August 17, 2012

In glided a little plain woman

"This is a lovely place," wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson to his wife on August 17, 1870 from Amherst, Massachusetts. Earlier that day, he had met his "hitherto unseen correspondent," a somewhat reclusive woman named Emily Dickinson, who had invited him to her family's home.

 Eight years earlier, Higginson had written an article which encouraged new writers. Dickinson was inspired to contact him, including a few of her poems, and ask for his advice. "Mr Higginson," she wrote, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" Higginson and Dickinson (who had already published some of her poems) became friends by correspondence for the next few years. It was not until that August day in 1870 that they met face to face; Higginson recorded that moment in his letter:

A step like a pattering child's in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face... with no good feature — in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue worsted shawl. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said "These are my introduction" in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice — & added under her breath Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say — but she talked soon & thenceforward continuously... sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her — but readily recommencing.

Though he noted "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much," Higginson noted he was glad he did not live near her. His wife joked, "Oh why do the insane cling to you?" Nevertheless, Higginson maintained his correspondence and even spoke at Dickinson's funeral years later. It was after her death that the controversy started. This short poem was dated to 1870, the year the two met:

Some Days retired from the rest
In soft distinction lie
The Day that a Companion came
Or was obliged to die

*Information from this post can be found in The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (2005) by Judith Farr and A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade (2009) by Christopher Benfey.

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