1862–1864: A Mentor
In 1862, Dickinson read an article in "The Atlantic Monthly" by a man named Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The article was titled "Letter to a Young Contributor" and it was full of advice for struggling writers. Its publication seemed almost like a sign. Since December, Dickinson and Sue had been brainstorming names of prominent literary figures whom they could approach with Dickinson's poems. Both women believed that Dickinson needed an objective critic to assess the literary merit of her poems. When Higginson's article appeared, Dickinson and Sue decided that he was their man.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a man of letters and a social reformer. He was an abolitionist, and he was in favor of women's rights. Dickinson admired Higginson's writing. On April 15, 1862, Dickinson sent Higginson a short note along with four of her poems. She hoped to find in him the kind of mentor or supportive critic that Benjamin Newton had been before he died. In her letter to Higginson, Dickinson effectively asked him to be her mentor. In his response, Higginson was encouraging, but not effusive in his praise of her verse. In fact, he urged her not to seek publication since her poems, though lively and imaginative, lacked form. At times they even seemed technically inept. Dickinson was crushed by Higginson's response. She took to her bed for a week before responding to his letter. Dickinson had sent the poems certain that they would overawe Higginson, who would urge her to publish immediately. In fact, Higginson was impressed by Dickinson's poems, but their lack of sheen and rough-hewn structure discomfited him. He asked Dickinson if she had ever read Whitman, whose poetry had a similar roughness of structure.
Higginson and Dickinson continued corresponding regularly. In later letters, and after having read more of her poetry, Higginson made his admiration for Dickinson's talent more clear, telling her that she was a gifted poet but should take the next couple of years to study form and polish her verses. Higginson found Dickinson's enigmatic and extraordinary letters sometimes baffling, sometimes annoyingly oblique, and often enchanting. In response to his request for a picture of her, Dickinson wrote to Higginson that she did not have one but could offer this word portrait: "[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur–and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves."
Dickinson persistently and humbly sought out Thomas Wentworth Higginson's advice on her poetry, yet she never heeded it. She did not change one word of any of her poems to please him. During the Civil War, Higginson commanded the First South Carolina Regiment, the first black regiment in American history, and Dickinson continued to send him letters which he read in his tents in the evening. Their correspondence lagged for about eighteen months during the war; Higginson was wounded, and busy with other war-related matters. Dickinson took his silence as rejection.
In 1870, Higginson invited Dickinson to visit him in Boston and see him read a paper at a gathering. She declined. Although Higginson's response to Dickinson's poetry during their correspondence was restrained and mild, after her death–and as her legend grew and grew–he said that she had been a poet of genius, which he had believed all along. Five years after her death, in 1891, Higginson wrote a lengthy essay in "The Atlantic Monthly," saying: "The impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these four poems as it is now, after thirty years of further knowledge; and with it came the problem never yet solved, what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism." Yet Higginson did not hesitate to criticize Dickinson's work during their correspondence.
Dickinson began to make her greatest strides in composition. She was incorporating assonant rhyme, broken meter, and unusual and unexpected capitalization of nouns, playing with form in an entirely new way. Higginson characterized her seemingly random capitalization as typical of the Old English style of "distinguishing every noun substantive."
By 1864, Dickinson's eyesight had deteriorated badly, and she had to leave Amherst to see a doctor in Boston for treatment. She was advised to cut down her reading by huge amounts if she wanted to save her eyesight. While in Boston, Dickinson roomed with her cousins Louise and Fanny Norcross. Judge Otis Lord, an old friend of Edward Dickinson's, was working in nearby Cambridge when Dickinson was in Boston, and there is some evidence that they met up during Dickinson's visit. The two became fast friends and, despite the difference in their ages–Lord was nearly twenty years older than Dickinson–found much in common. Some of Dickinson's later letters to Lord suggest that they might have had romantic aspirations for their friendship. A year after Lord's wife died in 1877, Dickinson wrote: "My lovely Salem smiles at meI confess that I love you." Letters in the nineteenth century were frequently hyperbolic, so this declaration does not necessarily amount to a frank profession of love. However, some scholars have suggested that the theme of royalty found in many of Dickinson's poems refer to Otis Lord.
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