“My dear young gentleman or young lady,” the essay in the April 1862 issue of The Atlantic began. Thomas Wentworth Higginson went on in “Letter to a Young Contributor” to offer advice to would-be writers seeking to publish. Use black ink and quality paper, and avoid sloppy dashes. That beginning line, with its two-word invitation to ladies, may have caught the eye of a 31-year-old woman living in Amherst, Massachusetts—a woman who did not entirely agree about the dashes. Emily Dickinson read the essay and then took the most unprecedented step of her life. She wrote Higginson—a stranger to her—directly and sent four poems, along with a note. “Mr Higginson,” she wrote. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” Dickinson’s letter set into motion a correspondence with Higginson that lasted almost a quarter of a century. Eight years after writing her initial letter, on August 16, 1870, Dickinson and Higginson finally met face-to-face.
Higginson’s visit would be no ordinary call for Dickinson—not that she received many guests. Her great literary productivity of the Civil War years had tapered off. She had stopped collecting her poems in stitched booklets—fascicles—and new poems remained unbound on loose sheets. Nearly 40 years old, she was more patient, less insistent, and more forgiving of perceived slights from those close to her. Although others around her were busy with their own lives, she did not feel as forsaken as she once had. Dickinson’s sense of self made the difference. She knew who she was. She no longer was hoping to make her family proud. The hundreds of poems in fascicles and on sheets hidden away in her room bore witness to what she already had accomplished. In her letters, Higgison had noticed, she no longer signed her name on a card slipped inside the envelope—a game played as much for effect as reticence. Largely gone, too, were the callow signatures of “Your Gnome” and “Your Scholar.” Now she signed her name with a single word: “Dickinson.” That is who she had become.