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Sample of ED's handwriting, pub. Poems, 1896, facsimile of "Renunciation"    
(J) #322 (FR) 325: "There came a day at summer's full"     
Emily Dickinson
< Early Feminist Essays   |   Emily Dickinson's Nature Mysticism >
"Emily Dickinson's Letters" by Thomas Wentworth Higginson -- (pg.1)
text pub. Atlantic Monthly, October, 1891
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Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson many years since into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. The lines which formed a prelude to the published volume of her poems are the only ones that have yet come to light indicating even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; for she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends. But for her only sister, it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been printed at all; and when published, they were launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience; yet the outcome of it is that six editions of the volume were sold within six months, a suddenness of success almost without a parallel in American literature.

One result of this glare of publicity has been a constant and earnest demand by her readers for further information in regard to her; and I have decided with much reluctance to give some extracts from her early correspondence with one whom she always persisted in regarding -- with very little ground for it -- as a literary counselor and confidant.

It seems to be the opinion of those who have examined her accessible correspondence most widely, that no other letters bring us quite so intimately near to the peculiar quality and aroma of her nature; and it has been urged upon me very strongly that her readers have the right to know something more of this gifted and most interesting woman.

On April 16, 1862, I took from the post-office in Worcester, Mass., where I was then living, the following letter: --

        MR. HIGGINSON, -- 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 you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.
        If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.
        I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?
        That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is it's own pawn.

The letter was postmarked "Amherst," and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying he famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written -- as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view -- in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson. Inclosed with the letter were four poems, two of which have since been separately printed, -- "Safe in their alabaster chambers" and "I'll tell you how the sun rose," together with the two that here follow. The first comprises in its eight lines a truth so searching that it seems a condensed summary of the whole experience of a long life: --

     We play at paste
     Till qualified for pearl;
     Then drop the paste
     And deem ourself a fool.

     The shapes, though, were similar
     And our new hands
     Learned gem-tactics,
     Practicing sands.

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