On April 17, 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, minister, soldier, and man of letters, received a curious letter from a retiring spinster of Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. The letter asked his advice about the writer’s poetry and enclosed were three of her poems. Wentworth was used to receiving such letters, especially after the publication of his essay “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he gave advice to would-be authors. Nevertheless, he was not prepared for this particular letter, with its query about whether or not her poetry was “Alive,” or for the strange poems enclosed. Thus began one of the most unusual literary correspondences of the nineteenth century, or of any century, and it forms the basis for this scrupulously researched and documented, fascinating, and wonderfully written study of nineteenth century American literary culture.
Thomas Wentworth Storrow Higginson (he was called Wentworth) was born in 1823, descended from seven generations of a New England family, beginning with the Reverend Francis Higginson, who arrived in the New World from England in 1629. He settled in Naumkeag, which he renamed Salem, and established the village’s first church. Cotton Mather would describe him as the Noah of New England. Wentworth’s ancestors were involved in the banishing of Quakers from Massachusetts, in the witch trials in Salem, but also in promoting freedom of the press, the antislavery movement, and education reform. Wentworth’s father helped to found the Harvard Divinity School, but he later lost his post when state funds were withdrawn, partly because of the rise of Unitarianism at the school. Nevertheless, Wentworth grew up in Cambridge surrounded by the atmosphere of Harvard. Later, as a Harvard student, he studied under a stellar group of academics and made contacts among the next generation of intellectual leaders. In 1844, he enrolled in Harvard Divinity School but left to pursue a life of poetry and social action, especially in the burgeoning abolitionist and women’s rights movements. His subsequent life would be torn between direct social action on behalf of both women and slaves, and his desire to live the more private and secluded life of a man of letters.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, some two hundred years after the first Dickinson had arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her antecedents in the New World had been in Massachusetts as long as Wentworth’s, even if they were not as prominent. Emily’s grandfather settled in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became one of the town’s leading citizens. Her father, Edward, helped to found Amherst College as a bulwark against the religious liberalism of Harvard Divinity School, and when the state legislature pulled its financial support for Harvard, Wentworth’s father lost his job with the Divinity School. As Wineapple notes, it was one of the connections, albeit an odd one, between the two correspondents. Emily received some education in the local schools and then passed a year at Mount Holyoke Seminary in nearby South Hadley. Then she returned to Amherst, her father’s house, and the domestic retreat of her family, which for the most part she left only infrequently as a young woman and less frequently as she grew older, ultimately becoming a virtual recluse.
They met only twice, and Wentworth visited Amherst only three times in all the years of their correspondence, twice to see Emily and once to attend her funeral in 1886. He confessed that the two visits left him drained, for in the face-to-face contact her intensity simply sapped the energy from him, an experience that he wrote about later. Apparently, it quite frightened him. Emily appears to have been somewhat passive-aggressive, distant and reclusive but needy and obsessive, in her relationships with men. Throughout their long correspondence, she would send him poems asking for his help and then ignore his suggestions. An incredibly busy man, with his writing and with the various social causes he supported,...
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