Poetry November 1996

Emily Dickinson (Un)discovered

Early in its existence The Atlantic failed to recognize the potential of one of the most formidable American poets of the nineteenth century.

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY prides itself on its history of bringing new literary talents to light—new authors featured in our pages just in the past fifty years have included Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Ethan Canin, Amy Tan, and Tobias Wolff. But early in its existence the magazine failed to recognize the potential of one of the most formidable American poets of the nineteenth century: Emily Dickinson.

In the April, 1862, issue of The Atlantic Monthly there appeared a lengthy article titled "Letter to a Young Contributor," by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson—an eminent Bostonian known both as a literary critic and as an active abolitionist—offered advice to enthusiastic young writers. The Dickinson family subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, and it seems likely that Emily would have read the article. Much of the letter touches upon themes that were crucial to Dickinson's project: in it Higginson described editors as "always hungering and thirsting after novelties" and receptive to "new or obscure contributors"; he remarked on "the magnificent mystery of words" and praised writing that can "palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables"; and he extolled compression as a virtue—"Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter; there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence."

Dickinson apparently took Higginson to be a kindred spirit (despite his advice that writers reduce themselves "to short allowance of parentheses and dashes") and wrote to him that same month, enclosing several poems. Thus began a correspondence that lasted until Dickinson's death, some twenty years later. Higginson was baffled by Dickinson—he recognized her unique talent but called her poetic gait "spasmodic"—and did not make efforts to publish her work. When the first volume of Dickinson's poetry was published, posthumously, in 1890, it enjoyed enormous popularity, and Higginson—who found this success "curious" and confessed that "even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered"—published an article in the October, 1891, Atlantic, titled "Emily Dickinson's Letters," that quoted much of the correspondence he received from the reclusive poet, including several of her poems.

We're making Higginson's article about Emily Dickinson available here in its entirety. It's a fascinating first-hand account of one of this country's true poetic geniuses.

Higginson may have been baffled by the idiosyncracies of Emily Dickinson's verse and personality, but twenty-two years after Dickinson's poems were first published, author and Wellesley professor Martha Hale Shackford hailed her in The Atlantic as "one of our most original writers, a force destined to endure in American letters." Shackford's "The Poetry of Emily Dickinson" offers an interesting glimpse at the literary world's emerging awareness of Dickinson's talent—and also reveals the extent to which Emily Dickinson's early editors felt the need to regularize her eccentric punctuation.

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