``A career of letters'': Emily Dickinson, T. W. Higginson, and literary women

Date of Completion

January 1995


Biography|Women's Studies|Literature, American




In 1862, Emily Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent man of letters and radical reformer whose essays she had read and admired. Much existing biographical work on Dickinson intends to construct a definitive figure out of a woman whose self-representation was intentionally elusive, thanks in part to her limited self-publication. But the poet's biographical image owes as well to those who managed the posthumous appearance of her work, particularly Higginson. How did Higginson's own ambitions and expectations for The American Literary Woman, a role he helped script, inform his treatment of Dickinson, the self-professed "only Kangaroo among the Beauty," a woman who stubbornly enacted and encoded in her writing her own notions of publicity and privacy?^ By locating Dickinson within the context of American women's writing as Higginson helped define it, both in his essays and in his public promotion of writers themselves, this dissertation reassesses the poet's romanticized reputation as a solitary, ahistorical genius, and reevaluates Higginson's complex role in the production and reception of her poems. Specifically, it details Higginson's relationships with Maria White Lowell, Charlotte Forten, and Lucy Stone as precursors to and influences upon his consideration of Dickinson and her work. It also examines the ironically-opposed strategies that Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd deployed with Higginson as they exploited traditional aspects of male-female literary mentorship to advance their individual ambitions for a "career of letters."^ Of all his dealings with women of letters, Higginson's acquaintance with Dickinson was the most purely "literary," conducted through texts and reading rather than through personal interaction. This study traces Higginson's importance to the poet's anomalous "career" not merely as a good gray patron, but as a player in Todd's campaign to boost her own visibility as a literary New Woman, and to legitimize her place in the Dickinson family through publicizing Emily Dickinson's poems. More generally, it probes the gender dynamics of artistic patronage, mentorship, and the literary marketplace in the United States from the antebellum period to the early twentieth century. ^