread,The name of the boy you have kissed –
Holding the terrible list,
Fearing to look lest you see ‘mid the dead
and includes several columns related to Newbern, N.C., including “letters found in the rebel camp … interesting as specimens of rebel literature.” Also, a letter opining, “As I conceive Jeff Davis to be about 'played out,' I judge the following from Byron’s Foscari to be appropriate for him as a farewell speech to his fellow conspirators:– 'My last hope's gone …'”
"The new has the poets, the people, and posterity"
What prompted Thomas Wentworth Higginson to write “Letter to a Young Contributor”? Brenda Wineapple, who has written a thorough and insightful “biography” of the friendship of Higginson and Dickinson, argues that history has treated Higginson badly, painting him as a well-meaning bungler, who might have recognized Dickinson’s poetic genius but was just as happy to regularize her poetry when he co-edited the first posthumous volume with Mabel Loomis Todd in 1890.
In reality, Wineapple notes, by 1862 Dickinson would have known Higginson “by reputation. His name, opinions, and sheer moxie were the stuff of headlines for years, for as a voluble man of causes, he was on record as loathing capital punishment, child labor, and the unfair laws depriving women of civil rights. … Above all, he detested slavery.” He was a member of the “Secret Six,” men who anonymously funded John Brown in his 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, and from 1862-64, served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized regiment of Black soldiers. He was an ordained minister, and in an installation sermon in 1852, he declared
we must choose between the past forms which once embodied the eternal spirit, and the other forms which are to renew and embody it now . . . . The old has the court, the senate, the market; the new has the poets, the people, and posterity.
He wrote “Letter to a Young Contributor” to consolidate his reputation as a literary figure and also, according to Wineapple, “to console himself” about his inability to fling himself into the action of combat, because he needed to stay home with an invalid wife. His letter drew heavily from his journals and contained basic practical advice for submitting one’s work (write clearly and neatly and don’t waste the editor’s time) as well as some idealistic recommendations about writing (be patient, distill your thoughts). (As an aside, he also calls “merely traditional … the supposed hostility between … England and Slavery,” a belief we noted a few posts ago was rampant in the Union North.)
Although he would shortly leave to lead a Black regiment in South Carolina, he warns his young contributors to ignore “all these fascinating trivialities of war” and gives the final word on the conflict to lawyer and former congressman Rufus Choate: "a book is the only immortality."
At the time Dickinson read Higginson’s essay, she had experienced several important losses, which may have prompted her to reach out of her tight circle of family and friends. The death of Frazar Stearns was still fresh in people’s minds and still a newsworthy item in both the Springfield Republican and the Hampshire Gazette for this week on account of the arrival of the cannon in Amherst.
Charles Wadsworth, a minister Dickinson felt close to, moved with his family to California, and Samuel Bowles had not come for a promised Spring visit (see letter 259). Sue and Austin were busy with their growing family and bustling social life. Dickinson needed another interlocutor, another mind she could think with.
One of Higginson’s recommendations clearly hit a nerve in Dickinson: “Charge your style with life.” See what she does with this imperative in her first letter to Higginson:
15 April 1862
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself-it cannot see, distinctly-and I have none to ask-
Should you think it breathed- and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude-
If I make the mistake-that you dared to tell me-would give me sincerer honor-toward you-
I enclose my name-asking you, if you please-Sir-to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me-it is needless to ask-since Honor is it's own pawn-
There was no signature; rather, Dickinson enclosed a card in its own envelope on which she wrote her name. She also enclosed four poems, which we will explore in the Poems for this week. Scholars offer many readings of this short letter with its repeated mention of “honor,” but what we should note immediately is how Dickinson’s opening question echoes Higginson’s recommendation from his “Letter.”
In his study of this central relationship, Jason Hoppe argues that this strategy, which we can see in other of Dickinson’s letters to Higginson, amounts to a “deep inhabitation” of his language and thought, linking “the antinomian qualities of her charismatic personality to social belonging and poetic achievement.” Her echoing and rescripting of Higginson’s words speaks to her sense of their shared literary “election” and her understanding that this was to be “a relationship essential to her own poetic legacy.”
It’s an honor to write this response, especially since the topic for this week resonates with two important topics – friendship has been the focus of Ivy Schweitzer’s scholarship, and animal imagery has preoccupied me for many years.
Anachronistically, we can read Dickinson’s letter to Higginson as the “beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Like the mismatched pair at the end of Casablanca, the two straddle divides of cultural authority. But they also inhabit a shared sphere, engaging fluidly with the same culture of letters – to draw on Richard Brodhead’s term for print’s ability to connect people and goods in naturalizing ways.
Those naturalizing ways are ones that Dickinson interprets for us by thinking about the nature of writing and of her correspondence with Higginson. Certainly, this connection becomes evident in the accompanying poem, discussed in today’s post: if “literature is attar of rose,” in Higginson’s word,” and the poet “distills amazing sense” to produce “attar so immense,” then the “sense” is both the fragrance of the roses as well as the sense-making of poetry.
And yet, this reworking of Higginson’s trope and appeal to him as a fellow naturalist presses beyond the (by the time of his writing tired) trope of poetry as flower. Dickinson is not interested in her verse’s ability to extract life but invested in its ability to be live; she asks if her “Verse is alive.” That question receives additional urgency when she wonders whether “it breathed.” We may see this kind of trope in relation to the animation a creator gives her creature. However, Dickinson indicates that she herself would “feel quick gratitude” for such an assessment. “Quick” is a marker of speed, but read as such, it seems out of place. In the context of the letter’s imagery, it also indicates a “quickening,” that is, a coming alive. It is Dickinson herself, then, who stands the chance of becoming animate by Higginson’s appreciation of her verse being alive.
Although Higginson was not always Dickinson’s most astute reader, his 1891 recollection pays homage to their initial encounter: associating her handwriting with the “fossil bird-tracks” in Amherst, he acknowledges a strangeness in their correspondence that extends beyond conventions of human friendship into an animate and animal-realm. As next week’s post will show, Dickinson responded to Higginson’s request for a self-description by likening herself to Carlo, her dog. As I have documented elsewhere, animals came to play a crucial role in Lockean models of children’s education: Locke had insisted in his epistolary work, “Thoughts on Education,” that animals were crucial for facilitating literacy and cultural literacy. Higginson’s “Letter to a Young Contributor” inhabited a long didactic tradition of advice literature; in asking his advice, “to say if my Verse is alive,” Dickinson pushed that tradition beyond implicit assumptions about literature’s relation to humanity, and opened the field up to larger animal and animate realms that could reanimate, beyond myopic self-enclosures, a way of seeing beyond “The Mind.”
Bio: Colleen Glenney Boggs is a Professor of English at Dartmouth College who specializes in nineteenth-century American Literature.
Hampshire Gazette, April 22, 1862
Springfield Republican, April 19, 1862
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Things New and Old,” Installation Sermon (Worcester, 1852), 5.
Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Volume 55, Number 3, Fall 2013: 348-387, 349-50.
Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. NY: Anchor Books, 4-8.