April of 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to a stranger, initiating a fervent twenty-four-year correspondence, in the course of which they managed to meet only twice. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, thirty-eight, was a man of letters, a clergyman, a fitness enthusiast, a celebrated abolitionist, and a champion of women’s rights, whose essays on slavery and suffrage, but also on snow, flowers, and calisthenics, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. “Letter to a Young Contributor,” the article that inspired Dickinson to approach him, was a column addressed to literary débutantes and—despite his deep engagement with the Civil War—a paean to the bookish life: “There may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence,” he wrote, evoking Dickinson’s poetry without yet having seen it. “Mr. Higginson,” she began, with no endearment. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
Dickinson was a spinster of thirty-one, birdlike in habit and appearance, with fine chestnut hair and abnormally wide-set eyes, whose color she compared to sherry. She lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her parents and her sister, Lavinia, next door to her brother, Austin, and his difficult wife, Susan, whom she adored. Her father, Edward, a prominent lawyer and the treasurer of Amherst College, had a heart that was “pure and terrible,” she told Higginson years later. (He found the old man more remote than forbidding.) Her mother, née Emily Norcross, was recovering from a nervous breakdown that had lasted several years, during which time the poet herself had become reclusive. The room where she worked, and spent much of her life, was furnished with a sleigh bed, a cast-iron stove, a bureau, and a writing table.
Dickinson came to Higginson in the guise of an unpublished novice, though by this point—middle age (she died at fifty-five)—she had composed hundreds of poems. Among them are some of the greatest ever written in English, but an English unique to her—an unworn language. It revives sensation at the extremities of feeling that, in most lives, habit and cliché have numbed. Few voices are more solitary than her first person, yet few are more intimate: she writes I to I. Richard B. Sewall, whose critical biography, “The Life of Emily Dickinson” (1974), is still unsurpassed, classed her with George Herbert, Wordsworth, the author of the Psalms and of Job, and, in her eerie genius for metaphor (a comparison that isn’t impertinent), Shakespeare.
It is hard to believe that Dickinson didn’t know who and what she was, even if no one else did. She kept her poems in a bureau drawer, sewn into bundles. But she had shared a few with her closest friends, among them her sister-in-law and Samuel Bowles—a driven man, famously attractive, like her new pen pal, and the editor of an influential newspaper, the Springfield Republican. Bowles had already printed three lyrics anonymously. She enclosed one of them in her note to Higginson (who then lived in Worcester) with three others:
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon—
Sleep the meek members of the
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone—
Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow.
Higginson, the radical, was a pious man. Dickinson, the dormouse, was a heretic who dared to call the dead suckers, conned of their heaven. Her sweetness of tone makes it easy to miss her bleak audacity. She didn’t, it seems, take much of Higginson’s advice (which we can only infer from her replies—his half of the correspondence disappeared), except for his suggestion that she delay publishing. But, lost at an anguished crossroads, she needed a Virgil. He had once risked his life to rescue a fugitive slave, and she was, in her way, also a fugitive.
Dickinson’s letter concluded with a request not to “betray” her. Higginson never did, but many scholars, including Sewall, consider that, through an excess of caution and a deficit of imagination, he betrayed her art. His first and perhaps instinctive reaction to her verse was a tough critique, though she thanked him for the “surgery.” In her next letter, she confided her inner turmoil: “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none.” After that, he was more reassuring. On June 7th, she told him, “Your letter gave no Drunkennesss, because I tasted Rum before.” Baffled by the poems, beguiled by the woman, but, as a pastor, alarmed for the estranged soul, Higginson suggested that she find a friend. She actually had many, but she asked him to be her “Preceptor” (although he wasn’t the only man she flattered with that honorific). An invalid wife and the war, among other imperatives, preëmpted his attention, but, fitfully, he and Dickinson stayed in touch. “Sometimes I take out your letters & verses, dear friend,” he wrote in 1869 (one of only three messages to her that survived), “and when I feel their strange power, it is not strange that I find it hard to write. . . . If I could once take you by the hand I might be something to you; but till then you only enshroud yourself in this fiery mist & I cannot reach you, but only rejoice in the rare sparkles of light.”
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