Upon her sister, Emily's, death in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson made one of the most famous discoveries in American literature: a small box containing over 900 poems, assembled by Emily into folded packets, each bound at the spine by a loop of ribbon. Over 1700 poems and fragments were eventually found -- in letters, in the margins of newspapers, and on backs of envelopes. Only a handful of them had appeared in Dickinson's lifetime, most pirated from letters sent to friends, and published anonymously. Everyone knew that Emily Dickinson had been a recluse -- the 'Nun of Amherst,' as legend later put it -- but not even Lavinia knew that inside the family house they had shared for their entire lives her sister had also been a serious poet.
Four years later the first volume of those poems was released, to international praise and scorn. Those critics who could excuse her odd rhythms and rhymes found "a fascination, a power, a vision that enthralls." Others expressed regret for "a superb brain that has suffered some obscure lesion."The Atlantic Monthly thought the poems had "a queerness and a quaintness that have stirred a momentary curiosity in emotional bosoms [but] oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood." On the other side of the Atlantic, the London Daily News thought them "a farrago of illiterate and uneducated sentiment." Unprepared for "I taste a liquor never brewed/From tankards scooped in pearl," the reviewer threw up his practical hands: "It is clearly impossible to scoop a tankard from pearl...This is no more English than it is Coptic." Such Old Worldliness was not well-received in New England: "It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate," wrote the sister of Henry James, "they have such a capacity for missing quality."
Still, for poetic or patriotic reasons, the first volume of poems sold well, and was soon followed by a second and third volume and then, in 1896, a collection of Dickinson's letters. The letters are funny, passionate and poetic, in her quirky, epigramming way. They are not the expression of a lofty, or mad, ascetic; and one of them seems to indicate that Dickinson's publishing -- if not personal -- history might have been quite different. In a letter dated April 15, 1862, the thirty-one year old Emily Dickinson sent four poems and a short note to Thomas Higginson, the author of a recent magazine article advising young writers how to get published:
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself -- it cannot see, distinctly -- and I have none to ask --
Should you think it breathed -- and had the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude ...
I enclose my name -- asking you, if you please -- Sir -- to tell me what is true?
Thomas Higginson and Emily Dickinson corresponded for the next quarter-century. After her death he would become famous editing and championing her talents; in 1862, judging by Emily Dickinson's return letter, he was not enthusiastic. By her third and fourth letters, we see her already in full retreat: "I smile when you suggest that I delay 'to publish' -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin -- ... My Barefoot Rank is better."
The early 1860s were the years of Emily Dickinson's greatest poetic output and of her accelerated retreat from society. Perhaps, as a niece has argued, she was devastated by rejection in love -- several of the letters certainly seem to suggest this. Others close to her describe her withdrawal as a "natural blossoming of her personality." This is akin to the view that Dickinson was a good, if extreme, daughter of New England -- someone whose path might have lead to a Walden Pond or a Brook Farm or some other road not taken, had she not been tied to her parents' home by gender-expectations. Perhaps the discouragements of Thomas Higginson also offer some explanation.
Having been told by Dickinson, "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town," a curious Higginson eventually came to visit. He found that she was very small and plain, that she wore white, that she carried a flower, that she was cryptic and awkward in conversation, that "I am glad not to live near her." Books were discussed -- though housebound, "There is no Frigate like a Book." Dickinson may have revealed her love of Dickens, particularly David Copperfield; she would not have revealed that, like David's Aunt Betsy, it was her habit upon seeing strangers approach the house to fly off, saying to no one in particular as she went, "Donkeys, Davy!" Thomas Higginson, like the critics, was lucky to have gotten close.